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The chronicles of two Portlanders in Singapore

The Pearl of the Orient

May 2, 2016.Joshua.0 Likes.0 Comments

My first impression of Hong Kong was a city as a living, breathing thing.  The Central and Wan Chai districts, spread along Victoria Harbor upon Hong Kong Island, were under construction.  Apparently, we were witnessing the final stage of a massive land reclamation project.  The city shifted, her already narrow streets twisting around barriers and cones, blinking lights guiding traffic with gaudy sequences.

One, two, one two, now dooooowwwnnn the line.

Indeed, gaudy became the word as I looked out at the skyline from our hotel at night, twenty-story tall LED animated ads on buildings, like a blueprint for the Blade Runner version of Los Angeles.  I had compared it to Singapore, whose skyline exudes respectability and tempered taste – no flashy signs, just simple brand logos, top left corner, nothing exciting, nothing controversial.  I’ve since realized my mistake.

Beverly and I are wont to compare the cities we visit to cities we’re familiar with.  “Like San Francisco sort of, just with more history, less banks.”  Simple words, really, meant to grasp a municipality and its distinct culture, its feel, its personality.  This was my mistake; there is no comparison, as there are no comparisons available for New York or London.  Hong Kong simply is Hong Kong, and all other cities save the aforementioned two pale in the light of comparison.  That’s not to say that no other city has its own unique character – Paris, San Francisco, Tokyo, Sydney, and yes, even the tiny red dot that have their own character, their own mystery and lore, but walking down the streets of Hong Kong, or riding the half-mile long escalator system1more on this, sitting on the MTR, you hear a thousand different languages being spoken, see a thousand more faces, and realize truly what the phrase “global city” means.

Or, in translation, I haven’t felt as connected since I walked down the broad avenues of New York, or grabbed a seat on the River Thames, and let the ebb and flow of our weird little species wash over me.

Enough of that.  Let’s talk about fuck-all large escalators.

The eponymous main island upon which much of the central business district is located is a mountain, really.  From Victoria Harbor, it juts sharply up, leaving no means for direct top-to-bottom roads.  Such roads that do exist in the neighborhood known as “Mid-levels” are switchbacks, with sharp turns and varying grades.  Recognizing the need for a pedestrian transit system and limited by the sharp topography, the escalator system is a marvel in unique problem solving.  It is, essentially, a half-mile long walkway that links two neighborhoods – just, instead of thousands of stairs, the city planners had the foresight to embrace a proposal to make a series of escalators that can reverse direction.  Along the escalators are stair walkways, causeways over trafficked roads and one of the most stark examples of city zoning ever.  Starting near sea level in the Central district, where bank logos and big-ticket brands compete for your attention, as you climb, the first businesses you see are retail shops, followed by gyms.  The gyms give way to bars, and then restaurants, which then yield to markets and laundromats, real estate offices and even small parks, tucked into concrete cubby holes built along the sloping path.

Everything is covered, everything works.  Those streets that you do have to cross by putting foot to pavement are access streets, local thoroughfares at best.  Those places where you do have to place one foot in front of the other are peppered with bars and restaurants, craftily placed to offer an oasis for a returning worker headed back up the hill towards the residential neighborhoods up top.

Up top, we found a downhill path to the Botanic and Zoological Gardens, an open to the public garden with zoo enclosures for local monkeys, one very bored looking orangutan, and lemurs, jumping around, taunting the many city cats that padded outside, looking for scraps from feeding time.  The gardens had an aviary as well, complete with flamingos, squawking away noisily.  Damn loud Americans.

We rode up, our energy flagging a bit from our 3:30am alarm to make our early flight.  Wisely – or poorly chosen, you pick – we stopped at one of those bars I mentioned, cracked open a pair of Heineken bottles and watched the commute begin around us.  We got extremely lucky with the weather – it never got over 25 degrees277 F, true believers! – and most of the time it was a cool 22371, RCT fans! with a bit of rain.  Sitting there, watching the clouds threaten and the wind and the fans keep us cool, if not chilly, I could get a glimpse of what life is like in our most densely packed metropolis.  Busy.  Global.  But like New York, never oppressive nor smothering.  This is a place where expression is warranted.

Taking the subway back to our hotel, a young woman near us, a girl, really, got on the escalator down to the platform, and feeling the flow, started walking against the direction of the moving staircase, almost doing a proper “Running Man”.  I couldn’t help but laugh.  Madam, the inner Singaporean in me said, that is very dangerous.

You may have heard a thing or two about Hong Kong cuisine.  It’s pretty well known, I guess.  Terrible understatement aside, while the dim sum is amazing and plentiful, there are literally thousands of other cuisines you can enjoy in the city, many done with the expertise you would expect in a global city.  We had dim sum for lunch, but we had Italian for dinner that night, cooked right next to our outdoor table by a gregarious chef who kept the staff hopping fetching ingredients from the kitchen.  We ate dumplings every day, but also enjoyed a delicious plate of noodles for lunch under the shadow of the Big Buddha, and topped off our experience in Hong Kong with szechuan – which might be like going to New York and having really good Mexican food.

See if I care.  It was amazing.  Sugar and ginger glazed beef with piquant “sizzling eggplant”4it was all right, I guess, which sent us to our drinks and our water with frequency.

Hong Kong Island isn’t the largest island in the harbor.  It’s Lantau, where the airport and – get this – Disneyland exist.  Signs on the road to Lantau are all decorated with a plane icon and ludicrously, that familiar shape of three circles, the silhouette of a humble mouse.

Garsh, Mickey!

We didn’t take a car to Lantau on day two, but rather the subway, a forty-minute ride to Tung Chung, the gateway to Lantau island, apparently.  From there, we waited another hour in queue.  Why did we do this?

Because we decided to take a gondola/cable car over the whole island, towards Tai O, an old fishing village, and the Tian Tan Buddha, or just “the big Buddha.”

Face the fears, face the fears.

Cresting some of the hills between Tung Chung and Ngong Ping, the wind howled, swaying our small car back and forth.  I can’t say that I was a fan.  But the sights were amazing.  Nearly the whole of Lantau, and the Tian Tan Buddha sitting patient in the distance, as tall as a mountain in his own right, sitting eternal in his meditation.  We took in the scenery as we took in the score of the rapidly ending Blazers/Clippers series, letting out a triumphant – and probably confusing to our neighbors – “whoop” when the time finally said “Final” and the Blazers had won.  With that out of the way, we enjoyed the rest of the day, eating charcoal grilled waffles and browsing the fish market before climbing the hundreds of stairs to sit at the feet of the Buddha and marvel at his sheer size.

Rain started to trickle down on us.  We didn’t care.  It was cool there.  Far cooler than the 32 degrees it’ll be today.

The truth be told, we didn’t even scratch the surface of Hong Kong.  We spent no time in Kowloon, opting just for a ferry across the harbor and walked around there for a bit.  The Kowloon side was under heavy construction as well, which dampened our enjoyment of that part of town.  However, with only two days in town, I think we wisely opted to focus our time.  Honestly, I’m thrilled that we went to Lantau.  It’s not something that I would have thought to try, and it offers, in the words of my friend B, “geography, which Singapore doesn’t.”  She speaks the truth.  We have no mountains here, nothing above a tiny hill in Bukit Timah.  If we had more time in Asia, I would spend many more weekends in Hong Kong – much like New York City or London, there is no end of things to do in that city.

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