After 156 years of British colonial rule, Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China 15 years ago. As an SAR, Hong Kong operates under the one country, two systems principle put forth by Deng Xiaoping for the reunification of China. Under a joint Sino-British declaration, the people of Hong Kong were guaranteed their rights and freedoms and are allowed to maintain a capitalist economic system for at least 50 years. (If Obama is re-elected, Americans should petition the Chinese for a similar guarantee.)
I left Bangkok just before 2 p.m. on the first Friday in August for a 4 day/3 night visit to this citadel of wealth and bastion of free-market capitalism. I arrived at Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok airport just at 6 p.m., got through Customs very quickly, and I was at the luggage carousel before any bags from my flight had arrived. After retrieving my suitcase, I purchased an Airport Express Travel Pass for under US$40 that provided me with round-trip transportation between the airport and Hong Kong as well as unlimited travel for three days on the MTR, Hong Kong’s extensive subway (map below), light rail, and buses. The 24 mile train trip to Hong Kong’s Central terminal took about 25 minutes and after a short-ride on the hotel shuttle, I was checking into the Renaissance Harbour View Hotel by 7:30 p.m.
This hotel is situated on Victoria Harbour adjacent to the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center (HKCEC), and I had a room with a fabulous view of the harbor. Every evening at 8 p.m. the Hong Kong Tourism Board presents its Symphony of Lights, a light and sound show that lasts for about 15 minutes. I had arrived just in time for the Friday night show, so I hurried to the waterfront promenade at the Golden Bauhinia Square immediately adjacent to the HKCEC. Large speakers amplify music that is coordinated with flashing lights, search lights, LEDs, and lasers on nearly 50 buildings on both the Hong Kong and Kowloon sides of the harbor. Every night, thousands of people line both sides of the waterfront to watch and listen to the show.
June through September are not the best months to visit Hong Kong or, for that matter, much of Southeast Asia, since this is the rainy season, it is quite hot and humid, and monsoons and typhoons are common. On Saturday morning, the sky was overcast and the view across the harbor was hazy when I left the hotel (point A on map below) to go to the nearby Star Ferry terminal (B) for the short ride across to Kowloon. The Star Ferry has been in operation for almost 125 years and the 10 minute ride is a bargain at US$0.44 on the weekends and US$0.32 on weekdays.
My first stop after arriving in Kowloon (C) was at the Tourist Board’s ticket office to purchase a ticket for a harbor cruise later that day. I had about 90 minutes before the boat sailed, so I had time to see many of the tourists attractions on the Kowloon waterfront. By this time rain had begun to fall, but since there were several vendors selling compact umbrellas, a US$6 purchase solved this problem.
The first attraction immediately outside the pier is the Tsim Sha Tsui Clock Tower (D) that dates back to 1915. The 144 foot tall granite and red brick tower is all that remains from the Kowloon-Canton Railway’s original Kowloon Station that was demolished in 1977. Immediately adjoining the clock tower on the old station’s grounds are Hong Kong’s Space Museum, Museum of Art, and Cultural Center.
Between the museum complex and the harbor is the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade, a prime viewing point for the nightly Symphony of Light and home to the Avenue of Stars (E), Hong Kong’s tribute to its film industry. The Avenue of Stars was inaugurated in 2004 with 73 inductees honored with plaques on the walkway, many of which contain the celebrities’ hand prints and/or signatures in the cement. Currently, there are 102 honorees. I must admit that aside from Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li, I did not recognize any of the other names that I saw along the path. Along the quarter-mile promenade, there is a 15 foot tall replica of the statue that the Hong Kong Film Awards Association gives to its annual winners, e.g., Hong Kong’s version of the U.S.’s Academy Awards; an eight foot statue of Bruce Lee; a replica of the 2008 Olympic Torch; and several bronze statues of movie-making equipment that tourists routinely use as backdrops for photos.
Just before noon, I returned to the pier to take a harbor tour on the Duk Ling, a restored junk that had formerly been used by Chinese fishermen. Duk Ling means “Clever Duck” in Chinese and this junk was featured in the movies Around the World in 80 Days and Taipan. Passports are required to buy tickets on the Duk Ling since this harbor cruise is only available for tourists. There were about 20 of us on the noontime sailing and the boat would have accommodated another 10 to 15 people. During the one-hour ride around Victoria Harbour, I met another solo traveler from the U.S. who was born and raised in South Buffalo but who now lives in Harrisburg.
The Duk Ling dropped us off back in Hong Kong at the Central Piers (F). From here, it was only a short walk to the International Financial Centre (IFC) Mall (G), home to many high-end retailers including Cartier, Bulgari, Zegna, Choppard, Mikimoto, Tiffany, and Prada among others. What surprised me the most, however, was seeing a Garrett’s popcorn shop in the mall. I did not think that these stores existed outside of Chicago and seeing one in HK was completely unexpected.
From the IFC Mall, I made my way to the Garden Road station for the Victoria Peak Tram (H). After a 30 minute wait in line, I was finally able to board one of the two funicular trains that can carry up to 120 passengers up the mountain to Victoria Peak, the highest point in Hong Kong at just over 1,800 feet. Although the tram railroad dates back to 1888, the current trains are from 1989 when the system was completely rebuilt.
During the seven minute journey from Garden Road to the Peak Tram’s upper terminal (I), the train ascends one-quarter of a mile (1,300 feet) while covering less than a mile of track. The maximum gradient is 27 degrees (or a steepness of 48% — rise over run); when you look out the train’s windows, the nearby buildings at times appear to be so tilted that they seem destined to fall down.
The upper terminus of the tram is about 500 feet below the summit of Victoria Peak. The summit, however, is not accessible to visitors since a radio tower is located there. The eight-story Peak Tower, which contains shops, restaurants, and a Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, is located at the rail terminal. The Sky Terrace on the top of the Peak Tower is an open-air observation deck that gives a 360° view of Victoria Harbour, Kowloon, and the west side of Hong Kong Island from 1,400 feet above sea-level. Since it was still rather hazy when I visited, the views unfortunately were not as clear and clean as they could have been. The temperature at the Peak, however, was far cooler than that down at the base of the mountain.
After returning to the Garden Road station, I took a short walk through the nearby St. John’s Cathedral (J). The Gothic-style church dates back to 1849 and it is the seat of the Anglican Archbishop of Hong Kong. From here, I wandered into Statue Square (K), a small park that once contained over a dozen statues, primarily of British Royalty, including ones of Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert; King Edward VII and his wife, Queen Alexandra; and King George V and his wife, Queen Mary. When the Japanese occupied Hong Kong during World War II, they sent the statues to Japan to be melted down. Today, the only statue in the park is that of Sir Thomas Jackson, chief manager of HSBC from 1876 through 1902.
As I made my way to the MTR Central Station (L), I passed by the Bank of China Tower and Bank of America Tower. The look of the two buildings — the staid, 480 foot tall, BOA Tower from the mid-1970s versus I. M. Pei’s, audacious, 1,000 foot tall, BOC Tower — seems to symbolize the growth divergence between the U.S. and Asia.
I took a short subway ride to the Wan Chai station (M) and then walked back to my hotel to shower and change. After dinner, I took the ferry over to Kowloon to see the Symphony of Lights from the other side of the harbor. Quite honestly, I do not think that the change of venue was worth the 88 cent round-trip fare, but maybe I was just too tired from walking around for so much of the afternoon. While Hong Kong is reputed to have an exciting, and even hedonistic, nightlife, I am unable to verify that since I was asleep before it even got going.
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2012 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.