- Hong Kong
Last stop: Hong Kong, all aboard for a wild ride!
What a trip… we came to visit our friends Alice and
Bruce. Alice had studied in Chicago at IIT and we worked together
at our first job out of school. Nothing like that to bond you. Quite a few years ago, she
back to Hong Kong to be with family and we haven’t
seen her since, so it would be a reunion of sorts.
We flew Vietnam Airlines from Hanoi to Hong Kong, andyour personal comfort controls. All this for seven
once we landed, we noticed the differences
and not just the dramatic rise in prices.
Chek Lap Kok Airport is an architectural masterpiece
designed by Sir Norman Foster and it is a feat of modernism.
So sleek, so spare, so efficient. Inside we bought
tickets on an airport shuttle going into the city
every ten minutes. We boarded the double decker bus
and stowed our luggage on the bottom floor and headed
up top for the view. Once settled into our seats, our
paranoia crept up, and we began to worry about being
separated from our luggage. But we had to look no
further than the video monitors in front of us
continual pictures of our safely stowed luggage. Not
sure where to get off? You can listen to the
multi-lingual annoucements of the stops or watch the
videoboard which posts in five different languages.
And of course, if your not comfortable, just adjust
dollars! I think in Chicago, a crappy taxi to the
city goes for at least $40.
Hong Kong is a remarkable city, built on no-man’s
land, entirely unsuited for building a city upon.
Hong Kong has defied all expectations and continues
grow and prosper even after the hand-over to the
Chinese in 1997. The people are free-wheeling, go-
getters living in the city of lights and heights.
The density of Hong Kong is absolutely unbelievable.
In 1984, the view from Victoria Peak, rising above
the city inspired the futuristic landscape of
Bladerunner. Now imagine that landscape, fast forward
sixteen years, and every available nook and cranny of
the city is filled with heaven-hugging skyscrapers.
They have taken the conceptual model of the modernist
‘Projects’ to new heights. Our friends Alice and
Bruce live on the 37th floor of a fifty story
building. In their complex, are twenty of these
exactly the same fifty story buildings. They are like
mini-metropolises with their own grocery stores,
restaurants, shops, post offices, etc. If you could
work in the building, you would never have to leave.
As space is such a premium, condos are entirely too
small and homes are nonexistant. Your average condo
is just 350 square feet. To utilize every inch,
furniture is always custom ordered to fit. Beds may
have to be shortened, bookcases may have to hang from
the ceiling over the bed, appliances in the kitchen
will stack to the ceiling. And also different, each
door will have a sliding vault metal enclosure for
This concrete jungle is not just relegated to what
little valley they have. The buildings have begun to
climb up the hills. Hong Kong is a city that has no
available space to grow out, so they head upwards,
reaching higher and higher. They will build ten
story buildings clinging to the face of a mountain.
Also, the word ‘reclamation’ has come in vogue.
Hong Kong is basically a number of very hilly
there is a lot of coastal land. A new scheme for more
land is to fill in, or silt up the waterfront.
beautiful skyline of Hong Kong as seen from across
the bay is dramatically changing due to reclamation.
What used to be a ten-minute ferry ride across the
has now been reduced to a six-minute ride. How
much will they fill in, how far will they go. The
famous Peninsula Hotel that used to be waterfront
property is now three streets inwards! Will Hong Kong
be the same without a bay. Driving
around, we noticed
that they also take the phrase ‘concrete jungle’
quite literally. They fill in all the landscaping
with concrete, leaving only holes for trees and
bushes to grow out of. If they didn’t, when it
there would be massive landslides. So, grass and
green coverage is non-existent.
In place of the greenery, Hong Kong sprouts the most
incredible imaginative architecture in the world. The
verticality of the skyline is a statement of power
function in a forest of towering metal and sheer
walls. Some of the more famous buildings include:
The I.M.Pei designed Bank of China, a hard-edged,
brash statement of the new kid in town, China’s
takeover in 97. It a geometric 3-D puzzle of a
The competition at the
Hong Kong & Shanghai
building, designed by Sir Norman Foster, is lovingly
called the ‘robot building’ because it is like a
building turned inside-out, it’s guts on display.
Also breaking from traditional construction methods,
the building hangs rather than ascends from an
‘coat hanger’ external frame.
The stunning Hong Kong Convention Center, also
designed by the above-mentioned Foster, is like a
graceful bird taking flight. Decidedly low and
horizontal in stark contrast to its surroundings,
enormous, graceful arcs layered one atop the
other and filled with a billowing wind to give an
uplifting, light touch to a magnificent structure.
All this remarkable architecture was highlighted by
whimsical external lighting for the holidays and
especially the new millenium. Not satisified with
just staid red and green lights, the sides of the
buildings became enormous drive-in movie theatres
a dazzingly display of changing lights. On one
building, there was a huge clock, continually
counting down the days, hours, minutes, and seconds
til the year 2000. On another, an ornate Chinese
dragon kept writhing side to side, his tail
slithering back and forth. And yet another kept
proclaiming wonderful tidings for the new year to
An interesting event that we happened to catch was
handover of Macau from the Portuguese back to the
Chinese. All of Hong Kong as well as China turned out
for the festivities, and it was the talk of the town,
of course for a variety of reasons. There is still
anticipation in Hong Kong and a certain sense of
that things may change for the worse. But so far,
things have pretty much been left the same, although
there has been some recent curtailing of judicial
power, as Hong Kong’s free-wheeling judges are
reined in. And many in Hong Kong have been loath to
hand over members of the Falun Gong group, banned in
China as a subversive cult, but in reality merely a
group of followers of Tai Chi. China, in it’s quest
to rein in its ever-expanding population banns
basically any group organization as it might lead to
descent and crusades for democracy. An onimous note
was the headlines of the main newspaper (now merely a
mouthpiece for the Communist government) stating
‘Taiwan Next!’ to complete the trilogy of
One good side effect of the proximity of Macau is the
numerous restaurants touting authentic macau food, a
unique blend of Portuguese and Chinese cooking.
Delicious! We discovered a locals place, as evidenced
by the long line of young Hong Kong trendsetters
outside and tasted a little bit of heaven. Savory
curries of lamb and potatoes served in a clay pot,
with African and Brazilian spices thrown in, and a
pork chop casserole baked with rice and a cream sauce
also served in a clay pot. And even better, as it was
a locals joint, for Hong Kong it was inexpensive!
People in Hong Kong seem to be fascinated with
technology. They have all the lastest, greatest
gadgets. When we visited with Alice, she asked if we
would like to see her wedding video in VHS, DVD, VCD
or huh? Too many anacronisms! I can’t keep up.
out of the waterfront mall, we walked into a crowd
mesmerized and staring above our heads, mouths
agap, eye fixed, kids and adults alike. We looked up
to see a Pokemon-like animation played on a huge
screen with animatronic dancers in front. We watched
for awhile, but the absolute silence of the crowd
spooked us and we moved on.
Another interesting phenomena to watch for is Sundays
in Central at Statue Square, best known as the weekly
gathering place for thousands of Filipino migrant
workers, almost entirely female. They come toting
shopping bags of food and gifts to share with each
other, spreading blankets on any available surface
chatting nonstop, the air musical with the constant
hum of Tagalog. Working menial class jobs such as
maids, cooks and nannies, they come for the source
of steady income and are generally the sole
breadwinners for their families back home. The joy of companionship in a far away
land was palpable and the women looked happy for
perhaps the only time each and every week, as they form Hong Kong’s lowest class and even now are
threatened with expulsion at any time. Today,
they were like birds released from their cages for a
And lastly, an installment on Hong Kong would not be
complete without at least mentioning Chungking
Mansions, a place unlike anywhere else in the world.
This enormous high-rise ghetto of accommodations is
a city unto itself. Lonely Planet describes it as:
“a medieval town under permanent siege, surrounded
a netherworld of sleaze and horrifying odors. The
lifts are steel coffins on cables, the light wells,
dark, dirty, festooned with pipes, wires and
unmentionable debris. Adding spice to your stay are
the occasional midnight raids by the police searching
for illegal immigrants.” The dump is divided into
blocks, aka cells…B block, D block and each served
a single elevator making for long lines. Seedy,
sleazy, disgusting people lurk at every corner,
ready to pull you up to their hostel, restaurant,
drug palace. As it is rock-bottom cheapest place to
stay in Hong Kong, it has become a ‘favorite’ of
migrant workers and cheap-ass backpackers and the
scum attracted to them. So that you may never have
to leave, you can get your hair cut, get food, get
clothing, get high, find work …and so. When we
mention to Alice that we might check it out, she was
horrified and cautioned us to run, run away…
We did anyway, and lived to regret it. Walking in, we entered hell on earth. We were immediately
by four guys touting indian restaurants. Shoving
cards in our faces, they grabbed any available arm
and began, quite literally, pulling us in four
different directions. As they were becoming more and
more insistant, and finally verging on violent, Doug
finally lost it, and I’ve never seen him madder or
heard him yell so loudly. Lashing out with threats
and fists, they finally released us and scrambled
into the dark recesses of B block and we hurried
out, vowing never to set foot again in that
disgusting, vile place.
If you would like to enjoy this slice of hell in the
comforts of your own home, check out Wong Kar Wai’s
1994 film Chungking Express, released in the US on
Quentin Tarintino’s private label. It captures
all the sleaze and labyrinthine environs in a
haunting, captivating series of montages.
Check it out, video pick of the week!
We want to thank Alice and Bruce for a great time.
They showed us around, and we had a fabulous
Shanghainese chinese meal with interesting dishes
ju gai (drunken chicken) suenlat tong (hot and sour
soup) fan gwo (steamed dumplings) and twice cooked
pork and barbequed eel. Good luck Alice at her new
Well…this about wraps up our email installments,
however look forward to the best and worst of
Wanderlust 99, coming soon, to an inbox near you.
Ten four good buddies,
signing out ...
Ann and doug
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