Saturday, 27 November 2010

Oh, By The Way: Macao And Canton

(This is the second and final installment in Patrick’s saga of the goodies of Hong Kong and environs.)
Ridiculous as it sounds, with so much to do in Hong Kong, there are two “side” trips you mustn’t miss—Macao and Canton. Especially Macao, only 55 minutes away by hydrofoil. (But don’t take the hydrophobicfoil to Canton—it takes three hours and is so claustrophobic I almost did a Hart Crane half way up the Pearl River Delta. Take the train there and a plane back. The scenery from upstairs is gorgeous—as in gorges—with those peculiar skinny mountains you see in China.)
Macao is a delectable day or two trip. We stayed at the Bela Vista Hotel, a slightly rundown Tennessee Williams-type venue with tall ceilings and low prices (although I’ve heard it’s renewed itself and upped the prices.) It sports noble verandas that open up onto the water in a delectable way: Every timbre of light makes its own zing there. And marvel of marvel, it abuts on an Art Deco district of homes erected just before World War II.
I voice only one gripe about Macao early in the morning: It’s damned hard to find a cup of coffee for an early-morning prowler like me. Three hours of slogging led me to my sole salvation—a gaming hotel where they keep the pot boiling at all hours to keep their losers awake.
I was so pooped from this prowl that I did something I’ve never possessed the First World gall to do before—hire a rickshaw. The driver was 20 years my senior, and I felt perfectly awful relaxing at his expense—until he one-upped me: When we got to the bottom of the steep road leading up to the Bela Vista, he dumped me down. Ha! Third World judo.
There’s a fine history museum which hadn’t quite finished its renewal when I arrived, but I sweet-talked the curator into an advanced peek. It deals at a sophisticated level of museology with the curious mix of Portuguese, British and Chinese cultures you find here.
If you don’t want to miss a thing, I suggest you hit the Macao info office in the Kowloon side of the Star ferry. Macao is definitely a should-see, even if you aren’t a gambler. (I lost $2 as an 18-year-old sailor in Pensacola betting on a greyhound which was too blind to see the mechanical rabbit. Never again.)
Canton is another kettle of cuttlefish. For a start, you’ve got to go to the government tourist office on Nathan Road (the main drag of Kowloon) and get a visa and a hotel reservation. They put me up at a marginal Soviet-era (1950s) friendship hotel—but cheap and near the main train station, which is a visual gape—folks from every part of China hanging out there.
My first morning I got up before dawn to practice my Mandarin (you’d be surprised how friendly a mere “knee how”—“hello!”—will make your median shopkeeper setting up his place) while hiking all the way to Pearl River.
The People’s Hotel is a great Deco-era hostelry, rundown but full of memories. The friendly waiters on the rooftop restaurant let me roam around taking pictures.
But the most interesting thing for me to see was the old Foreign Embassy Quarter, up t he road from the People’s Hotel. Needless to say, those European outsiders had the inside on the best turf in the old imperialistic days: river breezes and uppity isolation yet still close to the other action over the bridge. Sort of like Society Hill.
I happen to like trade fairs, so I snooped around at a few. And I like to eat Chinese. Even though I’ve forgotten the names of Canton’s restaurants, the tastes of their cuisine remains firmly fixed in my palate’s memory.
One thing I found out in China: Street food can be fresher and more fun than the allegedly fancier stuff at four-star hotels, because the latter don’t yet attract the volume of customers to keep their across-the-board menus fresh.
Which reminds me of my greatest thrill in Canton: the open air markets. I mean, they sell every living thing. Noah could fill his ark just by backing up to one of them. And Canton’s zoo is neat, come to think of it. And the gardens. And the crowds. Watching them drive their bicycles in droves to work in the morning is to understand why China is the world’s leading bikeocracy. Also, you can get traditional Chinese art of high quality much cheaper in Canton than in Hong Kong—like my turtle wall hanging.
Free enterprise was just getting a fast start when I was there, but my funkiest recollection concerns the intrepid young (say, eight) entrepreneur who conned me into hiring him to shine my raggedy, unshinable shoes. I suspect that amazingly persistent kid has made his first million by now.
So here’s my advice to you. Keep your eye on the fateful 1997 countdown and visit before it may be too late. Treat yourself to a triple play in the Far East: Hong Kong to Macao to Canton.
My airfare to Hong Kong was free because United was breaking into the region and tagged on Tokyo-to-Hong Kong as a come-on. That semi-freebie is long gone, but try the smaller airlines—China Airlines and Korean Airlines—through bucket shops. My last visit there was on an around-the-world fare: That Air India-plus-Northwest Orient bargain fare let me backtrack to Manila and Taiwan at no extra cost, with a stop in Anchorage on the way back to Philly.
Hong Kong is getting very hip at staging special events to keep the tourists interested. So call their New York office for up-to-date brochures. But once you get there, keep your eyes on the local press, because many of the events you’ll enjoy are too fast-breaking to enter the brochure circuit.
Leave plenty of time for just cruising. The Toonerville-Trolley streetcars are a kick. Try the subways. And walk and walk and walk. And talk and talk and talk. It’s amazing how easygoing the Chinese are about trying out their “English” on you. Unlike the Japanese, who are so afraid of making a mistake that they clutch up just at the thought of speaking English.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, February 3, 1993

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