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Fully loaded with guide book in hand on Nathan RoadJuly 19-28, 1999  Hong Kong

"Ya know what? I like this place already." "But we've only been here for less than a half hour." "Yeah, I know, but you know how we usually have a gut feel for how much we're gonna like a place, even in the beginning? Well something about this one just feels right to me, at least so far." It's at least 34 Celsius (about 93 Fahrenheit) in the dead afternoon of a super-humid July day. We're tromping around Hong Kong's bustling city streets, under the weight of our fairly hefty packs; getting dripped on from the legions of A/C units, retrofitted into the hundreds of windows, rising stories and stories above our heads; cringing with pain as squealing bus brakes, squeaking like a giant's nails screeching across a chalk board, pierce the otherwise 'gray' noise of engines and horns; and looking for a hotel that's doing it's best to stay hidden within the massive trunks of this concrete jungle. Despite all this, Hong Kong still feels right to me.

Smoke rises from incense spirals and joss-sticks in Man Mo TempleFor starters, this lively city has more of a 'Chinese feel' than I'd imagined. And that, in my opinion, is a good thing. Although influences from the West (especially British), are a conspicuous part of the city, Hong Kong is still first and foremost, a place for and of the Chinese people. Sadly, it's many of those people (most notably those who spoke the best English) who thought it best to leave the territory in 1997, just before it was turned back over to mainland control, rather than face the uncertainties of Beijing rule. But the charms of this city must be hard to substitute, because now, from what I've gathered by chatting with those who've stayed through the transition, many of those who left are now returning. I can't say as I blame them, it's an addicting place.

Light brights, big city - down town Hong KongIt's about 10:00 p.m. as we meet up for a nightcap with Sean, an expat living in Hong Kong who we met in Malaysia just two weeks ago. Our first stop is one of the city's oldest and most famous watering holes, Felix, on the top floor of the grand Peninsula Hotel. Our view of the harbor, resplendent with the neon signatures of capitalism, is almost as breath-taking as the $32 bill for our three little cocktails. Ouch! Can I put 20% down and get that on a 30 year fixed on that? For something a little more down-to-earth (sea level in fact), we take a $0.32 each Star Ferry ride across Victoria Harbor. After more that 100 years, it's still one of the city's favorite and most reliable ways to cross the waterway.

Lights, CAMERAS, actionWhile Laura, Sean and I are becoming entranced by the myriad of reflections dancing off of the waves, the small girl in front of us seems more enthralled with a game of 'I write a character on your back with my finger and you guess it' with her bigger brother. It's funny that it's the same game that I used to play with my brother and sister when we were their age (except that we weren't scripting out kanji symbols, of course). With a bump, our ferry docks on the island side. Two attendants, dressed smartly in their powder blue sailor suits, use old frayed ropes, straining over even older squeaky pulleys, to lower the gangway to the dock. Here we are in a capital of high-tech automation, and they still raise and lower the plank manually. Hum, whatever works, I think to myself.

An ancient style sailing junk crosses Victoria HarborA quick taxi ride brings us to the top of Victoria Peak for a look over the world's busiest harbor from this, its opposite side. The lights from some of the earth's tallest buildings sparkle below us. Even though the S.A.R. (special administrative region) of Hong Kong is actually made up of 260 mountainous islands, only a handful of these are actually populated. And in reality, the concentration Hong Kong's humanity is packed into the area spread out just before us, the land immediately surrounding the harbor. Across the water, Kowloon, on the southern tip of the mainland peninsula, and on our side, the Central district, on the northern side of Hong Kong Island itself.

Stories and stories of glass and chrome Predictably, this cram-jam has resulted in some of the world's highest real estate prices (a one-bedroom around the peak starts at over $6,500/month). Understandably, most developers have been forced to build up instead of out. Towers stack against more towers in this 'vertical city', culminating in a modern, vibrant metropolis that likes to call itself 'a small place that lives large'. A small place is right. All those islands, and the majority of Hong Kongers just have to all pack themselves onto this one. 'Let's stack on top of each other', seems the prevailing attitude. Hey, whatever works.

Building, rebuilding, razing, and repairingThe next morning brings us out and about with plans to explore as much of the city as we can on foot. We immediately slide right into the pulse of the streets.  We slip into the city's energy, its activity, its hustle and its bustle. Everywhere around us, things seem in constant motion. Being either built, rebuilt, razed for new construction, or repaired. That buzz of activity, mixed with all the other sounds and smells, combine to lend a distinct and noticeable 'makin' it happen' air to this spirited city. Dubbed by many as the Manhattan of the East, Hong Kong does, at least on the surface, share much with its US counterpart.

Scaling bamboo scaffolding up to 60 stories highYet a closer look reveals that for each similarity, there are at least as many contrasts. For example, although both are filled with skyscrapers, those in NYC are usually named after companies, or sometimes people. While those in Hong Kong are graced with loftier notions of well wishing such as 'Good Results', Prosperity', or 'Best Luck'. And while the gravity defying monstrosities of chrome and glass in NYC are constructed with cranes, those in Hong Kong are pieced together by workers on bamboo scaffolding. That's right bamboo. Imagine yourself with a toolbelt and hardhat, clamoring around on sticks strapped together with string, climbing as high as 60 stories. Not me! But I can't argue with whatever works here, I suppose.

Laura drives a hard bargain over some souvenirsAlso like NYC, advertising images abound. While most of the 'special offer' or sale text around us is in kanji symbols, the international brand names are still in those oh so familiar alpha characters - Gorgio Armani, DKNY, Versacci, Calvin Klein, Izod, Esprit, Ralph Lauren, Guess, and Louis Vuitton. Rolex, Tag Heuler, and Longines. The list goes on. Yep, the ad images are everywhere. Hundreds of them hit us with each glance, in this, the undisputed shopping capital of the world. SHOPPING, SHOPPING, SHOPPING - from marble floored malls, to tarp covered stalls. Yes, even in dark alley calls: "Copy watch, copy watch. Rolex. Hey Mister, copy watch, you like Rolex?" Bargains upon bargains just waiting to be discovered - from markdowns on marital aids to discounts on divine deities. Anything and everything you could ever want, or even imagine wanting, is available (and probably on sale) here in Hong Kong. And all tax free! It's truly raw unfettered capitalism, with few rules and at its very best.

A small shop in the middle of the city's flower marketFew rules, but two certain laws: supply and demand and survival of the fittest. These reign supreme, as rows and rows of stalls, selling essentially the same goods, cluster together in markets around the city. There are morning markets, night markets, even specialty markets. Flowers, goldfish, women's clothing, even songbird markets. Tweet, twirp, cheep, and chirp. We're suddenly surrounded by hundreds of little feathered friends, each perched in a hand-made rattan cage. Twirll, tweea-eep, swiwirl, and sha-weep. "My bet is that they're complaining about the heat." I suggest to Laura. "Look, it's so hot that they're sitting there with their tiny breaks hanging open - like dogs do when they pant." "Or maybe they're just hungry, and waiting for those things." Laura says as she points to a woman carefully chopping the legs off of a bag full of live grasshoppers, in diligent preparation of feeding time.

Hand-made ratan bird cages at Yuen Po Street Bird MarketThen over here, there's a few chirpers enjoying a refreshing shower from a boy with a squirt bottle. The birds seem thrilled with this, as they flap and flitter under the spray's cool drops. Everyone seems to be enjoying these daily rituals now, but two years ago, the new Beijing government was planning on closing this market. Fortunately, they came to understand that the outlet provides a pleasant, established venue where Hong Kongers can not only conduct business, but also peruse the relaxing pastime of raising these melodious songbirds. 'Whatever works' the government must've shrugged when it made the wise decision to keep open, and even improve, the famous Yuen Po Street Bird Garden.

Laura practices her Tai Chi with William and PandoraWe're up and at 'em early the next morning to start our day with the ancient Chinese exercise known as Tai Chi. After an hour or so of clumsily trying to mimic our skilled (and patient) instructors, we discover firsthand that this slow-motion form of marshal art is much more difficult and demanding than it looks. "Practice of Tai Chi" our instructors assure us "is very good for you." Apparently so, for it seems that this early morning routine is one of the most popular methods Hong Kongers have of dealing with the stress and stain that accompanies living in such a crowded city.

An antique vendor in the Cat Steet MarketOther the next few days, we try other ways too. Including simple things such as casual, friendly human interaction. For instance, a quick wave to the manager at our favorite rice and noodles diner on the corner, or a quick 'layho' (Cantonese for hello) as we pass by the cashier at the newsstand that we pop into each night for a bottle of water. These both do wonders to raise our tolerance of the noise and commotion around us. We also try another popular therapy known as reflexology. A method of massage the concentrates on certain pressure points, it's painful, healing, and relaxing all at the same time. Other remedies in favor with the city's residents include traditional medicines and foods, such as ox tongue, shark fin, snake skin, deer antler, or dried seahorse. We decided to pass on these, but hey, whatever works for them.

A shirt stall in the colorful and chaotic Temple Street night marketIt's our last night in Hong Kong and we've decided that the best place to spend it is in the colorful and chaotic Temple Street night market. We've wandered into its heart of it, the market's food stalls, for a bite to eat. "They're laughing at you." "Who?" "The couple at the next table. They were watching you with the soy sauce and then broke out in giggles. You must not be doing something right."

Sitting down for a little authentic Chinese food"Excuse me, try this way" one of the hawkers/waiters offers, as he demonstrates how to use the deep porcelain spoon to scoop out only a few drops of the sauce and add it delicately to a three or four grains of rice in my bowl. This as opposed to my ad hoc, and obviously incorrect, method of practically drowning the rice with the soy, by pouring in almost the entire container's worth straight from the bowl? "Maybe you like this, maybe not. What ever best for you, what ever work" he says. Yeah, I think to myself, that's Hong Kong, the land of 'whatever works'.

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Last modified: August 20, 1999    Photographs and text 1999 Scott and Laura Kruglewicz. All Rights Reserved.

 

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