Hong Kong and Kowloon, China

I planned my trip to Hong Kong for the break between the fall and spring semesters in January 2008. I was a graduate student at the University of Maryland at the time, and there was always a four week inverval between one semester ending and the next one beginning. This trip took place the year before I traveled to London and spent a full semester working on my doctoral research, and I was doing some early preparations at the time so that I would know what to look for on my later research venture. This trip began with a short flight from Baltimore to Newark International Airport outside of New York City, where I would transfer onto a plane for the lengthy flight over to the other side of the world. I had been expecting to fly to somewhere on the west coast of the United States but nope, there was a direct flight straight from New York to Hong Kong. I was even treated to some dazzling views of New York as my plane took off:

It was late afternoon and the sun was setting outside as the plane began its climb up to cruising altitude. I was able to spot Interstate 95 running like a concrete river off to the north as it snaked its way through the ugly landscape of Newark and Jersey City. Within minutes the plane was passing over New York's harbor, past the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island down below, and then following the course of the Hudson far overhead of Manhattan. The Downtown area of Manhattan in particular looked crazy from this height, an absurd amount of skyscrapers clustered together into a tiny area. I was in the process of traveling from one densely crowded metropolis to another, with Hong Kong having an even higher population density than New York City.

The flight ended up lasting about 16 hours in total. This didn't bother me too much, as I'd known it was going to be a very long flight and had brought books to read and games to play along the way. I also did my best to catch some sleep, which isn't always easy to do on a plane or a bus. The flight path of the plane followed a course completely different from what I'd been expecting, heading almost straight north from New York and passing through Canada near the North Pole before coming down on the opposite side of the Earth and proceding south through Siberia and Mongolia en route to Hong Kong. The fight path made absolutely no sense from the perspective of a two-dimensional map, but suddenly becomes quite logical when looking at a three-dimensional globe. If you have a globe somewhere, try tracing a route north from New York through the North Pole and then south from there down to China. It actually is the shortest path to take, faster than trying to cross the entire Pacific heading west. (It's also a refutation of those ridiculous flat earth theories if by some chance we needed more evidence.) This was only a few weeks after the winter solstice and therefore much of the time spent by the plane over the northern latitudes took place in darkness. It was a relief to come back into daylight again over Siberia, and even knowing what I do about geography, it was incredible how empty eastern Russia and Mongolia were. Hours and hours of flying the plane over pure snow-covered wilderness, amazing stuff.

My brother met me at the Hong Kong airport where it was already night of the next day when I arrived. Traveling across 13 time zones is a disorienting experience and I pretty much went to sleep right away after we grabbed some quick food. The next morning Scott went off to work while I headed out to explore the downtown area in Hong Kong. First I transfered some of my money into the local currency (the Hong Kong dollar) at the towering HSBC bank building, then wandered to the nearby waterfront. This was the location of Hong Kong's City Hall building, flying the distinctive red Hong Kong flag with its five-petaled white orchid blossom, and the central ferry piers that carry travelers across to Kowloon. (Hong Kong itself proper is located on an island separated by Victoria Harbor from the mainland.) There was a lot of construction taking place along the harbor, and as best I could tell the cranes were carrying out a process of land reclamation to add more piers for shipping. There was a definite haze in the air this morning that made it difficult to see some of the buildings along the waterfront.

I walked south away from the harbor and immediately ran into Hong Kong's infamously hilly terrain. The historic city is crammed into a short area along the coast in front of a series of hills that rise up overlooking the harbor. As a result, everything in downtown Hong Kong is built along sloping terrain, with staircases and pedestrian ramps everywhere. This is a city where everything is vertical because there's no room for buildings to sprawl out horizontally. My visit coincided with the Beijing Olympics taking place later that year in August 2008, and I spotted different banners and signs all over the place referring to the Olympics in some form. Hong Kong actually hosted the equestrian events for the 2008 Olympics even though Hong Kong is well over a thousand miles away from Beijing. I find it interesting what Olympic events are emphasized by different countries, such as China putting table tennis on this poster instead of something like basketball or beach volleyball. I also tend to think that an American version of this banner wouldn't have a little cartoon panda aiming a pistol in the corner.

I didn't have a firm destination in mind for this walking trip and ended up at Hong Kong Park. This was a small green space tucked in between a bunch of skyscrapers, with commercial buildings on the side closer to the harbor and residential apartments in the other direction closer towards the mountains. The park also contained a netted area known as the Edward Youde Aviary, where a series of elevated bridges provided opportunities to spot birds as they fluttered about. I'm not much of a bird watcher and I couldn't tell you what types of birds were on display here.

These are some more pictures of Hong Kong Park outside of the aviary. My brother worked in one of the skyscrapers near the park way up on the 50th floor or something similar. I was able to see the exterior of his building but not the actual office itself due to security issues. The other direction had a view looking up towards the Peak, the name for the top of the tallest hill in Hong Kong. Scott and I would be visiting the Peak the next day. In a nod to Hong Kong's colonial past, there was a statue in the park of King George VI of Britain, and an archway commemorating the Chinese "who died loyal to the Allied cause", which I think was intended to be honorable but came off a bit paternalistic. The fusion of British and Chinese cultural elements was very much on display here, with the two groups both sharing a love of neatly tended gardens.

Another moment of potential culture shock: coming across a traditional Chinese toilet for the first time. These toilets with no seat weren't very common in downtown Hong Kong but became increasingly prevalent in places away from the commercial district in Central. Fortunately I never ended up needing to use one since I don't think it would have been terribly pleasant. The less said about that the better.

In the afternoon, I rode a bus to the other side of Hong Kong Island to visit the town of Stanley. This is a tourist attraction located a few miles away from the downtown portion of Hong Kong, and it's best known for the outdoor array of street stalls known as Stanley Market. I wandered through the vendors looking at some of the wares on display, which had almost everything imaginable under the sun, from traditional Chinese garments and porcelain to cheap plastic crap intended for kids. Everything was a fraction of what it cost in the United States and I began thinking about different options to bring back as a souvenir. I would eventually purchase an oil painting of Hong Kong harbor that Liz and I still have hanging up framed in our house as well as the replica swords that I mentioned on the intro page. After leaving the market I wandered around on Stanley's beaches, which provide some of the best swimming on Hong Kong Island. These are popular places for local Hong Kong residents to hold barbeques and enjoy the outside. With this being January, it was a bit on the chilly side and I didn't see any swimmers on the beaches. (I know that Hong Kong lies in the tropics where it never gets too cold, however there was unusually chilly weather in the city when I was visiting.)

I also spent some time walking through Stanley Military Cemetery, used for the burial of British service members who were part of the colonial garrison. One thing that's not generally known is that the Japanese invaded Hong Kong on the very next day after Pearl Harbor took place, 8 December 1941. (This is part of why the Americans were caught off guard: they were expecting a Japanese attack at Hong Kong or in the Philippines, not in Hawaii.) The British and their local supporters were horribly outnumbered, and they made a last stand here in Stanley before surrendering on Christmas Day 1941. Most of the Western civilians in Hong Kong were placed in internment camps by the Japanese afterwards, where disease and poor nutrition resulted in many deaths. The cemetery in Stanley contains the graves of these unfortunate individuals along with the service members who perished in the fighting. On an unrelated note, the last two pictures above come from the back of a bus in Hong Kong as my brother and I returned from getting dinner that night. The traffic in this city was completely crazy and I'm very glad that I didn't have to try driving through it.

My brother and I left his apartment the next morning and headed to Victoria Peak, the highest hill on Hong Kong Island known locally to everyone simply as "The Peak". We rode the Peak Tram funicular from its starting point near Hong Kong Park up to the top of the hill, a ride that has been largely unchanged since first being introduced in 1888. The elevation at the top of the hill stood at 550 meters / 1800 feet, high enough to provide sweeping views looking to the north at the Central district of Hong Kong and Kowloon on the other side of the harbor. The air was notably clearer up here at this higher altitude, and the cooler temperatures on the Peak made it a popular area for Europeans to reside in earlier decades. Scott took a picture of me leaning against the railing at the observation deck; if I could go back in time and tell my past self one minor thing, it would be to stop wearing such oversized shirts. A lot of these old photos don't look very good because my shirts fit poorly and hang much too loosely. Still, I've definitely taken pictures much worse than this one.

There are a number of different trails that lead run through the forested hills at the top of the Peak, and we decided to walk our way down from the heights rather than take the Peak Tram. This started out well enough in the tranquil confines of Victoria Peak Garden, only for the trail we were following to turn into complete wilderness somewhere along the way. I snapped one picture of the barely visible path that Scott and I were following as we wandered around somewhat lost in the forest. Eventually we crested the top of the local hill and burst out into sunlight again, finding ourselves on top of a small path looking out over the waters of the harbor. We could see Lamma Island nearby and Lantau Island further off in the distance, with a number of enormous cargo ships slowly making their way into or out of the city's docks. There were a couple of other people up here too, including a cute dog that they'd brought along for their hike. This was one of those places where it felt like you were standing on top of the world even though the elevation wasn't especially high.

We found another trail and followed it down from the heights, ending up in a random town on the western side of Hong Kong Island named Pok Fu Lam. We kind of came down from the hills into the parking lot of something called Queen Mary Hospital and may have hopped over a fence at some point to get out to the main road. The highway that headed back to Hong Kong proper ended up winding past a large graveyard named Pokfulam Road Cemetery. There was a clear division here between Christian graves marked with a cross and traditional Chinese graves that had shrines dedicated to deceased ancestors. It was also much hotter down here at sea level as compared to up on the Peak, and both of us were starting to get tired from the walking. Scott had to return to the office for a few hours of additional work (even though it was a Saturday), so he took a cab back into Hong Kong while I decided to continue walking to see the sights along the road. I ended up stumbling into the University of Hong Kong along the way, which shared the typical university predilection of significant construction taking place. I didn't see too many students and I'm guessing that the university was also on a semester break at the time.

Eventually the road took me back into the western part of Hong Kong's Central district. The towering apartment complexes came back into sight along with much heavier pedestrian foot traffic. I stopped to visit one of these traditional Chinese temples along the way, and unfortunately I don't know what this place was called because everything was written in Mandarin. It was somewhere on the packed streets of Hong Kong which has prevented me from finding it on Google Maps either. The interior of the place was dark and smelled of burning incense, with a number of visitors kneeling to say a prayer or light a candle. This was a religious experience that I knew little about, not even enough to pin down the exact nature of the temple. I'm guessing that it was Taoist in nature due to the lack of symbols associated with Buddhism but I can't say for certain. Outside of the temple, I snapped a few pictures of the bustling city streets as the work day drew to a close and people began to return home for the evening. I tried to capture how hilly it was on the streets of Hong Kong, and I particularly like the image of the clueless-looking Western couple standing in the marketplace as the local residents went on about their daily business. I felt that way a lot of the time in Hong Kong; I have a good sense of direction and I was still getting lost pretty frequently.

The next morning Scott and I took the Star Ferry across the harbor to Kowloon, the city that faces Hong Kong on the Chinese mainland. The Star Ferries have been in operation since the 1880s and still carry more than 70,000 passengers per day across Victoria Harbor. Riding the ferry is a great way to see both Hong Kong and Kowloon from the water, an inexpensive way to travel the 1 kilometer distance across the harbor while taking in all of the towering skyscrapers on both sides. The weather wasn't nearly as cooperative on this day as it had been before, and it was through a gray mist that we looked back at Hong Kong and the Peak from the Kowloon shore. The waterfront portion of Kowloon is known as Tsim Sha Tsui, and this is a shopping and nightclub district with ties to the Hong Kong film industry. There's a walk of fame here similar to the "stars" on Holywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, along with a lifesized statue of famed martial artist Bruce Lee. This is a very popular place to take pictures looking out at the harbor, and we were able to find someone passing by who took a picture of the two of us.

The central business district in Kowloon ran along Nathan Road up from the harbor. This area seemed to be exploding with businesses everywhere that we looked, with signs shouting their wares in both English and Chinese characters. It was also packed with people and gave me the impression of being in Times Square in New York. We hopped on a bus and rode about a mile to the north to the Mong Kok Flower Market, an outdoor market selling plants of all different types. There was also a bird market here selling many different birds with varying plumage. Even here in the cramped conditions of Hong Kong and Kowloon, there was real a desire to plant gardens and take in birds as pets. Prices were dirt cheap by American standards, not that we could afford to take either flowers or birds back with us.

There was also a soccer stadium near the markets at Mong Kok, and by sheer coincidence a soccer match was about to begin when we arrived. Although we knew nothing about these teams, we paid for the cheap tickets and went inside to watch for a bit. The two teams were Happy Valley and Wofoo Tai Po, and this appeared to be a form of semi-professional soccer as best we could tell. I was later able to find where Happy Valley was located, on Hong Kong Island near the horse racking track, but I've been unable to find out anything about Wofoo Tai Po. The match ended up being played to a 1-1 draw and didn't feature any moments that particularly stood out in my mind. Soccer doesn't have the same kind of appeal in China that it does in much of the rest of the world, and the most popular Western sport in the country seems to be basketball. (I saw no shortage of Kobe Bryant jerseys in my time spent in Hong Kong.)

Once again Scott had to head back to the office for part of the afternoon (working as an investment banker has terrible hours sometimes), and I finished up the rest of the day's sightseeing by myself. I decided to walk back from Mong Kok to the waterfront and see what I came across on my way through Kowloon. These pictures are from the Yaumatei Tin Hau Temple, a complex of five buildings first constructed in the 1870s as Kowloon began to grow from a sleepy fishing village into a respectable town. There were several different shrines within the temple where visitors could say a prayer or burn incense; I also noted that some worshippers had left offerings of fresh fruit, which must be a token of veneration in China. This was another area where the writing was entirely in Chinese, and about all that I could make out was the character used for "god" or "gods" (神). Only a couple of blocks away was the Jade Market, a plaza of stalls specializing in the sale of various jade goods. This was by far the most jade that I'd ever seen in my life, and I had no idea what I would have done with most of the goods on sale. I refrained from purchasing anything here.

This same part of Kowloon also held the Temple Street Night Market. Temple Street closes in the afternoon for automobile traffic and converts over into an outdoor market full of colorful lights. Most of the goods on sale here were cheap, and they catered specifically to items that are associated with men: jeans, t-shirts, pants, lighters, shoes, and so on. I noticed a lot of bootleg videos on sale here that surely didn't meet with official copyright laws, most of them on CDs instead of the standard 2008-era DVDs for some reason. Perhaps DVD technology wasn't common in China yet at the time. Half a dozen blocks closer to the waterfront was Kowloon Park, which was most notable for having a clock counting down the minutes to the start of the Beijing Olympics. I can work backwards from the 8 August 2008 starting time of the Beijing Olympics to state that this was 13 January 2008, and it was indeed a Sunday just as I recalled. It was getting dark at this point and I headed down to the harbor where the New World Centre was holding an automobile show at the time. I also tried to get some nighttime pictures looking out across Victoria Harbor at Hong Kong, only to be foiled by the poor quality of my digital camera. There's a beautiful picture of what this view really looks like on Wikipedia which I'll link to here.

After spending these first three days exploring downtown Hong Kong and its immediate surrounding vicinity, I was ready to start heading further afield. Over the next few days, I would travel by boat to the island of Lantau and then off into mainland China and the former Portuguese colony of Macao. This was likely the best chance that I would ever get to explore this portion of southern China and I intended to make the most of it.