Articles By Gord
As I see it... Hong Kong

January 2009 issue of Vibrant Magazine, view the actual article (including images).

As I see it... Hong Kong

Ping Pong, Hong Kong, Sing Song, King Kong. Which one does not belong?

Sing song. I hate sing songs.

Oh how I have struggled to write this column. I never did feel the passion for Hong Kong that I have felt for other destinations such as Paris, Athens, Venice. But who has not heard of Hong Kong? Like Paris and London, New York and Rome, Stoney Creek and Tokyo, Hong Kong enjoys the same global notoriety.

Catherine and I were lucky enough to incorporate a three day layover in Hong Kong as part of a larger vacation package. There was no way we were going to miss the opportunity to stop and have a look, feel, and taste.

Hong Kong's ultra modern airport was an inviting introduction for us. It was organized sprawl, but what interested me more was that the airport had been built entirely on land reclaimed from the sea. In addition, the bus and rail transport networks were a magnificent compliment to this airport. They whisked passengers to the downtown in only forty minutes. Everything was brand spanking new and working to precision.

Our airline carrier, Cathay Pacific, provided us with an airport escort. She was part of the airline's service, offering additional assistance to individuals, couples, or families that perhaps required it. I figured either my blindness, or the fact that I was married to Catherine, allowed me to fluke into that ‘special needs' category. What luck. Our escort guided us the miles through to baggage claim and then made certain we connected with our tour representative, Susie.

Susie spoke English well, as did many of the Chinese we encountered. To me, it is embarrassing that folks all over the world seem so driven to speak English while I still grapple with high school French. At least between the French and English languages I can often find links. But listening to Chinese TV I was constantly saying to Cath: “What word do you think that sound was supposed to be?” I'd mimic the sound, but Catherine was never sure if I was attempting to speak Chinese or calling elk.

Susie was a great match for us. She spoke with such enthusiasm about Hong Kong, and her revelations regarding family life and social customs were intriguing. According to Susie, there were no special programs or benefits for seniors, the poor, or the disabled.

“Does that include the blind?” I asked wincing.

Her response: “You bet. No disability cheques. No welfare cheques or unemployment. Everybody is expected to work in order to eat, in order to maintain a roof over their heads.”

After Susie told us this, I noted how little attention my white cane garnered from shop keepers, hotel staff, and Joe Public.

Family was the other thing that Susie dwelled on. She stressed how extremely important it was to the Chinese. Entire families growing up together in tiny one-room apartments. Not even one bedroom, just one room apartments. Yikes! Susie said that the upside to that openness was that no one could sneak off alone and get into trouble. Double Yikes! I mean with the entire family all stuck in one room gawking at each other, and with no chance of sneaking off to mess about, when would a kid ever get to experience this special Hallmark moment with his Pop: “What are you doing in there? Open this door now.”

“What am I doing Dad? ... Nothing Dad. Nothing. I'll be right there.”

And on top of all that, Susie was funny. More than once, I said to Catherine, “she reminds me of a Chinese Joan Rivers.” (Neither of us was sure if that was a compliment.) But before we had even reached our hotel we had signed up for a half day tour with our Susie Rivers for the following morning.

As our bus lumbered along Nathan Street towards our hotel, Catherine was floored by the neon signs. They formed a canopy over the streets, reaching out from one store front to the middle of the street where they seemed to merge with the neon sign from the shop across the way. She was fascinated by the seemingly endless streams of neon. So much so that she suggested that after we check in at the Kimberly Hotel, we should take off to wander the neon streets. Well, I can often be grumpy, mean-spirited, and sometimes stubborn, sometimes all three in the same day. It was nearly nine o'clock and I was well beyond my grumpy phase and wondering just how much the blind guy was going to get from all of that ‘amazingly, incredible neon.' I somehow found the strength to moan “I'm tired” and suggested that we call it a night early, stay in, and enjoy a bottle of champagne. “We'll see it in the morning.”

Well unfortunately, during the daylight all that gorgeous neon signage took on a rather ugly, structural appearance.

We stayed on the Kowloon Peninsula at the Kimberly Hotel, located just off Nathan Street, it being the main drag. Over the three days at the Kimberly, I never left the hotel without having to deal with some guy flogging tailor made shirts and suits. These hucksters were everywhere and they were persistent. Their persistence resulted in me using ‘NO' as a form of morning greeting. From the Kimberly, we were a fifteen minute walk to the ferry terminal on Victoria Harbour.

I found the harbour a disappointment. I thought it was going to be massive, but when the ferry crossing to Hong Kong Island took less than ten minutes, the harbour shrank in my estimation. We were urged to take the evening harbour cruise for the spectacle of lights. Well, blindness plus the show of lights equals megagrumpy. My highlight of the harbour was the beautiful, wide boardwalk that skirted the bay.

Catherine said she could not get over how clean the city and harbour were for a population of over seven million. There was not a gum wrapper, cigarette butt, empty chip bag, or Tim Horton's cup anywhere. Susie explained that after the SARS outbreak of ‘03. People were heavily fined for littering and, as a result, it was spotless. But the traffic pollution more than made up for it. Nathan Street was a busy, busy thoroughfare with a slow flow of delivery trucks, buses, and motorbikes, and the exhaust they spewed was staggering.

My impressions of inhabitants of Hong Kong were of a dynamic, progressive, confident people that sought perfection in everything they did. Seven million people striving for perfection and living together in an area of four hundred square miles. Now, some folks know that math is not one of my stronger suits. So, I'm thinking four hundred miles sounds like a long way, like half way to the moon and back. Then Catherine, appalled at my mathematical guesstimations, says: “Einstein, imagine driving from Brantford to Port Dover and then west to Long Point, then north to Woodstock and back to Brantford. Now drop seven million people into that little square.”

An ugly little pause followed as I envisioned this before I spoke.

“They'd have to be pretty tiny people,” I offered. “There'd be no place for them to go but up.”

And so, in addition to reclaiming land from the sea for housing and commercial development, the Chinese have built up and up. The skyline is peppered with enormous high rises, condos and office towers. There were some incredibly aggressive designs. A very chic condo complex was shaped like a wave breaking and the Hong Kong conference centre designed like a bird taking flight.

The southern tip of Hong Kong Island was where the big three were to be found. Those three being Stanley Market, Victoria Peak, and Aberdeen Bay. We first explored them as part of Susie's flock. Her introductory tour successfully whet our appetites. So, on our second visit we made the journey entirely by public transit. Being first time travelers on public transport in a foreign country always smacks me as some kind of twisted murder mystery. Lots of ‘Who done it? And how?'

“Where do we purchase the tickets? Which way do we go? Which bus?”

We made it to Stanley Market unscathed and, with no clock to keep we began to slowly lose ourselves in the bustling market.

I wasn't too taken with Stanley Market or Victoria Peak. Perhaps it was just too visual. They felt too touristy. But I believe my impressions were marred by a book I'd read some twenty years earlier. It was a talking book from the CNIB library entitled, ‘The Siege of Hong Kong.' The book dealt with the futile attempts of a few Canadian and British troops to hold Hong Kong from the advancing Japanese during the Second World War. Victoria Peak and Stanley Market figured largely in that defense. So when I walked the narrow lanes of Stanley Market, or found myself atop Victoria Peak, I saw in my mind and understood in my heart the horrific struggles of years ago, and I grieved in that understanding.

We had a hard time dealing with Chinese food. I know that sounds impossible. Who could screw up egg rolls and chicken balls? Try ordering shredded eel and chicken's feet. Even eleven different herbs and spices ain't going to help that stuff. So we settled for an Irish Pub that served up pints of Kilkenney, burgers and fries. Afterwards we cursed ourselves for not being more adventuresome, but we were alive.

If you're going to Hong Kong you are likely going for the shopping or for business. But Hong Kong was not a tourist destination in my mind. It felt as if the people were in a race. A race against themselves. As if they had no time to ponder, to just wait and see, but rather all must be done, built, developed, created now, today. Yesterday would have been better.

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