The following is a series of travelogue posts that I wrote while working in Hong Kong for a health tech startup. As it was my first time overseas, I penned these journal entries to help my family back home to stay abreast of my activities. Rereading the anecdotes years later, I laugh at my naivete, but I also smile at the unfiltered lens through which I viewed my experiences. I share these stories now, with minimal editing from the original time of writing, in hopes they will make you laugh and smile as well.
The trip begins on a rather inauspicious note. On the evening before my departure, after a pleasant and relaxing dinner at my younger brother’s apartment, I return to my parents’ house–from which I will leave early the next morning–and prepare to endure my mother’s overly apprehensive interrogations.
“Did you pack a jacket?” she asks.
“Yes,” I reply.
“How about underwear? Seventeen pairs are not nearly enough.”
“I think I’ll manage.”
“Nah, good retinas are overrated.”
“Don’t forget your phone charger.”
“It’s already packed.”
“Did you get your passport?”
“Of cour—wait…, what?”
“Did you remember to retrieve your passport from the safe deposit box at the bank?” she asks in a growing falsetto voice as the hysteria mounts, “The bank’s closed now and won’t reopen until after your flight leaves tomorrow!”
“Well, shit,” I reply with erudition befitting my three academic degrees.
At this juncture, my father intervenes, and with his characteristically unflappable business air, says, “Look, you don’t leave directly for Hong Kong tomorrow, right? You have to go to Boston for training. We can ship your passport overnight to Boston.”
Greatly relieved, I agree to this plan, believe the issue to be resolved, and excuse myself to my bedroom to complete my last-minute packing. My mother, who even prior to the passport faux pas had already harbored concerns about my traveling to the other side of the planet, has now lost all faith in my ability to function independently and follows me while mumbling softly, “I just don’t know…”
Her questioning resumes, this time–perhaps justifiably–without any favorable assumptions regarding my intelligence.
“Did you remember your toothbrush? Socks? Shirts? Shoes?”
“No, mom, I had planned to go barefoot.”
“Don’t give me lip, young man. How about medicines?”
“Mom, I am a doctor, remember? I probably have the medicine thing covered.”
“You didn’t have the ‘passport thing’ covered.”
Eventually, when I stop responding to her inquiries, she says goodnight, hugs me tightly, and steps out the door, all the while eyeing me worriedly. Her gentle refrain, “I just don’t know,” follows her as she leaves. I don’t tell her, because she already knows, that I love her dearly and will miss her.
Two days later, I receive the passport in Boston, and at the cheery hour of 3 a.m. on August 1st, I blast off from New York JFK. After an uncomfortable but uneventful 15-hour flight, I touch down at Hong Kong International Airport on Sunday, August 3rd. My confidence as a global traveler somewhat shaken after the passport affair, I nonetheless hold high hopes for the adventure before me.
My introduction to Hong Kong comes through the immaculately clean windows of the driverless bullet train that whisks me at breathtaking speed from the airport to the downtown hotel where I will spend the next four weeks. Steep hills covered in lush, impenetrable, tropical verdure rise sharply from ocean bays whose gentle waves form a sort of glimmering patina, shining aquamarine and coppery in the soft glow of the early morning sun. The sleek and almost noiseless train seems an absurdly futuristic marvel as it races past these scenes of unsullied natural beauty.
We round a bend, and in a moment, the paradisaical landscape transforms into an ultra-modern urban skyline, with innumerable skyscrapers, looping highways, giant electronic billboards, and a cluttered harbor bustling with the movements of thousands of vessels ranging from day-fishing boats to transoceanic cruisers. The level of activity appears frenetic, and the pace of the train now seems more appropriate. I have arrived in Hong Kong.
Cleanliness, cigarettes, and wealth. These are my earliest impressions of daily life in Hong Kong.
Beginning with the bullet train, in which not a single gum wrapper or discarded Starbucks cup besmirches the gleaming floors of the passenger cars, Hong Kong residents clearly prize cleanliness. English/Cantonese bilingual placards proudly declare that on an hourly basis custodians disinfect the handrails on escalators and the buttons on elevators. The station corridors of the subway system (known as the MTR) shine with fresh wax, and lack the centuries’ worth of wholesome grime, detritus, and pornographic graffiti that adorn most stations in the U.S. The public restrooms–whether at the airport, in the MTR, in shopping malls, or in the darkest and most squalid alleyway of the city–are spotless, with full-time attendants who furiously scrub the facilities, sometimes within an awkwardly few seconds of the user vacating the commode.
In striking contrast to their fastidiousness with regard to the city’s infrastructure, Hong Kong residents do not seem to value clean lungs. Cigarette smoking is disturbingly popular, especially with the younger generations. Men, women, youth; it doesn’t matter. One cannot walk the streets without encountering unpleasant clouds of secondhand smoke. It is as though the smoking prevalence from 1960s America has transplanted to present-day Hong Kong. Evidently dissatisfied with slowing sales in the U.S., where decades of assiduous public health efforts have drastically limited their marketing freedoms, the soulless American tobacco companies have loosed their poisons on East Asia.
I spend most of my time in an area of downtown Hong Kong known simply as “Central,” a global financial center (or centre, according to the Brits whose influence remains so palpable in the city) of almost unbelievable wealth. Towering skyscrapers and massive urban development exist on a scale that in the U.S. has an equal only in the streets of lower Manhattan. In the span of no more than two minutes, as I walk alongside Louis Vuitton and Gucci shops while crossing the street between two office buildings, I pass a stunningly gorgeous red Ferrari, a white McLaren F1, and some sort of Audi creation that looks as though it just time-traveled here from the year 2075. Ten-dollar coffees are the norm, and most businessmen I encounter wear cufflinks worth more than my accumulated student loan debt–a not insignificant sum, trust me.
Yet, only two blocks removed from this opulence, crumbling tenements line narrow, crooked streets where stooped, wrinkled, elderly street vendors hawk cheap imitation watches. An old man, blinded with bilateral cataracts and dressed in a baggy, soiled green jumpsuit, sits on a stoop and proffers tiny, wilted white flowers to the stream of young, chic, fabulously wealthy passers-by. No one stops to purchase his wares. I want to give the poor man the spare change in my pocket, but I do not know whether this act would violate any social taboos or how the people around me would react. So, I do nothing, but tears fill my eyes as the throng of pedestrians carries me away. Surely, with all our ingenuity and resources, humanity can realize a society in which the billionaire with the Lamborghini and the flower man can coexist in a more equitable state–a state in which, in all likelihood, both would find greater contentment.
Much to my delight as an avid recreational swimmer, I learn early on that a public swimming facility with a 50-meter competition pool exists in Kowloon Park, only a few blocks from my hotel, and on my second day in Hong Kong, I eagerly walk over to try it out. After several minutes spent gesticulating about entry fees to the attendant at the facility entrance, I gain admittance, quickly change in the spacious locker rooms, and make my way to the pool deck. There, I encounter what is possibly the single densest collection of human beings on the planet. Thousands of people fill the pool: wading, floating, diving, splashing, swimming, and undoubtedly urinating in the water.
Undaunted, I approach the water’s edge, and step in. Much like the sticky humidity of the Hong Kong summer atmosphere, the water is lukewarm and utterly unrefreshing.
“Probably the urine,” I speculate.
As I strap up my goggles and don my swim cap, I turn my attention to the task of following appropriate swim etiquette in a new culture. I wonder whether circle-swim goes in the opposite direction here, much as the cars drive on the wrong side of the road. These worries, it soon becomes apparent, are groundless. Although the pool bottom has lane stripes, they serve little purpose because no corresponding lane ropes float on the surface. People swim in every which direction, jostling and ramming into each other and resuming their courses in random vectors. Lifeguards whistle frequently, to little avail. It is aquatic anarchy.
Unsure of how best to proceed, I linger by the poolside and search for someone who looks as though he or she speaks English. I finally decide upon a friendly appearing youth of sixteen or seventeen, who, as it turns out, speaks very little English at all.
“Where are the lanes?” I ask.
“You go,” he replies and gestures in a vague forward direction.
“But, go where?”
“Anywheres. You go.”
“You mean I should leave you?”
“No, you go.”
“Ah, ah, yes!”
“But, what about the other people? Won’t we run into each other?”
“No, they move. You go.”
“Um, all right. Thank you.”
“Very good. You go.”
I turn to face the open water, retighten my cap and goggles, take a breath, push off the wall, and immediately smash headfirst into a buxom woman performing the breaststroke. I apologize profusely, but she seems unfazed and does not even break her rhythm. For the next half-hour, this scene or a similar permutation repeats continuously. I swim for ten meters or so, bodily assault someone, apologize, am ignored, and resume swimming. The scientific part of my mind imagines that this is how atomic particles must feel during Brownian motion.
Eventually, I achieve basic proficiency in this art of social swimming, and begin to adopt my usual, quicker freestyle pace. After a few hundred meters at this speed, I notice a group of three or four people watching me. Thinking that perhaps I have unknowingly invaded their preferred zone of the pool, I stop swimming and ask them if there is a problem.
“Where are you from?” one of the men asks me.
“You Americans, always so good at swimming,” a woman replies.
“Oh, come on. Nah…I don’t know about that,” I humbly rejoin, as my ego soars through the glass-paneled roof, “I mean, I’m no Michael Phelps.”
“You know Michael Phelps?!” they exclaim in unison.
“No, although I did go to school in Baltimore, where he trains.”
This credential suffices for them, and for the next twenty minutes, I hold an impromptu swimming clinic: giving advice, analyzing strokes, demonstrating drills.
By this time, I am exhausted from the combination of tepid urine water and constantly dodging swimmers-by. I take my leave, but not before accidentally kicking a man in the flank as I exit the pool. He doesn’t seem to mind.
At 6 feet, 6 inches tall, I quite literally stand out from the crowd on the streets of Hong Kong and, accordingly, attract a great deal of attention, not all of it always welcome. Most of the time, people simply stare; children often point; older youth sometimes whisper; and elderly folks, less bashful in their advanced years, tend to smile, laugh outright, and pass flatus in a corporeal trifecta at the sight of this giant Western ogre. Once, I caught a young girl, probably ten-years-old, taking a phone photo of me in the subway, where my head routinely scrapes the tops of the train cars. When I waved to the little girl, she smiled with embarrassment and quickly pocketed her phone, but not–I noticed–before she finished snapping the picture, which undoubtedly ended up posted to her instagram page. #ogre
A less enjoyable form of attention I draw is that of the tailors who line the famous shopping boulevard Nathan Road, which I take when walking to/from the MTR station and my hotel. Every evening, as I walk home after work, these men assail me. Not just one or two of them, but dozens, and they are insistent. One day, one of them followed alongside me for two city blocks as he outlined the specific shirt-trouser combinations that I need and the dates by which he would have them available to me. As a tall Westerner who wears a nice business suit, I have, the merchants seem to believe, limitless quantities of cash at my ready disposal and a keen interest in expanding my wardrobe.
I have attempted various countermeasures against the tailors. Ignoring their bargains only invites further vending. Responding in Spanish causes them to consider me a member of the Spanish nobility and to redouble their sales pitches. In the end, the best recourse I’ve discovered is to walk speedily and to employ fellow pedestrians as blocking pawns–leaving the tailors blockaded by stroller-bearing mothers, bag-laden shoppers, and elderly women who, predictably, smile and laugh and break wind as the ogre strides by.
On my first weekend in Hong Kong, my first real opportunity to act a tourist, I elect to escape the urban bustle of Central and to take a day trip to Lantau Island, a less populous perimeter territory within the Hong Kong administrative region. The island contains on its northern shores the Hong Kong International Airport, but further to the more rural south, it purportedly boasts sandy tropical beaches and one of the world’s largest religious monuments, the Tian Tan Buddha. So, early on Saturday morning, I eagerly board a ferry at Central Pier and depart.
Within fifteen minutes, I am violently seasick. Crammed, alongside at least 13000 other tourists, into the dank underbelly of a dilapidated ferry that continually lists to the starboard, I catch only occasional glimpses of the horizon as we encounter wave after lolling wave from the giant wakes of transoceanic cargo ships that stream out of Victoria Harbour, and I begin to wish I had not eaten breakfast. Suffocating from the carbon monoxide-laden exhaust fumes seeping into the cabin and from the stench of whatever unspeakable atrocity the screaming infant in the seat behind me committed in its diaper, I pray silently either to succumb to an immediate and fatal case of scurvy or to have a rogue harpoon crash through the salt-encrusted porthole near my head. Just as I begin to consider assaulting the ferry’s boatswain in order to gain access to the open deck, the boat shudders suddenly. Great, we’ve begun to capsize or we’ve reached Lantau, I figure, happy to accept either outcome. It’s the latter, and rejoicing, I step onto the docks of Mui Wo where the ferry makes berth on Lantau.
Rather than the maddening chaos of honking taxicabs, screeching trams, and millions of slick-suited bankers that characterizes the Central district where I spend my workweek, the pier at Mui Wo is subdued, with a modest collection of garish trinket shops, a few rows of rusted bicycles for rent, and a small lineup of buses that on the dilapidation score give the ferry a run for its money. I board one of these buses, overpay by double for my ticket because I do not have exact change, squeeze myself into a seat that a diminutive nine-year-old child would find uncomfortably small, and head towards Cheung Sha Beach, my first destination on Lantau.
As the bus wends along narrow roads that cling precariously to the sides of densely jungled hills, it must stop on occasion to allow for passage of feral oxen that roam freely on the island, and I grow increasingly excited for our arrival at Cheung Sha. In preparation for my weekend outing, I’ve researched online about Hong Kong’s various beaches and know to expect at this particular location long and lonely stretches of white sands and unspoiled views of the South China Sea. At last, we round a final turn in the road…and I encounter a replica of Miami Beach.
From the cliché tiki bars and surf shops to the overweight men unabashedly wearing tiny Speedos, to the loud music blaring out of cheap portable speakers, to the even louder multicolored umbrellas staked into the not-so-white sands, Cheung Sha Beach hardly matches the quiet retreat I had envisioned.
“Still, it’s better than pounding the pavement in Central,” I mutter.
Sunbaked and stereotypically languid lifeguards watch over the beachgoers: tourist families with tottering children building lopsided sandcastles; youthful lovers strolling inattentively hand-in-hand along the shore and stepping on said sandcastles; wild dogs combing the beach for discarded food morsels; and, sitting underneath palm trees, ancient local elders grumbling, smoking, and scowling at the tourists. I long to take a refreshing dip in the ocean but cannot because I have my camera, passport, and credit cards with me and no secure place to store them. Instead, I search for a decent restaurant, as the ferry experience and long, cramped bus ride have left me hungry and frazzled.
An open-air, comparatively clean-appearing restaurant that boasts beach seating and “South African” cuisine grabs my attention. I enter the establishment, which at the relatively early lunch hour of 11:30 has only a handful of patrons present. A short, brusque, female troll whom I assume to be the proprietress curtly informs me that the restaurant is fully occupied. Terrified that the woman may bludgeon me with the water pitcher in her hands but glancing askance at the nearly two dozen empty tables, I meekly counter, “Yes, I can see that, but could you spare one place?”
She eyes me menacingly before answering, “Fine, but you’ll be on the beach. Take it or leave it.”
“That would be fine. Thank y—“
“JIMMY! Set a table on the beach for this man,” she bellows as she huffily storms off into the kitchen.
Jimmy, a diffident local youth who cringes at loud noises as though he has had personal experience with the troll’s water pitcher, arranges for me on the sand a flimsy white plastic table and folding chair. I order a salad and hummus platter, both of which were surprisingly fresh and predictably expensive. Though tempted to lounge in my chair and enjoy the beach scenery for a while, I hastily finish my meal and exit–hurried away both by the return of the troll and by a wild dog relieving himself on the leg of my table.
“Ah, yes, my daily dose of urine,” I note as I return to the buses and continue on my journey to the Buddha.
Perched atop the hills of the Ngong Ping region in the center of Lantau, the Tian Tan Buddha is a relatively recent addition to the adjacent and much older Po Lin Monastery located at the site. The “Big Buddha,” as it is known, was completed in the 1990s and is an enormous bronze statue, more than 112 feet tall, of a seated Buddha that faces northward towards mainland China. Thousands of people travel to the site annually, and on the day of my visit, arriving in the early afternoon after my Cheung Sha beach adventure, I encounter the usual throng of tourists, religious pilgrims, and opportunistic capitalists offering everything from pictures with Buddha to incense sticks to Starbucks coffee.
On the grounds of the monastery, visitors mingle with tamed oxen who wander freely on the paths and whose gentle demeanor and beautiful, burnished, roan coats attest to the loving care with which the monks attend to them. Despite the bustle of tourists and mercantile activity nearby, one can find along the winding lanes of the gardens solitary benches and tranquil copses in which to spend a reflective moment. I find one such haven, and after glancing about for any pools of bovine urine in which I would undoubtedly set foot were I not careful, I sit down for a few minutes of quietude; for the first time since my arrival in Hong Kong, I truly feel a sense of relaxation and peace. After this brief repose, I turn to face the ascent to the Buddha.
A daunting stone staircase of some three hundred steps leads straight up from the monastic grounds to the Buddha statue. Taking the obligatory portrait photo at the outset, framed with the stairs leading upwards ad infinitum behind me, I make the climb. In truth, the trek is not overly arduous, though I nevertheless pass plenty of corpulent Americans whose red-faced heaving causes me to wonder whether the monks ought to keep an automated external defibrillator on the premises.
The view at the top of the staircase makes the climb well worth the effort. The Buddha truly is magnificent: gleaming, towering, and somehow exuding a sense of calm in spite of the thousands of camera-wielding tourists crawling around its base. The vista of the surrounding countryside is equally impressive. Lush, rolling hills like those I encountered on my initial train ride stretch into the distance towards the glimmering, aquamarine sea and the wavering, gaudy umbrellas of Cheung Sha Beach. Thick, soggy rainclouds hang only a few feet above the top of the Buddha, their gossamer strands of virga gently caressing my face and bringing welcome relief from the usual, oppressive daytime heat.
Refreshed physically and spiritually, and thankful for an activity that did not end in my encountering urine from man or beast, I return from Big Buddha to Central, ready for week #2.
My second weekend in Hong Kong finds me suffering from a bout of febrile pharyngitis, and as a result, my planned outings and their written chronicles are less ambitious than those of week #1. On Saturday, I visit Victoria Peak, and on Sunday, the Sik Sik Yuen or Wong Tai Sin temple.
Victoria Peak, or simply “The Peak,” ranks as one of Hong Kong’s most popular attractions. I arrive at the base of The Peak early in the morning, so as to face a crowd of only a few thousand other tourists who have assembled to ride the century-old, funicular railway called the Peak Tram that rapidly transports visitors from the sea-level streets of Central to the observation tower and adjacent shopping mall located at The Peak’s summit, 1,800 feet above the city. As the tram makes its ascent, climbing at times at inclinations of more than thirty degrees, I feel pressed into my seat back as though I’m riding an old-fashioned wooden roller coaster.
The views once I arrive at the top of The Peak are truly splendid. To the north, I overlook Victoria Harbour and the bustling metropolis of Hong Kong. Via the universally understood symbol of pantomiming camera shutter buttons, an Asian man wearing a “Go Yankees” shirt and I communicate that each should take a photo of the other with the cityscape in the background. To the south, I survey the various tropical islands that constitute Hong Kong’s archipelago and watch as freighters and cruise ships disappear into the cerulean haze where the South China Sea meets the horizon. Of course, compliments of American commercialism, I can grab a quick latte at The Peak Starbucks before my return tram ride.
The Sik Sik Yuen or Wong Tai Sin temple, a tripartite shrine for Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, is located in northern Kowloon and lies sandwiched among high-rise apartment towers and overhead highways. It does not rival Big Buddha in terms of majesty or opportunity for spiritual repose, but it does offer fortune-telling. Two narrow alleyways immediately outside of the temple contain dozens of fortune-telling stalls, each the size of a small broom closet and bespangled with sundry religious tokens and ancient tenants who might possibly be older than the concept of religion itself. I find a stall with a small sign that reads “English,” and enter.
Various gold-colored trinkets, scarlet ribbons, and smoldering incense sticks crowd the tiny space, and seated behind a miniature desk is the sorceress herself, garbed in contemporary black Nike sweats and browsing Facebook on her iPad. When I enter–stooping–into her cramped quarters, she rapidly stows the iPad and begins smiling and chanting softly while subtly pushing a price list towards me. For only $25 HKD, or about $3.50 USD, she will perform a soothsaying. I figure a great story has to come of this, and it’s only three bucks; so, I go for it.
“May I please have one soothsaying?” I ask.
“Of course, of course,” she croons while waving her hands in mystic circles, either to enhance her incantations or because she suffers from acute choreoathetosis, I’m not sure which. She has me draw a numbered stick; I draw number 25.
“Ah, yes, 2-5, very good. The best,” she sings while withdrawing from a stack the corresponding soothsaying card, which looks strikingly similar to a Bingo placard.
“Tell me, young one, what do you seek? Job? Money? Health? Looooove?” she whispers.
I had not planned for this lighthearted outing to become an exercise in existential thought, but I feel strangely intimidated by the question the woman has posed. I consider the options, and my mind begins to race. Which of these do I indeed prize? Which do I want above all else? What is of greatest value in my life? What is my goal in life? Finally, fearing that the woman might tear a rotator cuff muscle if she persists with the hand-waving for much longer, I reply, “What about happiness? Can I ask for that?”
“Ooooh, wise, very wise,” she responds as the mystic movements greatly accelerate, “Happiness you seek; happiness you find.”
“Well, that’s good to hear,” I respond, feeling for some reason greatly relieved by her forecast.
“What do you do?” she asks abruptly.
“I, um, I’m a doctor.”
“Oh, ho! Yes, very good, very wise, very smart. You work hard now, but later, yes, later you have great happiness,” she declares, “Yes, you will have empire! The best!” As if afraid that I’ve misunderstood, she carefully writes on the card, in surprisingly neat cursive penmanship, the word “Best.”
“Thanks. I really apprecia–“
“Wait! You must watch out, though,” she interjects.
I catch my breath, “For what?”
“Your leg. Your leg hurt you much, yes?” she asks as she casts a knowing and worried glance down at my knees.
“Um, not really, although I guess I did injure my lateral meniscus a few weeks ag–“
“Yes, you must watch leg. Happiness, best!” she concludes with a final hand flourish. My twenty-five Hong Kong dollars’ worth of the future having now been revealed, the woman unceremoniously hurries me out the door. I walk back towards the MTR station to return to my hotel, and can’t help but notice a slight limp in my step.
Given the relatively short duration of my stay in Hong Kong, I had not planned to revisit any tourist destinations or attractions, but after a physician’s secretary strongly recommended the Ngong Ping cable cars and the Tai O fishing village, both located on Lantau Island, the site of Big Buddha, I decided to make an exception. Thus, early Saturday morning on my third weekend in HK, I returned to the lush tropical landscape of Lantau.
Recalling the dysenteric infant, carbon monoxide asphyxiation, and seasickness involved in my previous voyage to Lantau, I elect on this trip to forgo the “authentic experience” of the ferry and, instead, take the high-speed MTR bullet train directly to Tung Chung, an expatriate shopping district and the site of embarkation for the cable car ride, whose infrastructure is readily apparent the moment I step out from the subway station. Massive steel pylons and cables stretch northwestward towards the Hong Kong International Airport before turning sharply south and disappearing over the tops of mist-enshrouded hills in the direction of Ngong Ping, the village six kilometers distant where the ride will end at the entrance to the Po Lin Monastery and Big Buddha. When I arrive in Tung Chung at 9:00 a.m., which by Hong Kong’s standards is an unjustifiably early hour, no queue has yet formed at the ticket counter, but I spot a few cable car cabins already in transit along the wires.
Patrons have several ticket options for the ride; I buy the 1-and-1 package, which provides me berth on a “crystal cabin” for the outbound journey and a standard cabin for the return trip to Tung Chung. The crystal cabin costs substantially more than the standard one, leading me to believe that the former will include perhaps an en route glass of champagne, a foot massage, and possibly a personal bodyguard to keep at bay the peasants and other mendicants of the standard classes. In fact, the crystal cabin has a glass floor. That’s it. Except, the one to which I am assigned has, of course, another feature: a screaming infant.
“Great, we’ll have a wet diaper on our hands by the time we reach Ngong Ping,” I mutter, as the infant’s family and I climb aboard.
For all its touristy gimmicks, outrageous prices, unwelcome co-passengers, and unsettling mechanical noises that tend to occur precisely when one’s cabin overhangs a particularly treacherous-appearing cliff or waterfall, the cable car ride is absolutely amazing. The initial views overlook the airport and provide an excellent vantage from which to observe the take-offs and landings and the frenetic activity at the terminal buildings. Then, our cabin turns and rises towards the hills, and I look down through the floor as we pass over a wide river, in which barges navigate the central channels and fishermen in hip-waders sift for clams on the muddy banks.
My ears pop as we climb steadily higher, cresting the first ridges and passing over fog-filled valleys. The scenery around and below me becomes a dense, unbroken mat of jungle foliage, and my mind can process only one reaction: green. I have never encountered–and had no idea there existed–so many hues, shades, gradations, tints, tones, tinges, and types of the color green. It is as though someone applied a green filter to the entire world. In my medical training, I remember reading that the human eye has a finite limit to the number of distinct colors it can detect, but the author of that text clearly had never soared above the slopes of Lantau. Each of the tens of thousands of trees covering the hills beneath me offers a distinctive verdant variant, and even the distant ocean on the horizon seems more teal than blue. The very atmosphere is thick with vegetation; I swear it smells green. The cumulative effect is an overpowering, rich sense of the Earth as a living and breathing organism.
At its apogee, the cable car line hangs many hundreds of feet above sea level, and the panoramas are simply breathtaking. Beyond the foliage and hills lies the sea. Dozens of unnamed islets with small forested hills and topaz-colored beaches dot the limitless expanse of water, the surface of which is a dynamic combination of sapphire, jade, and aqua hues. Tiny rectangles, the ocean liners, proceed in an orderly fashion from the harbour to the distant horizon. Overhead, a pale azure canvas forms the vast hemisphere of sky. I give up trying to take a single photograph that could do justice to the scene, and instead, I simply bask in the splendor of the moment.
The steady vibration and hum of the cabin finally lulls the infant to sleep for a few precious minutes as our journey reaches its end. My old friend the Big Buddha is visible on a nearby hill, where he sits serenely, thick gray mists once again hanging around his head. Our cabin jolts as it locks into the disembarkation dock; the infant awakens, screams, and promptly urinates on itself; and I, having already toured the Buddha and monastery grounds on my prior visit, proceed directly to the transport station to catch a bus to Tai O.
The ride from Ngong Ping to Tai O takes roughly 40 minutes and, consistent with my prior bus travels on Lantau, involves contorting my frame to fit a seat intended only for especially scrawny toddlers and praying for deliverance as the top-heavy, swaying vehicle careens at breakneck speeds down narrow mountain roads. By early afternoon, we arrive–miraculously intact–at the Tai O village: an idyllic seaside fishing community famed for the traditional stilt houses and rustic ways of life of its inhabitants.
Tradition notwithstanding, Tai O does not eschew capitalizing on Western travelers, and within the first nine seconds of my exiting the bus, at least four dozen local merchants offer to take me on a boat tour to see the village and the famous pink dolphins that reside in the adjacent ocean bay. Not wishing to accede immediately to such an obvious tourist trap, I haughtily ignore their sales pitches and opt for the second classic tourist experience: wandering aimlessly in the streets for hours in blazing midday sunshine and 800% humidity, only to find bottled water for sale at unscrupulously inflated prices. After thirty minutes or so of my perambulations, I am willing to pay any sum the vendors ask.
Adequately rehydrated, I turn my steps to the Tai O Market. An open-air street bazaar filled with innumerable tiny stalls selling all manner of goods from live crayfish to dehydrated whole sharks to imitation “I Love NY” t-shirts, the market is deafening, crowded, cramped, and unbearably hot; and its stench will forever leave an indelible mark upon my olfactory sense. Under the same blazing sunlight that serves so favorably the bottled water trade, racks of raw fish lie exposed to the air and covered in flies, and the pavement, which is perpetually damp from vendors washing out the floors of their stalls, steams under the sunlight like a giant putrid cauldron.
Fleeing the miasmas of the market, I turn down increasingly impoverished lanes and begin to encounter local residents engaged in their daily activities. Ancient, bowed women sit on shaded porches and peel fruit with their gnarled, rheumatic hands. Mangy dogs lie lazily under said porches. A middle-aged, sunburnt, wisp of a man wearing matte-green khakis and an enormous straw sunhat spreads shrimp paste onto baking trays and sets the trays in the sun to cure. The paste has the color and consistency of dark chocolate cake batter, but its odor surpasses even that of the market. The smell can only be described as the stench of 12,000 decaying opossum carcasses that have lain rotting for weeks in the maggot-infested sludge at the bottom of a fetid cesspool. During my clinical years of med school, I encountered some truly horrific odors–the freshly disimpacted fecal stones of an elderly woman who hadn’t evacuated her bowels in six days comes to mind–but none equal to that of the shrimp paste.
Making my way back to the main pier, I meet a troupe of seven or eight beautiful, vivacious Indian women, college seniors on summer holiday, as it turns out, who ask me to take a group photo of them gathered around a park bench. I gladly assist, and as I turn to leave, one of them–amid the giggles of the remainder–asks me to join them in a photo. Flattered, I agree, and only as I walk away do I realize that I do not have a copy of the photo because they used their own cameras. Alas, my friends will never believe me.
After the photo experience, I do not know what other treasures Tai O could possibly offer, but I return to the central wharf and join ten other camera-laden tourists on one of the questionably seaworthy vessels offering cheap water tours of the village. I purposefully choose a tour that includes only the stilt houses and not the pink dolphin sightings because I figure using a motorboat to chase after endangered aquatic mammals probably doesn’t qualify as an ecologically sound endeavor. I take the boat’s final open seat, next to the captain’s chair and immediately fore of the sputtering, smoking outboard motor, and we push back from the dock.
Perched approximately ten feet above the water line, the stilt houses line both sides of narrow canals and give rise to Tai O’s nickname, “The Venice of the East.” The thousands upon thousands of wooden pilings that form the stilts stand in various degrees of verticality and create a haphazard appearance that is at once both visually stunning and squalid in appearance. Most of the “house” structures atop the posts consist of little more than plywood walls and tin roofs, with half-clad locals sitting and smoking on the porches. One elderly man–thin, shirtless, and with a cigarette poised perfectly in the side crease of his mouth–gathers in the moldy rope from a wire fish trap that he had set in the water beneath his home. I snap a quick photo as the man scowls at me, and indeed, with the sharply rising mountains in the background and the cluttered but functional hodgepodge of houses, dinghies, and clotheslines in the foreground, the stilt house scenes offer countless opportunities for pictures.
We return from the stilt house canals, and the boat speeds straight past its dock and heads towards the open sea. Excellent, either I’m being abducted for ransom or this tour does in fact visit the dolphins, I think to myself as warm sea spray splashes across my face. For the next twenty minutes, we crisscross the bay in search of the storied creatures, and when at last a small pod makes a brief appearance, I understand why they are so highly valued. Their skin is a brilliant, stark, bubble-gum pink; the animals almost seem synthetic, their color is such a shining, perfect, neon hue. I don’t bother taking photos; I will not soon forget such a rare sight, but I do feel a bit guilty about having inadvertently financially supported the exploitation of the species.
Once we finish ravaging the dolphins’ environment, the boat returns to Tai O, but not to the main pier. It drops off passengers at a secondary dock, giving them the “opportunity” to walk the hellish streets and to purchase the aforementioned bottled water. Having already participated in this mercantile exercise, I refuse to disembark. The captain, who speaks not a single syllable of English, gestures to me to leave, and I, who speak not a syllable of Cantonese, gesture my refusal. The situation threatens to deteriorate, until I produce a few bills of local currency. The captain rapidly becomes a dear friend, and gladly transports me back to the central pier, even offering me a more comfortable berth than the motor mount seat I had on the outbound trip. Once back at the pier, I glance eagerly about for my newfound lady friends, who, regrettably, are nowhere in sight, and board a bus to Ngong Ping. From there, I take the cable car back to Tung Chung to catch the MTR train to my hotel, where I feel tempted to nasally insufflate Febreze in an attempt to mask the lingering redolence of opossum corpse.
After a brief sojourn in Macau, and several days of caffeine-withdrawal headaches induced by that country’s inexcusable lack of quality coffee outlets, I have returned to Hong Kong for one night before an early morning departure to Singapore. I stay in the luxurious airport hotel, where the beds, though having dimensions suitable for, at most, a good-sized rabbit, are at least clean, and I reflect upon some of my experiences and memories and lessons learned from the month.
Weather: Do not, under any circumstances, visit Hong Kong in August, the month in which, by a sadistic twist of Nature, the country’s rainy season and summer both simultaneously reach their peaks. In other words, it is hot and humid. Very hot and humid. Like, jogging, in a business suit, over a bed of coals, in an equatorial rainforest, during a monsoon. Ideal, I’m sure, for wrestlers wanting to shed pounds for a lower weight category; unpleasant for any other living creature.
Water: In light of the climatological conditions just noted, one would expect to find cool, refreshing water available from restaurants and certainly, for an appropriately exorbitant cost, from street vendors. In my first week, after walking for several hours along the Kowloon peninsula and Ocean City pier, sightseeing and taking photos of Victoria Harbour, I entered a reputable-appearing delicatessen and ordered a salad, sandwich, and water. Bear in mind that I was sweating profusely, red-faced from the heat, and probably on the verge of cardiovascular collapse due to dehydration. Understandably, then, the waitress brought to my table the salad and sandwich, and a steaming mug of scalding water. I wondered for a moment if I had accidentally ordered tea, but no, this was the correct order. When I politely requested a colder version, the woman scowled and returned with a glass of lukewarm water. “Close enough,” I conceded. My colleagues in Asia later informed me that traditional Chinese culture favors warm-to-hot water, and one must specify “cold” when ordering and be prepared for looks of shock, disgust, and/or pity from the shopkeepers.
Words: I must comment briefly on the valediction used in telephone conversations here. When people in Hong Kong, both women and men, end a phone call, their closing remark is invariably the following: “Ok, bye byeeeeeeeeeeee.” The final “bye” is given a coy, lilting, upward inflection, much as a gleeful child uses when waving bye-bye to mommy. Adorable when a five-year-old does it; indescribably irritating when a thirty-five-year-old does. My work involves calling a lot of doctors’ offices and speaking with secretaries; by the month’s end, I was routinely hanging up the phone before the other party could conclude the conversation, just to avoid the second byeeeeeeee.
Wealth and Woes: I’ve previously described the immense wealth in Hong Kong, with its Louis Vuitton shops and Maserati dealerships, but despite these riches, the people do not seem happy. Frequently, as I took the MTR to work, I would look at the people rushing around me and would find no warm smiles or contented expressions, only grim faces with eyes fixated on mobile devices and with expressions of dread at another day in the office. Everyone is rushing hither and thither, but to what end? Money to buy that $10,000 Coach purse in the window on Queen’s Road? Most residents of Hong Kong will never achieve this goal, and many probably have annual salaries far less than this amount. During the entire month I spent downtown, walking through the high-end malls, I never saw a person actually shopping in the luxury stores. People peer longingly through the shop windows, but practically no one can afford to purchase what they see. That is, wealth constantly stares people in the face but is untouchable. (Indeed, Hong Kong has one of the highest levels of economic inequality in the world.) For the select few who do attain wealth, it does not seem to buy them peace. Other than the taxicabs (which in any culture, it seems, communicate solely via irate honking of horns), the cars honking most loudly on the streets were the Bentleys, Porsches, Rolls-Royces, etc., whose occupants have access to every amenity and security that society has to offer. I have little doubt that these same wealth disparities, continual hurry, and unsatisfying capitalism also characterize the working population in New York or London, but as a complete outsider here in Hong Kong, I had the opportunity to view the situation from a external vantage, and the scene proved depressing.
All told, Hong Kong boasts many delightful tourist attractions, most of which I toured and which I have detailed, but is not a place I would wish to call home. Visit for a few days, see the sights, order cold water, but do not talk to anyone on the phone. So, Hong Kong, for now, bye byeeeeeeeeeeeee.