Friday, November 1, 2002

Hong Kong 2002 travelogue

Hong Kong, August 18-23, 2002

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3

Day 1: arrival and impressions of downtown

We arrived this morning after a 13-hour flight that was remarkably painless, and took one of the nicest trains ever to downtown. The train station is conveniently located right inside brand-new Chek Lap Kok International Airport. (Yes, that's right, Chek Lap Kok. "Hmmm....yep, still there.")

It is typhoon season, and today was Typhoon Level 1 alert. ("A cyclone is centered within 800km of Hong Kong.") This translates into a ferocity of rainfall not seen in the Bay Area and more like Florida. The rain abruptly starts and stops, as if someone opened a faucet and then closed it. It turned on and off several times during the day. (They get 15 inches of rain here just in August.) The typhoon alerts go up to level 10. The following is verbatim from the Guest Information brochure in our hotel room: "When typhoon signal 8 is hoisted, may we suggest you remain inside the hotel to avoid unnecessary injury from flying objects outside the hotel." Level 8 means sustained winds of 40-75mph with gusts exceeding 125mph. I assume this means buildings blow over.

And blow over they could. For height, imagine the tallest features of the skylines of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, etc., but crowded up against a mountain. (The geography and climate are a little like Hawaii.) All the apartment buildings are high-rises, but many have a per-foot area of less than 1000 square feet - basically one small apartment per floor. The city is completely vertical, including the double-decker buses and rail trams. The streets are otherwise so busy that there are networks of covered (often enclosed and air-conditioned) elevated walkways that almost completely segregate pedestrian from vehicle traffic. Las Vegas could learn a lesson from this.

[Below left: View from one of the pedestrian walkways near Central. Far below: view of the skyline from near the harbor. YOu can see the walkways are all over the place. Note the double decker buses and the fairly dramatic rise of the skyscrapers against Victoria Peak. Below right: what the covered walkways look like]


We spent the morning strolling around Central. (Map forthcoming.) We wandered through a couple of market streets; Tonia got 3 useful pieces of clothing for less than $7 total. A lot of these appear to have cut-out designer labels, suggesting that they were meant for export but never got shipped or are factory seconds. I'll have to reconsider my earlier decision to not spend any time shopping. Pants cost a dollar; you can't go wrong when things cost an order of magnitude less. (Jack, send me your pants measurements, for the cost of a pitcher of beer I'll bring back a truckload of pants and you can just throw out the ones you don't like.)

[Right: Walkways near Chater Garden, a public square] There are hundreds of Filipinas (no men!) crowded under many of the walkways. They seem to be there to socialize and play cards. The rain is presumably why they sit here and not outdoors, and as Tonia pointed out, there is no park space in Central other than the open space in which I'm standing at right. Notice also one of the few remaining Colonial style buildings in the background framed by the skyline.

[Left: view down one of the side streets near Central]

To get a sense of the markets, imagine the busiest streets of any US Chinatown, but much more so. Every part of the animal is eaten. Tonia identified liver, colon, miscellaneous guts, stomachs, tendons, and other parts hanging below the whole ducks-with-their-heads-still-on. (And that was in the restaurants. The market stalls had even more bizarre things.) There are stalls with cages of live chickens so you can look your dinner in the eye first. Between the unusual foods ("Spiced donkey meat") and the occasional English misspellings ("Pork Lion with crap-apple sauce"), it was hard to decide what to eat, but we settled on breakfast from a chain called Coral Cafe. We got a plate of oatmeal, half a tomato, a hot dog that tasted more like a cocktail wiener, and a pork sausage patty and a few green beans, all for about $2. There were some great looking hole-in-the-wall restaurants, but their menus were only in Cantonese with no pictures, and we didn't want to end up eating guts by mistake.

The triumph of laissez-faire

Hong Kong is what you get when you set up a free market economy with a credible legal system that protects property rights, populated with people with an incredible work ethic. There are shopping opportunities everywhere, from high end department stores to "crap apple sauce" and everything in between, to the point it seems like buying and selling is all people do here. We saw no beggars or loiterers - everyone was doing something. Every square foot of usable area is made productive; there are even elevated covered outdoor escalators a kilometer long that bring dwellers of the "mid-levels" (up on the hillside) down to Central in the morning and back up in the afternoon. There is no litter, anywhere, and graffiti and vandalism are very rare.

After lunch and a sit in the Luk Yu (pronounced "Look You") Tea Room & Dim Sum, we took a joyride on the tram to a neighborhood called Happy Valley (really!). The trams have double-decker designs that date from the turn of the century ("Since 1899" announces one), and they resemble a sideways cereal box on wheels. The bumpy ride is like those cheap amusement park fun houses, but it's great for sightseeing and people watching. We watched one local guy hitting on a young woman (who I'm guessing was a sex worker) probably fishing for a little Chek Lap Kok of his own. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

All in all, our first impression is very good. All the signs are bilingual English/Cantonese, it's really easy to get around, many people speak English, and it really does feel very international - even my US cell phone works here (as do Japanese and European phones - unthinkable). Also, so far, everything has been really inexpensive (except the hotel, but even that is reasonable at $125 a night for the convention rate). I just hope the Chinese don't piss in the soup and ruin everything here.

We are planning to take a trip farther into mainland China, where nobody speaks English and I suspect things are quite different than they are in HK. Also today (Monday) is supposed to be a Typhoon level 3 day. Stay tuned.

Day 2: Bird Market

Day 3: If You Wanna Know, You Gotta Go

Our plans for mainland China fell through since it takes >24 hours to obtain a visa for entry. "One country, two systems". But, we did decide to take a tour of one of the outlying islands more rural in character, and to go to a high-end Cantonese cuisine restaurant for our last dinner here.

Lamma Island:

This island is only a 30 minute ferry ride around the back (south) side of Hong Kong island. The harbor is amazingly crowded, mostly with ferries and container ships. The latter are interesting because they have their own onboard cranes - a bunch of them sidle up to a big container oceanliner and pick containers off.  Presumably there's a lot of small container ports around HK,

[Left: harbor view from ferry enroute to Lamma Island. The dinner restaurant we ate at (end of narrative) is in the Hyatt Hotel, one of the buildings to the left of the Philips sign.

Below: fishing village harbor entrance to Lamma Island.]

Lamma is boggy and rural, with virtually no cars on the island (it's a few tens of square miles) but paved walking paths all around it.  Some people use golf carts, or mostly bikes.  (In fact it's a lot like Catalina Island is to LA.)  The two villages at which ferries dock are also fishing centers, and there were a lot of merchants skinning and otherwise dressing dead fish, many in buckets in the hot sun. We decided to take the walking trail to two different beaches (about 2 miles, but very hilly), and on the way we happened to see a cobra. Right in the middle of the path, too, so that we had to stop. This was a small cobra, either very young or a different variety, and at first I thought it was just a garden snake that had learned the trick of rearing up its head like you always see cobras doing in nature shows. But one of the locals standing by assured us that it was indeed a cobra, and then proceeded to beat the daylights out of it with a stick, finally tossing the dead snake to a cat. (Doesn't anybody here have any dignity in what they eat?)

[Below: paved walking paths around the island; view from one of the overlooks.]

We did make it to Lo So Shing beach (the trail is very well signed, in Cantonese and English) and bathed in the South China Sea. (Now we've bathed at both shores of the Pacific and at a point about halfway in between!) The water was refreshing, but milky (not clear like the Caribbean), and the seafloor included a lot of very sharp and barnacle-encrusted rocks that you can't see through the milky water, so that if you were bathing here during high surf, you would be cut to ribbons.

[Right: Both beaches had a "shark prevention net" about 100 yards out from shore, and signs urged bathers to stay within the net. According to a local lifeguard, though, the day we were there was very low shark danger. My concern was really more about biological pollution than sharks, but so far we have been OK. (There are warnings not to eat locally caught shellfish due to risk of getting Hepatitis A.) Shark boom barely visible around the beach, which is the rightmost of the two inlets.]

Walking back from the beach to the other ferry pier, we saw a spider that probably could have eaten the cobra - it was the size of an average hand fully outstretched, and Tonia says larger in diameter than a tarantula. My guess is it'll end up in an omelet somewhere.


To understand dinner, first imagine a walk through New York's or SF's Chinatown. Animal parts of all kinds are simmering in big vats. (See our earlier email.) Salads are prepared by depositing chopped viscera on top of wilty lettuce. Now imagine a street packed with stalls like this to black-hole density, with poor ventilation. Finally, imagine all this in near-100-degree humidity and hot weather. The result is a fetid miasma that is novel for the first few minutes but quickly becomes disgusting.

I say this because a lot of the food we ordered at a very high end restaurant sadly had this same aspect. We went to an elegant, highly-recommended Cantonese high cuisine restaurant. In retrospect the menu makes sense: there is no way to disguise that something is, e.g., a fish head, so instead you make a feature out of that fact and display the head proudly. Dishes on our menu included: marinated goose intestines; marinated goose liver and kidney; double-boiled fish maw soup; crispy-fried goose webs (as in webbed feet); and a whole menu section on "shark fin" (in soup, braised, etc.) We settled for the most innocuous-sounding items: mixed steamed vegetables with bamboo pith (which unfortunately has the same texture as stomach), and barbecue combination (after being assured it was barbecued meats we were getting, not organs). The barbecue was OK but smelled like it had been cooked in the street-stall environment described above. The goose was like dark chicken meat, but I don't understand why they don't serve the breast meat, which I thought was the best part. I think we got something between the wings.

To be adventurous I also ordered warm Chinese rice wine, which actually wasn't bad by itself. (The waiter warned me against it, evidently noticing our ambivalent reaction to the food. "It is for...a different taste," he had said, but I insisted on trying.) The wine came with a little plate of shriveled up plums, which turned out to be pickled and sugar-glazed, maybe not in that order. I thought you were supposed to eat them separately, and it turned out to be the worst mouthful of food I've ever had, even worse than when I ate a whole habanero pepper in Cancun several years ago. It was too salty, too sweet, and too bitter all at once. The waiter then suggested what I should do was submerge them (the plums, not habanero peppers) in the wine, which didn't improve their flavor any but did ruin the otherwise interesting taste of the wine. Both plums ended up under the table, which fortunately had a floor-length tablecloth.

We were certainly calorie negative for dinner. Tonia didn't make it past the first bite of barbecue, except for a few forkfuls of fried rice. Most of my own calories were from the endless glasses of Scotch I kept ordering to disinfect my mouth between foods. And this is high cuisine - well dressed people here were paying big bucks for fish heads. We concluded that Cantonese food is just not tasty in any form, and thought strongly about sending a "wish you were here" postcard to Chef Chu's restaurant (Hunan/Szechuan with a California twist, 650-948-2696) in Mountain View, which I thought had set the standard for good Chinese.

It's just as well that it was our last dinner here, since today we were in no mood to eat anything non-Western. I still feel a little unclean from the experience and will probably eat at McDonald's at the airport.