We took our seats in the large, cavernous restaurant, packed with locals enjoying their evening meal. We were the only Europeans in the room, and as luck would have it, we were the first to be seated in a new section of the restaurant. So for the majority of our meal, until some other diners arrived which seemed to take several hours, we had the sole attention of our very own team of dedicated servers. This meant that the waiters and waitresses lined up opposite us, and watched our every move, refilling our glasses as we sipped, and scrutinising our chopstick techniques. Or so it felt. For two relatively shy people who had been hoping for anonymity, this was way more attention than we wanted.
We were both reasonably adept with chopsticks. But the vegetables we had ordered were coated with a slippery oyster sauce, and the chopsticks were those smooth, plastic ones you buy in bulk, and which seem to be designed to torture those of us who haven’t been using chopsticks since the year dot. The vegetables – similar to baby bok choy – were too big to eat whole, although we certainly contemplated it. They were chewy, not crisp, and so we couldn’t simply pick them up and bite a bit off, then calmly and delicately place the rest of the vegetable back on our plate. The lack of grip from the chopsticks (and perhaps our lack of skill) meant we couldn’t attempt to tear it apart with our teeth without it shooting across the room and sploshing in the shark’s fin soup of a Chinese grandmother. The etiquette of how to eat these vegetables elegantly escaped us, and so we resorted to holding them to our mouths and munching through them, trying not to drop them, embarrassed and all the while trying not to giggle, under the watchful eye of our waiters and waitresses. I remember nothing else about the rest of the meal.
The variety of food available in Xiang Gang – or as it is known in the west, Hong Kong – is enormous, and no matter what time of day it is, restaurants and cafes are packed with people, wolfing down a quick snack, or relaxing with friends and family. Whatever, eating there seems to require talking loudly and at the same time as your fellow diners, and lots of gesticulating with chopsticks. We tried the local Chinese cuisine and, as we were at the time living in Bangkok, we relished the availability of more western fare as well. Our favourite meal was probably fish and chips in an English-style pub in Stanley on the sea front. In our defense, after almost a year in Bangkok, the comfort of a more familiar environment and menu was most welcome.
Going for a holiday from one crowded Asian city to another crowded Asian city was not particularly relaxing. Surprisingly, I think we suffered a degree of culture shock. We had always understood that Hong Kong was a British colony. So we had expected a heavier British influence, along the lines of Singapore or Malaysia, where the population is diverse and frequently united by English. In 1990, we found Xiang Gang to have only a very thin veneer of British government and society (fish and chips and double-decker buses) over a completely Chinese city. English was rarely spoken, and we felt like aliens in a strange landscape, unlike Bangkok where we had a home and familiarity with the language and people.
Coming from sparsely-populated New Zealand, and even from relatively polite and friendly Bangkok, Xiang Gang was a bit of a shock. The streets were full of busy people, on their way somewhere, and you’d better not get in their way. But it’s nothing personal. The people there are more aggressive because it’s a matter of survival. There is not a lot of personal space. Still, it would be nice if they made an attempt to improve their customer service, especially at the new airport baggage check facility (but that’s another story).
But the foreignness of Xiang Gang is wonderfully contrasted with the familiarity of Hong Kong from books, movies, photographs. This juxtaposition is part of the excitement of being there. Last year, I passed through Hong Kong for a few hours, and got the same thrill coming to the harbour’s edge, seeing that famous skyline, as I did on my first visit 16 years earlier.
The Hong Kong Island skyline, and Victoria Harbour, are best seen from the Star Ferry. The Ferry has plied its trade for 110 years. The fare is low (only about NZ$0.50c), the seating basic planks, the wood smoothed and polished by millions of bottoms – 26 million every year, according to Wikipedia. On a hot day the wind cools through the open windows, you can hear the waves of the fragrant harbour (which is the translation of Xiang Gang) slapping the side of the ferry, and through the window you can marvel at one of the great cities of the world.
Not quite so impressive, but more oriental and evocative of the history of Hong Kong, is Aberdeen harbour, packed with junks. Here is where you can imagine the great sailing ships of the opium trade, the wheeling and dealing conducted between the famous European Houses that traded with China, where fortunes were made and lost. It is where you still see local Chinese living their daily lives, based in and on the sea. But you can’t forget the 20th or 21st century, with high-rise apartment blocks towering over the harbour and the junks.
That’s what I loved about Hong Kong. It is not just a bustling, crowded, high-rise city. Take the tram to The Peak, climbing 373 metres at a 45 degree angle, passing all the high-rise apartments where people are packed in, cheek by jowl, living their lives side by side in close proximity. But once on The Peak you can take walks through a green reserve, picnic outside surrounded by nature, with the hum of the city below, and the spectacular views of the harbour spreading out around you. Or a simple bus ride to Stanley on the other side of Hong Kong Island brings you to a resort-like village, nestled in a sheltered bay, with that English pub or other bars and cafes to relax in by the sea, and a casual but interesting market. The bustle and hype of Hong Kong seems a world away.
Tsim Sha Ttsui, situated on the cape of Kowloon where the Star Ferry crosses from Wan Chai District on Hong Kong Island, is on the other hand what we all think of when we imagine Hong Kong. A shopping mecca, packed with people, hawkers, shops and malls catering to every budget, and food available everywhere and every time of day. Even if you’re not into purchasing yet more stuff, Kowloon is still worth exploring, soaking in the atmosphere, revelling in the buzz, looking at the architecture.
Always though, in Hong Kong as in Sydney and Wellington, I am drawn back to the harbour.
I dream of staying at the famous, grand old Peninsula Hotel, on the edge of the harbour with a view to die for. (Well, the fees for a room could easily give you a heart attack). Now though, there is a walkway in front of the Peninsula, running from the Star Ferry and winding along the edge of the harbour, called the Avenue of Stars, recognising the city’s film industry and its stars.
On a Saturday in October last year, it was full of people enjoying the pleasant autumn temperatures. People searched for the stars of their favourites – I knew only Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li and John Woo – or posed in front of the Bruce Lee statue. Tourists strolled, drinking in the view and feel of Hong Kong. Wedding parties posed, as did new graduates surrounded by their proud, photograph clicking families, or in a giggling group of friends.
Occasionally you’d see men waiting, their wives apparently off shopping. This is Hong Kong, after all.
Then I turned and headed back to the Star Ferry and the convenient train link back to the new airport out at Chep Lap Kok, surrounded by lush green hills. When I first flew into Xiang Gang, it was that stunning flight through the skyscrapers landing on a patch of an airport in Kowloon, surrounded by apartments and office blocks. Even though that daredevil arrival is no longer possible, Hong Kong has not lost its magic for me.