Sunday, March 24, 2013

Asian Chronicles 9 - Hong Kong / Macao

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Our morning call came at o-five-hundred or 5:00 am. You can see why these trips are exhausting: up early, go-go-go until mid-evening, too much food, too much sitting, and no down time except for dropping into an exhausted sleep. It does give one the overview of this massive country but ...

We shuffled onto a bus for an early flight to Shēnzhèn in the Guangdong Province. Shēnzhèn literally means “deep drains.” The area was once crisscrossed with rivers and streams, with deep drains in the rice paddy fields. Shēnzhèn is situated immediately north of Hong Kong.  Like its southerly neighbor, it enjoys protected waterways and harbors of the Pearl River Delta and South China Sea. The Pearl River Delta was so named for its oyster beds and pearl economy some centuries ago.
 The disparity of wealth from one bank to another is not so striking as in years past. Largely due to its port, Shēnzhèn has transformed into one of China’s most successful Special Economic Zones. There, condo farms house factory workers who slave nine-hours per day, six days per week. In Shēnzhèn we would clear customs alongside 700,000 others, walk across the border, and bus across the river into Kowloon. 

Kowloon is a peninsula attached to mainland China, that reaches south for Hong Kong island. Transport to Hong Kong is by ferry across the harbour or tunnels beneath the harbour. No bridges span the harbour because they are reliably destroyed by monsoons.
We checked into the Harbour Plaza Hotel just off the famed Salisbury Road in Kowloon. Converting money into Hong Kong (HKD) dollars, we dispersed seeking lunch. Much of what Westerners think of as Hong Kong: Salisbury Road, Nathan Road, the Jade Mart, and the Peninsula Hotel are actually in Kowloon, NOT Hong Kong. The distinction is critical when purchasing ferry tickets, as we would later learn.
Out hotel was annexed to a shopping mall with food court. There I had a wonderful bowl of curried vegetables, tofu and rice and checked email. Hotels across mainland China had free wi-fi, at least in the lobby. Not so in Hong Kong; we would trek daily into the mall for wi-fi hotspots. I stopped at a small grocer to stock our refrigerator with fruit, yogurt in tropical flavors (like lychee), and bottled water.

We met for an afternoon city tour aboard a small shuttle bus. Our driver Daniel was a slight man with a knack for stating the obvious. “Take taxi foh dihnah, ah... fit fyh,” he said, holding up five fingers. “Ah... fit fyh Chinese pepoh, you - you lahj, ah... maybe fit foh. Ha, ha, ha,” he laughed, not in the least embarrassed or apologetic.
Hong Kong is a costal island off the southern coast of China. It was incorporated by China’s First Emperor Qin in 221 BCE. A mere 426 square miles, it currently houses 7,000,000 residents, making it one of the most densely populated areas in the world. The paucity of land drove demand for dense construction, thus distinguishing Hong Kong as the world’s most vertical city.
Its population is 95% ethnic Chinese, Han to be specific, migrated from Guangzhou and Taishan to the north. The island is tropical, geographically not unlike Hawaii, and indeed, most early Chinese immigrants to Hawaii’s sugarcane and pineapple fields and railroads of the western US came from Canton (now Guangzhou). Hence, older Chinese speak Cantonese and Americans know Cantonese food as Chinese food. My Popo (grandmother) was a picture bride from Canton - purchased before arriving in Hawaii in 1912, bound feet and all. But that is another story for another time.

This tiny island has a long history of occupation by its neighbors and in 1898 was leased to Great Britain, together with 230 large and small offshore islands, for 99 years. Great Britain proved an insufficient deterrent to Japanese occupation during the 1940’s. Decolonization swept across Asia in the 20th century and the handover of Hong Kong occurred in 1997. Hawaii and the Western Americas enjoyed an influx of cash as money poured from Hong Kong before its return to China. Of note, the popularity of the Chinese government has waned and a 2013 poll by the South China Morning Post showed nine of ten Hong Kong islanders prefer a return to British rule, just sixteen years post-handover. 
“We hope Hong Kong make China change,” Daniel said in his nasal voice made gravelly by years of smoking, “Not China make Hong Kong change.”

Our shuttle bus dove beneath the harbour and emerged into the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong on the other side. We wound through densely packed buildings and climbed hills overlooking a sparkling blue, tropical sea with luxury boats moored off shore. Like the Swiss, Hong Kong islanders have learned to build into impossible slopes and the sea is appreciated in glimpses framed by concrete.
We stopped for a junk ride out to the floating city. What’s the difference between a junk and sampan, you ask? Size - a junk is larger.
The floating city is a group of boats  - fisherman and their families who virtually never come ashore. They fish, they return to port, a sampan gathers their catch, they leave to fish again. They are moored one to the other and float just outside the harbour. Even their children are educated at sea.
 Our tour included a stop at the Pearl Factory. Why? We were out of mainland China. Surely this was not government mandated. Back home in Hawaii, one of Mom’s friends said See & Sea Tours are known for incessant, maddening and annoying factory stops. 
I had sought white jade stud earrings across mainland China and Hong Kong - for my two neighbors feeding my two cats. “No moah,” the jewelers said, shaking their heads. 

Victoria Peak
High atop Hong Kong island’s Victoria Peak, we watched the sun sink. We looked down upon the 118-storey International Commerce Center, Hong Kong’s tallest building. At 1588 feet, it dominates the skyline as the fifth tallest building in the world. Their restaurant occupies floors 100-102 and the Ritz Carlton occupies everything above. The tower sways and people on the upper floors are known to get building (motion) sick.
The air grew cool and misty and in the gathering gloam, the buildings lighted to illuminate Hong Kong’s famous skyline. We would learn and later enjoy the Symphony of Lights laser and music show that is orchestrated from both sides of the strait after sunset.
Chilled to the bone, we returned to the Harbour Plaza hotel then cabbed cross-town to join Derek at his favorite noodle house. Their wonton mien was to-die-for; their roasted goose - a double death.
“Why have we been eating those scrawny ducks?” Mom asked. “I’m done with scrawny ducks; from now on I’m eating goose!”

The next day was spent enjoying the sights and sounds of Hong Kong: the street markets and bizarres, Cantonese delectable delicacies and the like. Lots of walking and lots to see. Not much enticed me to shop, nothing I couldn’t get on Amazon sans the schlepp home.
Something I couldn’t get at home: plain (uncarved) elephant ivory chopsticks - asking price 800HKD for two pair = $103 USD. I would never buy elephant ivory anything but I examined them carefully. Foh real, ivory colored plastic chopstick - no diff bradah.

We passed many buildings covered in scaffolding and construction sheeting. Michael, who worked in construction for many years, was in the habit of leaning over to say, “I don’t think that’s OSHA approved,” before we burst into laughter. We saw men balancing high above the ground without safety harnesses, we saw bamboo scaffolding lashed with plastic cord. I had a visceral reaction to seeing it the first time in 2000. But over time I’ve come to know that bamboo lasts many, many years and generally speaking, Asian men in Asia weigh under 150#.
George Clooney, sporting an Omega watch, smiled from billboards above. A Chow Tai Fook or Luk Fook Jewelery occupied nearly every corner of South Nathan Road. Armed security stood at the doors and salespeople in suits swarmed inside.  I inquired about white jade earrings and was disappointed at every turn. WHAT are they doing with all their white jade? Injecting it green?

Smoking is not allowed in Kowloon’s parks. I walked through Kowloon’s Walled City Park for a breath of fresh air. My asthma - dormant for years - had begun to flare under constant assault by cigarette smoke. 
Mom and cousins

The park is massive with ponds and water features, a public swimming pool, a topiary maze, and many gardens for repose. It was a thick thatch of trees in a concrete jungle, a haven for birds who chirped their praise. A shrill caw shattered the calm, pierced through the veil of gurgling water, and jarred me from my tranquil stroll. The cry devolved into a guttural growl - eerie, primitive, and consequently, unnerving. A... a pterodactyl? An exotic bird aviary housed macaws, parrots, parakeets, cockatoos, and the rhinoceros hornbill - looking far less malevolent than its caw.
Turns out, the Kowloon Walled City Park occupies the site of the old Kowloon Walled City, a densely populated, largely ungoverned settlement. Originally a Chinese military fort, it was the hub of prostitution, gambling, drug and opium dens into the 1970’s. The Walled City was demolished in 1994 and the park opened in December 1995. Some historical artifacts of the old city were preserved, including the South Gate - through which I strolled.

I wanted to go to Macau (called Macao in Asia). In 1997, I moved from Anchorage, AK to Sacramento, CA by way of Australia. A circuitous route, I know. I crewed a schooner to sail the Whitsundays in lieu of New Zealand, thinking I’d return. I never have. I was not about to make that mistake again. It was my second trip to Hong Kong and I was going to Macao if I had to go alone! Fortunately, brother-in-law Michael was also interested in a day trip to Macao and we set off immediately after breakfast.
Mother wanted to see Noah’s Ark so she and Gina set off for Me Wan island and Noah’s Ark hotel and amusement park. The park touts the world’s only full-scale Ark replica built to Biblical dimensions. See The map fails to show the elevated freeway passing directly over the Ark, which actually helps in lending scale. Its BIG!

“Don’t buy roundtrip ticket,” Derek said. “Buy one-way.  The crow is black in color everywhere you go. Don’t think too much. Just do.” Huh?
“Macao?” Friendly, smiling people greeted us at the ferry terminal and guided us to the ticket booth. “Roundtrip?”
We boarded a modern and comfortable hydrofoil for the one-hour journey to Macao. The day was sunny, the air warm, the sea bright blue, and adventure washed my world with salty sea-spray. Disembarking into the snowy-white ferry terminal of Macao, we were accosted by tour peddlers: speedboat tours, rickshaw tours, bus tours, van tours. The casino buses lined up outside and petite women, beautifully dressed, speaking the King’s English, beckoned. Armed with our map, I pointed. 
“Will your bus take us near here?”
“Yes, yes,” she said with a faint bow, gesturing with her arm to board.
We settled into plush, thick seats and only when we crossed a long bridge joining two isles, did I reach for my map. “I have a bad feeling about this,” I said to Michael.
We disembarked at The Venetian-Taipa. Taipa is the island south of Macao. More than annoyed, we got right back in line to shuttle back to the ferry terminal. This will cost us an hour.
A tall, slender, youth stood in line before us, overhearing our grumbling. We Americans do not endure privations silently. 
“I’ll take you around,” he offered, “I’ll be your guide.” We were hesitant but asked more questions.
Chad was a native of the Philippines with a Bachelor’s degree in marketing. He worked as a stableboy in Macao, hoping to get on with the casinos. He knew where to get free bottled water and free meals in the casinos. He knew how to use their free shuttle service like public transportation. His wages in Macao were five times that in the Philippines so he worked and sent money home. We took an instant liking to this resourceful and soft spoken, young man.

First stop was lunch. “I want to try Macanese food,” I said, referring to the blend of Portuguese and Cantonese food found on Macao. He dropped us at a local restaurant where not one drop of English was spoken and left to run an errand though we offered to feed him.
I ate pigs feet - a favorite. It was more gamey, their sauce more musty, and they didn’t take the time to pluck every hair like my Popo had.
“I’ll meet you back here in 1-hour,” Chad said - and so he did.
We walked to the nearby O Centro Histórico de Macao - the site of the original Portuguese settlement.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site it is described: with its historic street, residential, religious and public Portuguese and Chinese buildings, the historic centre of Macao provides a unique testimony to the meeting of aesthetic, cultural, architectural and technological influences from East and West," and " bears witness to one of the earliest and longest-lasting encounters between China and the West, based on the vibrancy of international trade."

Chad and I
We strolled Senado Square, ringed in Spanish-styled buildings, its floor of blue and white tiles laid in waves to echo the ocean. We ambled through manicured alleyways and market streets festooned in paper lanterns, leftover I presumed, from China’s holi-week celebrating the formation of the People’s Republic of China.
We stopped to sample dried, pressed pork. You could buy dried, pressed pork in the open bins of Chinatown like this, when I was a kid. Somebody might wave a palm or banana frond to swat at flies.... or not. We sampled and bought for a fraction of the price in Hong Kong and hoped we could get it into the US.

The Ruins of St Paul are but the facade of the original Church of Mater Dei (Mother of God). In its carved relief, the Christ child is surrounded by the Passion tools, and a lotus flower, Chinese fu dogs, a Portuguese sailing ship (looking like the Nina or Pinta or Santa Maria), a seven-headed hydra, and other Chinese mythological creatures. Always fascinating, these blended religions - concessions to converting the naked natives.
We came upon a patch of smooth, river rocks upended in the sidewalk. The assertion is not dissimilar to reflexology, that massaging and strengthening the foot improves the health.
“Ow-ow-ow-ow-ow!” I cried as I limped across its sharp surfaces. Michael threw off his flip flops and walked without difficulty. When I looked astounded, he broke a sly smile. 
“Remember we refinished our shower floor like this?” 
The Mount Fortress with its crenulated parapets and 32 cannons was built by the Jesuits in 1617. It is surrounded by impenetrable walls 9 meters high and was provisioned to endure a two-year siege. That’s interesting, donchya think? Jesuits building a war machine? Wonder how they justified that?! Notably, the cannons point out to sea; there are no weapons facing mainland China, a mere stone’s throw cross the river.

We hopped the local bus for our final destination, the A-Ma Temple. A-Ma Temple, situated on the southwest tip of Macao Peninsula, is one of the oldest and most famous Taoist temples in Macao. Built in 1488, the temple is dedicated to Tin Hou (aka A-Ma), the goddess of seafarers and fishermen.
The name Macao is thought to be derived from the temple’s name. It is said that in 1557, when Portuguese sailors landed just outside the temple and asked where they were, the natives replied, “Ma Kwok”. The Portuguese heard Macao and named the peninsula thusly.
There is something otherworldly in walking ancient, hallowed grounds. Sandalwood incense suffused the air in time-honored scents as we climbed the steps carved into the hillside.

Z bus schedule
Our touring done, Chad put us on a bus for the Macao ferry terminal and we paid him the equivalent of 50USD for his afternoon of tour-guiding. At the counter we brandished our tickets and were turned away. 
“Those tickets no good here.”
“Those tickets no good here. You want here, you buy new ticket.”
Turns out our departing tickets were from the ferry terminal on the island of Taipa. We retreated to board the free shuttle to The Venetian knowing they would provide a shuttle to the Taipa terminal. We paused at The Venetian because I had a desire to compare it to Vegas. It was identical in every way with one major flaw - in Taipa indoor smoking is allowed.

Night fell and it was dark when we arrived at our distant shore. We crossed the street and started walking. I knew we would hit the Walled City Park in a few blocks and could follow Nathan Road south to the Peninsula Hotel where we could catch a shuttle to the Harbour Plaza. We climbed a steep hill through staircase alleys that bisected the streets Berkeley hills-style. I don’t remember a hill. The sidewalk kiosks were closing, vendors packing up after a long day. We walked on and ... no park. I stopped to ask. An old man stepped outside his restaurant.
“Where is Kowloon Park and Nathan Road?” I asked.
“On Kowloon.”
My eyes grew wide with shock, registering only then, the extent to which we had been had. 
“This Hong Kong,” the old man said.
“We’re on the wrong island,” I turned to Michael. “We’re on Hong Kong island and we need to be on Kowloon.” 
“Doh jeh, doh jeh,” I bowed, thanking the restauranteur before sprinting for the ferry buildings.
“Don’t buy roundtrip ticket,” Derek’s voice came back to me, “Buy one-way.  The crow is black in color everywhere you go. Don’t think too much. Just do.”
Had I been alone, I might have been frightened. But Michael is a large man with hands the size of dinner plates. He shrugged, smiled and said, “Well, we wanted an adventure; didn’t we?”
We retraced our steps and followed the signs toward the Star Ferry. Across the way, we saw the worlds largest Apple Store and had we more time, would have indulged big-time. But we were pressed to catch the last ferry of the night and made it with just minutes to spare.
2HKD for the six-minute crossing. The flat-bottomed river ferry had rows and rows of wooden benches. We began the crossing seated but moved toward the rails to enjoy the view.
“Let’s move over to let our American friends enjoy the view,” a young man gestured with aplomb. They were five American kids on exchange for a semester of language and culture - and they were loving it. Their Mandarin had improved and they all vowed to return to China in later years.

Hong Kong has an underground - a network of pedestrian tunnels passes beneath the city, avoiding all the traffic and stoplights. The tunnels are lined in glitzy shops and below them, the trains rumble. 
Our last full day in Hong Kong was spent in museums and trolling for last minute gifts. The young people went to Disney Hong Kong and I wished I'd gone with them. The Yangtze River Cruise travelers returned for the flights home the following morning. 
After seventeen days in China with crumbling and convoluted hallways and alleyways to thwart the Devil, the gleaming glass and steel of Incheon airport in Seoul seemed almost intergalactic. Our flight home was luxurious and welcome. 

I returned to my Mother’s condo on the 29th floor overlooking Honolulu Harbor. My father’s comb leaned, waiting in the toothbrush caddie. Her spare room housed half-filled boxes that I would spend the next week sorting through, filling and moving. Our family home had been sold a decade earlier for this luxury condo near her home of origin on the edge of Chinatown. Now she was selling her ocean view for a cubbyhole in an extended living facility. Her final move would put her equidistant from her place of birth and lifelong church. Mom would start and end her life within the antumbra of Chinatown, its shadow’s radius - a mere mile.
“That was my last trip,” Mom said. I know its true. Other than weekends on a neighboring island, her traveling days are over. The world belongs to the younger, the stronger, the brighter, and hopefully to those who can see the inextricable relationship of (wo)man to environment.

“WHO uses paper money anymore anyway?” Lael asked rhetorically. Her annoyance in managing their bills and coins was clear. Her question brought our generational differences into sharp focus.
Who uses paper money? I do! And those without the infrastructure to support a paperless system. As we move toward digital economies without paper and fossil fuels, less trash and more renewable resources, taking responsibility for and mitigating the impact of our lifestyle on the planet... That will take something. It will take that kind of annoyance with and intolerance of systems that function only at the expense of another.

A friend of mine recently said, “The quality of our work is diminished by what we are willing to tolerate.” One could say that about our world. The quality of our world is diminished by what we willingly tolerate. Foreign travel, more than highlighting the differences, reveals our commonality in humanity; that which is beautiful and different, our universal struggles and desires, and to appreciate the broader perspective - that of the other.
Perhaps Disney had it right from the start: It’s a small world after all.

So end the Asian Chronicles, chronicling my third trip to Asia. Visit if you can. The culture is rich and infinitely different from our own. Go while walking presents no great challenge. Go with an open mind, an open heart, a sense of humor, and a thirst for adventure. “Go,” say I, “Go.”
Mahalo for your enduring bleadership (blog readership) and the seemingly endless slog through my journals. May you always find such patience a companionable neighbor.

Much love and Aloha to you ~ Lorin

1 comment:

  1. That was wonderful. I loved your anecdotes, history, photos. Hong Kong! I've always wanted to go there.