Our first morning in Hong Kong started off a bit misty, but cleared to a fine day. We joined our guide, Biddy, and a dozen other travellers for a half-day tour of Hong Kong. She rattled off stats like a pro, and I’ll try to remember the most important ones. 245 islands, the largest is Lantau, the next largest is Hong Kong. The islands, plus Kowloon and the New Territories, have a population of seven million. Most of them live on Hong Kong and in Kowloon. Housing is very expensive, but the Government subsidises poorer people – usually in housing estates on the outskirts of town (sound familiar?). Real estate is sold by the square foot. Most people live in apartments, with blocks becoming taller all the time. Biddy lives on the fortieth floor of a sixty-story building.
Our first stop on the tour was the Aberdeen typhoon shelter, where a dwindling number of boat people live on small boats. It’s also the site of the famous Jumbo floating restaurant. I remember having lunch on a tour there in the 80’s. Peter could remember when the little Chinese boats were so close together, you could walk across the harbour from one boat to the next. These days, some of the boats are… um… a bit more up-market, shall we say?
From there we went on to Stanley, one of the more affluent suburbs of the island. Apartments here are expensive, with views across the water. We poked around in the market near the waterfront, bought a very nice leather backpack at probably multiples of the price we could have paid in Mong Kok, and bought a very expensive cup of coffee. Like most parts of Asia, you’re better off going to one of the big chains – Macdonalds, or even Starbucks if you’re desperate (sorry, Americans). Asians don’t make coffee with real milk, so flat whites are just not the same.
Hong Kong is trying to preserve some of its past. The Murray building used to be a military barracks set on the site of the Bank of China tower. It was dismantled brick by brick and rebuilt on the waterfront at Stanley. Nowadays it’s full of dress shops and restaurants.
Next we went up to the peak. Back in the day you drove up the long and winding road to a lookout – just a walled terrace – with panoramic views over the city. The views are still there, but now there are buildings all over the summit, with the best views offered from restaurants, or a (paid) viewing platform. You can buy souvenirs and very expensive ice cream. We’re talking around AU$20. We passed. Biddy pointed out a couple of the large houses nestled against the mountains. You don’t need to be a Rhodes scholar to work out the people who own private houses on the peak would have a bit of money. We were told the going rate was HK$89,000 per square foot. Which means the room in which I’m writing this at c80 square feet = HK$7,120,000 or roughly AU$1,300,000. If you look at that article I linked, you’ll see HK$89k is peanuts.
It seems Stanley Ho was the first Chinese to own a property on the Peak. He’s a fascinating man, a Eurasian who married a Portugese woman. It’s said on Hong Kong that he had four wives, but our Macao guide told us he had one wife and three very good friends. He’s still alive at 95, and had seventeen children. This Wikipedia article gives some basic information about him. Anyway, back to the Peak. That was where the British colonial masters lived. I got the idea that the Chinese weren’t allowed to live up there, or maybe (until Mr Ho) they couldn’t afford to.
We took the Peak tram down the mountain. It hasn’t changed in its century plus years, but today it’s packed with tourists. Towards the end of the trip there is a very interesting optical illusion which illustrates how the human brain interprets what it sees. There are towers on both sides of the tram line. We KNOW they are upright. They do not lean. But that’s what we see – buildings leaning to compensate for the fact that we are sitting at an incredibly steep angle, which our brain decides is impossible. Peter took pictures, but the camera sees the truth, so I haven’t posted them. Trust me, my brain said the buildings were set at an angle.
We drove past one of the most powerful places in Hong Kong. Or maybe I should say the people who run it have the power. Happy Valley race course, run by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, is adjacent to the city. Horse racing is the only form of legal gambling in the territory, and the Jockey Club runs it all. As a result, it is fabulously wealthy and owns many other business interests in Hong Kong. One of the more prominent is Ocean Park perched high on a hill above the city. It’s reached by cable car, with fabulous views over the water. I went there in the eighties. We didn’t visit this time. Nor did we visit Hong Kong Disneyland, which is on Lantau Island. There’s plenty of room for it there.
So far we’d seen the more affluent side of Hong Kong. Later in the afternoon we took a short wander around the Causeway Bay area, then took a tram more or less back to the general area near our hotel. The trams are double deckers, following a short route of about nine kilometres long. We expected that would be one line – but there are a couple of branches. One went through a local shopping area, where the residents do their food shopping. Greengrocers, grocery stores, bakers, and butchers all plied their wares from open air shop fronts. Sides of beef hung from hooks and butchers chopped up cuts for customers as the tram, bells ringing, inched its way between meandering shoppers. I would have loved to get back there with a camera, but it never happened.
In the evening we made our way back to the ferry jetties near the CBD to catch a boat for a ninety-minute trip on Victoria Harbour to admire the city lights. A fifteen-minute laser show happens every night, with many of the glittering towers participating in lighting up their edifices. In fact, I think many of them leave the displays to run all night. For today I’ll leave you with photos of the night. They were taken with my hand-held 70D at a very high ISO, but they’re good enough for the internet. (In case you’re wondering, using a tripod would not have helped, because the boat tossed around a bit. The swell – mostly caused by the wash from the many boats on the harbour – was enough for a couple of people to be seasick.)