Fragrant Harbour

The sound of the Western music drifted from the battered and crackly tape recorder in the early morning mist near the Star Ferry Pier in Kowloon.

“Sha la la, Sha la la in the morning, Sha la la, Sha la la in the sunshine.”

In front of me was the surreal sight of about one hundred Hong Kong elderly Chinese men and women dancing to the 1960s hit. It was a visual cultural collision that is so the epitome of Hong Kong, where ancient and modern clash at the Chinese gate to the Western World.

The elderly folk had finished the slow rhythmic movements of their Tai Chi class and maximised their body energy flow. The shadow boxing over, now they were letting it rip. No wonder they live so long I thought and so slender in comparison to the ever increasing girth of the Western obese nation.
Hong Kong, the “Fragrant Harbour”, gives a glimpse into the Chinese lifestyle without losing any Western comforts. The major sights, and where most of the population live, are in a confined space on the northern part of Hong Kong Island and across the famous bay at Kowloon on the Chinese mainland.

The best way to see both areas is on foot and to catch a Star Ferry between the two. The emblematic green ferries have been bobbing their way across Victoria Harbour and shuttling their cargo of commuters and tourists from Kowloon to Central since 1898.

In times past they used to thread their way through a mass of Chinese fishermen’s junks and sampans, now it is industrial barges and the odd gigantic crusiseliner that they need to negotiate.

Hong Kong has been a Special Administrative Region of China since July 1997 and former governor Chris Patten headed home to England, but the government in Beijing has left the former British colony largely autonomous. The resulting capitalist enclave in what is now part of China is slowly expanding into the nearby Canton district and may have a profound influence on the future of the largest Communist country.

The view of the skyscraper skyline as you traverse in a ferry is pretty special, but there is an even better one from the top of Victoria Peak where the vista can be stupendous. The funicular ride ends at a wok shaped building, which has a viewing platform.

On a clear smogless day you will be able to see all the way into China. At the night the cluster of skyscrapers way below look like toyhouses and light up the sky with their gleaming neon.

The skyscrapers cluster in Central, which is the financial district of Hong Kong Island and contains the world’s most expensive bit of real estate. It positively bustles with suits rushing about the place during the working week.

Narrow doubledecker trams sweep through the busy streets and a trip on one is recommended despite the obvious discomfort for any Westerner, even those with short legs and waiflike midrifs. Central rivals Manhattan Island to being the world’s skyscraper capital and lays claim to having some of the most innovative designs for these capitalist icons.

The exoskeletal Hong Kong Shanghai bank, the most expensive building in its day and arguably architect Norman Foster’s best work to date, is a major showcase. It adheres to the principles of feng shui that govern the balance of the natural world, but Chinese American architect I.M. Pei’s Bank of China glass prism construction certainly does not and is a visible irritant to geomancers. Unfortunately, many colonial buildings have been destroyed to make way for this new architecture and real estate development is ruled solely by the mighty Eastern dollar.

All of the major religious denominations are represented in Hong Kong. But it is the Eastern religions of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism that are the most fascinating to the Western eye. A trip out to one of the many monasteries is a rewarding experience, but can be confusing as they often represent a mixed pantheon of deities – shrines to Taoist Gods sit happily beside ones from Confucianism and Buddhism.

At Man Mo temple dedicated to the gods of war and literature, cops, crooks and presumably journo hacks all pay their deity dues. All three are all ears to hear what the other is praying for.

Astrology is big in Hong Kong and you can have your future foretold in English at the large Taoist Wai Tai Sun temple. At the PoLin monastery on Lantau Island the largest outdoor Buddha is on view, as he sits serenely waiting to attain nirvana.

Gambling is one of the local favourite pastimes and it can be on cards, mahjong (Chinese checkers), the lotto or the horses. The wealthy Hong Kong Jockey club controls all betting at its two world famous racecourses – the old and venerable Happy Valley built on a former malarial swamp on Hong Kong Island and the newer, more flashy Sha Tin racecourse in the New Territories. The Hong Kong Rugby sevens is held in March.

For those who consider that shopping is the only reliable pleasure in life, Hong Kong is heaven and duty free too. From quality electronic goods and clothing right down to dirt cheap “brand” copies and outright tack Hong Kong has it all. All of the major haute couture boutiques have branches in Central or on the “golden mile” on Nathan Road in Kowloon. Cameras and electrical goods are meant to be cheaper here than anywhere else, but there is considerable variation from store to store so shop around and make sure you get an international guarantee for your purchase.

Even though Chinese shop assistants can seem rude, bargaining hard but politely will get you a good price. For the cheapest shopping and to view local life, the street markets are a must. The best markets are the day market in Stanley or one of the nighttime markets in the densely populated Mongkok district of Kowloon (Temple Street or Ladies’ Markets). For experienced antique bargain hunters Hollywood Road is the place to go.

A visit to the bird market or the goldfish market is really only for those who want to look and not buy. Exotic fish and small colourful birds, such as canaries, are popular house pets for the local Chinese. The jade market is also worth a look but buying more expensive stones abroad is fraught with risk so buy frugally unless you know what you are doing.

Wearing jade offers special protection against harm according to Chinese wisdom. When buying jade the best quality to look for is a translucent green stone called imperial. It will be smooth and cool to touch and licking it will make your tongue go numb. If you get a cheap bargain, it will not be of this quality.

There is no shortage of nightly entertainment (if you tire of shopping) from the Suzie Wongs to Karaoke bars. Nathan Road becomes a visual feast of neon. Most of the sizeable expat bar activity is around the British and Australian bars in Wan Chai.

For an entirely different experience there is always the Chinese opera. Don’t expect to understand it as it is very confusing. It may seem like a load of old caterwalling and discordant cymbal crashing. Virtue, corruption, violence, and lust are common themes familiar to those who watch their soaps, but that doesn’t make it easy to understand. Some intricate nuances to look out for are the way the actor moves on stage and holds him or herself, the facial expressions and those “orchid” hand movements.

The painted faces, makeup and costumes tell you who is who; yellow is reserved for emperors while the baddies wear purple. But forget the words unless you are fluent as the myriad of intonations in the local languages are bewildering.

The Chinese are even more supersticious than us. For them numbers and colours have a special significance. The luckiest number is 8 (sounds like “excess”) and it can be written ad infinitum without lifting your pen from the paper. Single digit numbers are the best but the last number is most important in a series of numbers.

Two is associated with “easy”, so 28 is pretty good as it is associated with “win easy”. An auspicious date was 8.8.88, so it was on this date that the Bank of China building was opened. Lots of weddings take place in August. Four is not a lucky number as it is associated with death and fourteen is the most unlucky of all (one means “must”), so there are few houses with number 14 or no fourteenth floor in skyscrapers.

The really wealthy ensure they have pretty lucky number plates by paying huge sums of money for them at government auctions.
Red is the most important colour as it is considered auspicious. It is quite ironic that its association with danger in the west was one of the major subliminal propaganda messages during the cold war.

The red of Communist Russia and China was like a rag to a bullish west. Green stands for peace and eternity, while gold is the royal colour. White is a funereal colour and white flowers are given to the bereaved.

Chinese medicine involves the balancing of yin and yang and correcting the imbalance of ill health. Strange and exotic ingredients are displayed in the windows of the medicine shops or hidden behind small wooden drawers.

Some exotic medicines include deer antlers, the gallbladder of snakes (used to make wine), dried seahorse (good for high cholesterol), and of course the irrepressible ginseng, which boosts energy levels.

The food you eat in Hong Kong is much better than you will get from your local Chinese takeaway.

Dim Sum, translated as “to touch the heart”, is the best way to start any day. It consists of a range of dishes from shrimp dumplings, barbecue pork buns and a special vegetable porridge called congee to sweet sticky buns and egg tarts. The other local favourite wonton noodles are traditionally prawn dumplings served with egg noodles in a soup.

Cantonese food is the most common regional Chinese cuisine on offer in Hong Kong as Guangdong (Canton) Province is next door. The flash frying and steaming of this cuisine seems to suit the frenetic city. The best chefs have been lured from all over China by lucrative wages, so you wont be disappointed no matter what flavour you go for. You can stick to Western as international cuisine is also well represented in the city.

For the Chinese, tea drinking is the most important business of the day and the venerable leaf is imbibed in a myriad of forms. Literally five minutes away from the skyscraper edifices are alleyways with dilapidated ancient teahouses where you can quoff teas with flavours that will prolong your life and cure all ills from indigestion to insomnia to insecurity to impotence.

As far as etiquette is concerned you should let someone else pour for you and when they finish, rap your knuckles on the table in thanks.

Those who pine for the West can partake in a relic of colonialism and take High Tea. English tea, scones with clotted cream and crustless cucumber sandwiches are the usual fare. But doing this seems oddly out of place in the heat and Noel Coward’s noonday gun anthem “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” comes to mind.

An ancient Chinese saying sums up the perfect cuppa and throws in a bit of philosophy too. “Life is like tea. The longer it steeps the richer it becomes.” None of your weak and watery milky brews Mrs Doyle.


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