I had specially taken the window seat on Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong in late January 2005. All through the turbulent flight I was excited about the landing in Hong Kong’s iconic Kai Tak airport that was situated bang in the middle of the Kowloon Bay area. I had seen a 1990s video commercial of Cathay Pacific where the airplane negotiates skyscrapers almost kissing them before landing on the world’s most dangerous commercial airport of that time.
But to my utter dismay our flight landed on an airstrip in pitch darkness. I kept thinking there was some mistake but the flight had landed and the commander’s voice on public address system declared in no uncertain terms we were at Hong Kong International Airport at Lantau, the largest island in Hong Kong. I kept wondering where were those high rises? Did they vanish? Or was there a blackout in the glowing island?
I was part of a group of journalists who were invited by the Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB). It was 10 pm when we came out and as our cab moved away from the airport complex it passed through a pitch-dark area. This was not the image I had in my mind. My guide told me, that the Kai Tak airport of my dream was shut down seven years ago in 1998. I was crestfallen. My wish to experience such a hair-raising landing would forever remain just a wish.
However, after half an hour of driving in the dark, our cab entered the port area. Passing through the sea of light, lighting up the world’s busiest container port (at that time), I was dazzled by the scale and number of ships docked in the yard. From then on the fabled Hong Kong City started unfolding one frame at a time.
The city is located at the end of a hilly peninsula that merges with sea. As such it offers Hong Kong hills, rivulets, small patch of flat lands, islands and of course, sea.
The image of Hong Kong that appears in the mind of people anywhere in the world is primarily the handiwork of lifestyle, as it unfolds, in Hong Kong Island and Kowloon district opposite to it. Over the years as the population grew Hong Kong spread across the Kowloon peninsula in what is now called the new territory and adjoining Lantau Island.
As we arrived at a time which was very close to the Chinese New Year, the local shops, markets and temples were decked up in red and gold coloured Chinese lanterns. Our guide, an officer with the HKTB, designed our tour in a way where we could experience the life of an ordinary Hong Konger. For the next three days we would crisscross between the Hong Kong, Kowloon and Lantau depending on how much time we took at one site.
We began our tour, the next day, from Man Mo and Fung Yin Seen temples. Inside Hong Kong’s oldest temple, Man Mo, I could sea a Buddha statue and rectangular concrete tub filled with sand where people would put their incense stick. I had never seen such huge incense sticks in my life. They were about a foot long with red coloured incense material wrapped around them. The smoke emanating from them didn’t have the kind of strong fragrance that we Indians are used to.
Actually I didn’t feel any fragrance at all yet the guide insisted it had fragrance. My personal favourite was Fung Yin Seen temple with its bright red-orange coloured gates and beautiful paintings.
After the temple circuit we headed straight to Victoria Peak or The Peak, the highest point in Hong Kong for a breathtaking view of the city spread below. Looking down on a cluster of skyscrapers, packed like sardines, from the commanding heights is an experience you will cherish for the rest of your life. No other city in the world can match Hong Kong’s skyscraper density, not even Manhattan, New York. There is a legendary red coloured tram and enthusiasts who have time can explore its rich history.
From the heights of Victoria Peak we dived straight into the skyscraper District of Hong Kong Island for a tet-e-tet with a Feng Shui expert. She explained Hong Kong’s perfect location as per Feng Shui principles where it had hills to offer backrest and vast sea to spread its interest far and wide. She told us it was Feng Shui that resulted in city’s phenomenal growth.
The rest of the day was spent on walking around International Commerce Centre (the tallest building in Hong Kong), Two International Finance Centres, Central Plaza, Bank of China Towers and HSBC Tower. Strolling around Hong Kong’s financial power centres was an experience in itself. The visible wealth, high levels of energy, cutting edge technology and latest infrastructure made me feel as if the place was Manhattan on steroids.
By evening our guide had brought us at Victoria Harbour to witness one of the most spectacular evening events called symphony of lights. As the night falls all the high rises in Hong Kong Island and Kowloon act as screen where a dazzling light and sound show is performed. We were told that on the Chinese New Year Day there is a special pyrotechnic show for which the Chinese are known worldwide.
With our first day spent well, we were ready for more. The next day when our guide arrived he asked me to accompany him to a restaurant close to our hotel. It was an unassuming little place where he ordered tea and bread toast for me. When the tea arrived I was pleasantly surprised that it was the same milk and sugar tea we have in India. The guide smiled at me and said, “Yesterday while you bravely had our Chinese tea, I could sense you were missing your own concoction. So I thought let me spare you the torture at least in the morning.” I couldn’t have asked for more. I was dying for a good cup of desi tea. The first sip and I was in for another surprise. I had never had such perfect milk and sugar tea ever. For the next three days this became my favourite morning jaunt.
After breakfast we left for Lantau Island via ferry. Lantau Island is relatively laidback as compared to Hong Kong and Kowloon and the New Territory but has a lot to offer including dolphin watching and excursions in the wild. The place is known for giant Buddha Statue, Po Lin Monastery, Ngong Ping Piazza and Tai O fishing village. Among all the three I was most fascinated by the Tai O fishing village. It’s one of the last reminders of Hong Kong’s signature water villages, during most parts of the 20th century, built on stilts and made famous by James Clavell’s novel The Noble House. They have steadily declined in the face of advancing modernity.
On our way back, the guide took us back to the Victoria Peak for a view of the city skyline in the evening. It was equally beautiful if not more than what we saw in the morning the previous day.
From Victoria peak we descended to SoHo and Lan Kwai Fong two of the most important nightlife hot spots on the Hong Kong side. Lined with restaurants, bars, nightclubs, they were buzzing with life sans hooligans.
While evenings as a rule should be reserved for merry making there was another aspect of Hong Kong that we needed to discover. It was a market that comes up after the regular market shops close down. Temple Street Market is one such “fly-by-night’ market. I saw pleasantly surprised to see people haggling, shopkeepers talking to each other, laughing and realized most of the people in most of the places are almost the same.
Our third morning started with a Tai Chi class at the Tsim Sha Sui Promenade, an important landmark on the harbour that offers a vast open space and many museums close-by.
Tai Chi lessons were followed by a visit to Hong Kong’s Disney Land and Ocean Park. For those Asians who can’t visit the US, Hong Kong Disney Land offers a chance to experience the original one. Among all the attractions the rollercoaster built on the edge of a cliff actually offers a cliff hanging experience. That’s something even the original Disney doesn’t offer.
While on our return our guide took us to Stanley Market in Hong Kong Island. This part of the city resembles like a complete English corner. From here we were taken to Repulse Bay, one of the most upmarket residential areas in Hong Kong and finally we ended up at Knutsford Terrace, the nightlife hub in Kowloon. Three days passed by in a jiffy. I realized though Hong Kong may have been a British outpost once but when I visited it looked like a global city with distinct Chinese imprint of gold, jade green and red. People spoke English with equal ease as they spoke Cantonese (A variation of Mandarin). They were cosmopolitan yet retained fierce pride in their Chinese roots.
As I headed back to the airport, I knew I couldn’t do, visit and experience many things that Hong Kong offers. I missed scaling many buildings that offered panoramic view of the city for free. I couldn’t visit the Hong Kong Derby, museums and many other temples. I missed tasting cuisines prepared in fine restaurants but drew solace that there is always a next time.
But that proverbial next time has eluded me for the last fifteen years. As unsettling news from Hong Kong pour in I am reminded of the bespectacled and passionate Feng Shui expert who told me that the principles of the ancient system have ensured Hong Kong will grow and prosper till eternity. My skeptical mind wanted to tell her, nothing in human life and their creation lasts till eternity but didn’t have the heart to puncture her child like enthusiasm. Even today I sincerely hope her belief trumps my realism.
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