Saturday, July 17, 2010

Hong Kong: a sample.

My China trip started off with seven days in Hong Kong with my friend Matt who is there working at a university. Though the city’s name mainly conjures up images of sparkling high-rises and hoppin’ night life, we spent most of our time away from those things, concentrating instead on getting a more multi-faceted picture of the sprawling metropolis.

Hong Kong has got it all figured out – it is the ultimate example of smart city-planning. The metro system is so fast and efficiently laid-out that it makes me embarrassed we’re still riding those old rickety trains in Chicago. Utter genius is the ‘Octopus’ card, which you load with cash and can use for virtually all small purchases, including the metro, buses, corner stores, bakeries. I never had to fish for change. The city itself is so well-organized and navigation so intuitive that I seldom needed a map to get around. There are maps drawn everywhere, and signs every few feet on the streets pointing toward landmarks. Cities of the world, take notes!

One interesting thing about Hong Kong is that it’s about 70 percent jungle and mountain. One of the first things I did when I arrived was take the ultra-touristy tram up to Victoria Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong Island. The way up was so steep that the tram was nearly vertical – a hair-rising ride indeed. The view was expansive on top, though a bit hazy. I hiked all the way down from the peak on a path that took me past enormous gated mansions on the mountain, through some jungle, then down an 800-meter-long escalator (the longest outdoor one in the world) right into the urban center of the city.

As always, I ate very well – easy to do accomplish in a city with more restaurants per square meter than I’ve ever seen. Fresh seafood for cheap(-ish), street snacks of meat-on-a-stick, international cuisine, noodle shops, cake shops. Even the food at Matt’s university canteen was good, such as fried fish with carrots and a sweet brown sauce.

Below, sautéed chicken in black bean sauce at one of the city’s countless Sichuan restaurants. Below that, roasted pigeon, far more flavorful than even duck, and clams in a curry sauce - washed down with Guinness Foreign Extra, deliciously toasty and sweet, but unfortunately unavailable in the States.

Other sights: The Hong Kong Museum of Art. Four floors of Chinese antiquities, classical art, and contemporary. While I was there, an exhibition by the artist Wu Guan Zhong took up a whole floor, and I was instantly taken by his merging of Chinese classical styles with spots of color and abstraction. Genius use of negative space as well. Sadly, Wu passed away just a few weeks ago.

Matt and I also managed to make it to a weekly horse race at the Happy Valley racecourse. I think, however, that my first race outing will also be my last. Thirty minutes of waiting around a horde of a well-heeled, pretentious crowd, for twenty seconds of racing – not worth it.

Most sights in Hong Kong are located southwards, but I spent one afternoon exploring some spots in the northern New Territories region. A highlight was the Tai Po fish market, a gigantic complex of fish vendors selling all kinds of sea creatures in every color.

If there’s one thing I didn’t like about Hong Kong, it was how almost robotic and uniform everybody seemed. It’s a hypermaterialistic culture, where ever-higher purchasing power is everyone’s goal and high-end retail stores are packed before noon on a Tuesday. Young people dress exactly the same. The same neo-nerd glasses, the same haircuts, the same sneakers, the same bohemian-esque fashion. As far as I could tell, the city lacks any substantial independent music or art scene. New musicians play Canto-pop and people go to museums to look at art. These are reasons why I would find it hard to call Hong Kong home, but for a week, I had a pretty good time.

Next: a trip to Hong Kong's Lantau Island.


Stacy said...

The octopus card does sound amazing! I am so sick of being out of change here.

The Chicago el is pretty rickity, isn't it? How much does this metro system cost, compared to the el's $2.75?

Lexie, Little Boat said...

ahh! i am so happy you are back! i cant wait to hear all about your trip!

Stu said...

i like the rainbow of fish

Faye said...

HK's metro system is cheap! As far as I remember, about $2 to get across the city, but much less for most trips, as the cost is based on distance.