Hong Kong Unravelled

By Ilona Kauremszky

KOWLOON Hong Kong - My first inkling was to smile. It's the crack of dawn and I had finally made it to the city known as the pearl in the Pearl Delta.

In a daze after a 19-hour flight from Toronto, I was swimming solo in the penthouse pool of the Langham Hotel, a stone's throw from the world's busiest deepwater harbor.

Oblivious to the clamorous morning rush hour unfolding below at Tsimshatsui, Hong Kong's famous tourist district, I floated transfixed on the magenta sky opening before me, but I was not alone.

Gliding on the updrafts between the skyscrapers of Victoria Harbor, a lone eagle floated above the fray like me. It was this scene that defined my thinking of Hong Kong as a city of contrasts. A city formed and pressed into being by edifices confined by the natural world.

No wonder, it's called, "The City of Life," a moniker Hong Kong wears proudly on her sleeve. It's where trumpeting Nokias vie with speedboats and the rat-tat of incessant jackhammers. It's where steelworkers dance 30 stories high through a weave of bamboo scaffolds. Where else does a flotilla of rickety sampans butt against a brigade of Rolls Royces? Such stark contrasts jar the western imagination.

Writer Jan Morris once penned, "This is the way of urban Hong Kong. It is cramped by the force of nature, but it is irresistibly wrestless by instinct".

Situated on the edge of the South China Sea at the mouth of the Pearl River estuary, 135 km southeast of Guangzhou, Hong Kong, which translates as "fragrant harbor", is comprised of a thimble-sized peninsula draped around an archipelago of 260 barren mounds and verdant islets. Fodors calls it a, "dazzling melee of human life and enterprise," while Moon handbooks declares Hong Kong as "a city in a hurry."

When the Brits arrived in 1841, the once fertile island-chain had been degraded by over farming, to the extent that the British described Hong Kong Island as "a barren rock." These days, nearly seven-million residents are shoehorned into three regions and 18 districts that stretch 1000 square kilometres, roughly six times the size of Washington D.C., making Hong Kong one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

Prior to the 1997 handover to China, two of its regions, Kowloon and Hong Kong Island were bulging at the seams with Mong Kok, Cantonese for "busy point," referenced in guidebooks as "the busiest place in the world." You can still catch the whirly dervish scenes along the narrow alleys. Simply walk north on Nathan Road, past the Yue Hwa Chinese Products store, a handcraft emporium of silks, jades, porcelains and traditional clothing until you reach Tung Choi Street, hub of the Ladies Market. There are no signs of malaise or lingering fears of the economy here. The streets are fueled by pure capitalism. Everywhere vendors hawk their wares from bulging overcrowded stalls.

The skyline is punctured with building cranes. A joke has it that the crane is a moving fixture on the city's horizon, sharing the podium with the city's true symbol, the bauhinia flower.

Buoyed by this frenetic growth is a fearless optimism. In the north, nearly 3.5 million Hong Kongers call the New Territories home. Literally, "The Land Between," this 796-square kilometre of mountainous land between mainland China and the rest of Hong Kong was leased to the Brits for 99 years and was the catalyst that sparked the rest of Hong Kong's return. Some of the oldest settlements and walled villages such as the Liu clan's ancestral hall located in Sheung Shui dot the evolving hinterland while nearby urban juggernauts appropriately named "New Towns" rise up from reclaimed ocean fronts. Chunks of concrete apartment blocks line the Tolo highway towards Shatin, a bustling district that also houses the Shatin horse racetrack.

Even at the harbor once the exclusive domain of Opium traders, pirates and princes, there is a new sight. Amidst the thick jungle of stickpin skyscrapers rises the International Finance Centre (IFC) crowned as, "Hong Kong's tallest building" at 89 stories.

Yet, amongst these slabs of commerce and opulence, there is a bargain to be had on one of the cheapest rides in the world. For 50-cents you can embark on the legendary Starr Ferry that sails across the Victoria Harbor where sailors in nautical white stand ready to hoist the ropes upon arrival. At the docks, white-gloved seamen stand motionless on the sidelines of the two-tiered vessel as the rush of foot traffic races off without missing a beat.

The day I ventured across to Hong Kong Island, the song of a canary summoned me to walk along Lan Kwai Fung, popular for its exclusive eateries and bars. It was at the China Lan Kwai Fong (17-22 Lan Kwai Fung), where the birdcage was propped inviting the passers-by to eat at the chi-chi restaurant famous for its Dim Sum. Lunch is steamed Shanghainese dumplings, flavored with a soup and pork, Cantonese shrimp dumplings, steamed bun Cantonese style with BBQ pork and Choi Bong Hi "Fake crab," a Shanghai dish with ginger, rice vinegar, egg white mixed in egg yolks. These dainty morsels are well worth the hefty price ($38HK for 4 pieces) so bring your wallet and some friends.

Hong Kong is like no other city and is quite simply another world that swirls in superlatives. The world's longest outdoor escalator clings to a steep mountain rock face climbing to the heavens past vendors. Up, up, I go, beyond the tiers of the many shops, eavesdropping at the butcher, cook and the manicurist for one who has leisure. But ask a Hong Konger if they have time, and chances are slim. Winny Mui, communications manager of a five-star hotel, yearns for a vacation. "I haven't had one for ages," she admits. Guide extraordinaire Joe Lee brings new meaning to the word "multitasking," as he pleads, "I need to take this call," while he hails a cab and shuffles two cellphones and a palm pilot like a deck of cards.

At night, the Jurassic-sized billboards hover over the city like a scene from the sci-fi classic, "Bladerunner." Cantonese characters in electric neon direct the tightly bound traffic into a streaming bundle of glowing colored light that transforms the night.

With my friend Keith Macgregor whose photographs are indelible fixtures in Hong Kong's postcard industry, we board an ancient Double Decker trolley and zoom past the financial centre of Queen's Road, beyond Hong Kong Park, Happy Valley Racetrack and onto Yee Woo Street where throngs of pedestrians wait for the signal along Causeway Bay. Opposite the SOGO store, the staccato tick-tick beckons them to cross the street at the world's busiest crosswalk opposite.

Keith soaks in the rollicking spectacle of Chinoiserie and sighs, "This is the best kept secret in all of Hong Kong. To ride in an open tram on a starry night along this Causeway with a pint of beer is a pure piece of heaven. There is nothing quite like it anywhere in the world."

If you go:

Places to Stay:
The five-star Langham Hotel, is situated in the central tourist hub of Tsimshatsui and is accessible by ferry, car and public transportation. From the Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok, it's a fast 30-minute cab ride. For reservations visit langhamhotel.com

"The Salisbury" YMCA offers an upper scale YMCA experience with plush décor as well as full sports and recreational facilities. (Indoor swimming pools, squash courts, sauna, etc…) Rooms start at $600HK. Visit ymca.org.hk.

Other Info:
The Hong Kong Tourism Board has information centres located throughout Hong Kong. Once you've arrived at the Hong Kong International Airport load up on free maps and brochures at the HKTB kiosk and enquire about day trip excursions. For more travel info visit DiscoverHongKong.com


photos: Hong Kong Toursit Board

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