This is an incomplete, work-in-progress description of my travels from 1990-2009 in the China-Tibet borderlands, following in the footsteps of botanist Joseph Rock. Will be adding chapters and pics when they are ready - expected completion date November 2009. Contact me on mutikonka [AT] gmail,com

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Chapter 3: Hong Kong for me

Like Joseph Rock, I didn’t linger for very long on my first visit to Hong Kong.
In 1990, the British crown colony of Hong Kong was said to be living on borrowed time. The clock was ticking towards the 1997 handover to China, and the city seemed to be working overtime to make the most of the good times while they lasted.

I flew in from Gatwick on a Cathay Pacific 747, via Bahrain and Dubai, and experienced all the usual thrills of arriving at the cramped Kai Tak airport in Kowloon, with its runway jutting out into the sea. My first sight was the craggy peaks of Hong Kong island dotted with high rise flats, and the surrounding waters in which I lost count of the number of cargo ships, lighters, dredgers and ferries.

We flew low over the tenements of Kowloon on the approach, close enough to see into people’s cramped rooms, and close enough, it seemed, for the slipstream to stir the washing hung up outside the windows.

Then after the notorious last minute swerve to the right to avoid a large cliff, the Jumbo plonked down onto the runway and screeched to a sudden halt at the waterline, almost as if landing on an aircraft carrier.

The smell of Hong Kong pervaded the aircraft cabin – that humid sour-sweet warm breeze that seemed to carry elements of sub-tropical vegetation, diesel oil, joss sticks and sewage. We emerged down the aircraft steps onto the tarmac and into the hazy sun and were quickly bustled through the busy customs and passport control.

Before I knew it I was on the A2 airport bus, travelling through the same jungle of high rise tenements and flyovers that I had just flown over. It was the hanging gardens of Babylon, but with Chinese script everywhere, and almost every square inch of space given over to merchandise: shrink-wrapped cameras and running shoes, strange varieties of mushrooms, dried fish tins of tea. If it wasn’t a shop it was probably a restaurant.

Up close, the streets appeared dirty and scrappy, and yet with shopfronts and facades that were made from gleaming clean chrome or marble. The local Chinese were smartly dressed in business suits or conservative casual wear, and looked cool, despite the warm weather, unlike the very visible western tourists who in comparison looked florid and gaudily overdressed.

I humped my heavy bag off the bus at the Kowloon Star Ferry Terminal and took the ferry across the heaving, rubbish-strewn greenish waters of Victoria harbour to Central. What a strange place – a bit Manhattan, a bit London and a lot of Chinatown. The famous trams rumbled down Des Voeux Road and the pavements thronged with people.

There was incessant movement and clamour – the whole city seemed to zing along with an almost audible electric hum of commerce and industry. It was all so foreign and yet dotted with familiar British symbols. Parking wardens wore the same dull two-tone brown uniforms as those in Leeds, with caps bearing the Queen’s crown. Chinese children wore neat British school uniforms with metal Prefect and Librarian badges pinned to their blazer lapels, and the road signs were the same familiar symbols that I had memorised from my Highway Code.

I took a Routemaster-style light blue and cream coloured double-decker bus on a boneshaking journey through the western market district until the road curved away round a corner to run south along the western side of the island. Then I hauled my bag up 293 steps past concrete villas and though what seemed to me to be thick tropical jungle to the Mt Davis YHA hostel.

The spartan white-washed blocks contained little more than iron bedstead bunk beds and cold showers, but the place offered glorious views across the smog over the western harbour approaches of Hong Kong. I sat on the balcony and had a very welcome San Miguel beer while surveyeing the fleet of ships in the harbour below. It was good to be away from bloody Woolwich.

It was at this hostel that I met the first of what would become a long line of western weirdos who seem to gravitate to certain corners of Asia. In this case it was a one-time hippy with a bad scalp condition and a strong Lancashire accent, who was now almost old enough to be an old age pensioner. He was thin to the point of emaciation and complained half heartedly about how he’d been ripped of in China. There was also an inquisitive American who interrogated me about my plans and said “God Bless You” reflexly after every remark.

I was too jet lagged to care, and fell into an exhausted sleep disturbed only by the snoring religious American on the bunk above me.

I spent only one full day on Hong Kong Island, and even that was sufficient for me to tire of the jostling crowds, the humidity and the incessant noise from jackhammers and traffic. But Hong Kong was a good place to get things done. Woken early by the ships horns, I skipped back down the steps into the western district and took off for the China Travel Service office in Tsim Sha Tsui. With matter-of-fact efficiency they were able to arrange a China visa for me for the next morning, and at a very reasonable price compared to the extortionate and atherosclerotic bureaucracy of the Chinese consulate that I had tried in London.

I spent the rest of the day taking buses on a counter-clockwise circuit around Hong Kong Island. I placed my exact fare of a few Hong Kong dollars and cents (exact change only) into the receptacle by the driver and foolishly went upstairs ‘for a better view’.

It required nerves of steel to sit at the very front seats on the top deck as the driver flung the bus at seemingly suicidal speed around the narrow and congested roads. I had several near heart attacks as he overtook Jaguars and minibuses on blind corners or drove headlong towards oncoming taxis as if playing a game of dare. I was flung around the hard, uncushioned seats, banged my elbows on the walls and had to hang on to the silver bars that round around the inside of the windows.

In Aberdeen I was not much impressed by the shanty town atmosphere and the ramshackle feel of the harbour, where modern day versions of junks brought in nets of flapping fish and shrimps. From the ferry, Hong Kong looked like a sleek and futuristic city, but close up, at ground level, it was a make-do, utilitarian mess. I wandered the streets, pretending I was a foreign correspondent and taking in the local colour. I’d thought about dining at the famous Jumbo restaurant boat in the harbour, but on close inspection it looked squalid and tawdry. Instead, I found a cafĂ© with a few cramped formica tables where I was served with a small plate of ham sandwiches with the crusts cut off, and a cup of curdling thick brown tea that was made with condensed milk.

Onwards, via Repulse Bay to the relatively quiet lotus tree -lined streets of Stanley. There I saw a British Army officer in his neatly pressed tropical khaki uniform, accompanied by a tough-looking Gurkha driver, standing by a Land Rover. The Union Jack still flew over Hong Kong, and it was strange to see some of the long term expats, like extras from Howard's Way, swanning around as if this were in some exclusive corner of the south coast of England.

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Medical writer, user of Rolleiflex and Leica film cameras, China-phile and Brompton bike rider. Editor of  Originally from Yorkshire.