27 March 2012, Tuesday
First of all, we should praise ourselves. And Hong Kong too. The first ones (i.e. us!) were able to find our bearings all the time, figured out where and how to go, purchased Octopus cards which are used for payment in all public transport in Hong Kong (and some shops as well). No more taxis from now on, long live the public transport! The second one, that is Hong Kong itself, provided an opportunity to understand everything, being a very user-friendly city: the streets, the transportation – everything is clear and more or less available, unlike Beijing, where standing on one side of a very wide street, you might have no clue how to get to the other side. Hong Kong’s streets are narrow, often literally a gap between skyscrapers. Usually there are overground crossings in areas with heavy traffic.
So, after breakfast (which was way more modest than in the luxury Beijing hotel), we, as decided the day before, headed to the nearest tour bus stop. We took a tram; trams here, as everything in Hong Kong, had grown in height and not in length: they are short and double-decker.
The bus took so long to arrive, that we got quite anxious whether we were standing in the right place. But just at the moment when we went to clarify this with a staff member of the Sogo department store, in front of which we had been waiting, the long-awaited bus appeared in the distance. Interestingly enough, the tickets were only sold near the Victoria Peak tram station, meaning that should we have decided to get off earlier, we would have ridden for free.
The road to Victoria Peak, which had been open to the public in late 19th century, was extremely steep and we rode at a crazy angle! We were literally pressed into the seat backs. The funicular is not only an attraction for tourists, but also public transportation for residents of the upper levels of the island. In fact, it was originally created in order to stimulate building development of the mountain.
As we got off the tram, we immediately found ourselves in a mall, where we had to climb quite a few escalators in order to get to the lookout. But it was totally worth it: the view from the Sky Terrace was just divine! The Victoria Harbour was picturesque to the utmost; and the concrete jungle, framing it, looked very harmonious next to the lush and curly greenery on the slopes.
We had lunch at the peak, at the Bubba Gump Shrimp & Co restaurant. It is a nice seafood restaurant from an American chain, with average prices. The way of calling the waiter is really interesting: there is a two-sided sign board on the table. If you don’t need anything, you turn it to its blue side, which says: “Run, Forrest, run!” If you need the waiter though, you turn it over to the red side, saying: “Stop, Forrest, stop!”
After a ride through the Hong Kong island (the name, by the way, originates from the Cantonese “Hēunggóng”, which means “Fragrant Harbour”), which is the historical centre of the former British colony, we took the Star Ferry to the Kowloon peninsula. Its name means “nine dragons”.
One of the main attractions in Kowloon is the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, or more precisely, the Avenue of Stars, like the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but, obviously, related to Hong Kong cinema. Among a myriad of names, completely unfamiliar to us, there were also the names of internationally famous actors, such as Jet Li, Chow Yun Fat, Andy Lau, and of course, the two biggest local stars – Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. The latter also has a monument in his honour, which is really an object of pilgrimage for Chinese (and other) tourists.
Speaking of Chinese tourists, we had been told that the Chinese liked to be photographed with the Europeans, but in Beijing no one had expressed the desire to take a picture with us. Here though, right on the Promenade, a whole family – apparently, tourists from some Chinese province – approached us and asked to take photos with us, which they then did one by one.
We toured around Kowloon twice: in the day and evening. During the daytime it looked a bit inferior to the island, despite some memorable sites, such as the Peninsula Hotel, where during the Second World War, just after several days of fighting, the British signed the surrender to Japan; or the International Commerce Centre, which is the tallest skyscraper in Hong Kong (by the way, Hong Kong has the most high-rises in the world, almost twice as many as New York does). In contrast to the fashionable boutiques of the island, the peninsula is famous for its more democratic markets: the Ladies’ Market, Temple Street Night Market, Flower Market, Bird Market, etc.
However, at night the streets of Kowloon are brilliantly lit by colourful neon lights – especially areas like Nathan Road and Mong Kok – and look absolutely safe (the crime rate in Hong Kong is really very low).
After the night tour around Kowloon we came back to the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, where a laser show is demonstrated every night at 8pm. Honestly, we expected something more from it, and when the green laser beams started appearing in the sky, we kept waiting for the real show to begin. But that was it, as it turned out – not too impressive (later note: the light show on Maiden Tower walls in Baku during Eurovision Song Contest 2012 week was way more spectacular). But I took some photos of the harbour.
On the way back we easily found the right tube station (or MTR station, as it is called here), then the right tram stop, and after the 12-hour “sortie”, safely returned to our Emperor (Happy Valley) hotel.
A few general observations: the local language, that is, Cantonese, is quite different from Mandarin, or Standard Chinese, which is the official language in China and Taiwan. As for Hong Kong, it has two official languages: English and Chinese (both Mandarin and Cantonese, which makes, in fact, three). For example, tube announcements are made in all three, and pretty soon we got the hang of aurally distinguishing Cantonese from Mandarin.
The writing is also different. Here they use older, traditional characters, which look more complicated, with lots of strokes and dots. In Mainland China, though, as well as in Singapore and Malaysia, simplified characters are used. They were introduced in the middle of 20th century, to increase the literacy of the population.
Watching the locals, you sometimes feel like you see the English in Chinese guise. They queue sedately (something which the Chinese don’t tend to do generally), obey traffic rules, stand on the right side of escalators and walk on the left. All the service staff in all public places speak English, schoolchildren solve math problems for homework in English (we saw this in Starbucks; they were speaking Chinese among themselves, though).
In general, having arrived in Hong Kong, we clearly felt the difference between the communist and capitalist China. Not that in Beijing they flaunt their communist slogans, prohibitions and restrictions – it all seems veiled. But you still have the feeling that the tiger is holding out its paw, even though with hidden claws, over everything around: controlled Internet, controlled television, guides necessarily referring to happy life with universal equality in the People’s China, Mao’s portraits, five-star symbols, and even endless barrages on the streets constantly remind of it. In Hong Kong you see democracy in full bloom. No wonder that in 1997, when Margaret Thatcher returned Hong Kong to China after a 99-year lease in accordance with the agreement, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers hastily emigrated to the West, terrified by the “charms” of the communist “paradise”. However, Hong Kong practically doesn’t feel its implications so far, because, as well as Macau, it has the status of a Special Administrative Region and will retain its internal system for 50 years. What Hong Kongers will do after the 50-year period expires, is a big question.