Hong Kong, China (Day 1)
The last episode ended with us sailing from Jakarta anticipating four relaxing days at sea. But no. It turned out that there was a typhoon of some sort off the coast of Vietnam that gave us gray foggy weather and roiling seas most of the way to Hong Kong. So it was relaxing with no shore touring, but would have been a lot more so if we had not been constantly trying to avoid falling down or knocking into walls! Happily, the weather began to abate somewhat as we neared our destination, so the very early morning sail-in to Hong Kong harbor on Wednesday, March 2, was gray & foggy & windy, but the sea was not so rough. Unable to stand the strong wind on the front of the ship, we retreated to the Crow’s Nest, an inside venue on the top deck with panoramic windows facing forward. But the windows were pretty dirty, so we returned to the front of the ship for the last leg, as entering the protection of the harbor greatly reduced the wind.
We docked right in the middle of town. On one side of the harbor is Hong Kong island & on the other is Kowloon peninsula jutting out from the mainland, where we docked. Right next to our dock is the Star Ferry terminal. The Star Ferry is a venerable institution hereabouts; for about 30 cents fare (1st class yet) it will take you across the harbor.
Hong Kong is way too big & diverse to see everything in just three days. It has more than 10 million people and more high-rise buildings than any other city on Earth (almost 800 in our source, but more are going up every day). Originally not much more than a collection of fishing villages, Hong Kong became something of a trade center in the early 19th century when China began opening up to European trade. The British imported quite a lot of tea from China & the Chinese were indifferent to western goods, so a serious trade imbalance arose. The Brits closed it by shipping opium, which grew in its Indian possessions, to China, causing a predictable epidemic of addiction. The Chinese, alarmed about this, tried to cut off all opium imports & even seized & destroyed a large shipment in Hong Kong. The British refused to tolerate this & started the opium war to force China to permit the opium trade to continue. The Chinese were easily overcome by superior weaponry, & the resulting treaty in 1842 not only resumed the opium trade but gave possession of Hong Kong to the British, which they continued until 1999. A second military action 20 years later gave Britain dominion over most of Kowloon & in 1899 China leased the New Territories & Lantau island to the British for 100 years.
The Japanese ruled Hong Kong during World War II, a very harsh period of food shortages and repression. After the war the British were back & Hong Kong began to experience exponential growth, partly from people fleeing the civil war in mainland China. From 1945 to the mid-1950’s its population grew from about 600,000 (depleted by the war) to some 2.5 million. The housing shortage was acute, with people living in “cage houses,” which were little more than a bed in a large room with a cage enclosing it, & squatter villages. A devastating fire in one of the large squatter villages led to the construction of public housing projects, the first high-rises in Hong Kong. Today there is little to be seen other than high-rises in the central part of Hong Kong.
We had downloaded some walking tours, so we walked over to the Star Ferry & crossed to Hong Kong island.
We wandered around Central for about an hour looking for the beginning of the walking tour, which turned out to be right next to the ferry terminal. Apart from seeing lots (lots!) of high-end international brand retail outlets, this walk reinforced the impression from the sail-in that visually Hong Kong is all about skyscrapers. Looking up from the street you see tall buildings all around, and very little sky (apart from what is reflected in the glass walls of the buildings). The main streets are so busy that there are overpasses and underpasses for pedestrians to get across.
Our first stop was Statue Square, which once held a statue of Queen Victoria but now only one of a 19th century manager of the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank (HSBC). Reputedly a busy place on weekends, it was tranquil when we visited, with several interesting fountains. On one side is the Legislative Council Building. Built in the early 1900’s to house the Supreme Court, it was home to the legislature until 2011, and now is said to house the Court of Final Appeal.
Chater Garden is a park in the middle of the high rises, with a fountain & lots of fauna. It was the site of the Hong Kong Cricket Club from the mid 19th century until 1975.
On the south side of the garden is Des Voeux Road, a busy street with tramlines running down it. This street was built as part of an early 19th century land reclamation project. Land reclamation has continued ever since, narrowing the harbor by about a kilometer so far, so that today this street is nowhere near the water. The popular double decker trams are part of a line laid down more than a century ago.
Two important bank buildings were next. The HSBC Bank tower was built in the 1980’s for almost $1 billion. This bank has been in this location since 1865, however, and issued Hong Kong’s first bank notes in the mid 19th century. It is notable for being supported by an external rather than a central structure. Its escalator was the longest in the world when built & it is guarded by two stone lions who have been there since 1935.
Next door is the 70 story Bank of China Tower, the tallest building outside the United States when it was built in 1990. Designed by I.M. Pei (who also did the West Wing of the U.S. National Gallery), it implements the principles of Feng Shui to maintain harmony with its environment. As a side benefit, its design also interfered with the feng shui of the bank’s competitor, HSBC, which could bring HSBC bad luck even while bringing Bank of China good luck.
We walked up a steep hill, past the Duddell Street steps, built in the 1880.s, with the only remaining gas lamps in Hong Kong. We passed the former French Mission building, built about a century ago, & St. John’s Cathedral. Built in 1849, it is the oldest religious building in Hong Kong. A funeral was letting out, so we stopped back later to view the inside.
At the top of the hill was Government House. Completed in 1855, it was the residence of the British governors until 1997 and is now the residence of Hong Kong’s Executive. The tower was added by the Japanese during WWII. When built, this building overlooked the water but today no water is to be seen.
Across the street (if you can find a crosswalk) is the Zoological & Botanical Gardens, established in 1864. It has a number of exotic animals & birds (most impossible to photograph because of cages) and a statue of King George VI. A very nice place to spend some time in the midst of this bustling city.
We walked down to the station for the Peak Tram, which would take us to the top of Victoria Peak. The tram has been operating since 1888, before which it took hours to reach Victoria Peak. Today it is just a few minutes on what is billed as the steepest tram in the world (we believe it; riding it was almost like lying down). The top terminus is a largely glass sided building with great views, which is full of shops & restaurants. We had a pizza there; the pizza was good, but the view was spectacular. We were very lucky to have a clear & sunny day for this; the peak is often enclosed by clouds & fog.
We descended in the tram & headed back to the ship on the ferry. On the way we passed the giant ferris wheel, spinning very slowly, which we had seen during the sail-in. It was reputedly built to compete with the one in Singapore, which we will be riding in a couple of weeks.
When the sun goes down Hong Kong really lights up with an unbelievable amount of neon. There is a light show (accompanied by music if you are in the right location) during which the buildings change color or light design & some are even animated, with green lasers flashing from the tops of some buildings. We watched from the top deck of Amsterdam & it was really something to see to end our first day in Hong Kong.