02 December 2008

Hong Kong: beyond the core

I'm exhausted, and my Hong Kong sightseeing is over. I'll certainly miss this place - easily the most unique and the memorable among all the cities I've visited worldwide. In the future, I'll have to come back, extend my journey to Shenzhen and Macau, and explore the Chinese-speaking world further. Even a transcontinental train trip from Hong Kong to Beijing and on to Europe may be considered, if the two Koreas decide to keep installing megalomaniacs as their leaders, and Seoul is ruled out as a starting point for the trip.

Seen on Nathan Road. I need to keep observing the Chinese translations of various proper names from around the world. If possible, even proper names tend to be translated into their Chinese equivalents; for example, US-based Continental Airlines would be 大陸航空 (Big Landmass Airlines), while Asiana Airlines, which I'll fly tomorrow back to Seoul, is 韓亞航空 (Korea Asia Airlines). But some proper names can't be translated, and must be written phonetically. The above shows how Rolex is written using phonetic Chinese.

Other examples of phonetic Chinese commonly seen around Hong Kong are bus (巴士) and taxi (的士). The 16-passenger minibuses that only speak Cantonese and have irregular routes are written as 小巴, a combination of "small" and the first character for bus. And when I get thirsty, I can drink 可樂 (cola), specifically 可口可樂 (Coca-Cola) or 百事可樂 (Pepsi Cola). The name Pepsi is written in characters denoting "one hundred events." I do hope drinking Pepsi will make one hundred good things happen for me!

Slightly behind schedule, I proceeded to Admiralty Station, where I was able to take the shuttle bus to Ocean World. Admissions is $208 and it's another $10.60 one way for the bus. The prices are quite reasonable, really, considering that like in the US and unlike in South Korea, basic admissions includes all attractions. The bus, a double-decker, took a route from Wan Chai to Aberdeen, using a toll tunnel, and made the trip in under 15 minutes. Yes, the tunnel could accommodate double-deckers, though they can only use the slow lane. It was also nice to see how traffic flowed in Hong Kong - especially loved the clockwise roundabouts, a sure reminder of my British road trip of 1998.

Nevertheless, I would never drive in Hong Kong. Fuel is quite pricey ($8.50/liter for diesel, and a whopping $13.80/liter for gasoline), I may need to change lanes with little advance warning in order to go where I need to go, and traffic may clog up without warning. And for that matter, the locals walk the same way too - change directions and/or stop without warning, and block the flow of pedestrians. It's one of several frustrations I'm facing in Hong Kong - none of them serious enough to dent my warm feelings toward the city.

Ocean World is divided into two sections. The main entrance near the tunnel from Wan Chai doesn't contain all that much. The only way to get to the rest of the park is via a lengthy cable car ride over a very rugged terrain.

I got to the second section, which offers a bit more, including this dolphin/sea lion show. As all shaded seats were already taken, I had to watch the show in bright sunlight. It was too much for me, and I had to leave and go on. At least the show seemed good, with English and Cantonese prompts, a few lucky guests getting kissed from a sea lion, and even a guest getting into the water and playing with dolphins.

The most important feature of Ocean Park is its huge aquarium. In the building, a number of weird life forms can be observed - including these seahorses.

The main tank has lots of creatures, including huge rays. Blurry photo is due to my inability to use flash.

Pacific Pier simulates the California coast, complete with tackle shop signs from California, but the added humidity of Hong Kong is really bothering me at this time. Plus, I had gone on one of the rides (there are two roller coasters and several carnival rides too) and got some serious motion sickness, so I was really wobbling by this point. In this photo, I can see two California sea lions taking a nap.

This is Aberdeen, a cove well protected from Hong Kong's notorious typhoons. Fishing fleets called this place home - and some fishing boats still are based here, though as seen above, modern developments have also moved in.

The escalator to the right takes me down to the back entrance area, where I can ride a roller coaster and enter an aviary. I didn't bother. The back entrance and the main entrance are linked by a free shuttle bus.

Here's a hall full of jellyfish in a darkened tank. The light changes color constantly. What a sight.

I'm returning to the main entrance by cable car. A look at another cove. It's a very scenic cable car ride, for sure.

Several attractions force me to have a souvenir photo taken as I enter, so that I can later preview it and buy it if I like it. I found this "feature" to be too aggressive and annoying.

Poinsettias lining the fence of a maintenance building. Even though it's December, it's hot here in Hong Kong, and it will never snow. Westerners are walking around in sundresses. But in any case, it's winter, the locals make it clear in their sweater minidresses and other winter apparel, and Christmas carols are blaring out everywhere.

A panda couple, the newest star attraction at Ocean World. In the panda hall, I must remain quiet and disable flash.

Speaking of staying quiet, it is an art that the average Cantonese speaker has difficulty practicing. Cantonese is a harsh-sounding language, and its conversations tend to be exceedingly loud too. Every conversation sounds like a nasty argument. And the loud volume certainly drives me nuts. In the US and in South Korea, people always say that I talk loudly, but I'm nothing compared to the Cantonese speakers.

I bought a souvenir sculpture of two pandas with Ocean World insignia on it, and decided to move on. It was 2PM, and I needed to get over to Lantau, a long subway ride away.

I'm awaiting the bus back to Admiralty, and I decided to photograph these three flags. The tall pole displays the national flag of China, with the Hong Kong SAR flag to the left and the Ocean World flag to the right.

Yes, the national flag represents the oppressive and feared Beijing government, criticized worldwide for its human rights abuses and corruption. But here in Hong Kong, it's taking a very nice hands-off policy, and I appreciate that.

I never thought I'd feel more free under this flag than under South Korea's national flag. But that's how I honestly feel right now - and that will only continue until some leadership changes happen.

The Lantau trip involved getting to Central Station, which is connected via free transfer (a long walk, however) to the new Hong Kong Station, located right under IFC 2 and the starting point of Tung Chung Line (orange) and Airport Express. The two parallel lines were built to coincide with the opening of the new airport in 1998. I took the Tung Chung Line to the end at Tung Chung. As I entered and exited the stations, I loved hearing Christmas carol-ish melodies repeatedly playing over the turnstiles. Another way Hong Kong MTR goes out of the way to pamper its customers.

Tung Chung Station, my arrival point at Lantau, is attached to an outlet mall with lots of brand-name products. The mall contains a food court, and I ate a quick Thai lunch there.

I'm back out, now trying to board the Ngong Ping 360, another cable car system. As I head out there, I see another Falun Gong demonstration. It's extremely critical of Communism in general and the Chinese Communist Party in particular, even though English and other foreign language messages are very sparse. Although some of Falun Gong's teachings are objectionable to me, I nevertheless fully support their right to continue practicing in peace, and continue to be pleasantly surprised that they can freely protest in this special slice of Chinese territory.

Ngong Ping 360 charges $96 to $108 per adult for a round-trip ticket, depending on day of the week. It's privately run, and very commercialized; I have to pose for a monkey-shaped camera as I finish my outbound leg, and again as I finish my return leg, with a chance to buy the photos. No thanks. Posing for pictures here in Asia also requires making a peace sign or some other gesture - I am not up to it either. Remember that I am feeling very unwell by now, especially with the thought of my return to Seoul tomorrow looming over my head. Extremely loud Cantonese conversations inside the gondola don't help either.

Ngong Ping 360 stretches 3 1/2 miles long, and is a major engineering feat. It consists of three separate cable systems, with two transfer stations, located at turning points, automatically shifting the gondolas to the next cable.

As Tung Chung is built as an airport town, right across the water from the man-made Chek Lap Kok Island which is the airport itself, the first transfer station is located on Chek Lap Kok itself. Then a lengthy and steep climb over a body of water ensues as I fly back to Lantau. I am able to enjoy very excellent views of the airport, with its busy-as-ever air traffic. The airport is similar in size to Seoul Incheon, but its aircraft tend to be bigger.

Most air traffic is from Cathay Pacific Airways, which calls this airport home. For this trip, it would've made a lot of sense for me to fly Cathay, as it runs four daily nonstops to Seoul and a fifth direct flight via Taipei. (Hint: I can pay slightly more for a Taipei stopover, and combine two destinations into one trip.) The real clincher is that Cathay doesn't have the ridiculously strict registration requirements that South Korean airlines have. Sure, with Asiana, I could go to its US website and book without registering, but that's for US departures only; for this Hong Kong trip, which departed from Seoul, I was required to use South Korean website of Asiana, which must comply with the Big Brother requirements of the colonial police state. I only used it for fare quotes, and had to finish the whole deal by visiting an Asiana ticket office in person. Honestly I'd rather take Cathay's laissez-faire policy any day. Another way that the colonials claim to be pro-business but in the end become very anti-business.

In addition, Asiana and Korean Air only run two flights each per day. The only reason I insisted on Asiana was the frequent flier miles, as I have elite status with Star Alliance. Sure, Cathay is a member of oneworld, which I also have miles with (through American), but Cathay does require me to buy a very expensive ticket to qualify for American miles. (Besides, I'll never be an elite with American anyway, with my flying patterns.)

I notice that many Hong Kong place names, such as Chek Lap Kok and Mong Kok, end with "Kok" (角), which may mean an angle, a point, or a horn on an animal. Mandarin announcements pronounce the character as "Jiao," however. This kok/jiao character is also the one used for the subunit of the Chinese renminbi, where it takes ten jiao to equal one yuan.

The summit had the second transfer station, after which I could get this great, inspiring glimpse of the Big Bronze Buddha of Po Lin Monastery. There is nothing like it, and this is another experience that is totally worth the small fortune I have spent.

Ngong Ping 360 also runs a touristy, commercialized village at the Po Lin Monastery terminal, using traditional Chinese architecture but housing Japanese and European restaurants and shops.

The main gate of the monastery. Love the color theme and the incense burner.

Here's the Hall of Great Hero, the main hall. I was reminded of South Korea's Beopjusa, which I visited two weeks ago as part of my road trip. Beopjusa's main hall has the exact same title (大雄寶殿), and also has two levels. Here, the difference is in architecture and coloring. The Chinese red-gold color theme here is much more striking and flamboyant, while the Korean red-green theme is more muted and in harmony. I like them both.

The lower level of Hall of Great Hero is dedicated to various arhats, key figures in Chinese Buddhism.

I spotted this setup, which has four statues erected at 90-degree angles. It appears that these four are all examples of the Thousand-Armed Kwan Yin.

The monastery map also indicated that there was also a separate Hall of Kwan Yin, but I had no luck locating it.

I climbed a few hundred steps from the temple main gate to reach the Bronze Buddha. Even though he is seated, he is still 100 feet tall. Photos can never do him justice.

Inside the pedestal is a three-story museum showcasing the Bronze Buddha's construction. The structure resembles the Statue of Liberty inside. Unfortunately, I was limited to the bottom level only, as the top two levels require the visitor to buy a monastery meal ticket.

Looking south toward remote islets and South China Sea. I love the semitropical green leafy vegetation. Too bad my enjoyment of such sights must end today.

Looking back at the monastery, as the Bronze Buddha casts a shadow over the courtyard. The rest of the area consists of an old, beat-up village in addition to the new commercialized village.

Before Ngong Ping 360 was built, it was necessary to ride a bus from either Tung Chung or the ferry dock. And before the Tung Chung and Airport Express lines were built, the ferry was the only means of access to Lantau, the largest island in Hong Kong. Of course, back then, there was no airport here, so very few people came out this way anyway. Both the buses and the ferries still run.

Disneyland Hong Kong is also located here at Lantau, accessible by a dedicated subway line from Tung Chung Line's Sunny Bay Station.

The Toyota Crown Comfort LPG-powered taxicab, a familiar sight to me by now. However, it's in blue, instead of the usual red I've seen in the past few days.

Hong Kong taxicabs are color-coded by region. Red cabs cover Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, green ones cover New Territories, and blue ones cover Lantau. Drivers may not pick up rides from outside their assigned zones.

The side label reads "豊田石油氣的士" - or "Toyota Petroleum Gas Taxi." Asian automakers are referred to by their Chinese character names, even though their pronunciations in Cantonese, Mandarin, or any other Chinese dialect are nothing like the original pronunciations. This is especially true of Japanese manufacturers using "kun-yomi" names that substitute native Japanese words to pronounce a Chinese character. 豊田 as "Toyota" is an excellent example.

本田 is Honda. 日産 is Nissan. 三菱 is Mitsubishi. And 現代 is Hyundai. And it's certainly weird to see these names paired with the Chinese word for automobiles, 氣車, rather than the Japanese/Korean equivalent, 自動車.

It's getting late, so I must return to the cable car. I am passing in front of a Japanese-style chopsticks shop.

Having to part with Hong Kong and return to Seoul is not something I look forward to. But the Happy Buddha at this shop tells me to be happy in any case. I'll take his advice. Just to be sure, the shop has a red jade Happy Buddha.

There are lots of other Buddhist items for sale. As I browsed, a song played, which turned out to be an extremely long, repetitive chant to Kwan Yin.

I ended up buying a $300 porcelain Kwan Yin statue, all white except for a pink flower and the pink lotus pedestal, complete with a nice box for protection. Eventually, someone will have to make me a Kwan Yin in a pink miniskirt suit, but for now, this will do. And this was also a way for me to dump most of my remaining Hong Kong Dollars. I don't look forward to having too much leftover Hong Kong currency, as I'll take a hit whether I convert it to US dollars (which I won't use for another 10 days at least) or to South Korean won (which will continue to lose value). With this purchase, it looks like I'll have enough Hong Kong Dollars left as souvenirs and to fund the initial stages of my possible future return to Hong Kong, but that's about it.

To avoid the cross-harbor crush during the rush hour, I decided to take a different route on the subway after the sunset ride on the cable car brought me back to Tung Chung. I only went to Lai King on the Tung Chung Line, then picked up the Tsuen Wan Line to return to my hotel while staying entirely in Kowloon. I'm appreciating the fact that MTR planned out the subway stations very well, so that the vast majority of transfers are very easy, merely a walk across the platform in many cases.

After a quick break checking emails, I am back out. I'm on Kowloon's Avenue of the Stars, looking across the harbor at the Hong Kong Island skyline. That alone is a beautiful sight, to be rivalled by maybe New York and Chicago, maybe the Las Vegas Strip, but pretty much by nobody else. I'll surely feel depressed to return to Seoul, then to Los Angeles, neither of which are known for cutting-edge architecture and lighting.

At 8PM every night, it gets even better. All the major buildings turn on their special lights, in a coordinated laser and light show over the harbor. The photo above shows the Central City area in the midst of tonight's show. This can only be done in Hong Kong. On the Avenue of the Stars, loudspeakers also play music and prompts for the show, though the prompts are strictly in Cantonese only.

After a Japanese dinner at Tsim Sha Tsui, I headed north to Mong Kok, and started walking the Ladies Market. My walk continued down to the Temple Street Market, and this gave me my only chance to experience Hong Kong's nighttime street market culture. Not much to actually buy, but plenty of hectic atmosphere to enjoy.

The above shop sells children's outfits, some of them Western, some of them Chinese, a few of them even Korean. I can buy, for $49, a girl's dress from Korea. Other Korean items at Ladies Market include bootleg DVDs of popular Korean movies. Twenty years ago, shoppers at Seoul's Itaewon bought bootleg Hong Kong movies, but now, I get to buy bootleg Korean movies in Kowloon. But I am convinced more than ever that the colonial police state back in Seoul will end those good old times soon, by suppressing creativity.

I'm still feeling quite lousy, unable to recover from the motion sickness, the Cantonese idiosyncracies (including loud conversations), and worries about my return to Seoul tomorrow. I hope these poem ornaments will cheer me up. Sure, I can't read, much less understand, the messages themselves, but if the Happy Buddha is on it, it can't be bad.

Also available are jade necklaces with figurines of Happy Buddha or Kwan Yin. I didn't find any Kwan Yin necklaces to my liking, however.

Time to get naughty. Lingerie, sexy costumes (French maid especially), bodystockings, hosiery, and more. At a similar shop, I can even find a red men's thong in the shape of an elephant; an erection will surely get the nose going.

Hair extensions and wigs. Some look good, others are strictly for costume use.

Some naughty photos. The middle one looks very lesbian. I love it - and it's proof that almost anything goes in Hong Kong, even with the strict Beijing masters now in charge.

Various automotive keyrings. Plenty of BMW keyrings (though none are authorized by BMW itself), though as I am a soon-to-be-ex BMW owner, I have no need for one. Can't find a Hyundai keyring for my next car, but there is a corporate sister brand Kia keyring.

Other stalls selling automotive keyrings tend to sell those that have flashing lights in them, powered by solar power and battery. I don't like those.

Jade statuettes, mostly Happy Buddhas.

Various board game equipment. I can play mah jongg (which I can never figure out), dominoes, chess, Chinese chess, and more. And the Chinese chess sets (middle right) use figurines rather than characters.

Lovely lighting along Nathan Road. I am crossing it to get down to Temple Street Market, which is named after the Tin Hau Temple, near my hotel, and my very first Hong Kong sight. Time to come around a full circle and finish where I had started.

Still on Nathan Road, with a look at more game equipment. I see jade sets for chess, Chinese checkers, Chinese chess, and Go. Aside from being jade, the designs are not that special. One unusual item in the display is in the dead center, however; it is a wooden Japanese chess set.

Another place on Nathan Road. Here, I can buy bootleg DVDs. Looks like they sell the latest X-Files movie, starring the lesbian pride icon (despite being straight herself) Gillian Anderson as Agent Scully. I love her pantsuits.

Of course, I must remember that Hong Kong uses Region 3 PAL DVDs. I'll need an NTSC converter to play this in South Korea and Taiwan, which are also Region 3 but use NTSC. Of course, elsewhere (including North America), I will need a code-free player as well. I do have a code-free player, but I will not take chances, and will only buy genuine products.

I'm starting my walk through the Temple Street Market. This stall sells baseball caps. Everything costs $20.

As English is not well spoken here, and no signs are in English at all, it helps to be able to read Chinese. Fortunately, all the numbers are in Arabic numerals, so all it takes is some guesswork. 元 refers to the Hong Kong Dollar (though it could also refer to the Chinese yuan, the renminbi is always written in Hong Kong as 人民幣 or its simplified equivalent). 個 means "each." 張 means "sheet" as in a sheet of paper.

And speaking of the Chinese renminbi, there are plenty of currency exchanges in and near gritty markets like this, that exchange renminbi - and only renminbi. They advertise no fees and appear to have good rates.

Electric products for sale. The power strips on the right show that Hong Kong uses the three-pronged British outlets and plugs. Aside from that, power supply is 220V and 50Hz which is standard across most of the world.

As I am walking around, I am seeing streetside food stalls and dining tables as well, where people, even Westerners, are eating dishes that I will never be able to identify. The pungent smell of those food items certainly fill the air. Even though the dishes may be too exotic for me, I certainly love the smell, which may be familiar to me from my experiences in Chinatown USA but nevertheless is something I relish.

Here's a detailed look at a Western chess set with Chinese styling. A pagoda serves as the rook, just as the castle does in traditional chess sets. The eight pawns all look different.

The Little Red Book, required reading in China during the Cultural Revolution and a collection of Mao Zedong's teachings, is available too on Temple Street. Even the most hardcore communist items are fair game, as long as it makes money! Such is the beauty of capitalism. I may also buy Mao statues and posters.

Of course, Mao was the enemy of intellectual development, so that alone rules out me ever picking up a copy. Moreover, if I pick one up now, and take it into Seoul tomorrow, it will only give the colonial government one more "damning evidence" to frame me as a threat to their rule, and start doing some unspeakable things.

Temple Street is interrupted by Tin Hau Temple, so the stalls detour onto the next block to the west, Shanghai Street, before picking up Temple Street again later. This is a section on Shanghai Street. From here on, I can even find sex toys; the shop on the right sells lots of huge vibrators, artificial vaginas, and more. Also available are figurines of masturbating Japanese schoolgirls. Again, anything goes!

By this point, I am dead tired, and the shops continue repeating the same themes as I continue south, from jade Buddhist statues to sex toys to Mao Zedong goods to electronics to whatever. But I had to keep going, if only to extend my Hong Kong experience by another minute. As I approached Jordan Road and the shops started to die down, I decided to call it quits and retired to my room.

This is another trip whose memories will live on for a long time. Looking forward to getting some rest in Seoul from tomorrow on - assuming that the colonials don't mess with me, that is.