Sunday, 24 June 2012

Hong Kong: In the Mood For Love

I love Hong Kong. It's one of my favourite cities; it's vibrant and alive in a way that few cities are, with a presence on the streets that is palpable. It's like a more exotic, orderly, politer, and cheaper version of NYC, with better food, better weather, and better scenery. I'm sure a large part of Hong Kong's energy comes from the huge population density, and I suspect this density would make actually living there somewhat difficult. But as a tourist you get to experience a city where it seems like there is something happening on every street, at all hours of the day.
Wong Kar Wai's Chungking Express does a good job of expressing the energy and atmosphere of Hong Kong, without putting too much of a gloss on life there, but it's his masterpiece, In the Mood for Love (probably my absolute favourite movie), that really captures the way I feel about Hong Kong: full of nostalgic charm, exotic and alive, gritty and alluring, even if sometimes squalid, yet somehow reserved and formal.

Tensions with Mainland Chinese

On the way from the airport
On the ride into town from the airport, after an uneventful flight. Best seat in the house: top floor, front row, just behind the full-glass windshield that spans the upper deck.

I remember the first time I flew into the Hong Kong region, on a 2006 Air Asia flight from Bangkok to Macau. This was my first experience with mainland Chinese tourists, who distinguished themselves from other passengers through their behaviour, if not their appearance. Upon landing in Macau, but before arriving at the terminal, there was a mad rush of Chinese standing up, grabbing their luggage, and ignoring requests to remain seated. Once the doors opened, there was jostling to get out, and then more jostling to get into the buses that would take us to the terminal. None of it made any sense (how does being first on the bus, or first off the plane, help get you out of the airport any faster?), but it was serious, ruthless business.

Hong Kongers like mainland Chinese less than ever, and this anti-mainland sentiment seems likely to grow as more and more mainlanders visit and Hong Kong youth become more and more politically assertive. Part of it is because they see more of these 'locusts' than ever, and part of it is economic (they are particularly resentful of mainland mothers coming to HK to have anchor babies, as well as things like milk formula and other foods that may be contaminated in China). Much of it is cultural, however, as Hong Kongers resent the way mainlanders don't stand aside on escalators, push into subway cars instead of queuing or letting people off first, the tendency to urinate in public and encourage their kids to do so (including of parents letting their kids pee in subway cars and wondering why people get upset), and generally ill-mannered behaviour.

Scenes from Hong Kong

Tourist attraction at WTC Hong Kong
This dog enjoys his rightful place as the center of attention in front of the HK World Trade Center shopping complex. While Japanese city dogs pretend you don't exist—or pretend they don't exist— this dog acknowledged everyone but accepted their attention as his due.



On my first night in HK I went to the World Trade Center to look for a duffel bag. My old Samsonite duffel was on it's last legs after 20 years of service and multiple repair jobs to sew up blown seams, and instead of buying a cheap bag in Hong Kong or China like I had originally intended to, I decided to get a decent bag from a reputable company. (The fact that I had bought a knockoff camera bag that looked like it was good quality but had started to fall apart after 24 hours convinced me that it's better to spend extra on another bag that might hopefully last 20 years, too.)

The WTC Hong Kong has both Patagonia and North face shops, and I had narrowed my choice to either the North Face Base Camp or the Patagonia Black Hole, both of which are duffels with backpack straps. The only problem is that the Patagonia medium is 60 liters while the North Face medium is 72 liters (the other sizes are identical, however), and although I liked the Patagonia more I wasn't sure if it would be big enough. In Hong Kong most stores don't allow you to return things for a refund, however, so I couldn't buy the Patagonia and return it if my stuff didn't fit. As I didn't feel like bringing my bag in and unpacking it in the store to see if it fit, I eventually went with the North Face. Luckily, I found a place in Mong Kok that had them on sale—and in nice colours, too—so I ended up paying about the US price for the bag. (Like everything else, these bags were cheaper in the US than in Hong Kong, despite HK's proximity to the factories and its low tax regime.)
International Finance Center
The International Finance Center dominates the are near the Star Ferry pier.

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Sir Norman Foster's iconic HSBC Tower. The building is essentially on stilts so pedestrians can walk under the building, in a gesture towards good Feng Shui.

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The Bank of China Tower, by I.M. Pei, is also iconic but supposedly has bad Feng Shui and was aggressively oriented towards the HSBC tower. There's got to be some irony in the British-designed building having good Feng Shui and the Chinese designed building having bad Feng Shui.

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BoC Tower at upper right and three other towers.

This was the first time I had stayed on the Hong Kong side, at an eminently forgettable hostel in Causeway Bay, just around the corner from Ikea. The next morning I saw some more of the island, walking over to the Mid-Levels and taking the escalators while checking out Hollywood Road and the like. I also did some window shopping looking for CF cards for my camera and battery chargers. Hey, DX.com is based in Hong Kong and CF cards are made in Shenzhen, so how hard could it be, right? Very hard, it turns out. The CF cards in the electronics and photo malls in the area were charging about double the price that Amazon.com does.

I eventually figured out where you can get electronics for cheap in Hong Kong—the electronics markets just east of Sham Po Shui MTR station, like Golden Arcade—but it took me a fair amount of trouble, and even the no-haggle prices at the shops there were no better than you get at Amazon. Even these shops were unable to provide the one product I was looking for from DX.com: a USB-powered AA charger. This is why you should save yourself time, money, and hassle and buy before you leave.

Lippo Towers
The Lippo Towers, by American architect Paul Rudolph. I'm not a big fan, but learning that some people call them "The Koala Tree" makes them feel more humanistic and whimsical than I've ever thought of them before.

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The space under the HSBC Tower has been commandeered by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Occupy Protests with Filippina workers under HSBC
On Sundays the Occupiers in their tents are joined by Filippina domestic workers, who have historically picnicked all around Central Hong Kong on their day off: if there's an open space, they'll put down their blankets and chew the fat.

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Typical apartment buildings in the Mid Levels. The Mid-Levels escalator is an escalator-strewn pathway facilitating commuter traffic up and down the neighbourhood. In the morning the escalators run downhill, and after the morning rush they switch to uphill.

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Walking down from the top of the escalators.

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Well east of the Mid Levels. These buildings are built on slopes so steep that the southern entrance of a building might be on the tenth floor, and the northern side the ground floor.

On my second day I dropped off my visa application in the morning, did my electronics shopping, and visited some familiar areas of Kowloon: the ladies' market, the goldfish street, and the bird garden (which is next to an attractive alley of florists).

Hello Slurpee my old friend
I'm a Slurpee addict. Is it sad that I had the locations of a few of the 7-Elevens that sold Slurpees memorized from 2009 and 2006? Unfortunately, not shown on the map above.

Ladies Market
Ladies' Market.

Browsing on goldfish street
Window shopping on goldfish street.

Night market looking south
Temple Street Market.

Marching band practice by pool
Marching band practice in Kowloon Park, just off Nathan Road.

Hong Kong island by night
Hong Kong Island from Kowloon.

Hong Kong island by night - panorama
The entire Hong Kong bayfront.

Star Ferry head-on and Central
Star Ferry pulling in to Kowloon.

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