We had two days before Susie began her busy examining schedule and I began island-hunting, two days to shrug off the jet-lag and explore our surroundings a little.
I have visited Hong Kong several times before on orchestral tours but for Susie it was not only her fist time here but her first trip to the Far East, so bearing in mind that she had a lot of hard work coming up we took ourselves off to visit a few sites, at as gentle a pace as possible. The words ‘gentle pace’ and ‘Hong Kong’ do not naturally go together, especially on a weekend in high summer, but we found the city to be unusually quiet. Perhaps the protests were having an effect on the typical noisy exuberance of this place.
Sunday: After a huge hotel breakfast of dim sum plus plenty of everything else, we walked to the Star Ferry, where I met Johnny, a Chinese Jehovah’s Witness in his late 60s who was holding a big board and waiting to meet a group coming in by ferry. He helped me cash a large note at a street vendor’s stall, and we then got into a conversation about the protests and the different perspectives of the young and the old in HK. Like Alex in his cab yesterday, Johnny was not a fan of the rioting. I don’t think I’ve ever sought out a conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness in the UK, but I found Johnny to be both charming and open minded. He told me that he struggled with the different beliefs of his parents, who worshipped the Gods and Deities to whom the many temples in HK are dedicated, whilst he had taken another path. He corrected my pronunciation of ‘Christian’ in Cantonese – “gey duk tou”, not ‘gai duk tou’ – and asked how I knew the word. I told him a little about a wonderful memoir I’m reading at the moment of a western boy’s childhood in HK, called ‘Gweilo’ by Martin Booth, which has been a fantastic source of knowledge about this part of the world, including vocabulary.
So the first ferry journey of this ferry-centric trip was the short hop over to Central District, where we picked our way through the hundreds of Phillipino women who spend their Sundays meeting up to sit in every available space – in parks, on every street pavement, beneath the skyscrapers –
– and to eat together, talk, laugh, play card games, bingo, and even practise their dance routines:
I’m told that they are mostly women who work as housemaids in the richer parts of the city, for whom Sunday is their one day off. They all sat on flattened-out cardboard boxes as makeshift picnic blankets, and were totally unselfconscious about being so on view and surrounded by city dwellers and tourists. In fact it felt like it became their city for the day, they were there in such huge numbers.
The island is dominated by The Peak, or Victoria Peak to give it its proper name, which is incredibly steep and over 500 metres high. The funicular railway that takes you to the top, The Peak Tram, is 130 years old and the steepest in the world. They’re on to their fourth generation of trams, which are now modern and efficient, but expensive. In the 1950s, when ‘Gweilo’ is set, they were used as much for commuting as by tourists, with tiny stations stops along the way. The rear, cheap carriages were open, and on the higher stretches of track were vulnerable to attacks from monkeys who lived in the surrounding forest. Martin witnessed hats, coats, cameras and binoculars being stolen on the way up, and then saw most of the discarded wreckage of personal items hanging from tree branches on the journey back down the hill.
We paid a brief visit to the apartments where he and his family lived from 1952-54 at the top of the Peak, Mount Austin Mansions, where I unintentionally made the guard on the gate very uncomfortable by asking him if he knew about the author or any other history of the building. His answers to my questions, accompanied by a pained smile, were: “I can’t tell you this”, “This is a Privacy Residence”, “It is not possible to talk about that”, and “Thank you, goodbye”.
After taking in the spectacular view from the Victoria Peak Pavillion, looking south into the South China Sea and the Outlying Islands, we took a walk around Victoria Peak Garden and the Governor’s Walk in the humid light rain which came and went all day, then made our way back to the Tram.
Back in Tsim Sha Tsui I had a very helpful chat with Joyce at the hotel front desk, to find out what the Intercontinental Hotel might think of me walking through the lobby with a bicycle on my travel days. I had already thought that the elegance and calm composure might be a bit disturbed by flagpoles, panniers, helmets and lycra. Joyce agreed with me pretty readily, and suggested that I keep my foldaway bike in the Concierge’s room until needed, and then pack it away again after each ride. I also asked how she felt about me mentioning the hotel in this blog: “An honest opinion is always very welcome!”, she told me. “Please feel free to mention us, and we will follow your blog!”. So I jotted down the Incidents of Travel details for her and thanked her for being so helpful. I hope things carry on like this.
Monday: Susie had pre-session meetings about her work, I explored the local supermarket, we tried out the gym, the sun shone from a clear blue sky, Susie tried the hotel Pillow Menu and selected “No6: Refreshing Bed Pillow with natural cooling effect.”. In the evening we walked up and around the famous Nathan Rd, stopping off to visit a spot that used to be a notoriously dangerous enclave but is now a sort Little India of food stalls, restaurants and a kind of general bazaar, called Chungking Mansions. We found shop after shop to be closing early, with worried-looking proprietors who told us that there was going to be trouble nearby tonight. I have never seen Hong Kong like this, with streets emptying as early as a small Canadian town in the Prairies, and the normal crowd of locals gradually morphing as the sun goes down into mostly young kids dressed in black. Our noodle soup supper started in the company of laughing teenagers but by the time we left they had been replaced by groups of protesters, quietly eating some food and closely monitoring their mobile phones.
Two early Signs That Are Funny contenders. Firstly, the sign the greeted me the moment I arrived at my possible start point for cycling along the harbour front in the morning (please note accidental action shot of leaping fish)Then back at the hotel there was a little reminder that even the super-rich Ferrari owner can have problems of their own: