Sunday, September 02, 2007

Walking the Walk

I was sick when I arrived in Hong Kong, spending the better part of four days in bed. I woke up Friday feeling much better and was able to have dinner that night with my former boss at The Times, Len Apcar. It was great to see Len, who is now Chief Editor of Asia for the International Herald Tribune, and to talk about familiar subjects from the past. When I was waiting for him to arrive at the Foreign Correspondent's Club in the Central District, I realized he was the first friend I'd seen in person since leaving New York City on February 1. I've made a lot of new friends on the road, of course, but the value of a familiar face can't be overestimated.

During dinner with Len and his son, Michael, I said that Hong Kong is a magnificent city. Michael didn't agree and asked me to explain myself. Try as I might, I couldn't come up with any concrete examples, no attractions that I could point to as worth the cost of a ticket. I stumbled through a list of generalities and left it at that.

Wall of Ads

I've been thinking about that short conversation and trying to explain to myself what I like about Hong Kong. It could be that after five months in Southeast Asia I'm relieved to be back in a big, modern city, a city offering all the comforts of the first world. It could be that I've decided to take a breather, to put my feet up for a while, so to speak, and rest my road-weary bones. Maybe it's because Hong Kong feels more "Blade Runner" than anyplace I've been in my life.

Hong Kong is crowded and hectic, expensive and frustratingly uncomfortable at times. Yet it is energetic and picaresque, easily navigable and filled with abundant opportunities for exploration and discovery. It's got color and character, sights, smells and something for every taste. It's a photographer's dream and a foodie's delight. Since regaining my strength, I've only scratched the surface. I don't claim to understand this place, but as a casual observer it's a magnificent city to explore.

So explore I did. I've been using Lonely Planet guidebooks in every country I've been to this year. I would like to branch out to Rough Guides or the Footprint series, but Lonely Planet is the one series that is available everywhere I go. I won't go into the pros and cons of Lonely Planet (and the hordes that follow its advice). I will, however, concede that Lonely Planet does an excellent job with its self-guided walking tours of major cities. I've used them as a blueprint for exploration and they've consistently opened my eyes to places I would have otherwise missed.

The Hong Kong guide includes six walking tours, on Hong Kong island and Kowloon as well as the New Territories and beyond. I spent yesterday afternoon touring two colorful working-class neighborhoods in Kowloon, Mong Kok and Yau Ma Tei. It being Saturday afternoon, the streets were chockablock with people, crowds as dense as anything I've experienced in New York or Tokyo.

The tour started with two colorful destinations: the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden and the Flower Market. The Bird Garden is both a market and a meeting place, a space for local bird fanatics to coo over their avian companions and to buy a few live crickets or a new cage. Next to the bird garden is the Flower Market, a street lined with shops selling flowers and plants. The selection is limited and the impression is nothing like what you'd see a wholesale market. Still, it was colorful and worth fifteen minutes of meandering.

Yuen Po Street Bird Garden


$25 Bunches at the Flower Market

The walking tour then hit crowded Tung Choi Street, where the first few blocks are dedicated to fish, the kind you put in tanks rather than on a plate. I've noticed in Asia that consumer goods are often sold in one part of town, with shop after shop offering the same goods. There will be the shoe block, the fish block, the furniture block, the Buddha statue block, etc. I don't think this happens in the U.S., where we crave variety. I can't explain why things are done this way in Asia.

Tropical fish are sold in plastic bags in Hong Kong. Boards holding the bags are lined up outside of shops and buyers hold the fish up to the light to inspect color and health. Some shops also sell fish out of tanks, but most shoppers seemed interested in the fish in bags.

Fish Store

The walk continued into more crowded streets. I walked through the Ladies Market, a street blanketed on both sides with clothes stalls. I braved narrow aisles and intense crowding at Trendy Zone, an indoor mall targeted to young consumers. It was the consumer version of a Halloween House of Horrors. I was disappointed to find the cutting-edge gallery Shanghai Artspace closed for an installation, though I was amused by the sign on the door stating "Close for Progress." If it's in the name of progress, I guess it's okay.

Close for Progress

I ducked into Tin Hua Temple, a house of worship dedicated to the goddess of seafarers, where I admired the large spiral joss sticks suspended from the ceiling. For a mere HK$130 you can purchase one of the spirals, which will burn continuously for about ten days. My tolerance for temples is quite low these days, but Tin Hua was deserted and peaceful, the spirals offering ample angles for photography.

Joss Sticks at Tin Hua Temple

The tour ended at Broadway Cinematheque, which my guidebook described as an "alternative cinema." Perhaps I'd set my sights too high, hoping for an Asian version of Film Forum. But alternative cinema seems to consist of "The Simpsons Movie" and "Ratatouille." What's a film lover to do?

I did, however, enjoy a visit to the Kubrick Bookstore Cafe next door, a wonderful space serving food and coffee and selling a selection of books on film, art and design (all in Chinese). What's with the name though? Is it named for Stanley Kubrick? All I know is the menus scream in bold lettering "Let's Taste Kubrick!" Creepy.

Nothing in this tour brought me closer to understanding why I find Hong Kong to be a magnificent city. It was just another day walking the streets, peeking around corners and poking my nose into the local culture. It's what I do best.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Billy said...

Hey! Lovin' the blog! You know, Kathleen goes around the apt. singing, "Pack monkey! That funky monkey!" to the Beasties tune.

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