30 November 2008

Hong Kong: Getting Started

A long day. I have tons of photos to show for my first day in Hong Kong. This special city did not let me down at all.

I am getting around using a 3-day MTR pass which allows unlimited travel on the subway system (except for stations on the Shenzhen border). It cost me HKD $300, which includes roundtrip fare on the Airport Express train and a HKD $50 refundable deposit. Not a bad deal, considering that one US dollar buys just under 8 Hong Kong dollars. The pass is in the form of the Octopus smart farecard, and works exactly like Seoul's T-Money. The currency, on the other hand, is a bit confusing to use, however, as (1) ATMs spit out high-value HKD $500 banknotes, and (2) banknotes from $20 and up have several different designs, depending on who issues the money (I have notes from HSBC and Bank of China, but there are other issuers too). The $10 banknote and the coins ($5, $2, $1, 50 cents, 10 cents) are all government-issued and consistent. Whenever Chinese numerals are used, they are complex legalese tamper-proof numerals for obvious reasons.

In written Chinese, the Hong Kong Dollar, like the Taiwan Dollar, is written as 元, the same character used for the mainland Chinese renminbi yuan. In colloquial conversation, the currency unit used will indeed be whatever the Cantonese pronunciation of that character is, rather than the dollar. And for that matter, when I return to Seoul and discuss my Hong Kong experiences, I'll use the equivalent Korean pronunciation - the won.

And speaking of renminbi, the conversion rate is about 1:1, though in reality, renminbi is worth slightly more. A few shops in Hong Kong will accept renminbi, but don't count on it.

I started off with a bit of Kowloon, but most of my activities took place over on Hong Kong Island.

This is Nathan Road in Kowloon, a busy thoroughfare, and Kowloon's old core. (Most of Kowloon developments are under 25 years old.) Those signs overhead are a sure indication that I am in Hong Kong now. And if that's not enough, those double-decker buses should remind me too, as well as the taxicabs.

Most buses are made by European firms. All cabs are old, stodgy Toyota Crowns with high roofline and automatic rear door, just like Tokyo cabs. There also are 16-passenger minibuses that go into back alleys, also made by Toyota, but I am advised not to use those as English signs/announcements are nonexistent. For the rest of Hong Kong's vehicles, Toyotas dominate, and other Japanese cars (both familiar and utterly strange) round out most of the rest, though European luxury cars are also common, and European non-luxury and Korean cars are also available, though not common. American cars are nonexistent in Hong Kong, unless you count Opels and European-market Fords; Hong Kong also requires right-hand-drive, which most Americans cars don't even offer anyway.

I am visiting a park in front of Tin Hau Temple, which is a Taoist temple very near my hotel. At this park, there are plenty of chess boards, and games are going on at many of them, played pretty much by older men. A match of Chinese chess is always fun.

Tin Hau has a number of features dedicated to my transgender matron saint. At one hall, I can pray and make offerings to Kwan Yin, and light a spiral incense which will burn overhead for two weeks and keep my wishes coming true over that time. (There are lots of such incenses overhead - so I need to be very careful not to burn my head with falling ashes.) At another hall, I can pick up books about Kwan Yin.

And sure enough, a vendor sells these Kwan Yin statues just outside. Here in the Chinese-speaking world, many Kwan Yin statues are brightly and beautifully painted, featuring lovely makeup and other decorations.

Hong Kong's transportation system has many British influences. Obviously, traffic drives on the left. In the MTR subway, ways in and ways out are clearly marked, just like in the London Tube; follow the train icons to the platform, and follow the white 出 character on a green background, which means "out," to exit. Just to be sure, there is also the English word "exit" in small letters under the 出 character.

The British are also obsessive about lining up - or queueing, as they prefer to say, and they made sure to transfer the habit to Hong Kongers. For every bus that stops at this stop, there is a separate queue for each route. This is a really nice sight for me, as I just came in from Seoul, where queueing up is still a very foreign concept.

I took the Tsuen Wan Line to Tsim Sha Tsui, the waterfront area of Kowloon. As Cantonese names are difficult to spell in English and even more difficult to pronounce correctly, it's best to refer to each line by its color (red for Tsuen Wan Line) and recognize what the final stop's name looks like in Chinese. Fortunately, some stops have English names that really are English, rather than romanized Cantonese, so they help. (It's also interesting to learn how English is phonetically written in Chinese characters to approximate the pronunciation.)

Cantonese is a devil to learn, so I am not even bothering, as the risk of incorrect tonal usage, and the resulting possible offenses/insults, runs too large. Fortunately, English is well spoken by most, even though Hong Kong English is British in grammar and usage, and Cantonese in accent. With so many non-local East Asians (Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, even mainland Chinese who speak non-Cantonese dialects) visiting Hong Kong, the fact that I don't speak Cantonese doesn't come across as much of a surprise.

Tsim Sha Tsui has this great shopping mall, named New World Centre. It is connected to a number of luxury hotels. Tsim Sha Tsui is a transportation hub as well, so this area is well-developed and busy. No time for me to linger at shopping malls today, however.

In fact, I am not planning on any extensive shopping in Hong Kong, which is strange, because Hong Kong has a reputation as a shopper's paradise. I just don't have a bag that can hold anything beyond what I already brought in. And this trip is also strange in other ways. For one, this is my first non-guided Asian trip outside the Korean peninsula. And while my approach to visiting a new city is either that of an interested, curious American (as is usually the case in Europe and Canada) or that of a wannabe local (as was the case in Seoul for the past few months), I'm doing neither in Hong Kong; as some of my guidebooks were obtained from Hong Kong Tourist Authority's Seoul office in Korean, and others were bought at Seoul's bookstores in Korean as well, I'm traveling like a Korean, really, using Seoul as my comparison reference. Only my US passport says otherwise.

This Ford Model T is one of several antique cars set up at New World Centre as a photo prop for visitors.

I wandered through the mall to get out to the waterfront, which is the Avenue of the Stars. But it was totally worth it. This is a great look at the Hong Kong Island skyline!

As it's the Avenue of the Stars, Hong Kong's answer to Hollywood's Walk of Fame and Mann Chinese Theatre, I need to pay some homage to the great Hong Kong movie stars of the past several decades. Here is a statue of the late Bruce Lee.

Although Hong Kong's top movie stars are usually men, some women really shone too. This is the handprint of Michelle Yeoh, probably the best of them all, born in Malaysia, and a onetime Bond girl.

Here's another great Hong Kong actress - Maggie Cheung.

Here's Jet Li, a major action star.

Andy Lau. Many Hong Kong actors have adopted Western names. In many cases, these handprints feature both the Cantonese and the Western names.

Lau's Cantonese name is Lau Tak-wah; it's not a name I recognize, but I do recognize his Mandarin name, Liu De-who, and his Korean name, Yu Deok-hwa.

The late Leslie Cheung never got to leave his handprints here. Rest in peace.

Cheung (張) turns out to be the Cantonese pronunciation of Zhang, the most common surname in China (and the world), and often spelled Chang as well.

For that matter, my Cantonese surname is Tsui (徐). My Mandarin surname is Xu (alternate: Hsu), while my Korean one is Seo.

Chow Yun-fat is still alive, but his handprint is blank, as he hasn't had a chance to leave them yet.

Here's a nearby souvenir shop selling Jackie Chan stuff.

Here's John Woo, who is not an actor, but a top-notch director instead.

The most famous of them all - Jackie Chan.

Bruce Lee, whose given name translates into Little Dragon (小龍), also died without leaving handprints.

Another common use of the "little" character here in Hong Kong is 小心, literally "Little Mind," which means "caution." I've never seen this word before. Granted, I have some limited knowledge of Chinese characters, but I do not speak any Chinese dialects, and my Chinese characters are strictly used in Japanese and Korean contexts, so some Chinese vocabulary can be outright strange to me, even if I know the characters already. Another one that I do recognize, but don't use, is 氣車 (steam wagon), which means automobile in Chinese; I am more likely to use the Japanese/Korean version, 自動車 (self-moving wagon). The days of the week, with Sunday as 星期日 and Monday through Saturday going 星期一 through 星期六, are also completely foreign to me.

Junks in the foreground. Skyscrapers, including the super-tall International Finance Center 2, beyond. This can only be Hong Kong!

Now it's time for me to take the famous Star Ferry to the island. It's a rickety ride, and I got a bit seasick - I'll never ride it again, even though it's a lovely experience with only-in-Hong-Kong views, and the fare I paid was dirt cheap at HKD $2.20. I sat in the upper deck; lower deck has a separate entrance and a different fare.

Falun Gong demonstrators are at the ferry dock at Tsim Sha Tsui, promoting their movement and sharply criticizing the Beijing government's crackdown on them. I need to remember that while Hong Kong may be an SAR, and will be one through 2047 at least, it's still China, so it's very surprising to see this tolerated.

Not only this, but the infamous Internet firewall that plagues the rest of China does not exist in Hong Kong. While there were many fears about the continued vibrancy of Hong Kong's democracy after its return to Chinese rule in 1997, sharpened after the 1989 Tian An Men Square incident, it appears that Hong Kong's democracy is still going strong. I only wish some of it rubs off onto mainland China.

If anyone told me last year that Hong Kong, a part of China, was more democratic than South Korea, where a fairly progressive Constitution was enacted in 1987, I would've outright dismissed it as pure baloney. But now, it's very true. South Korea's Constitution is no longer even worth the paper it's printed on, and political dissent is now once again punishable by death - not much better than mainland China, really. At least China is a sovereign nation, which South Korea is not.

And yes, South Korean fascists are spam-commenting here again with their outdated nonsense propaganda. They'll never get past the moderation stage, however. I do think another revolution along the lines of those of 1960 and 1987 will probably be needed back in Seoul...

Here's a familiar sight I haven't seen in a while. This is a Pret-a-Manger at the Central MTR Station. Pret-a-Manger is a sandwich shop launched by McDonald's, initially in the UK, and I certainly ate there a few times when I was in London 5 years ago. Since then, it's spread to New York, and now to Hong Kong. Didn't eat here though, as I had eaten back in Kowloon at a standard McDonald's, where the localized menu featured the Ebi Burger, or the Japanese Shrimp Burger. I stuck to a standard Big Mac meal for a very good price of HKD $25.

This is not the highest building in Hong Kong (it's the IFC 2). But this building, the Bank of China building designed by Chinese-American architect IM Pei, is certainly the most memorable. Pei also did the glass pyramid at the Louvre. I love looking at this building - the ultimate reminder that I am on Hong Kong Island.

I then climbed the nearby Victoria Peak, by taking the Peak Tram, a 120-year old extremely steep funicular with a run time of 8 minutes. Fare is $22 one-way, $33 day return, and $150 for a combination ticket with Madame Tussaud's. The $150 ticket (Hong Kong Dollars, of course) is a very good deal, considering the exorbitant admissions charges that I've paid at other Madame Tussaud's locations in London, New York, and Amsterdam (I haven't visited the Las Vegas one yet - the only one now left for me to visit).

Exiting the tram at the summit forces me to walk through a crowded mall selling souvenirs. Most are tacky, but I loved this display. Sakyamunis, Happy Buddhas, and Kwan Yins - what more could I want?

Here's a look south toward some distant islands and the South China Sea.

Hong Kong was clear and beautiful today. Temperatures at sea level were around 20C - which actually felt warmer due to the humidity. However, up here, it actually felt a bit chilly.

I'm walking around in a short-sleeved tee. So do many other tourists, especially Western ones. Locals tend to be bundled up, however, in sweater dresses and a few extra layers, thick tights, boots, and even a substantial jacket. I would bundle up just the same - but only back in Seoul with its freezing temperatures.

And now it's time to enter Madame Tussaud's and go shutter-crazy.

Homewrecker, you suck! Down with Angelina Jolie!

Long live Jennifer Aniston! (Too bad, there was no likeness of Aniston here.)

A very nice rendition of Michelle Yeoh. Love the sheer sequin dress.

Although the emphasis here is quite Chinese, pop stars of neighboring nations also feature here. Here's Bae Yong-joon, the South Korean actor who is extremely popular in Japan. The Japanese women worship him as "Yon-sama."

Bae is here to represent the South Korean pop culture boom that has now supplanted the era of Hong Kong movies. But with the fascist colonial regime in Seoul now, creativity may suffer dramatically in future years, and South Korea's reign will come to an end.

Leslie Cheung. Again, rest in peace.

Princess Diana. May she rest in peace too.

Two politicians from different eras and societies, with baldness being the only common link.

The left is former Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, who served from 1996 to 2007. The right is the final Soviet head of state, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto. Loved seeing her here, as she stood for moderate and modern Islam, and certainly was the most powerful woman ever in the Muslim world. Of course, the extremists have taken her out too.

I'm in China, so I must acquaint myself with key Chinese politicians. Here is Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founder of Republic of China.

And here is Chairman Mao Zedong, who drove out the Republic of China to Taiwan, then founded the People's Republic of China in Beijing. He was one very brutal leader, for sure, as the propaganda poster reproduction behind him reminds me.

Here is Deng Xiaoping, who led China from the draconian Mao rule into a more open era, where capitalism and free market had a significant role to play. China re-joined the global community and became a major player.

Zhou Enlai was a very prominent member of China's Communist Party in its formative years.

Here's the current leader, Hu Jintao.

Yang Liwei flew into space on October 15, 2003. His flight was a milestone, as he used a native Chinese spaceship and rocket, and that made China the third country in the world to achieve independent manned space flight, after the USSR (now Russia) and the US.

Andy Lau. He's in his late 40s now, so I am pretty sure he looks older than this.

In addition to acting, Lau is also a good singer. And so was Leslie Cheung for that matter! Just ten days ago, I was driving my rental car through South Korea, listening to Lau and Cheung sing as a radio show was discussing the era of the Hong Kong movie boom.

Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. Where is Calista Flockhart? :)

Marilyn Monroe. Yes, the vents below do work - and will flash Marilyn (or any woman who dares to step up there) randomly. Quite a few mini-clad women did brave the vents, ensuring that their minis were held down.

Visitors are welcome to put on the blond wig and the white dress on the left for the exact same look. Men are especially welcome to try.

Yao Ming. D*mn, he's tall.

I'm back out, exploring another gift shop. Here are some Chinese-themed chess sets. The left two are Manchu Dynasty-themed Western chess pieces. The right is a Chinese chess set using figurines, instead of written characters, to identify the pieces.

Honestly, I'd love to have a chess set that uses Kwan Yin as the queen. Using my transgender matron saint to represent the game's most important piece, itself a transwoman, would only be very appropriate. No luck finding such a set yet, however.

A look toward the harbor from the summit.

Lots of foreign tourists out and about today. Hong Kong has always been a cosmopolitan city and a tourist magnet, so Westerners are extremely common at tourist traps. Sure, Seoul now also has its fair share of Westerners, but never even comes close to Hong Kong levels. The Japanese are also very common. The Koreans are now found in smaller numbers, as the crash of the won keeps them at home. Many Southeast Asians, primarily Filipinos and Indonesians, also fill Hong Kong, though primarily as migrant workers. Tourist services are primarily provided (in addition to Chinese and English, that is) in Japanese, with some services in Korean as well but difficult to find other language assistances. On the other hand, it's easy to find phone cards with great rates to the Philippines - with Tagalog language prompts.

I came back down the Peak, then entered Hong Kong Park, a garden that used to be the Hong Kong Jockey Club until 1991. Lovely Chinese gardening throughout. Here, stone frogs sit on the boulders below as a waterfall flows above.

A koi pond. Can never go wrong with one.

Another reminder that the British influences linger on in Hong Kong. In London, due to the traffic flow on the left and lots of one-way streets, crosswalks are almost always marked with words "LOOK LEFT" or "LOOK RIGHT." Hong Kong is not as consistent as London, but nevertheless marks lots of crosswalks similarly, in both English and Chinese. In fact, at many intersections, including this one, these messages are the only indications that a crosswalk exists, as the crosswalk is otherwise unmarked.

I then tried to get over to Sheung Wan using the double-deck trams (which, like San Francisco cable cars, are really tourist traps rather than mass transit), but out of change (fare is $2 coin, Octopus not accepted) and finding the trams overpacked, I took the MTR over to Sheung Wan, visiting another Taoist temple - Man Mo Temple, dedicated to literary and martial arts, and honoring General Guan Yu. Didn't find much that I could recognize, but I bought three magnetic street signs - one for Hong Kong, one for Kowloon, and one for Tsim Sha Tsui - for $15 each. At least I got to finally see a Guan Yu shrine, and a real Chinese example at that, as back in Seoul, Dongmyo remains under renovation.

Even here in Hong Kong, Vietnamese rice noodle soups are very popular.

An oddity, though not that uncommon. This Toyota Estima minivan, one of many weird Japanese car models sold here, has two license plates. The top is a yellow fiberglass plate issued by Hong Kong; the front plate is white, following the British practice. (Plates in Hong Kong can be in a number of different shapes depending on the vehicle, though the standard European size is the most common.) The bottom one is a plate from China's Guangdong Province that is given to Hong Kong cars applying for Chinese duplicate registration.

I bet cross-border automotive travel is a nightmare. China drives on the right, and uses left-hand-drive cars, so taking a Hong Kong car into the mainland (and vice versa) can get very dicey and dangerous. Moreover, foreign visitors like me are not even allowed to make such drives, as China does not recognize foreign driver's licenses, even with International Driving Permits. The only way to drive in China is to be a long-term resident and become eligible to apply for a Chinese driver's license. Of course, IDPs are acceptable in Hong Kong, but the city is so compact and well-served by mass transit that driving makes no sense.

I am walking on Hollywood Road, Hong Kong Island's antique row. This rather fancy decorations store has some stone guardian soldiers in the back, and a Kwan Yin in front. I am so glad to continue running into my transgender matron saint, and look forward to seeing even more of her.

One great thing about capitalism is that it can even embrace its worst enemies and turn them into money-making opportunities. At this antique shop, I can buy some likenesses of Mao Zedong. I know for sure that he's turning in his Beijing mausoleum - and that's music to me!

Above the Mao likenesses, here are some old nude photos for sale. Some of them even have lesbian themes - I love them!

It bears remembering that homosexuality was a capital offense under Mao Zedong, though China today is quite tolerant of LGBTs (but certainly not trans lesbians, who don't fit into the Confucian rigid social struct). Over here in Hong Kong, the British criminalized homosexuality for a long time too, under their Christian belief system. Hong Kong maintains freedom of religion even today, and indeed there are fundamentalist Christian groups out and about, though they are nowhere as obnoxious and aggressive as their counterparts in Seoul as well as Koreatown USA. Plus, Seoul Metro-style subway proselytizing is out of the question, as MTR trains get quite packed during rush hours.

I took part of the half-mile-long escalator system to return to MTR and Kowloon. The escalator line is the longest such line in the world.

My original plans called for getting back out to Avenue of the Stars for some night lighting spectacle, but I am too tired to continue, so I'd rather stay inside and do some writing.