20-Jul-2010

Hong Kong tales

Long before I went to Hong Kong, I had two contrary images of the city. The main one was that of a largely western city, firmly holding onto its colonial past, filled with smartly dressed bankers from all over the world. Infact, a sort of twin to Singapore.

The other impression had been formed by Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express. The lanes filled with food stalls. Sea creatures awaiting the axe in the bubbled tubs outside the stalls. The shrieking chatter in Chinese. The quick paced, compactly built Chinese men and women hurrying to their compactly built homes.

As my cab drove into the heart of the city, I was shocked by an entirely unexpected aspect of the city – its sheer height. Hong Kong itself is a hilly island. On top of its natural height, the city had sprouted thin, multi storeyed buildings that made you understand why skyscrapers are called so. Despite being a tall Indian among the short Chinese, I felt strangely dwarfed by the city.

One impression was dispelled though. Hong Kong is not like Singapore. It was definitely efficient, had big roads and like Singapore, had Asians dressed in top line, smart western clothes. Yet, there was a feeling that it is a Chinese city, with cabbies who sometimes needed to hear your destination from the bellman in Chinese and the occasional food wrapper that wouldn’t have dared to float around in Singapore.

Our first tourist stop brought us in touch with its Colonial past. Victoria peak, one of Hong Kong’s highest (and home to it’s poshest homes) points offered a panoramic view of the island. Grinning Chinese couples stood in the chilling air flashing smiles and ‘V’ signs. We followed suit caught up in the general excitement.

Our exploration of heights continued the next day with a trip to the Lantau Buddha Island. The ferry took us past a coastline filled with the same tall buildings we had seen the previous night. Only now, the glittering lights had turned into plain, invincible facades, stern and solid.

The Lantau Buddha was a pilgrim and tourist trap. Wiki says that it “was the world's tallest outdoor bronze seated Buddha prior to 2007”. Despite all these qualifications to its magnificence, and the fact that there have been better and calmer Buddha statues we had seen, we still felt compelled to climb the 268 steps to get closer to the statue. An unwise choice.

The wise choice was eating the special vegetarian meal served at the nearby Po Ling monastery (Chinese vegetarian? Seemed like an oxymoron). The spread included yummy bean curd cakes, lots of leafy vegetables, sticky jasmine rice, watery soup and an interesting array of items that made one realise that there was more to vegetarian than paneer mutter and lettuce salads.

The absolute highlight of the Island visit had to be the cable car ride back to the city. Seated in carriages fully covered in a transparent material, we swooped like eagles, watching the trees, the wide expanse of sea and the roads pass slowly below us.

For all its spots on the tourist checklist, Hongkong’s biggest tourist attraction had to be its shopping and the restaurants. The city offered both high end brands and outlet malls and everywhere you could find something you liked. The locals bustled about stocking their wardrobe and appearing the next morning in offices in clothes found in the latest American magazines and sitcoms. The tourists made their contributions too, grappling with excess baggage.

The restaurants spanned every range and cuisine. Soho and Tsim sha tsui, both had choices ranging from Vietnamese to Italian. I discovered Shanganese food and realized it tasted a lot better than Cantonese food. A Chinese colleague ordered dishes for a couple of meals leading to a culinary exploration of fried eel (quite crunchy and nice) and chicken’s feet (delicate and light but admittedly a disgusting concept). D and I were adventurous on our own as well and ordered snails, cooked in continental style. They were rather like calamari, soft and chewy.

We also discovered Hongkong’s Chinese side in Kowloon and parts of Tsim sha tsui. These areas had made themselves inaccessible to foreigners by sheer virtue of the lingua franca on the streets. We took a shared private van filled with locals and went past relatively run down areas. The buildings were older and more tired looking and washing lines crisscrossed the apartment windows. The streets had Chinese signboards. The community grounds in front of temples were filled with stereotyped images of old men playing mahjong. Glamorous branded stores were replaced by stores selling day to day necessities of life – metal vessel stands, incense, foul smelling dried fish, discounted cosmetics. The ordinary Chinese, like ordinary people everywhere, lived in a relatively duller world, made edgier only in a Wong Kar Wai movie.

Hongkong was a smooth amalgam of both the images I had in mind and just that little something more.

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