Hong Kong Journal
Let The Games Begin
Namco (Japan) made a great game for the PlayStation called Ridge Racer. I played it forwards and backwards, staying up all night to finish it and receive the keys to the black Lamborghini Countach. I figure that this was about six years ago. Numerous sequels have since been made.
My plane arrived in Hong Kong two hours late. Emirates Airlines was thoroughly professional (they won airline of the year in 2000). The sides of the plan had Arabic. I enjoyed the video selection of Hindi Pop music and an audio track of the Koran. The couple next to me were from Hong Kong and taught me a few key phrases in Cantonese. I had to keep reminding myself not ask 'how do you say <blank> in Chinese?' I found it easy to forget that 'Chinese" can be either Cantonese (Hong Kong) or Mandarin. They were very friendly and gave me a pen so I wouldn't have to fill out my arrival card with my red bic.
I caught the double-decker bus from the airport to Hong Kong Island. Something about the trip was strangely familiar for about ten minutes; until it hit me--Ridge Racer. I was traveling the same course that I had driven ad nausea, only this time the vehicle was a mammoth bus and the track was so real I had to pinch myself (and it hurt, fyi).
Hong Kong is out of this world. It seems cliche (Off the topic, isn't the pronunciation of 'kleeshay' itself cliche? I'm lobbying to change it to 'kleesh' with a silent 'e'. Join the fight.) to compare the city to Blade Runner, but it is the closest thing I can think of. The city of the future is here today, and it falls under China's auspices.
I spent my first night at the Noble Guesthouse in Causeway Bay because the YHA hostel wouldn't answer their phone, because the persistent (albeit helpful) tout at the airport, and because it was recommended in my Lonely Planet. It was clean and secure, as reviewed, but almost a closet and at outrageous prices too. This morning I made plans to meet up with a friend of a friend, and caught the metro to Central to deal with travel maintenance issues.
The Hong Kong Tourist Association (HKTA) had moved since my book was printed, but I finally found it in a gleaming silver skyscraper. They were very helpful and gave me a useful map for my scavenger hunt. The HKTA is conveniently next door to the Central Markets, so I poked my head in there to see butchers chopping up beef-like creatures (the horns in the waste bucket looked like cattle to me), the obligatory goat's head, and live poultry for sale in cages (you probably have to pay extra for the cage itself). The Markets are easy to find, just follow your nose.
I had checked the US Consulate's website hours earlier online, so I knew they were closed for lunch. Having worked up an appetite at the Markets (within reason) and needing fuel myself, I took the Central Escalator System (no kidding, 29 'stops' over 800 meters--a tourist attraction in its own right!) to Gage Street. Until you look up and see the skyscrapers, you would think you were in a small back alley (again more butchers too?!) in China. I picked the only restaurant that had no English words on the outside (or inside as it turned out). The exterior was yellow and filled with Chinese characters. I figured it couldn't be too expensive, since the numbers I could read never topped 30 Hong Kong dollars (1 USD = 7.8 HKD). Inside I grabbed the last seat, and pointed at the menu and rubbed my stomach when the proprietor brought me tea. He was a bit perplexed, but eventually understood that I wanted him to choose a dish for me. I enjoyed what I believe was pork and green beans with a gravy over rice. It was quite tasty and a good meal for 28 HKD.
On the way to the Consulate, I stopped into an bookstore with English books and magazines. It was a treat to read a bit of the latest New Yorker, including a review of the movie 'A.I.' out of which I had recently walked in a cafe (yup, bootleg) (the movie, not the cafe-- bootleg that is) in Penang, Malaysia. (Don't waste your $$$ imho.) Since I fortified myself with books in Malaysia for the 23 hour train ride to Bangkok (three countries in three days), I did not buy anything. Books are heavy, and I had spent most of the time playing cards with a pretty Pakistani woman, so my volumes remain untouched.
At the consulate, I had to leave my camera at the entrance with security. The operation to add pages to my passport took as long as it took to wait in line to be served. I spent the time reading a comic by Lucy Woo about a man who wants to renounce his citizenship. To spoil the ending for you, the key to making him reconsider involves the assumption that the way to an ex-pat's heart is through cholesterol--thanks to the magic words of 'Twinkies,' 'Moon-pies,' etc.
After retrieving my passport with its new pages 'A' through 'X', I collected my camera and headed towards the China Travel Service (CTS). They are the best way to get a three month visa for China, so one passport photo and $180 HKD later, I left my newly bulging passport in their care until Thursday.
I returned to Causeway Bay on the double-decker tram. It had two stories--how cool is that?!? We wound our way through the billboard congested streets until I recognized the jumbotron that served as a landmark for my guesthouse.Which brings us to now. Here I am ensconced in front of a monitor again, dumping my recently fried brain. The gunfire makes it hard to concentrate. It seems that the eighth floor of Fashion Island is a popular spot for students (do they ever study??? If I had had such entertainment in college, I probably would have failed out or something.) to melee in first person shooters on the PC's. One employee just stopped and asked if I wanted headphones to block out the noise. How old do I look? I didn't have the energy to explain to him the cacophony created by videogame companies at the Electronic Entertainment Exposition (E3) in LA every May, and that I'm a (somewhat) trained professional in this area. Maybe when I'm done offloading today's experiences I'll take off the kid gloves and kick some virtual-Hong-Kong-ass...
Two all-beef patties...
Only three other white people are in this 24-hour restaurant with me. Two of them are enjoying their meal together in the near
corner. The third welcomes by the door, standing stiffly at attention.
He is the owner of this successful franchise, and I believe that he hails from Scottish
ancestry. I have not made his acquaintance personally, but I know him by reputation.
Like his esteemed countryman William Wallace, Mr. McDonald also paints his face for battle, though failure in
his field is a different sort of capital punishment. On closer scrutiny I
appear to have been hornswaggled, for this Ronald is made of porcelain.
I recognize the canned muzak as "Dream a Little Dream" played with two fingers on a Casio with an echoey bell sound. I can count four turbans in my vicinity. Several other guys are eating alone, like me. Teenagers out of school share french fries. Mothers eat with their children. There is no plastic playground in sight. The tray of the man next to me has a small container marked, "McDonald's Liquid Sugar." The white couple are the only ones to bus their own trays. The Casio plays the theme from "Love Story."
People in Hong Kong love their Happy Meals as much as any Americans. Aside from the natural human craving for greasy fast food, it is one of the cheapest meals you can find here; at $19.80 ($2.50 USD) for a value meal it is two-thirds of the price of any other of my meals. I particularly like it because I don't have to read Chinese to order, and it is just like the McDonald's I get back home.
Technically, I'm in Kowloon, the peninsula that reaches out towards Hong Kong island. Kowloon is to Hong Kong in the way that Brooklyn or Queens is to Manhattan. Affectionately referred to as a tourist ghetto, it is where cheap (relatively) accommodation can be found. The truly brave catch their zzzz's in Chunking Mansions, a much less glamorous place than the name suggests. From the outside, one wonders how long this condemned building has stayed its execution. At the entrance the touts attach themselves to you and follow you inside to the warren of hawkers and guesthouses. The stigma of Chunking Mansions drove me instead to the Salisbury YMCA near the Star Ferry terminal two blocks away.
The 'Y' is the poshest place I have stayed since Barcelona at New Year's. The dormitories are two bunk beds, air conditioned, en-suite bathrooms, swimming pool downstairs, and maids who make the beds each morning. This luxury will set you back $230 (1 U.S. Dollar = 7.8 Hong Kong dollars, so $30 USD/night). It is a bargain by Hong Kong standards. I can see the sheik bedrooms of the Peninsula Hotel from my window across the street.
My first night at the 'Y', already reeling from the odd sensation of being on the Bladerunner set, I explored my way up the back stairwell, ignoring the warnings of an 'unsupervised area.' Light rain was falling around the industrial air-con fans. I climbed a ladder to a platform with satellite dishes, where I looked across the harbour and watched the neon city lights shine off the water and the clouds.
Moments like these that cause me to raise my arms Balboa-ically as the great celestial announcer proclaims, "and still undefeated champion of the world..." It certainly looks like the top of the world from here.
July is smack in the middle of the rainy season. According to today's paper (another perk of the 'Y'), a tropical storm is headed this way. It will eventually turn into Typhoon Yutu and shut down the city for a day, during which I'll watch "The Straight Story." Most of my days here have been 31 C and overcast. Every so often the clouds open up without warning for ten to fifteen minutes and then take a break for a few hours. The umbrella that I bought in Bangkok has more than earned its keep. Another meteorological phenomenon is the air-conditioning. Hot-and-humid air crashes and recedes in waves as nipple-hardening frigidity pours out of the storefronts into the street. My camera's and glasses' lenses both fog whenever I leave a building for the tropical outdoors. Walking down the sidewalk reminds me of swimming in a pool--you can't quite be comfortable when you hit a warm spot.
A friend's parent's friends, Leo and Elaine, introduced me to Rodney at dinner the other night. Rod is a 26 year old American from Alabama who has been volunteering at the YMCA for the summer, teaching English and organizing activities in return for room and board. He has a dorm room to himself, and he graciously offered me a bed. Sometimes it feels like a kids' slumber party as we have chatted in the night as late as 6 a.m.
Rod introduced me to some of the other counselors who were going clubbing Thursday night. He had a prior engagement, so the four girls and I caught the metro to Central and went in search of the Harbour View Hotel where the nightclub is on the fourth floor. We hailed a taxicab, and instructed the driver. He could not understand us, so we pulled over and asked some pedestrians until we found one who could give him directions to "Club Ing." No kidd-ing, that's the name. A friend of the girls got us in without the cover charge, and since Thursday is ladies night, the girls brought me free drinks all evening. The hip-hop room had mostly sweaty ex-pats (no air-con), while the techno room was literally much cooler.
On Saturday night Rod and I went to his friend Joanne's apartment for a barbecue on the roof. Several times the rain poured for five minutes. Umbrellas would go up, and people would huddle together until it passed. I made my way to bed at 3 a.m.
Rod did not return home in time to make our Sunday morning date with Leo and Elaine, so I met them on my own. We hopped in a red cab and drove for twenty minutes into the hills around the city. We alighted from the cab in the clouds and then hiked for seven kilometers through lush green, dodging the occasional cow pie. I did not expect to find a remote trail so close to the city, so I danced my way around mud puddles in my sandals instead of my hiking boots.
Leo came to Hong Kong to teach English for a year. His very first day in the city he rode up the same road on the back of the motorbike belonging to the man whose position he was to fill. They hiked this same trail until they could see across the city, and he told Leo, "This all belongs to you now." That was 37 years ago. Leo explains that Hong Kong has changed a lot since then. Leo also denies allegations of ever riding the morning rush hour ferry to Kowloon wearing nothing more than shoes and a newspaper without anyone looking twice.
Elaine received her masters in social work at the University of Alabama, which is ultimately how Rodney met them. She has worked at the YWCA for 22 years. At lunch Leo explains that he eats so well because he married a native. Elaine jokes that Leo is her lifetime project of social work. Our dim sum is especially tasty after the hike.
I meet Rod back at the 'Y'. After a de-briefing, we stop at Starbucks for coffee to bring to the movie. The picture is "Shaolin Soccer." It is in Cantonese, but it has English subtitles. The comedy concerns Kung-fu disciples who enter a soccer tournament. The team they beat in the finals is loosely translated as 'Team Evil'. They have super-powers thanks to injections purchased from the Americans.
The next day I sneak into the Hong Kong Book Fair at the Convention Center for free. Hong Kong feels lucky to me.
In McDonald's, patrons don't dawdle for fear of hypothermia or pneumonia from the icy 18 degree air-con. Upon leaving the restaurant, my glasses fog yet again. I dig out my umbrella, for it is raining now. The counterfeit watch salesmen swoop as I walk past hordes of digital cameras in display windows. Tailors stand on the sidewalk in front of their shops to solicit my business. I pass one more restaurant with chickens and ducks hanging in the window, and stop in Swindon's to buy a book before I continue on my day.
If I can just find another free place to stay by the time that Rod returns to school, I might never leave.