Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Hong Kong Part One - The City

As promised, here is my first post about our trip to Hong Kong!  We were there for a total of ten days, so I thought instead of doing a day-by-day, blow-by-blow account of our foibles, I would split the trip into four posts describing the city, the sights, the shopping and of course, the FOOD!  I thought the appropriate place to start would be to talk about the city, so you can get the essence of what it's like to be there.  I have to say first though - I truly am in love with Hong Kong.  It's noisy, it's crazy, it's big and it's mind blowing - but as soon as we got there, I felt like I was home.   And no, it's not because everyone wears black there (ha!), but I had this feeling the first time I went there when I was 16.  I loved it then as well and I remember for years afterwards, longing to go back.  As soon as I set foot in the city this time, I just melded right in - well, as much as I could since I totally looked like a tourist!

So to start, I thought it might be a good idea to have a very quick geography lesson on where Hong Kong is.  Forgive me if you know this, but I thought it might be useful to get a lay of the land, especially when I say stuff like the "Kowloon side" vs. the "Hong Kong Island" side. 

Hong Kong is located at the southern tip of China, and is made up of all the areas in yellow in the pic above.  There are many areas and islands that make up Hong Kong, but the three major parts are the New Territories, the Kowloon peninsula and Hong Kong Island.  The New Territories is more rural and spread out and as you can tell by the map, the largest area - this is where most of the residents live.  Kowloon Peninsula sits at the very southern tip of the mainland, and is extremely population dense - the Mong Kok district in Kowloon has apparently something like 100,000 people living in a square kilometre.  Buildings are older, somewhat more run down and the shops not as high end as those found on Hong Kong Island.  When we first went to Kowloon, Hubs said he felt like he was in the movie Bladerunner - neon signs everywhere, building after building of housing flats all crammed together with laundry hanging out the windows, and huge TVs set into the sides of buildings blaring at top volume about the latest wares.  He seriously almost expected Rutger Hauer to come leaping out or something.  Can we say sensory overload?

Contrast that with the Hong Kong Island side, where things are somewhat more spread out...

What a difference, eh?  We stayed on the Hong Kong side, and I remember thinking wow, this isn't what I remember about Hong Kong when I went when I was younger.  I recall the neon signs, the press of people, the Bladerunner-like feeling...and then I realized that I'd stayed on the Kowloon side (I was 16, so you'll have to forgive my crappy memory)!   Hong Kong Island is where all the massive skyscrapers are, including the Bank of China building (below on the left, rumoured to have the worst feng shui due to all the triangles) and the HSBC Building (below on the right, designed to have good feng shui, and rumoured to have done so to offset the bad mojo coming off the Bank of China building - sorry for the crappy pic, it was hard to get both in the photo).

Most of the "action" occurs in the square that you can just barely make out in the map.  This is mostly where we spent out time, and the body of water in between is Victoria Harbour.

When we first got to Hong Kong, we were amazed at the constant bustle of people everywhere - no matter what time of night, the city was always heaving.  Apparently Hong Kong has a population of 7 million people, squeezed into an area of 1104 square one of the most highly dense populations in the world.  To provide homes for all these people, there are thousands upon thousands of flats in the are some photos of the apartments that we saw:

Yep, that's smog - I believe it's a combo of the smoke coming from China from burning coal, plus all the pollution from the vehicles, etc. 

A lot of the flats are up on the hillside, so the city built escalators to transport people up the steep slopes...these run only downward during morning rush hour but go up for the rest of the day...

Most of these flats run about 500 - 600 square feet - and that's not just for one person.  It's not unusual for people to fit a family of four or five in a space that small.  The buildings are incredibly high and when you look at them, you can't help but think that they're not that well made - apparently the building Hubs' grandma owned in Kowloon collapsed to the ground, and it was only 50 years old.  Fifty years would be nothing here in Canada!  Seeing this really gave me an appreciation for what we have at home. 

Check out the throngs of people at this market in the afternoon on a Wednesday in Kowloon - wall to wall people!

In Hong Kong, there's no such thing as personal space.  Everyone warned us about this before we went, and to not get offended if someone got a little too close, or cut in front of you in line...if you leave a gap that would be appropriate by North American standards, that's a yawning gap by Hong Kong standards.  It took a few times of people cutting in front of me before I got the hang of things and bellied up to the person in front of me...personal space be damned, I say!  Hubs is so polite that people kept cutting in front of him.  I was much more cold hearted and thought nothing of pushing my way through crowds!

To get around such a population dense city, most people don't own cars...which in my mind is smart.  Firstly, because the traffic is insane and people drive like they're crazy there - it's like they're all trying to be Michael Schumacher or something!   People just cut in because if you don't, you'll be waiting a long, long time.  Secondly, it's expensive...gas is not cheap there, and only the rich can afford to buy cars...the city is filled with luxury cars...I've never seen so many BMWs, Mercedes, Rolls Royces or Ferraris in my life!  Thirdly, they have an amazing mass transit system called the MTR that is cheap, efficient, safe, and clean.

My MIL showed us how to use the MTR the first few days and by the end, we were zipping off on our own.  The MTR is a massive underground warren, and made getting around Hong Kong a dream.  As long as you knew which stop and which exit to get out of the MTR, you were within minutes of where you wanted to go.  Here's a photo of the MTR around rush hour, around were literally packed in like sardines and you had definitely had to make nice-nice with the people around you.

And finally, there are taxis everywhere and they're relatively inexpensive to take. 

These are not for the faint of heart though - be prepared to be scared out of your mind as they reach top speeds of 100km plus while driving in the heart of the city.  I just closed my eyes and prayed.  Heh!

Now with the size of the flats that they have, the fridges are teeny tiny so people buy their food fresh daily at wet markets.  Here's an outdoor one that was set close to the escalators that I showed you earlier so people could walk there, pick up food for dinner and then head on home on the escalator (yes, that's me being a weenie...for all the pictures that Hubs took of me, I did the peace sign because for whatever reason, all Asians love to do the peace sign when getting their pictures taken - yes, sweeping generalization...I know).

Here's another one that was in a four story building in Kowloon. 

Check out the poser at the meat stall!  When I was taking the picture, he yelled out "she wants a picture of me because I'm such a pretty boy!!"  Cheeky monkey.  Also...note the peace sign...hee hee!

One part of Hong Kong life that I didn't know about before was the amahs.  These are live in housekeepers, and most of them are Filipino.  These ladies have a hard life - they work like dogs for their families, and do all the child rearing, cleaning, cooking...basically whatever the employer wants - essentially they're like modern day slaves and unfortunately some are not very well treated.  They only get one day off per week, and that's only after they make the morning meal for their families.  To have some fun, every Sunday they congregate at the local parks and get to have some down time with friends.

It was easy for us to get around in Hong Kong because the majority of people speak some English.  Cantonese is spoken here more than Mandarin but with the handover in 1997, that seems to be changing.   I'd say I understand about 80% of what people are saying, as my parents speak a village dialect that is very close to Cantonese...but don't speak Cantonese terribly well but enough to get by.   This came in quite useful at times, as we tended to get better treatment if people thought we could speak the language since we're Chinese.  A story - we were at a tailor getting shirts made for Hubs and when we walked in, we got treated kinda crappy because we didn't speak Chinese at first, and we were dressed like tourists (Hong Kong is a very appearance conscious city).  They talked about us (nothing really bad so I didn't freak out) and would say stuff like "oh, they don't understand what we're saying."  Oh, no you didn't!  We were dealing with this one girl and at one point I thought eff this crap and trotted out the Chinese and she just kind of looked at me with an "oh crap" look on her face.  Needless to say, they didn't say anything bad after that!

So that's a bit about what the city of Hong Kong is like.  Sounds crowded, crazy and hectic, right?  Just a big dirty city with nothing to offer, no?  Not so, my friends...not so.   When you look at this picture, you can see why I love Hong Kong - its so alive and so vibrant.  I can't wait to go back.

Next post - the sights!

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