Saturday, 1 October 2011

The Hong Kong Option: An Alternative to Greece

A friend once posed me a puzzler: Should she take her two-week vacation in Hong Kong or Greece? In January. My gut reaction was to cheer for Hong Kong, especially since a frozen ferry ride from Brindisi to Patros remains etched in ice on my memory. Still, that frigid departure did lead to a marvelous week in Cortu followed by a still choicer Passion Week in Crete, where I read The Greek Passion by Kazantzakis as I bussed about. So I can see Greece all right.
But I remain in love with Hong Kong. And besides, as the countdown to the 1997 takeover by mainland China quickens, and the geriatrics running China grow more and more obdurate about Governor-General Christopher Patten’s last-minute efforts to further democratize the British colony, you’d better get a crack at Hong Kong while the getting is still good.
I can think of no spritzier mass transport in the world than the Star ferry between Kowloon and Central Hong Kong. So let me tell her why I’d fly to Kai Tak right now.
The Meridien Hotel in the airport is one good reason. Since I’m a rat-packer permanently on the brink of hernia when I travel, it’s a great advantage to have airport luggage carts you can roll right up to the concierge and tell him to park them until an hour before your flight departure time.
I don’t even hold it against the hotel that the first thing that popped on my TV when I arrived, pooped from the flight in from Tokyo, was Rocky. Otherwise, Sly Stallone would be nothing more for me than an image on the Art Museum steps. The hotel also gives you a fistful of passes on its courtesy limo to downtown Kowloon.
Which is where I began to find bargains. The Kowloon Y cost ten U.S. bucks a night for a private room—and a rooftop cafe that not only gives you a dazzling nighttime view of Central Hong Kong but is also a great place to schmooze with the hostel’s mini-UN of backpackers, all with tales to tell and tips to pass on.
Its location—smack between the Peninsular and the Star ferry terminal—is ideal. It’s where I discovered the thrills of two-tier tourism: tea (high) at the Peninsular, and breakfast at the Regency across the street, where a free South China Morning Post competes with the view of the Harbor over a regal breakfast at a peasant’s price.
The Y also stands next to the new Science / Space Museum, a real treat. Hong Kong’s many museums are marvelous, and I didn’t even get out to see the ones at the English and Chinese universities.
The history museum on Kowloon, off Nathan Road, is a splendidly recycled colonial barracks. And the best view in Hong Kong is on the tenth floor of City Hall, which just happens to be their fine art museum. On my last visit, the city promoters took me to see the newest, a tea museum in the recycled governor general’s manse. Frankly, I was a bit skeptical about a tea museum—ignorant as I then was about the centrality of that beverage in so many Asian rituals. It’s actually a don’t-miss.
And scrutinize that South China Morning Post carefully. All kinds of good things are happening where visitors are welcome. For example, I had a marvelous evening at the world premiere of Ah Qing, the first serious feature film produced in the crown colony. As interesting as the film itself—about generational conflict in the public housing high-rises—was the arts crowd that showed up there in droves.

It made me understand for the first time what serious Hong Kongers most fear about 1997: The remarkable renaissance in the arts that this tiny island of almost 6 million has engendered is threatened by the Communist takeover. (Incidentally, the best time to visit Hong Kong is during its late January / early February International Arts Festival; the dates vary with the Chinese New Year.)
At the Star ferry terminal on central Hong Kong, a tourist center provides great info plus high-class, inexpensive souvenirs. There is also a South China Morning Post bookstore that’s an intellectual powerhouse—if you want to shop for ideas rather than gewgaws.
The only better place is the Welfare Gift Shop, next to the Star Ferry on the Kowloon side. I’m typing this article dressed in my all-time favorite souvenir from Hong Kong, a black bathrobe with dragoon doodahs inscribed imperially on its back, for an outrageous $8. You’ll find great handicrafts from the allegedly handicapped, physically and / or sociologically, as this do-good outfit helps the unhelpless out by getting them crafty.
And keep trudging, friend, up Ice House Street, for at its tippling top is the Foreign Correspondents Club, where the drinks and the food are as solid as the company is scrumptious. And the art memorabilia on the walls is worth a long slow ogle as well. Lay your Pen and Pencil Club card on them, and you’re in like Stu.
I have a thing about avoiding Great Tourist Attractions. (I may be the only student on the Beijing trip who didn’t go climb on the Great Wall; instead, I interviewed the editors of Chinese Literature and the staff at China Daily.) So I almost passed up the funicular up the cliff to Victoria Peak. My glee at high places—I’m a certified acrophiliac—overcame my loathing of over-touted bores.
How lucky for me. It’s a gasser during the day, and the restaurant is so romantic at night that you shed 30 years between appetizer and dessert. And here’s an angle: Go up by rail, but return by double-decker bus. It takes three or four times as long to return, but it’s a great way to see “the back” of the island and to snoop at how the upper classes live.

From Welcomat: After-Dark, Hazard at Large, January 20, 1993

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