2nd Dec 2005
Friday, 2nd December, 2005
Awoke really early this morning and switched on the computer to find a very fresh e-mail in from Ben. We live chatted by e-mail, for the better part of an hour before he went off to bed.
Anne phoned down to the lobby to see whether the bags had arrived, which they had and so they were brought up. We weren’t too on-the-ball with the Chinese tipping protocols and as we only had a HK$20 (less than £2) note the porter left with a very broad smile on his face and probably went haring down the corridor casting off his uniform and signing himself off for the weekend. We only later discovered the sort of scales of magnitude on the currency.
Today we have an introductory tour of Hong Kong as part of our hotel package and it starts with an 8.30 pick up at the hotel lobby.
We arrived at breakfast at 8 and with only a half hour in order to take full advantage of the buffet on offer, we had to get cracking. There was masses of food ... and masses of Chinese tourists digging in to it, with a few baffled westerners standing around the general melee of action, wondering whether they really did want to try noodles for breakfast.
There were people digging in to bowls of beef, piles of noodles, some disgusting looking rice soup which looks like a thin porridge, to something looking like broccoli … and then there were the usual eggs, bacon, toast, croissant etc. There were people shaving at the table in between mouthfuls of breakfast. It was live theatre and I guess that we were a part of it.
The use of the chopsticks as an automated pincer which feeds noodles and other larger items into the mouth is an art to behold and I was mesmerised watching large piles of noodle being ingested. With head bowed the eating process becomes a rhythm; Grip, lift, chew. Grip, lift, chew. Grip, lift, chew.
But even the Chinese drop some of their food and the ‘safety net’ in place seems to be that on some occasions when there’s a tricky item to lift with the sticks, you put the bowl down, grab the tricky item with your chopsticks (right hand) and then if it slips deftly catch the morsel with the left and pop it in your mouth. Once you’re through that little hurdle you grab the bowl again and get shovelling.
Down in the foyer we met an English couple who were also doing a tour. For one dreadful moment I thought we might be destined to have life long friends, but their trouble was that they hadn’t read their ticket quite right and the tour which they were booked on started down at the Peninsula Hotel, about half an hours drive away in current traffic conditions. I felt sorry for them as they stood out front trying to wave down a taxi and negotiate a passage across town.
About one in four cars in HK is a taxi. Cars are strongly discouraged. There simply isn’t enough space and accordingly, the public transport system (“Light Public Bus 16 Seats”) is cheap and efficient and taxis readily available if you’re feeling slightly more flushed. The duty imposed by the Chinese government on new cars is 100% of cost.
We got picked up at 8.40 and met our tour guide ‘Michelle’. Her badge said she was called something like Ying Tong Diddle-I-Po Michelle, so presumably it’s her ‘professional’ name.
I couldn’t help humming the lines from the old Monty Python song all day:
“I like Chinese. I like Chinese. They only come up to your knees, Yet they're always friendly, and they're ready to please.”
She was, she told us, 34 years old and for the rest of the tour gave us a bit of an insight in post Mao China and pre-Chinese Hong Kong. She had no kids … “Why?” her mother kept asking her. To which she kept responding, “Mum, I don’t have time …” “But it only takes a few moments … so how can that be??!! Right”. Oh, how we laughed our way around Hong Kong.
It was a very well rehearsed routine, just like an evening with Ken Dodd. One got the impression that parts of her spiel was a scripted message which she was required to impart to us, but it was entertaining, nonetheless.
She told us about the various standards of living almost proudly; that the workers had 130 sq foot of space in their flats, that everyone had a window, that sometimes you could apply to get two flats, particularly as your children grew up. She also discussed ordered Feng Shui (‘Fungshoy’) lifestyle of the inhabitants.
(Monty Python: “So I like Chinese. I like Chinese. I like their tiny little trees, Their Zen, their ping-pong, their yin and yang ease.”)
We wove our way first around Kowloon picking up various other trippers at a variety of hotels. We then crossed the bridge to the island and got some more tourists.
All through Hong Kong there was action everywhere; the people are always doing something … cars, people walking, cycling, scootering, I seldom saw anyone just standing around. People folding cardboard, squashing aluminium cans, sweeping the streets, watering the flowers, or just getting from A to B in a busy and industrious way.
We caught glimpses of the famous Hong Kong scaffolding, huge structures made of bamboo and saw lorries full of bamboo passing along, presumably to fit on other jobs. The scaffolding has become such an institution, such a part of the development of Hong Kong that it was even included in the Colony’s expo exhibition. Nowadays it is bound using plastic tie bands, but before it was presumably some form of hemp (perhaps polypropylene) and that must have been really time-consuming and dodgy. Deliveries are being made along the streets on hand carts and tow-along trolleys … the wheels of which are often made of wood with sections of car tyres tacked around the edges for the ‘suspension’.
Michelle’s command of English was outstanding; her turn of phrase slightly entertaining at times, but considerably better than my noon-existent Canton or Mandarin.
On the subject of a well known opera singers presence in town … “Papparowti – he here. He like tailor. Make him good suit. Good price. Right”
The avenue of the stars, we were told had “No Bwooce Lee” but that they had recently unveiled a statue to the Kung Fu master to coincide with what would have been his 47th birthday.
She set the scene for the sort of money we could expect to pay for certain things “On the right we have Pen-in-soola Hotel, which sell High Tea at high price … on the left we have Sheraton. Price lower. So, High Tea (pointing to the right) and Low Tea (left). High tea: low tea. So, therefore you like it. Right.”
Our first port of call was The Peak and that started at 11.10, two and half hours after getting on the bus! We were issued with stickers to single us out in the crowd and caught the funicular to the top and received strict instructions as to when we had to rendez vous. I ended up standing on the train which was difficult due to the angle of incline, but it provided more flexibility for photography. I committed the heinous crime of standing within a yellow box marked on the floor of the train, for which there was the potential of a HK$1,500 fine. There were anxious stares from my Chinese compadres as I stepped in and out of it taking pics from the window.
The visitor centre / reception area on The Peak is being re-built and will be spectacular when its finished and of course the view of the harbour … well we all know what that looks like… its amazing. It was quite hazy when we were there but nonetheless one of the great sights.
We stopped off at the Aberdeen fishing village, where all the fishermen live on their boats mid channel (“We stop in Aberdeen fishing village, and you are interesting for that. Right.” ). The men are presumably fishing and their wives are all desperately bobbing around on twenty foot junks ferrying tourists out on half hours trips. (“OK. So that’s velly nice for yowooo“)
The old wifey who handled the boat for us was obviously coining it in (the equivalent of £40 every half hour, I worked out and I wondered how that sort of wealth squared with what Michelle had been telling us on the way here).
She had three words of English; “Houseee boat” which she used every time we got anywhere near where someone was trying to eek out their lives peacefully and then about fifty yards out from the jetty on the Way back, the engine slowed and she used the rest of her vocabulary “Moneeeeee! Moneeeee!”
We stopped off at a jade factory which had a shop outlet and were allowed to photograph the workers as they fashioned really intricate jewellery items. Anne had apparently had a hankering for a string of black pearls since she was young, so she went off the select her Christmas present and then I went along to strike the deal.
Stanley market provided an introduction to market culture Hong Kong style but not the masses of CDs, DVDs, and designer tags that we had been expecting ..
We finally got back to the hotel at about 3pm and Anne set about trying to book dinner. I was keen to have a final trip blow-out meal and also wanted to get a table over looking the harbour.
There were few options available with this criteria and these narrowed further due to it being late on a Friday and everyone else seemed to have a similar idea. Anne eventually found what we were looking for at the Intercontinental and duly booked it for 7.30.
We decided to walk down there – quite a long, but nonetheless interesting slog.
I took a few shots of shop fronts and the various commodities they were selling. Every twenty yards of so as we walked along the street 5 was approached by an Indian offering cloths tailoring, suits, waistcoats and on other occasions a fake Rolex watch.
Our meal was superb made all the better by a very helpful and friendly waiter.
(Monty Python: I like Chinese food. The waiters never are rude. Think of the many things they've done to impress. There's Maoism, Taoism, I Ching, and Chess.”)
Our booth, although, one back from the very front of house had a fantastic view across the harbour and we were able to see the laser light show at 8pm while eating fantastic food.
Anne started with a sushi sampler and then had grilled Pacific prawns. I had a set menu which included everything from a seafood selection to start, then a crab bisque, a superb steak and the most amazing dessert which was based on something called a dragonfuit which neither of us had ever heard of.
We left and wandered back up through the Night Market, arriving back at the hotel after midnight. In contrast to the decadence of the waterfront and to the cosy sophistication of our final evening, two examples of the brutality of Chinese culture stood out; two horrific examples of begging, which because they were so isolated and so out of character to the rest of the goings on, must have been stage-managed.
Walking along a pavement, going with the flow of people traffic, there was a minor hiatus on the sidewalk as we were swept along, which, when you got there, there was nothing else to do except follow everyone else and step over. Lying on the floor, face down was a man with no legs – his wheelchair was stashed nearby and it looked as if someone had simply tipped him out across the pavement. He lay face down, forehead resting on a pad of cloth with a box held at arms length above his head and he shook it every few seconds.
Further up the street, a youth with roughly amputated arm and leg on one side, his body effectively halved and it looked as if it had been done by machete was begging once again from the floor. While their plight is terrible, the next day, we passed the first guy again and with more time and slightly less people on the pavement, I picked out someone standing nearby, arms folded, watching the situation carefully and quite probably reaping the benefits.
Monty Python: “I like Chinese thought, The wisdom that Confucious taught. If Darwin is anything to shout about, The Chinese will survive us all without any doubt.
“I like Chinese … There's nine hundred million of them in the world today. You'd better learn to like them; that's what I say …”