Hong Kong’s energy, bustle were tangible, but not unmanageable nor oppressive

Anyone who thinks Hong Kong is just an Asian version of Chinatown — think again!

A father and kids on the Hong Kong island ferry on a Sunday afternoon.

A father and kids on the Hong Kong island ferry on a Sunday afternoon.

BY JIM MACSWEEN

SPECIAL TO SYLVAN LAKE NEWS

Anyone who thinks Hong Kong is just an Asian version of Chinatown — think again!

I had the opportunity to spend 14 days in Hong Kong, between March 13-27, 2013. I was invited by a Canadian friend who manages an established Hong Kong company. Luckily, I was able to stay in his condominium without cost as decent downtown hotels rent at about $400 per night.

Arrival

Upon landing on my Air Canada flight, it quickly became clear this city was not like any “Chinatown” I had seen in Vancouver, Victoria, Edmonton or Calgary.

The Hong Kong airport is one of the busiest in the world, but ran with total efficiency. After my flight of over 14 hours from Calgary, I could have been confused by exhaustion, but I was able to gracefully exit from the airport with all my luggage. I made my way to the downtown Hong Kong Municipal Transit (MTR) station by airport express train where my friend Doug met me. En route I noted the modernity, speed and cleanliness of that train, and these attributes were the rule on all my trips on the MTR.

Crowds on the train were not oppressive. Even later travel, during high-traffic workday periods when congestion was high, travellers were polite and respectful of one another. This is impressive in a place where eight and a half million people live closely packed into the Hong Kong area, and many millions more live in mainland China close by. In fact, more than half the population of the world is said to live within five hours flight time from Hong Kong.

Hong Kong and Kowloon

The heart of downtown is the Central District where the airport express landed me, and close to it is the Admiralty district where commerce towers and government offices are located. If you want to see some creative shapes in tall skyscrapers, you need to visit this city. The buildings sweep uphill from the harbour to climb partway up to “The Peak”, one of the highest points on the island of Hong Kong. To aid a person climbing that steep and green-topped hill there is an escalator, reputed to be the world’s longest, which runs beside Cochrane Street, over Hollywood Drive, then beside Shelley Street as far as Conduit Road. A climb up The Peak delivers a hiker to a magnificent view of the island of Hong Kong, across the straits to Kowloon, the mainland, and some of the outlying islands. There are snack and ice cream shops at the top. The less adventurous can arrive by public transport.

In a prominent spot in Central District, close to the huge and upscale IFC Mall, sits the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, selected a few years ago as the best hotel in the world. Staff there were friendly, and prices not unreasonably high. The location seemed to be exactly where a hotel should be to serve most of the downtown, and I enjoyed the hospitality there almost every day of my stay.

Central District includes Hang Seng, China’s stock exchange, as well as banks, law courts, investment centres and other financial and related offices.

Several sites are worth seeing in the heart of Hong Kong. One is the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Museum dedicated to the memory of the westernized Chinese doctor who tried to unify China from the hold of separate warlords in the early 1900s. Although his efforts were unsuccessful during his lifetime, the growth and unification of China into one country took root from his long-term efforts.

Also of interest to Westerners are Buddhist temples throughout the city. Visitors are free to mingle with those who worship, burn incense to the memory of their ancestors, and leave freewill offerings for the work of the temples, and the schools, hospitals and other institutions which they fund.

East of Central and Admiralty is Wan Chai district, home to bars, nightclubs, and the social heart of Hong Kong. This area is a favourite of tourists and “ex-patriots” while in the city, and it takes on a lively night life invigorated by the number of Filipino, Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese women who care for children of working people during the day.

A quick trip by harbour ferry, or hovercraft for the impatient traveller, can take you across the narrow straits to dock at Kowloon. It is here that much of the needle industry is located, and local tailors are famous for quick production of suits, blazers, shirts and other apparel. In fact while there I had two dress shirts fabricated in one day, both fitting perfectly and no more expensive than the prepackaged shirts available for sale here.

My friend’s condominium is in Aberdeen District, around the island from downtown Hong Kong, and looks out over the straits which provide entry into Hong Kong harbour. Every hour of the day several of the world’s largest container ships pass by, as well as other cruise ships, merchant freighters and tankers, military and coast guard vessels, fishing boats, and small pleasure craft. Although smog or haze frequently obscures details of these ships, they are big and close enough to be seen clearly. This strait is said to be the busiest waterway in the world, and having seen it, I believe it.

Canadians seem to be welcome and respected in Hong Kong. With English being the working language, at least in Hong Kong, if less so in parts of Kowloon, it is easy for Canadians to function and travel. Cantonese is used by most of the local Chinese-heritage residents, but English seems to be the language of commerce.

History

A historical reason for Canadians being liked and respected dates back to World War II. Just before Pearl Harbour, several Canadian army regiments were hurriedly sent to bolster the British and Indian force detailed to defend Hong Kong against expected Japanese invasion. These troops were untrained and poorly prepared to meet and repel the battle-hardened Japanese force which eventually stormed over Hong Kong and conquered the area. Canadian soldiers won note for their stubborn defence of island defences, even in the face of failing assistance from units from other countries.

Upon being taken prisoner they were repaid for their bravery by the conquering Japanese. About 1,450 of them were taken to a beach east of Hong Kong proper and ceremoniously executed by beheading on the beach. After the Japanese surrender, their bodies were taken for burial in the beautiful Sai Wan War Cemetery where I visited and paid homage to the Canadian, British, Dutch and Sikh soldiers who fell in that gallant but hopeful defence. Surviving prisoners faced a hellish imprisonment by the Japanese for over four years before the emaciated and diseased survivors were liberated.

The site of the execution is now near a golf course. However, no Japanese are allowed to play that course. Against opposition from those who sought to preserve the site, some condominiums have now been erected nearby, but numerous construction problems have plagued the buildings — perhaps out of respect for the dead.

Currency in the Hong Kong area, including Kowloon and in a designated area, remains the Hong Kong dollar. That dollar was worth about $0.125 Canadian when I was there and the banks each issue their own currency. You can find three different versions of a $20 bill in your wallet or purse at the same time, and, just like Canada, the $20 bill seems most common in use.

Farewell

As I prepared to leave Hong Kong I was grateful for the experience of having visited and seen one of the busiest business and population centres in the world. The energy and bustle were tangible, but not unmanageable nor oppressive. The organization of the city is a marvel — something many North American cities could learn from. People seemed well able to get around and relate to one another without undue stress or delay. In other words, a clean and efficient city — not at all my expectation of Chinatown.

You should see it to believe it!