Hong Kong

Singapore and Hong Kong are both essentially cities populated by ethnic Chinese, but that is pretty well as far as it goes for similarity.  The first thing one notices about Hong Kong is how very big it is.  At about 7.2 million people stuffed onto a small island, it is the 4th most densely populated territory in the world.  Some people, it is true, have money to burn, and do the Singapore wealth thing with great skill.  The private houses on Victoria Peak which are unremarkable 3 story town homes have an average price tag of… wait for it… 1 billion dollars HK, which even considering the exchange rate gives an equivalent value in USA dollars of 128 million.  But the city also has a great number of people who are just making ends meet by the appearance of the apartment buildings which are incredibly tall, closely packed and ubiquitous.  Grimy in a never-been-cleaned way, the open windows often display torn and dirty curtains which must hide a rather sad reality within.  The average worker here has no hope of owning a home rather than renting until being able to save enough money which means decades into their middle ages.  For the majority of average workers an apartment of 500 square feet (46 square metres) for a family of 4 is all they can hope for.

This is a bustling place.  The Chinese are good people, and polite, but they are also busy with making a living and the niceties of clean streets and maintained public areas doesn’t seem to rank as high in Hong Kong as it does in Singapore, where beauty is job one.  In both cities we’ve seen no graffiti at all which is most heartening.  Singapore is well known for its strict policies on social activities, and this was brought to the attention of the world when the American teenager Michael Fay was fined, incarcerated and whipped with 4 strokes of a cane in 1994 for allegedly vandalizing cars, although he admitted subsequently to just stealing road signs.

As well, it is illegal to import or sell chewing gum in Singapore, and spitting gum onto the street can bring a $700 fine.  As well, annoying someone with a musical instrument, spitting, connecting to someone else’s wifi (presumably without permission), not flushing the toilet, feeding pigeons and jaywalking are all illegal.  As far as jaywalking goes we did see a normal amount of jaywalking occurring on quiet streets and no arrests were being made.  We may have even participated one or twice although in the words of Apocalypse Now’s Captain Willard “Sir, I am unaware of any such activity or operation… nor would I be disposed to discuss such an operation if it did in fact exist, sir.”.  I always wanted to say that.

Of police activity we’ve seen very little in both cities except remarkably on our arrival in Singapore when I looked up and saw 4 widely spaced soldiers armed to the hilt standing guard in a square formation on a sidewalk near the City Hall and obviously on the balls of their feet and extremely alert.  It was the way they were staring at me as we crossed the street toward them which made me wonder if some incident was unfolding at that moment.  But Carol and I changed our direction and passed on without receiving any unwanted lead, which is I guess the definition of a successful day.

On our first full day in Hong Kong we took the tram to the top of Victoria Peak, the highest place in Hong Kong.  The funicular railway is actually quite steep in places and covers a distance of 1.4 kilometres, to an elevation of 400 metres.  The viewing platform at the top gives an excellent view over Hong Kong, the harbour and Kowloon on the other side.

Next we visited Aberdeen and took a sampan tour of the fishing village.  It was sad for me to see that nowhere in Hong Kong exists anymore my vision of hand sculled sampans and junk rigged sampans.  Diesel engines have replaced all that magic now even though the hull shapes remain the same.  Fishing in Hong Kong still goes on, but not much is done around the city.  The boats travel farther afield.  The boat owners leave their craft here for protection from typhoons, and so the sampan tour wound around through lines and lines of moored fishing boats.  On many of them, a surprising amount actually, men and women were noisily playing mahjong.  It reminded me very much of my early days in the Toronto Fire Department when the guys would play their “dibs” or dominoes, slamming the tiles onto the table top in the same exuberant manner.

Once away from the ocean, the tour brought us to the Central–Mid-Levels escalator and walkway system which at 800 metres is the longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world.  Hong Kong is a very hilly island and this was a novel way to provide vertical movement for the citizens.  The escalator, actually a series of escalators, runs downhill from 6 a.m. until 10 a.m. and then changes direction until midnight.

The Star Ferry is the cheapest transportation in Hong Kong and is used for crossing the harbour to Kowloon-side.  There we took a look at the clock tower which is the only remaining feature of the once mighty railway station.  After that there was a a live band and a buffet dinner on the Bauhinia cruise boat which meandered around the harbour as the sun faded away and various buildings began playing lasers into the clouds.  Many of the downtown buildings become highly decorated light shows after dark.

The next day we were off early for Lantau Island where we took the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car for a incredibly high 25 minute scenic ride to the Po Lin Buddhist Monastery where we ate lunch and then viewed a gift from mainland China, the bronze Tian Tan Buddha, which is sitting impressively on the peak of a hill, the second largest outdoor sitting Buddha in the world.

Tai O is another fishing village on Lantau Island, but the residents, seeing the end of commercial fishing here have started turning to tourism.  The village is clustered along both banks of a narrow river, many buildings being on stilts over the water.  Small tour boats wind up the river to give you a view of the rough and ready town and later go out to sea briefly to look for the Chinese white dolphin.  We didn’t see any dolphins unfortunately.  The increasing pollution has caused many of the dolphin population to leave.  But we did enjoy a coke and a sparkling apple juice for a total bill of $90 HK.  The day before we had had 2 cheese sandwiches and shared a fruit drink at Victoria Peak for $126 HK.  Even with the exchange rate of 1:6 it is enough to give you indigestion.

It has been a long couple of days, but tomorrow we fly home.


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