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RUNNING OUT OF BOATS…
Because of several separate problems, I’ve been unable to find a way to visit the few remaining islands I had on my wish-list: sometimes the problem has been getting home at the end of the day, or the ferries didn’t run every day, or it was the problem of avoiding areas affected by protests, or, as today, finding that the weather forecast was the hottest so far and that the island in question, Po Toi, was nothing but steps up and down very exposed hills (too hot for bike-carrying!). I’d like to thank my friends at the Intercontinental Grand Stanford Hotel front desk, and particularly Thomas, for all of their help with my forward planning, even though it has come to nothing this time. I loved our conversations anyway! That’s not the end of it though. I still have one last, long ferry trip lined up, so do look out for that, hopefully early next week.
With my sudden availability, I accompanied Susie this morning to her examination centre in Whampoa (the slightly eccentric name apparently comes from a romanisation of the Huangpu District in Guangzhou, China), which was another Music Shop that has practise studios attached. After trying out the ukuleles for about twenty minutes, I went for coffee, but first to find the local star attraction: a Depratment Store built in the shape of an enormous Cruise Ship. With this being such a boat-centric blog at the moment, of course I had to see it:The proximity to what used to be Whampoa Docks (which were the busiest docks in Hong Kong) must explain why anyone would do this. Once inside it feels exactly like any other store, which was a bit of a disappointment. I then walked down to the waterfront to find that the famous Hong Kong skyline was completely invisible in the heat haze.Despite my remarks the other day, I have to talk about the heat again today. The forecast was the hottest since we arrived here, and having thought that we’d become a little better accustomed to it, Hong Kong showed us what it can do. It reminded me of that feeling in a sauna, when you think you’ve got just about as hot as you can stand, and then someone tips a ladle of water on the stones and you’re hit by an even hotter wave of steam. The reason is the arrival of a typhoon (a word that comes from two Chinese words, dai, meaning big, and fung, meaning wind – another fact gleaned from Gweilo!) to the coast of Taiwan, bringing this change. I felt relieved that I hadn’t attempted another island trip today. Looking at a map, though, I realised how close we were at Whampoa to a ferry pier that I was curious about. I’d read that many of the shorter ferry journeys that criss-cross Victoria Harbour are likely to be gradually wound down, as the MTR builds more and more stations and the tunnels handle so much of the old water-bourne traffic. It struck me that this might be my last chance to take one of these trips.
After Susie and I had lunch together during her break, in the food court of the giant cruise ship, I set off on a journey that took me back and forth across the harbour several times.Stage One was a ferry from a deserted Hung Hom ferry pier over to North Point on the Hong Kong side:I watched the boat emerge from the strange, muggy haze, then had a choice of seats up on the top deck (I discovered on the way back later that there was a sort of rudimentary aircon downstairs, explaining my isolation):As we disembarked at the other side, which is a mile or so east of where I usually landed at Wan Chai, I could hear singing, or chanting rather, accompanied by bells and woodblock. The group of voices were clearly coming from the entrance to the ferry terminal, and sure enough there was a ceremony of some kind going on, in amongst what appeared to be a live fish market held right there on the pier, with countless plastic crates of live fish in bubbling water, each connected by tubes to a complicated system of air pumps that kept the water aerated. The stall-owners continued trading unbothered by the singing, which is a feature of religious ceremonies here, I’ve noticed: normal daily life can continue quite happily whilst other pray or sing, without any hushed reverence or ‘shush’-ing.
(Warning: this video clip contains a contender for the cutest, calmest baby award)
Out on the main street, Java Rd., I saw a large building called Java Rd Market and Cooked Food Centre, and wandered in. I’ve seen a few of these places as I’ve made my way around but never stopped for a look. There were three storeys, one on the ground floor that I couldn’t find a way into, a second floor of nothing but fresh produce…(Tofu any way you like it: big block, small block, smoked, black block, thin strips, even soya bean sprouts) …then a top floor of restaurants, where the working day was obviously over and they were hosing down the tiled floor around the odd customer still eating his meal. I didn’t want to walk through and get sprayed but I suddenly realised that I’d been using ‘up’ escalators with no ‘down’, so had to run the gauntlet to find an exit. Despite dodging to the left and right, I got a bit of a foot wash, and began to suspect that I was getting a special ‘Java Rd welcome’ for being too late for lunch.
It was time to catch my next ferry, which would take me back over to the other side:So the final stop before coming back again on this crazy-criss-crossing of Victoria Harbour was to be Kowloon City, in Kowloon Bay. This was a place I’d been very close to before, many years ago, but back then I was in a Jumbo Jet. Kowloon City is the location of the old Kai Tak airport, and the runway stretched out into the bay on the right as our ferry docked:
When I first joined the English Chamber Orchestra in 1992, we went on a tour of the Far East which included a concert in Hong Kong. I’d been warned by some of the seasoned older players that landing at Kai Tak airport could be a little alarming if you’d never done it before. “There are two airports that pilots can’t land at until they’ve had enough experience”, a member of the wind section told me as the ‘fasten safety belt’ light went on and the plane prepared for landing. “One is Gibraltar, the other is Kai Tak. It’s a bit hairy”, he said, with a grimace. The problem was the lack of space in Hong Kong. As the airport expanded after the war, they needed a longer runway to accommodate the new generation of aircraft, but the only space available was the harbour itself. So in finest Hong Kong style they built the runway out into the water, but with the approach and descent running right through the most densely populated city in the world. Sure enough, as we dipped down out of the clouds, I saw countless high-rise apartment buildings below and all around us, all getting alarmingly bigger as went down. Closer and closer we went, to the point where your instincts told you that surely this could not be going to happen? Surely the wing tips are going to hit a building or a power line? I have one abiding memory of the view from my window just before the last sudden drop down to land bumpily on the runway: for just a second or two I saw right into someone’s apartment, and could clearly see a man standing in front of a mirror, brushing his teeth.
I’d seen on my map that just by the Kowloon terminal there was an Art Gallery and also an ‘Artist’s Village’. Thinking that Susie and I could return for a look if they were interesting, I set off to find them, and what a monumental waste of energy it turned out to be. With no shade to be had, I got to where the gallery was supposed to be: not a sign of it. Just a rolled down metal shop-front. Then another and longer walk to what turned out to be a sort of park/building site of restored old brick walls. I’m sure it will be a lovely place one day, just not today. By the time I got back to the catch my ferry return, I was ready to drop. I could have grabbed a cab, being on the ‘right’ side of the harbour now, and been home in five minutes – but NO! The ferry challenge must go on.
Twenty minutes later I was back in the bubbling fish market, the worshippers long gone but the lobsters still struggling to be set free, and got a long stare from a group of old chaps in chairs who went suddenly quiet, no doubt wondering what this sweaty gweilo was doing back there again. I bought a cold ‘chrysanthemum tea’, and listened to them share their opinions. Or maybe I’m just more paranoid when I get too hot…only one more ferry and I’d be nearly home…The bell rang, the gate opened, and I jogged down the ramp, boarded the downstairs airconditioned section (I’d learnt my lesson), checked my watch and realised that with a bit of a move on I could meet Susie as she left her last examining appointment of the day.
From Whampoa I walked for a block or two (I’m not going to say it, just think about that fictional man from Lantau, who lost his left leg, many years ago) to the MTR, got to a stop called Jordan, walked a few blocks down to Susie’s last studio location for the day and waited outside in a sweaty, fading heap. Two things kept me amused as I slowly recovered. Firstly the name of the building, Austin Powers. Sorry, Towers. Secondly, the name of the type of candidate, like this one, that requires Susie to travel to the studio where they keep their harp/percussion instruments/double bass or whatever: on her form they’re called a “Bulky Candidate”.
One last thought. After my post on the story of the Kowloon Walled City, I noticed something interesting on one of the links I included, which one or two of you may have picked up on: another link to an astounding German documentary, filmed (probably secretly) in the alleyways and businesses of the squalid city in 1983. If, like me, you’ve been intrigued by the whole story, I strongly recommend you click on the YouTube link below (full English subtitles)