Room 1529, Harbor Rennaisance Hotel, Wanchai, Hong Kong, China
Today probably could have started out better.
Despite all our big talk last night about how we'd be out and about at the crack of dawn this morning, both Tony and I overslept. It was a call from David at 9 a.m. that finally roused us, but that call only had Tony, Anne, Jennifer and myself dressed and nervously fidgeting alongside David in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt less than 15 minutes later.
We were all immensely grateful to be in shorts and sneakers again, though it took some work to getting used to seeing eachother in anything but business or aloha attire. My legs, it was gleefully pointed out, where whiter than anyone's, including the hopelessly haole members of our almost-six-person expedition.
The reason we were in the lobby of a hotel and not on our way somewhere exotic was because Lacene, the missing trooper, had suddenly been called upon by our collective boss to make hotel reservations for him and his wife in Japan. For his vacation.
This despite the fact that everyone's vacation, some longer than others, supposedly began the moment the buses from the racetrack were emptied last night.
After standing about for an hour, it became clear Lacene's last-minute overtime assignment would take longer than anticipated, so Tony, Jennifer, Anne and I decided to head out on foot into the surrounding streets of Wanchai.
The air was humid and thick with the smell of exhaust, meat, seafood and sweat. The city was speeding along, as it no doubt does every day, the streets overflowing with people, from visiting conventioneers in suits and ties to half-naked old beggars lying prone on the sidewalk, clutching plates full of coins.
Dramatic, messy accidents seemed to be narrowly averted at every corner. The traffic flow was reversed, of course, but also we noted that vehicles don't slow one bit for turns and that they, not pedestrians, have the right of way. Not only that, but larger four-way intersections were eight-way mazes for people on foot, who cross streets in two stages, temporarily held in narrow median coralls. Anyone who tried to run all the way across like one can anywhere in the U.S. was frequently greeted with the front of a double-decker bus.
Above us towered all manner of building, and we marveled at how modern monuments of steel and glass sat side by side with grimy old apartment complexes seemingly on the verge of collapse. We also got to see Hong Kong's acrobatic construction tradespeople in action, scrambling up and down lattices of mere bamboo and twine hundreds of feet in the air.
We realized we were hungry, and started a search for a bite to eat. As much character as the open-air sidewalk vendors had, with their fried squid sticks and various other culinary delights, we decided to grab a snack at someplace more conventional. A Hardees restaurant I had spotted earlier turned out to be our pick. But while we held back trying to figure out which of many lavish breakfast meals to partake in, the menus suddenly switched for lunch, and we were left to choose only from a limited variety of frightening burgers. We decided to rough it, figuring we'd be on the road soon.
We weren't. We made our way back to the hotel only to find David still sitting on the steps in the lobby. After loitering again for more than an hour, we decided to go up to Lacene's room to wait instead. There we lost another hour while she played phone tag with travel agents and did a considerable amount of hysterical venting. I just looked out the window at the furthest point on the horizon and pretended I was already having a good time.
Eventually things were sorted out and our day's itinerary was discussed for the first time. It was then we discovered there was one notable discrepancy. Tony, Anne, David and I wanted to head south, having identified Aberdeen, Repulse Bay and Stanley Market on the map during our residency in the lobby. Lacene, on the other hand, wanted to head north to Kowloon, and Jennifer decided she'd join her.
So after determining that the westbound four who had been ready to go four hours prior didn't need to wait for Lacene in the first place, we hustled downstairs and jumped into a cab. It was 1 p.m., and we were shaking our heads. Half a day gone, just like that.
First stop, Aberdeen, a little city along the river known for mid- to up-scale shops. The drive there took us through the dizzyingly long Aberdeen Tunnel, the entrances to which featured huge electronic signs that read, "Speed Kills!" Below that were odometer-like displays reporting total fatalities last year at 16,416, and 6,262 this year so far.
It's effectiveness in reforming residents was unclear, but I was rather baffled by the impression it must leave visitors.
We arrived just before 2 p.m. and dashed into a quaint corner curry house for lunch. We were reduced to the "stupid westerner" method of ordering pointing at pictures and holding out fistfuls of coins from which the cashier had to pick the right amount.
Then we wandered the streets. It was like Wanchai but cleaner. Shopping plazas were everywhere, long winding halls with shops packed into every corner. Only Tony, cursed with a badly fitting pair of shoes, had something particular in mind to buy. The rest of us just window shopped, stopping in everything from gizmo shops to the Hong Kong equivalent of ABC Stores.
David was tripped out by the grocery stores, particularly those selling meat. Tables were set out on the sidewalk, heaps of raw beef, pork, chicken and who knows what else sitting out in the sun. Shoppers crowd around, fingering everything, smelling everything, usually just putting things back down and strolling to the next market. Having grown up with carefully labeled, cellophane-wrapped meat on neat trays of styrofoam, it was a horrifying sight.
What turned out to be the all-round favorite, however, were the small, signless music and video stores tucked here and there into dim, narrow spaces on side streets. Of course there were Madonna and Britney Spears albums alongside those of Chinese and Japanese pop stars, as well as the requisite rack of pornographic VCDs (precursors to DVDs, and the standard in Asia).
But right next to the Backstreet Boys was "Shakespeare in Love." Right beneath the disc with the bound-and-gagged blonde woman was a pair labeled "Pushing Tin." And in more than one place, the familar gray face of Keanu Reeves peered out over "The Matrix." Over there? "Entrapment."
Indeed, nearly every movie just out in theaters in the U.S. was up there on the wall. The only title I didn't see was "The Phantom Menace," and there was no doubt in my mind it would be on the streets in less than a week.
After stocking up, we headed across a narrow bridge to look over the piers on the river. A little old woman immediately latched onto us, pulling a picture of a sampan a little red wooden boat and shouting, "ride boat! ride boat!"
We waved no and scurried down to the docks, but the woman kept on our heels. She'd actually put a neat idea in our heads, but she didn't exactly strike us as the charismatic guide we'd want at the helm.
Unfortunately, with her shouting and circling, there was no chance we'd get to check out any of the other sampans. We gave in, forked over HK$20 each and she helped us each in turn leap onto the bobbing bow of a damp, creaking sampan.
She started the motor, we pulled out... and quickly pulled a U-turn and ended up bow-to-bow with yet another sampan. We were just being shuttled to our guide's personal boat, which was essentially identical except for the boxes of straw hats and silk shirts stacked on the deck. "We can't forget the merchandizing," David quipped.
We now had to hop from one rocking sampan to another, but the murky green water below was a good balance motivator.
Finally we were off, first navigating through a maze of other boats but eventially tooling down the river. There were boats carrying vast racks of drying squid, others carrying nasty looking nets that probably weren't approved by Greenpeace, and more than a few that seemed all but abandoned. The tops of sunken sampans and old yachts were also common sights.
Eventually we reached what turned out to be the crown gem of the tour: the famed Jumbo floating seafood restaurant. A favorite postcard image and quite a sight at night, but reportedly the last place you would actually want to eat if you value your gastrointestinal health.
Our guide pointed out what she could in very broken English, piping up every few minutes with, "Pardon me, pardon me. See there?" Her tone of voice was what threw us off I expected her to say something like, "boat sinking!"
On the return trip, she slipped in and out of a huge collection of houseboats. Really large, but still really rickety, floating residences. It was strange to pass these vessels, seemingly straight out of the 1890s, and see shiny washing machines out back and huge television antennae perched on top.
We also looked across the river at the impossibly dense residential buildings. Some almost defied gravity, as if someone could only afford a lot the size of a parking space but insisted on housing twenty families.
Eventually the tour was over, but the little old lady first stopped thirty feet from the pier and launched the official pitch. She pulled covers off even more boxes filled with even more junk. Silk gowns, pointy "Chinaman" hats, T-shirts, a random assortment of keychains. She held one item after another up for our inspection, chirping, "Cheap cheap!"
It took quite a few emphatic no-thank-yous before we were finally motored back to shore and allowed to disembark.
Next stop? Repulse Bay.
The road to get there followed the shoreline off and on. When it was on, it rivaled though never did surpass the Hana Highway. Fortunately I had long ago resolved to always ride in the front seat of cabs (the front left seat, mind you), so motion sickness wasn't a problem.
We turned off the highway and down a nondescript little street, which turned out to be the main access road for the bay. No water in sight, but waiting for us on the sidewalk were booths filled with crap playing cards and plastic pens with naked women, cheap jewelry, and wooden sculptures of people having sex. Not a good sign.
A beach was the last thing I expected to find in Hong Kong, to say the least. The wide swath of sand and the neatly placed palm trees were obviously hauled in from somewhere else, and seemed painfully out of place. And as much as the few people there seemed to enjoy the sight, I noticed not a soul was actually anywhere near the water.
We'd all seen sand before, so we headed to the far end of the beach. There we found a large Chinese temple of some flavor. It was rather impressive, flanked on both sides by dozens of small shrines packed with burning incense, but its majesty was somewhat tarnished by the presense of souvenir stands and Salem umbrellas.
Save for the cheap trinket stands and the fast food restaurants, there seemed to be little else to see at this bay, inexplicably blessed with a big dot and bold lettering on our map. Unimpressed, we headed back to the street.
Not a single cab came by. The very definition of a tourist trap.
We ended up hiking to the main highway to flag one down. It was off to Stanley Market.
Stanley Market also had a big dot on our map, and in fact, on most tourist maps we'd seen. Supposedly a mecca for souvenir shopping. Charlie, who'd been to Hong Kong six years prior, remembered it as a grungy, muddy bog filled with great bargains.
The good news was, since then, the whole thing had been cleaned up and paved over. The bad news was, bargains were nowhere to be seen.
Sure there was lots to buy, and at prices comparable to what we'd seen elsewhere, but Stanley Market was no more remarkable than the International Marketplace in Waikiki. Very similar in fact, just a whole lot bigger. Handbags, shirts, shoes, toys and trinkets, like the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet but without the heat.
I wasn't going to leave the place empty handed, of course. I bought an embroidered Hong Kong T-shirt and had one of the carvers make me a Chinese calligraphic stamp those small red squares used to sign scrolls and paintings curiously interpreting the Japanese name 'Ozawa' in Chinese lettering.
(David had to ask a passing Japanese tourist for help. Shoulda seen the look on the guy's face, watching a six-foot-tall haole guy translating for little ol' me.)
Oddly enough, the most remarkable thing I saw this afternoon was the bathroom. Stanley Market was the first place I'd come across those infamous squatting toilets. Fortunately I didn't need to squat, and although Anne did, she saw it as a learning experience.
Before leaving, we walked along the waterfront. The area was definitely the focus of even more development, looking as if the existing market area was going to be doubled. There was concrete everywhere, carefully softened with art-deco bricks and paint. There were immaculate tennis and basketball courts, locked up tight, pink and yellow beach houses, never used and empty.
In a strange way, I wished the place was still a mud pit.
We were all whipped, and although it was only 4 p.m., we caught a cab and headed back north to Wanchai. Back along the winding cliff roads, back through the Aberdeen Tunnel with its death-toll sign (I didn't think to check if the number had increased since we came down), back to our hotel to rest.
Tony and I just kicked back, watching MTV from Singapore. The commercials were surreal. There was "Durex, the international name for quality condoms." And there were Carefree maxi-pad ads, in which the girls whipped the things out of the package, fondled them and presumably chirped about the comfort. Only one out of five music videos was by an Asian artist otherwise it was all Ricky Martin, Backstreet Boys, Sugar Ray.
As night fell, we called around to see who was up for more. David was out, but Jennifer was back from her adventure in Kowloon and catching her second wind.
We went downstairs and asked the concierge for a good place to eat. He suggested a place called "East Ocean," two blocks away.
The food was good, and it was gone fast. We just relaxed and shot the breeze. Eventually we decided there was only one last thing we wanted to see: Victoria Peak, or simply The Peak.
I'm not sure what I was expecting. I'd heard about the spectacular view, and seen the mountain from every angle, and I guess having grown up with the Pali, I was thinking The Peak was somehow similar. Windy, cold, barren save for a lookout platform and maybe a few coin-operated binoculars.
The first sign that we were dealing something completely different was the fact that the tram station was less than a mile away from the Convention Center. I was expecting a drive somewhere out into the boonies, when in fact it was almost comical that we had taken a cab to get there.
And as we waited for the next tram, we took in the flashy displays all around us. It was like a minature Disneyland. Turns out there was a "Ripley's Believe it or Not" museum up there, a fancy space motion simulator, some kind of 3-D dragon hologram show. And on countless TV monitors, an eight-minute promotional drama played it involved a boy named Timmy, his dreams of adventure, and a genie ("Help us, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're our only hope!") that grants them... not surprisingly by taking him to The Peak.
Finally the tram came down. We piled in. And it headed up.
Boy, did it head up. In no time, we were being pulled up a 45-degree incline. Perhaps even steeper. Out the window we watched as busy, neon-lit streets gave way to narrow, tree-lined roads. Strangely enough, the tram stoped a couple of times to pick up more people, apparently boarding at mid-altitude stations like any other commuter. It was surreal, the tram stopping and starting again on such a steep incline.
Finally we were at the top. We were seconds away from the famous view, but first we had to navigate through a shopping center.
A shopping center! Here I was attaching all this mysticism to the famed Victoria Peak, and in fact there was a small city perched at the top. And in addition to the shopping center attached to the tram station, there was a second shopping center, home to a handful of rocking nightclubs.
Distinctly disheartened, we climbed the steps to the observation deck.
I wish I could name all the buildings I marveled at tonight. The Bank of China Building (triangles courtesy architect I.M. Pei), Central Plaza (the one that changes colors), Sung Hung Kai Center (what we call "The Light Saber"), Exchange Square...
From The Peak, you could almost see how eight million people could live in such a small area. Except that the famous lights below was mostly commercial, most people actually living on the southwest coast or far north in the New Territories.
As it turned out, most of the stores and shops were closing just as we arrived, so after taking in the spectacular sight one more time, we called it a night.
A busy day indeed. And trust me, though I'm acting all cool, bummed that... well, that Hong Kong is frankly more clean and polished than I expected it to be, I'm still floored. I love this city. A true city.
Tomorrow I'm really excited about. The local students called tonight and having learned that we just went and saw everything they planned to show us are throwing a new itenerary together that doesn't include those must-see sights.
And that's just fine with me.