Monday, January 3, 2011

Hong Kong, China

Map picture

Nothing Stays the Same: Hong Kong, China

We arrived into Hong Kong harbor in the early morning darkness before sunrise. Lisa and I were up to watch the event, as our ship was given a right proper welcome as we were preceded down the river by a fireboat with all its lights blazing and banners flying, trailing behind it a double plume of spray from its twin water cannons. It is said that in the entire world, the three most spectacular harbors are Sydney, San Francisco and Hong Kong.

Hong Kong, China

As the morning dawned, I was immediately taken back in my memory to my first visit to this amazing city. It was in the spring of 1972, and I can recall quite clearly landing at what was one of the world’s most dangerous airports (which has since been closed). While we were on our final approach, I looked out of my window to see the still smoldering ruins of the SS Queen Elizabeth, which had mysteriously been destroyed by fire where it was anchored in the harbor serving as a floating school.

In 1972, Hong Kong was the most densely populated city in the world! I clearly recall that the streets were a writhing sea of humanity, pushing and shoving through narrow alleyways filled with shops offering every imaginable kind of edible or merchandise. In my mind, it was one gigantic shopping mall where every conceivable item in the world could be found for sale. I have often joked that the ships brought in the merchandise and the tourists took it out. The shopkeepers were some of the most aggressive I have ever encountered. If they did not have exactly what you wanted; then standby and they would get it. If they could not get it; standby, they would find something just as good. If they could not find something just as good; standby, they would have it made. If they could not get it made; standby, they had just the perfect item that was even better; and so it went.

Back then Hong Kong was a British Crown Colony, and was the financial hub of Asia. The main focus of Hong Kong was making money, and almost anything was possible! However, all of this was about to change, or so it was thought, when under the terms of a treaty signed in 1898, control of Hong Kong and the surrounding territories would revert to China in 1997. Large numbers of people fled Hong Kong out of fear over what the transition would bring.

It is interesting how times change all things. Back then China was a tightly controlled communist State, and Hong Kong was the epitome of uncontrolled Western Capitalism. It was hard to see how the two could co-exist, but that is exactly what has happened. In the intervening years, mainland China has moved towards a free economy. Private property is now allowed in China. People can engage in commerce and set their own destinies. The older generations still enjoy the guarantees of a communist State, such as free health care and lifetime pensions, but the younger generations no longer have those benefits. They must now provide for their own healthcare and retirement, while at the same time the sky is the limit on where their talents can take them. So when the transition of Hong Kong to Chinese control took place, China was wise in not changing much if anything. Today Hong Kong is a “Special Administrative Region of China.” As far as I can tell Hong Kong is still Hong Kong, and it has grown and modernized to the point that it is hardly recognizable from the city I saw almost 40 years ago. Our guide told us that as China moves more and more towards open commerce, the eventual transfer of Hong Kong to full Chinese control in 50 years, will probably be a non-event.

For our visit yesterday, we had arranged for a private car and an English speaking guide. That is sort of funny nowadays, since most of the younger population speaks English as a matter of course. In fact, I learned something that I did not know. Throughout China there are five dialects, but only one written language. All Chinese can read the same writing, but someone speaking Cantonese cannot understand someone speaking Mandarin. Today all school children in Hong Kong are expected to become fluent is Cantonese and Mandarin as well as English. It turns out that our visit was on a Sunday, and after the New Year that meant there was almost no traffic. Our first stop was to take the world famous tram to the top of Victoria Peak for a panoramic view of the harbor.

Hong Kong, China

Sadly, it was a very cloudy overcast day and quite windy, so the rather balmy 56 degrees F, felt quite chilly from the overlook. Everywhere we looked the surrounding hillsides were crowed with high rise buildings. Our guide told us that today there is no more land on which to build in Hong Kong. If you wish to build something new, then either something has to be removed first, or you must recover land from the harbor. The tallest building-to-be in the city will be 80 stories tall when it is completed, and it is being constructed on reclaimed land in the now ever shrinking harbor.

Our next stop was at Repulse Bay. Named after a British warship the bay is famous as the location of the only beach in Hong Kong. Now since the city had no natural beach, this entire shoreline is built from sand imported from Indonesia, and is constantly being replenished.

Hong Kong, China

We walked along the entire shoreline – it was not long, and at the end found a Tao Temple, which because of the holiday, was a beehive of activity.

Hong Kong, China

Most of the citizens of Hong Kong practice Taoism, but all other religions also co-exist. From there we drove to the famous village of Aberdeen, home of the “boat people.”

When I last visited Aberdeen, it could truly be described as a small fishing village. I remember being amazed that the large harbor was full of Sampans tied one to another into a huge floating mass that completely covered the waterfront. Across from us was a deserted island, and if you wanted to, it was possible to walk across the boats to the island. These Sampans were home to a huge population of fisherman and their families. They lived on these small boats with no utilities and an income based on what little fish they could catch when they went to sea. It is one of my most vivid memories from that earlier visit. I also recall that Sampans in those days were driven by unique wooden and colorful sails, but that motorized boats were just being introduced.

Yesterday you could have knocked me over with a feather at the changes that have taken place. The tourist companies still take you to the “quaint fishing village of Aberdeen” to see the boat people, but for the most part they are gone.

Hong Kong, China

The deserted island across the bay is not completely built up with high rise buildings, and is connected now with bridges and mass transit. Gone from the harbor are the floating sampans which have been replaced by a relatively small fleet of modern steel hulled fishing boats. Yes, families still live on these vessels, but they have generators and all the modern appliances onboard. We were given a “sampan” ride around the small harbor, and our “sampan” was but a small replica piloted by an old women who at one time lived and fished on the old boats, but today makes her living giving tourist rides.

At this point, we had completed our planned itinerary, but because of the light traffic we had time left with our guide; so, he offered to show me some of the old Hong Kong that I remembered, and where his mother still goes for shopping.

Hong Kong, China

Before long we found ourselves among narrow streets teeming with humanity and lined with shops. Here live fish and all kinds of creatures from the sea were available for sale. Fresh meat was hanging on hooks, and being cut to order. Vegetables from all over the world were on sale – since Hong Kong has no land to grow its own food. The older generation of Chinese women prefers to shop daily, sometimes twice daily for fresh food, and so places like this still exists. However, the modern generation does not have time for that, and like us, use a supermarket for their shopping.

I mentioned when I started this, that Hong Kong at one time held the distinction of being the most densely populated city on earth. They have lost that title, but they still have a section of the city which is the most densely populated sq. miles on earth, with over 100, 000 people living there. The average apartment for a family of four in Hong Kong is only 400 sq. ft.

Anyway, today we are at sea on our way to Nha Trang, Vietnam, with the very next day being a stop at Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I probably will not get an opportunity to write between the two stops, so it will be a few days before I am blogging again. Meantime we have gone from where we kept the thermostat in our room set to maximum heat, to now it is set for maximum cool, as we once again enter the tropical climate of the South China Sea.

Lisa and I wish everyone a Happy New Year.


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