After arriving in Hong Kong, I quickly realized that I must be one of the tallest people in the world. Not one of the locals could top me, not even with headgear or heels. There seemed to be a low ethnic mix on the streets. I counted very few white people, virtually no Asians that did not appear to be of oriental origin and the only Africans I encountered were the ‘looky looky’ men in Kowloon. ‘Looky looky’ had quickly become my nick-name for these people based on the first words all of these guys used as they approached to sell you their replica watches and sunglasses. When I did see a western face, I felt compelled to give a little nod and smile, a sad attempt to latch onto anything that might give me a feeling of familiarity. However, I was happy to note that many of the women of Hong Kong could make a claim to count themselves among the best looking in the world.
I was taking my first ventures around the city, delirious from the jetlag and the excitement of being in a strange place. I’d dumped my bags at the guesthouse where I was staying in Mong-Kok and headed straight out into the crowds, walking toward the waterfront to the south. The busy streets with huge signs in Cantonese running along them endlessly were familiar from pictures and television images but it was still disorientating being there. Scaffolding made from bamboo climbed the sides of buildings and the smells of cooking were unavoidable and not always pleasant. The local people’s reluctance to cross any road without the green man flashing even when the road was so obviously clear frustrated me. Patience must be built into the psyche when living in one of the most densely populated places on Earth.
I continued my walk, crossing the main road that separated Kowloon from the main tourist centre. It hosts a science and space museum, The Avenue of Stars – the Hong Kong equivalent to the Los Angeles Walk of Fame – that runs along the harbour, and the view over to Hong Kong Island with what must be one of the world’s most recognizable and pleasing urban skylines. The late evening air was clear, leaving me to gawk at the lights of the huge distant buildings in awe. After several minutes I began to head back. I hadn’t really slept on the flight and it would be a long walk back to the guesthouse.
I was staying in the Budget Hostel on the 15th floor in one of the many nondescript towering buildings that have entrances that were very hard to find. I’d made the selection simply for the fact it was run by one Jackie Chan. It had been slightly disappointing to be greeted by a very young, slight man who I reckoned even I could have beaten up in a fight. Jackie kindly upgraded me to a double from the single I’d booked over the internet as he juggled with the fluctuating demand, though how two people could manage to stay in the cramped room without tearing each other’s eyes out was beyond me. There was just enough space for me and my luggage to stand in the bedroom. An en-suite consisted of a toilet cubicle and a showerhead attachment that ran into the plumbing along lines that were worryingly close to those of the toilet. When a shower was to be had, the little room would simply be flooded. There were no windows in the whole of the place and so lights were needed all hours of the day.
I went to bed, exhaustion over-riding my excitement and sleeping for what felt like far too long. I jumped out of bed and switched on the light in a state of wakefulness. I was eager to make the most of my first full day in the city and my stomach was more than ready for breakfast. I checked my travel clock. 03:23, it read. Could I have really slept that late into the afternoon? I knew I had set the clock to local time and so I began getting myself together for what was left of the day, cursing my laziness. But something in my subconscious nagged at me. I looked at the travel clock once more. It was set to display in 24 hour mode. It was actually the early hours of the morning and I’d been asleep for just four hours. I settled back into a broken, fitful sleep.
When the day did get underway properly, I took the MTR – the city’s underground train system – over to Hong Kong Island with the idea of taking the tram up to Victoria Peak, the highest point on the island. There was a mile or so to walk to get to the tram station. I made my way further away from the financial centre and the terrain gradually became steeper as I ventured closer to the peak. Set into the low walls along some of the pathways were signs telling me the registration numbers of the slopes. I wasn’t sure what was the most odd; the need to register a slope or the apparent pride of the signs. I couldn’t manage to work out how much of an incline was needed for the need to register a slope or whether the requirement was limited to pathways.
I finally made it to the tram station, the journey up to Victoria Peak on what was reported to be the steepest railway line in the world. The views at the top were terrific, overlooking the skyline and harbour from the opposite direction from what I had seen on the previous evening. The area was heavily crowded with tourists and the smog meant that the visibility was limited. I decided to get away from the chaos and head all the way to the actual summit, up roads that passed exclusive looking housing to a pathway to the top, slope registration number 11SW-A/C694 for the record.
After the relaxing day at the peak, I decided it was time I began to experience some of the local cuisine. The noodle soup I bought at the small café at the peak didn’t really seem to count as it tasted like any cheap Chinese food found in the UK dumped into a bowl of water. I walked around the Causeway Bay area in the evening, looking for something suitable. Along one street I passed windows with puppies in small glass tanks on display. I really hoped that it was a pet shop sitting in amongst the restaurants. I passed by street vendors who were selling treats such as silkworm and snake skin from their stalls. I wasn’t feeling that adventurous.
I eventually came across a restaurant that looked respectable enough to get a good meal from and yet had a menu with prices that didn’t cause a sharp intake of breath through gritted teeth. I ventured in and played it safe, ordering pork with egg fried rice. I was pleased with the delicious coconut milk tea that arrived. But then the food came.
Within one bowl was the pork, chunky strips of meat marinated in a dark reddish sauce. I had no problem with that. In another bowl sat a portion of rice of generous proportions. I didn’t have a problem with that. But sitting on top of the rice was the egg, the feature that made the boiled rice into the egg fried rice that I’d ordered. I did have a problem with that.
The egg was a ghostly green and white colour that gave the egg a marble effect. I cut into it revealing the centre. The yolk had long since hardened into a sickly powdery dark orange colour that looked like it could have been dug out of someone’s ear. The pungent smell reminded me of school science lessons burning sulphur and made me slightly nauseous. I remembered reading my guidebook, a passage in the food section coming to mind. It mentioned that one of the delicacies of Hong Kong was the 1000-year-old egg, a normal everyday egg that’s been buried in the ground and pickled for in fact just 100 years. I guess after that amount of time you’d give up waiting and be more than ready for supper. The Hong Kong version of Ready Steady Cook must be rubbish with those sorts of preparation times. One can only guess at how and why this delicacy was discovered.
I didn’t want to appear rude or ignorant. The pork looked good and went down nicely with the perfectly fluffy rice. But I do like some flavour with my rice. And I thought that I should really try the local food. I cut off a corner of the yolk of the egg making sure to add a good helping of the rice and shovelled it into my mouth. It tasted of, well, egg fried rice, just without the grease and a much stronger sense of egg then I’d been accustomed to. How disappointing it must have been for the chefs to wait 100 years when three minutes and a second egg could have had the same effect. It wasn’t too bad at all, though I only picked at the remains, the egg’s appearance and smell making me reluctant to eat any more of it the more that I looked at it.
After a few days I had exhausted the list of places that I had wanted to see. At a loose end for my final day in the city, I headed to the bank of China building, for no other reason than to take in the view of the city from the public floor. From the elevated position, I spotted a park so decided to waste the afternoon walking around it. Hong Kong Park turned out to be a real gem of a place. It was entirely artificial which gave it the look of a Tim Burton movie set. As well as all the lakes, waterfalls and greenery there was a conservatory housing Hong Kong native plants. Upon entering, amongst the rules is one that clearly stated, ‘no balloons’. Did balloons constitute a dangerous weapon?
Within the park was the worst museum I’d ever been to. The Tea Museum. It was so bad, it was brilliant, though the five minutes I spent there was more than enough. There were nine galleries in all, some devoted to different parts of the teapot; the lid, the handle and my favourite – the spout. Sadly there wasn’t much detail on cups and saucers. The highlight for me though was the ceramic texture gallery, within which were ‘interactive’ samples that could be touched. One such example was a teapot made to look like corrugated cardboard. With the exhibit, there was a section of corrugated cardboard, just in case the visitor didn’t understand. It was in a glass case like some kind of archaeological treasure. Now that Harrison Ford’s getting on a bit could we soon be seeing the movie Indiana Jones and the Section of Corrugated Cardboard?
I thought that this summarised Hong Kong up quite well. I had arrived expecting glamour, style and sophistication but much of what I saw was tacky. The latest technological gadgets were available in the shops, but they all seemed to be finished poorly in cheap looking plastic casing. I went to Hong Kong expected the artistry of a Bruce Lee movie but found – while still entertaining – the cheap thrills of a Jackie Chan film.
Read more from this author at his blog: http://sticksandbones-theonethatgotaway.blogspot.com/