Nov 192009

Here are some of the photos I took in Hong Kong, in February 2009. I was planning on writing more about it, describing the photos, but somehow life got in the way. So here they are, without much in the way of embellishment. The things that caught my eye: mostly contrasts. I was fascinated by the contrast between the old and the new, old buildings reflected in shiny new windows, cats sitting in stores calmly watching the bustle in the street outside, the rickety old ferry in the reclaimed harbour, palm trees and gardens overshadowed by skyscrapers whose tops are lost in the clouds. A fascinating city, I’d like to go back some time.

Feb 242009

My son is learning Mandarin, so when I went to Hong Kong recently, I asked what I should bring back. His teacher suggested a Mandarin dictionary; it sounded like a good idea to me. Finding one to buy ended up being more of an odyssey than I expected though.

The hotel had an English-language Yellow Pages, which seemed like a good place to start. Bad assumption – there was a category for Bookbinders, and one for Books – Wholesalers, but no retail books. Even if they had had a listing there, it’s doubtful it would have done me much good. It turns out that the Hong Kong Yellow Pages lists addresses in terms of the name of the building the store is in (e.g., Prosper Commercial Building, or Tai Sang Building), with no hint as to which part of Hong Kong it might be in, let alone which number on which street. I guess they expect people to know which building is where.

One of my tourist guides mentioned that Dymocks (which I always think of as an Australian store) is near the Star Ferry terminal, so after the required trip on the ferry (well worth it), I stopped off there. They didn’t have any Mandarin dictionaries, so I bought another book and asked the cashier where to find one. Her answer? “Commercial Books, on Sugar Street, ask when you get there, everyone knows it”. So I went down to Sugar Street, walked along it twice, up and down stairs at the Commercial Building, before finding the actual bookstore is called “Commercial Press” and it’s on Yee Wo Street, near the intersection to Sugar Street. Close enough I guess, I did find it eventually.

Of course, I don’t speak any Chinese language, so I needed help to find what I wanted. I completely bamboozled the first bookstore employee I asked for help, she couldn’t believe she understood what I was asking for and asked someone else for help. They showed me lots of books on learning Mandarin, and English-Mandarin dictionaries, before finally believing that maybe I did want a Mandarin dictionary with no English and showing me those.

As an aside: if you see a book in Hong Kong with a large number on a sticker on it, the number is the percentage of the normal price that you pay, not the final price. So if the sticker says “85”, you don’t pay $HKD 85, you pay 85% of the normal price (which is on the back of the book). This can, ahem, be quite a different price.

Feb 172009

Tim had a business trip to Hong Kong, and since I’m currently underemployed, I thought I’d tag along. It was only for a couple of days, which is a shame given how much there is to and see in Hong Kong. It was also my first trip.

First impressions are that Hong Kong is clean and very organised. You arrive at the sparkling new airport, right outside the arrival doors there’s a booth to sell tickets to the train (if you’re doing this, get the traveller pass that covers the MTR and the train trip, it’s very convenient), the train is on the same level as the arrivals hall and whisks you into Hong Kong, to be met by a shuttle bus that takes you to your hotel. All very useful for the jetlagged traveller (and in my case, one with a bad cold to boot). The only oddity was being told to take off my hat in the airport for what looked like a camera and was likely a thermal imager (aftermath of the SARS outbreak, one suspects).

The shuttle to the airport drove along some of the main roads in Central, and my first impression was how much like Singapore it looked. Lots of traffic, tall shiny buildings with lots of glass, concrete overpasses over the roads, interspersed with palm trees and other vegetation.

Walking around Wan Chai the morning was a little different – there were no palm trees there, although there’s still the same crazy traffic. I walked along Gloucester Road to the beat of an alarm that everyone ignored, walking by gleaming bathroom fixture companies and jumbled hardware companies, over to Victoria Park with people walking around slowly, stretching as they go, and then back along Hennessy Road, one of the main shopping streets on Hong Kong Island. The oddest thing to me was that I was taller than many people on the streets, both men and women.

This part of Hong Kong is reminiscent not only of Singapore, but of New York, London, and almost every Chinatown I’ve been to. Chinese herbalist shops jostle with global names (in particular Starbucks and McDonalds, but also well-known clothing and phone companies), the people mostly speak at least one Chinese language as well as English, the English is accented with UK pronunciation. They drive on the left, and mostly walk on the right like the English do.

At lunchtime I headed back to the hotel and discovered the pedestrian overpass system. A bit quicker than the streets, and a lot safer than trying to cross the roads. It was also noticeable that the people using the overpasses (which lead through shopping centres and hotel lobbies) were, on average, taller, better-fed, and much more expensively dressed than those walking on the streets below. The typical business apparel seems to be dark suits, for both men and women. Pinstripes seem to be considered flashy.

Hong Kong is intense. I walked through much of Wan Chai, Central, Tsim Sha Tsui and Mong Kok, just looking at things and absorbing the atmosphere. I saw lots of obviously poor people, but few homeless people and the only beggars I saw were in the tourist areas of Tsim Sha Tsui. I marveled at the mid-levels escalator system, and at how thin all those buildings look from the top of Victoria Peak. You can tell that Hong Kong does not have a significant risk of a large earthquake by how close the apartment buildings are build to each other, and how tall they’re built, even on the reclaimed land. The buildings on the mid-levels look like they’d bang into each other when swaying in a big quake.

I want to go back and see more.

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