From the Peak Tower, the skyscrapers along Victoria Harbour fringe the coast like burrs stuck on the hem of a long skirt. While the greatest concentration of people live along the coast, the steep slopes also hold their fair share of homes. SoHo, the foodie neighborhood, has the longest outdoor escalator in the world. From 6am it takes passengers down into the heart of the city and changes direction at 10am to carry people back uphill to the Mid-Levels neighborhood.
My second night in Hong Kong I met a Couchsurfer for dinner at a dai pai dong- a street stall in a wide alley. When we arrived the low plastic tables were full and the stainless steel kitchen cart was overwhelmed with equipment and cooks rushing around each other.
We shared a circular table with a family of three; as I ate the little boy to my right practiced using scissors on his crab legs. His grasp was strong enough to cut through the exoskeleton, but not enough to prevent the small, hairy legs from shooting into my lap.
In Orlando, Florida you know when you are within a half hour of Disneyworld. The Mickey Mouse billboards proliferate and traffic signs along the road give you the frequency for Radio Disney. In Hong Kong, the only indication that a magical kingdom exists somewhere in the rolling hills of dry yellow bush is an exit sign on the North Lantau Highway.
The more interesting draw to Lantau Island is the Po Lin Monastery. Unlike Disneyland, the famous Giant Buddha feels like it belongs atop Mount Muk Yue, as if it were a natural extension of the landscape. The enormous bronze sculpture is an amalgamation of 202 individually cast pieces and inside the base is a memorial room where devotees can buy a plaque in honor of their loved ones. Like Disneyland, they can also buy an ice cream on the way out.
At the base of the mountain is the Po Lin Monastery and that in turn was fronted by large incense urns. When people finished praying they lit their incense and placed it in the large sand-filled urns. While new sticks were sown, women in straw hats gleaned the debris. Considering the volume of visitors, it was a never-ending task.
For such a dense city, the traffic moved relatively quickly. The slowest, but the most enjoyable form of transportation were the trams that traveled along Victoria Harbour.
The narrow tracks ran down the middle of the street and at times the trams felt like they almost brushed against each other as they headed in opposite directions. Two spiral staircases led to a second level, which was the best place for a panoramic view of the street. The windows were open and covered in signs reminding people not to stick their arms outside.
Although the trams were covered in shiny new ads for luxury clothing, they had a surprisingly antique feel. Maybe it’s because I’m not used to being able to open the windows on public transport. Like paying for candy with pennies, my parents were the generation that agonized over how much to crack the windows. Nowadays I feel like a spring breeze is something I only experience in between weather-sealed buses and offices.
Another thing that struck me as surprisingly old-fashioned was the scaffolding. Who knew that a city of skyscrapers could be built with the help of bamboo? Every single construction site I saw had thousands upon thousands of bamboo poles tied together in a grid pattern that completely encased the building. Depending on how tall the scaffolding was, periodic sections rose off the wall at diagonal angles. These portions banded the building and made the construction site look a fortress.
My hostel, Yes Inn, was on the 15th floor of the Continental Mansion. The word mansion has absolutely nothing to do with quality, but rather with quantity. By that I mean anything with the name ‘mansion’ will have a lot of businesses and tenants.
The entrance to Yes Inn looked like the back door of a grocery store, the place where merchandise is received. Inside, the hostel continued to look more commercial than residential. The low ceiling was identical to the suspended tiles you find in offices and a water cooler sat across from the white check-in counter.
Because of the construction the toilets weren’t working. During my stay I began noticing that many of the skyscrapers were constructed with unusual angles and creases, probably meant for air flow. The Continental Mansion was no exception. The crevasse between the bathroom window and the facing wall was filled with pipes and electrical wires and a metal cage. It might have let in some small amount of fresh air, but in reality it was the kind of view that made you think of depressing futuristic films like Brazil.
On the other hand, there were also a lot of parks and gardens throughout the city. Across the bay in Kowloon I went for an evening stroll through the Flower Market before ending up at the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden. The stalls were closed for the day, but small wooden cages were still dangling from the trees, some covered in white cloths.
Except for a few groups of loitering guys, the gardens were empty. I don’t know what it is about the sounds of softly chirping birds, but it really tends to attract men. Maybe the same could be said about cities and women. I once read a book where the main character was drawn to cities because she believed they were beacons of progress and civil liberties.
Unfortunately, my reason for visiting Hong Kong was not quite so enlightened. I just wanted to experience the lights, the noise, the cosmopolitan scrum. I soon realized it’s the kind of place you leave with a hangover and only two regrets: wishing for more time and wishing you hadn’t caught the very early and very choppy ferry to Macau.
About: Hong Kong
About: Hong Kong Tramways
How to get to the Giant Buddha & Po Lin Monastery: from Central Pier 6 take the ferry to Mui Wo, Lantau Island. Then catch bus 2 to Ngong Ping. Alternatively you can take catch the MTR to Tung Chung Station exit B and then bus 23 to Ngong Ping.
How to get to the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden: From the MTR Prince Edward Station exit B1, walk east. The gardens will be on the left hand side.