I had barely flung myself on the bed, after three hours of waiting at the airport and another five on the flight, when my eyes fell on the large LCD screen facing me:
“Dear Mr Ghost: Welcome to The Mira Hong Kong. Thank you for choosing to stay with us.”
How I wish I were Mr Ghost. I wouldn’t have to endure long hours in a plane or spend hard-earned money in order to travel the world (though this trip didn’t make me any poorer because I was a guest of the Hong Kong Tourism Board, and the journey from Chennai took barely five hours).
Nevertheless, I was quite pleased with what I saw on the screen and got up to fiddle with the remote, when I found a cordless keyboard. Ah, so I could check email and Facebook on the big screen! Then I noticed a welcome-envelope waiting to be opened: it was addressed to Mr Bishwanathan. Meanwhile, I had arrived in Hong Kong barely an hour ago on a boarding pass that identified me as Mr. Gosh.
Never mind. My name didn’t matter now. For the next five days, I was going to be a nameless tourist, one of the tens of thousands who come to visit the former British colony every year. This year the arrivals crossed the unprecedented one-million mark, and the tourism board is now eager to exploit the Indian market, even though the number of tourists going from here has already doubled compared to last year.
The five days were roughly divided into two activities: looking up in amazement at the high-rises that define Hong Kong and looking down at them in equal amazement from even greater heights — even as one kept hopping between Kowloon peninsula and the islands of Hong Kong and Lantau. These are the three regions that primarily comprise the tourist’s Hong Kong.
My discovery of Hong Kong began that evening with a visit to Sky100, the observatory on the 100th floor of the world’s fourth tallest building — the newly-opened 108-floor International Commerce Centre in Kowloon. The elevator propels you the 100th floor in 60 seconds, and there you are, treated to a 360-degree panoramic view of the city — far more mind-boggling than a pair of human eyes can take.
So this is Hong Kong, I thought to myself as I watched from behind the glass wall a neat arrangement of yellow lights spread out below — one of the very few non-Western cities you somehow get to hear of right from childhood, even if you were not particularly fond of the atlas; where the British planted the Union Jack in 1841 and withdrew from as recently as 1997, returning it to China.
Due to the 156 years of the occupation, Hong Kong is today part-British, part-Chinese — a classic example of East-meets-West. Ninety-five percent of the population is Chinese, but the official language is still English; residents can hold British passports until 2047; the Hong Kong dollar remains in circulation and is convertible.
I was now going to spend some of those dollars, for next on the itinerary was a visit to the Hong Kong Wine and Dine Festival, a recently-begun annual feature that takes place by the Victoria Harbour. Rosanna, my feisty but friendly Chinese guide, had already pointed at the venue from Sky100: from that great height it had looked like the ultimate party place, right next to the harbour on whose still surface the occasional boat was leaving a temporary scratch.
But at the festival venue — which was jam-packed, resembling a college carnival — the view of the waterfront had been blocked by countless stalls set up by wine companies from across the world. Fine wine is lost on me — I can only tell the red from the white. But the sun was long down and I needed my drink, and at the same time I was very hungry. Since my arrival I had been surviving on bread and cheese.
As I went searching for my kind of food so that I could drink (even if wine), two young Chinese students accosted me. They wanted my feedback about the festival. I patiently answered all their questions (asked in broken English) and they took a picture of me with their iPad.
“Now, can I ask you something?”
“Yes, yes,” the boys said.
“Is there any stall where I can get vegetarian food?”
The boys looked at each other in bewilderment. They hadn’t heard of the word. “Sorry sir, I don’t know what you say.” They were red with embarrassment.
Fortunately, I found a French stall selling cheese croissants. I bought a half-a-dozen of them. The rest of the evening I drank red wine and ate cheese croissants and admired the young women of Hong Kong who stylishly held their (plastic) wine glasses as if they were in a Page-3 party. This was of course a Page-3 party, only that the guest list was multiplied by a thousand.
Back in the hotel, located on Nathan Road, I felt hungry again and set out looking for Indian food. I walked a considerable length of the road and after a few left and right turns, came upon Jordan Street, where I found the Bombay Indian Restaurant. The owner, a salwar kameez-clad Punjabi woman who said her family came to Hong Kong some 20 years ago, sat on the pavement calling out to potential customers. A young woman in jeans, presumably her daughter, waited on the tables.
“Spicy or non-spicy,” she asked me in accented English as I ordered daal makhani and naan.
I thought for a moment and said, “Spicy.”
The next morning I was at the Kowloon Cricket Club, to watch a match of the Hong Kong Cricket Sixes, an international six-a-side, five-over-each tournament that the club has been hosting since the early 1990s. In terms of brevity and entertainment value, this format can rightly be called the father of Twenty20. But since I gave up watching cricket ever since Twenty20 walked out of the pavilion, I couldn’t tell, under the harsh sun, who was bowling and who was batting. As many as 12 cricket-playing nations were participating in the tournament this year, and outside the Club, a large number of Pakistanis were waiting to catch a glimpse of their favourite cricketer. There was a flutter when Sanath Jayasuriya walked in. I just about managed to take a picture of him: I had never imagined I would spot him in, of all places, Hong Kong.
I had half a mind to watch Jayasuriya bat — live — but it was time to head to Disneyland. Even if you are young at heart, Disneyland isn’t quite the place for you to spend an entire evening unless you are taking your children along. But what do you do when you are deposited there and you don’t know your way back? You have no choice but to sit back and enjoy.
But to tell you the truth, I enjoyed Disneyland. Not just because of the Halloween parades that can blow one’s mind or because of the breathtaking toy-train trip that takes you along the circumference of the fantasy land, but mainly because of the Space Mountain ride. It is a gut-wrenching roller-coaster ride that takes place in total darkness, as if you were negotiating invisible curves in space at the speed of an aircraft. Unknown to you, cameras capture your expressions during the most stomach-churning moment of the ride, and the evidence of your fearful self is shown to you once you step off the roller-coaster. But the picture is not part of the deal: you need to buy it, for a steep price. Welcome to Hong Kong.
“See my new boots! How are they?” asked Rinku, my fellow Indian traveller.
“Awesome!” I said. I had to say that. She had spent 2,500 Hong Kong dollars to buy four pairs and was wearing one of them now.
And so we set off for Lan Kwai Fong to party. We had had a long day – and what a day.
The morning had begun on the island of Hong Kong. It was this island that the British had first taken in 1841 before they went on to expand their control to the Kowloon peninsula, and finally more areas north of the peninsula and also some islands, which they chose to call the New Territories. Collectively they came to be called Hong Kong. The island is, therefore, home to the city's colonial heritage and our host, the Hong Kong Tourism Board, put us on an open-top bus for a heritage tour of the city.
But when your eyes are blinded by the dazzle of the high-rises, how can you look out for humble heritage, which would probably be too embarrassed to show its face? So I sat back on my seat on the roof of the buses and enjoyed the carnival of the high-rises, each eager to kiss the sky first, as the bus snaked through the all-important roads of Hong Kong. If the dictionary doesn't define the word ‘opulence' for you, Hong Kong will. And I also realised: a concrete jungle may not look beautiful, but it can certainly look elegant.
We alighted at Peak Tram terminus on Garden Road. We were to take the tram right up to the Victoria Peak, now called just The Peak, which became the summer getaway for the colonial rulers ever since Governor Richard MacDonnell built a residence there, in the late 1860s. After tram service to the Peak began in 1888, the hill became an exclusive residential area for Europeans and remained out of bounds for locals for a number of years. Even today, the hill is home to the last of the fast-disappearing colonial bungalows in Hong Kong. The tram we take is new, but the route is 123 years old – a steep vertical climb right up the hill.
The moment we alighted we got sucked into a massive multi-storied steel-concrete-glass structure. We were on the Touristy Peak and not the Victorian Peak – but it was The Peak nevertheless. Souvenir shops, shopping malls, eateries, even Madame Tussauds gallery – the building contained it all. But it was the roof that mattered most: from there you could see all of Hong Kong, and even Kowloon. A sight to die for. A concrete jungle can also look beautiful.
After lunch at The Peak we drove to Ocean Park. The entertainment park, spread across 870,000 sq m of land, has a mountain standing in between and to get to the summit you have to take the cable car. As the cable car trundled high above the South China Sea, one could see the sun bowing out for the day, disappearing slowly into the sea. Against the fading sun was the silhouette of the roller-coaster which was to soon scare the life out of us. It was at Ocean Park that Rinku and I hatched the plan for Lan Kwai Fong.
The idea was to have a drink and stroll around the Soho of Hong Kong. But it turned out to be the night of Halloween, and, emerging out of Central station, we found that the whole of Hong Kong had descended on Lan Kwai Fong. To get to Lan Kwai Fong from the station, otherwise a two-minute walk, took us nearly two hours. Once she realised that Lan Kwai Fong was so near and yet so far, Rinku took off her Hong Kong boots. “They pinch,” she said and put them into her bag. Out came the humble Indian chappals.
Once in Lan Kwai Fong, we broke off from the unending procession and squeezed ourselves into the little space that was available on the pavement outside Hard Rock Café. There, clutching cans of Guinness, we watched the young of Hong Kong go past, thousands and thousands of them – it was the wedding of Grotesque and Grace. It's a night I am not easily going to forget – energy meeting imagination and the two of them saying hello to the no-holds-barred spirit.
The people of Hong Kong are a happy lot. According to Rosanna, our Chinese guide, the city-state made a net profit of 2,000 billion Hong Kong dollars from the stock exchange in 2010. The benefits were passed on to the people: every citizen over the age of 18 received 6,000 Hong Kong dollars from the government as ‘lucky money', and those above 65 got 3,000 dollars extra.
The next morning, we were at 1881 Heritage, one of the most expensive hotels in Hong Kong which, once upon a time, was the headquarters of the marine police. Such is the hotel's heritage and snob value that couples getting married and youngsters who've acquired a prestigious degree come to pose against the handsome colonial building. As if a degree or a marriage certificate is not valid until the photograph outside the hotel has been taken.
On the final day, in the island of Lantau, we took a stunning 5.7 km cable-car ride to the village of Ngong Ping, where a 34m Buddha sits on a hill. The spectacular 25-minute journey provides a panoramic view of the Buddha statue, the flora and fauna of the North Lantau Country Park, Tung Chung Bay and the airport. The Ngong Ping Piazza, opened last year, is lined with statues of the Twelve Divine Generals. And from there, it is a 268-step climb to nirvana. What a peaceful way to end a journey.
Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, December 3, 2011.