Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Hong Kong: Asia's World City

Whenever I watch skating competitions on TV, I always wonder how the judges know what score to give to the first skaters. After all, if they are given a 10, and someone comes along later who is much better, what do you give them? I feel this way about our trip. New Zealand, Singapore, Luang Prabang, and now Hong Kong. Each in their own way deserves top prize. Yet I suspect that before this trip is over, we will come across a few more places that may be even better!

While I had been to Hong Kong on two previous occasions, this was Sally’s first trip. I was concerned whether she would enjoy all the noise, activity and chaos; but in fact, she loved it. And staying at the Miramar Hotel at 118 Nathan Road, in the heart of Tsim Sha Tsui, we got to truly experience the activity day and night. Many shops don’t close until 2 am.

Hong Kong has changed considerably since I was last here. For one thing, you are greeted by the Royal Bank of Scotland, not my celebrated HSBC (although they do have their name on some of the money). Perhaps the major change has been the handover from Great Britain to China. I asked a number of people how it had affected them, and most said it had made little change in their daily lives. However, others told me there is now a greater obligation to learn Mandarin, the language spoken on the mainland. At the political level, there were significant changes.

The city seemed much bigger than when I was last here, but that’s because it is. Each year, more and more of Victoria Harbour is filled in to create sites for new development. The new airport is constructed entirely on landfill, and while the landing is not as dramatic as it was at the old airport, the facility is much better.

One thing that impressed us was the transportation system. When we arrived, we purchased two electronic passes at the airport which entitled us to a return trip on the train and unlimited travel on the subway for three days. We could also make an additional payment and use them on the buses, trams and ferries. When the train arrived at the Kowloon station, we were directed to a free shuttle bus which took us directly to our hotel. So here was an example of an airport train system that really works. Take note Kuala Lampur, and Vancouver.

Of course, most people don’t come to Hong Kong to use the transit system. They come to shop and eat. We did both. Sally was thrilled to find a large Marks & Spencers. I was fascinated by all the camera and electronic shops selling goods at prices considerably less than Vancouver. (Hong Kong is tax and duty free.) We were somewhat interested in the computer equipment, since our Panasonic Toughbook, which we had purchased especially for the trip, isn’t as tough as advertised. The CD player/burner has packed it in. While we considered buying another computer, we decided to visit Panasonic, to see if they could fix it.

They said they would look at it, but first we had to pay $780 HK ($110 CDN) for the initial examination, and then the cost of repairs. Sally pointed out it was under warranty, but was told that the warranty didn’t apply in Hong Kong. Unbelievable. Here we are in the centre of the electronic world, with a huge PANASONIC sign adorning the skyline, but the warranty doesn’t apply here. Rather than face what could be a very large bill, we decided to do some lateral thinking. Because of its small size, the computer didn’t have a DVD burner, and we needed one for my new Hard Disc Video Camera. So we purchased an external DVD player/burner in the hope it would bypass the broken unit. So far it seems to be working. We wanted to buy a Panasonic model that I saw advertised on the internet, but of course it wasn’t available….in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is a great place to eat Chinese food. But we eat a lot of Chinese food in Vancouver, so the first night, we ate in a Japanese restaurant; the second night we had a fabulous Crab Buffet at our hotel (they served 17 different crab dishes); for lunch on the third day we went to a Jewish Deli, and that night we ate at a Spanish restaurant at Knutsford Terrace, a charming outdoor touristy area near the hotel. We chose the restaurant since HSBC credit card holders were entitled to a 50% discount on the meal. At first the hostess wasn’t sure we could have the discount, since our card was issued in Canada. But another restaurant had indicated they would honour our card, and HSBC claims to be the world’s LOCAL bank, and I could tell by her accent she was from Canada, which she acknowledged (she lived in Kerrisdale and had gone to UBC) and so she happily gave us the discount!

On our way to the delicatessen, we came upon a most unusual site. Thousands of women were sitting around the Exchange Square development, near the bus station, on sheets of cardboard, or makeshift blankets, playing cards, doing manicures, reading, talking, and just hanging around. At first I thought they were waiting for the bus, but there were too many. Then I thought maybe they were gathering for a political demonstration, but there were no banners, and they seemed quite happy. Finally, I had to ask someone what was going on.

They were Filipino nannies, on their day off. There are over 300,000 in Hong Kong, and since they have no homes to meet in, the gather in public places around the city. I was impressed that the authorities allowed this to happen. Indeed, some private companies even pay to clean up after they are gone.

There’s much too much to do and see in Hong Kong in a short period of time. But we did have a good trip out to Stanley, a seaside village with an outdoor market and waterfront promenade lined with non-Chinese restaurants. We also had an excellent guided tour of the Hong Kong museum and learned about the history of the place, and the local customs. Finally, we took an evening harbour cruise to watch the buildings put on a light show. That’s right. Every evening at 8 pm, many of the buildings around the harbour are transformed into large illuminated panels. Laser lights are shone from the roofs, and the lights change in concert with music. It’s the Symphony of Lights! While all the energy use is not very sustainable, it’s a great show, and we enjoyed it immensely.

Some final observations. I was impressed with many of the new apartment buildings which are really quite spectacular. Sally was surprised by the amount of greenery both in and around the city. She didn’t expect all the parks, nor the beaches and extensive hiking trails. We were both impressed with the general level of cleanliness. Not quite as clean as Singapore, but often cleaner than Vancouver. However, the smog is definitely a problem. While we were there, a newspaper featured a front page story about a recently released discussion paper on how to address the increasing smog levels. One proposal was a warning system, similar to that which has been implemented in….Toronto! An accompanying story was about the conductor of the Hong Kong Symphony, who was moving to a small Midwest town in the US, since he and his wife were concerned what the smog levels were doing to their young son’s health.

But as a short term visitor, coming from Vientiane and Siem Reap, we weren’t particularly bothered by the smog. We loved the city, and definitely plan to spend a few more days, provided we don’t find too many more 10’s in China.

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