“This is the stupidest trip we’ve ever taken,” pronounced always-up-for-a-trip Don, as we jammed some last stuff in our bags and raced for SFO. I had started to worry he was right. As the reality of traveling from SF to Hong Kong for four short days came into focus, I too was having trouble remembering what the crazy/fun parts were going to be. But here’s the great thing: He was wrong! It was more than survivable: A long weekend in Hong Kong is completely doable and a fantastic escape (especially if you follow our survival tips.)
A big birthday party for a friend was the impetus. A Singapore Airlines fare sale sealed the deal. The birthday reunion festivities included a nighttime harbor tour by junk, a rowdy day cheering at the Rugby Sevens and a private dinner in a Sheung Wan restaurant as delicious and cool as anything in the Mission or Brooklyn. (Thanks Shep & Betsy!)
But the trip was a reunion of another type: I lived in Hong Kong 25 years ago when the territory was still under British Rule. Don had visited me at that time so we made a point of re-visiting many of the spots we remembered from that long ago summer. The bottom line? Hong Kong seemed cleaner, more modern, more efficient and better smelling than either of us could remember.
Of course, development has been rampant. Construction is everywhere. And even on the most modern projects, bamboo scaffolding still appears to be the norm. My old apartment in the hilly area behind the Central business district on Hong Kong Island – called the Mid Levels – was bulldozed to build a shiny new high rise – and a new subway station had been added across the street.
In 1993, the Central-Mid Levels Escalator was completed. I had envisioned this escalator would be Hong Kong’s equivalent to NYC’s High Line. Not so much. But it is still nice to have an easier way to get up to the Mid Levels and take in the sights as you cruise upwards.
The hair-raising landings between high rises at the old Kai Tak Airport are long gone. The new international airport at Chek Lap Kok near Lantau Island opened in 1998. It is connected to the town by rail, and a downtown airport counter allows travelers to get boarding passes and check bags for flights – totally 21st century. The puny metro map of the early 1990s has been replaced with rainbow crisscrosses of subways, local and express trains. It was a bit disheartening to think of the number of transportation advances Hong Kong had made over the recent decades as California continues to argue about trains and inches along with subway extensions. (Sigh.)
Many of Hong Kong’s outlying islands were completely unrecognizable compared to the 1990s. Entire new cities of massive housing blocks have been plopped between the sea and the hills, making each look like a settlement dropped onto Mars. These residential areas boomed when the islands became connected to Hong Kong Island and the mainland by subways and bridges instead of just ferries. The formerly largely rural Lantau Island is now not only home to the massive Tian Tan Buddha and the international airport but to Hong Kong Disneyland.
To the tourist, the developmental downsides of displaced people and damaged natural environments are tougher to see. An excursion to see Hong Kong’s rare pink dolphins provides one glimpse. The dolphin’s habitat has become significantly smaller because of ongoing construction projects. Since the early 1990s, development of the airport, numerous man-made islands and bridges – including the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge slated to open this year and become among the world’s longest – has dramatically reduced the number of dolphins. Experts estimate only 60 of the uniquely rosy-white dolphins are left, down from 158 in 2003.
Somehow, the Star Ferry still plugs across Victoria Harbor between Hong Kong Island and Tsim Tsa Tsui on the tip of the Kowloon Peninsula even though a cross-harbor tunnel and subway have been in operation for decades. It remains one of the most beautiful and least expensive boat trips in the world – and one of my very favorites.
Sailors in old-fashioned navy-style uniforms still raise the gangways, bark at the passengers and toss a coil of rope to from the boat to the pier to tie off the ship – the same way the boat has been docked since 1898. Now there are plans to launch a fancied-up Star Ferry to ship visitors from Kowloon to Disneyland.
But the harbor seemed a bit empty. Where 25 years ago the water bustled with all manner of cargo, transport and personal craft of varying size and seaworthiness, most of the ships on the harbor today seemed to be for tourists, many of whom set out at dark to watch the Vegas-y “Symphony of Lights “ show which lasers like crazy across many harbor-side high rises at 8pm nightly on both sides of the harbor.
The backpacker’s standby Chungking Mansions still stands in Tsim Tsa Tsui. It’s façade now glitters neon and its elevator banks boast a sleek update with security guard and video. The ground floor is comfortingly similar to that of decades past: south Asian and African vendors sell videos, phones, jewels, clothes, trinkets and delicacies from home, combining for a still otherworldly mix of exotic scents.
The entire area is an upscale shopping district now, which ever so gradually becomes less exclusive as you walk north. Touts selling watches and jewelry still haunt the street corners and accost passersby with their deals. And the people – wow! The throngs of young people gathered in the Ladies Market on a random Monday night in March were as thick as we’d ever seen with streets completely impassible due to clogs of human beings.
Near the formerly rowdy Wan Chai, we checked into chic Mira Moon Hotel and quickly realized the neighborhood has been sprucing itself up. The afternoon sidewalks were also crowded but pleasantly so, with school kids walking home, teens grabbing snacks, and shopkeepers sprucing up their frontage. Hong Kong still follows the old-style retail plan where all the vegetable shops are on one block, all the furniture sellers on one block, all the book stores on one block, and so on. There’s now even a diminutive Times Square there that attracts hang out-ers (though we could not see its immediate attraction) and a sleek SoHo near Central with very cool shops, restaurants and bars.
We made a pilgrimage to see Wan Chai’s somewhat famous Blue House. Upon seeing it, we remembered that only in Hong Kong could a somewhat plain 1920s building be preserved as a landmark. We felt like suckers for trekking all the way there until we realized the streets nearby were the real draw: Jampacked with a dive-y bar, interesting restaurants and many old tinkerer garages, one with a mid-century Rolls Royce up on blocks.
Spying a patch of trees up the street, the payoff for our long journey came into view. 1863’s Pai Tak Temple was preparing for a festival the next day. Wedged between the hillside covered in massive shady fig trees and a sports court, the neighborhood shrine had been kitted out with a Buddhist holiday splendor that would make both Disney and Rose Parade float-builders blush.
One volunteer proudly invited us to look around. A woman meticulously stacked knotted washcloths into a pyramid of offerings while another coiled leaves around roses and stood them in precise lines. A local family prayed for blessings and rang a series of gongs. The flowers, the incense, the bells, the streams of afternoon light – wow. We did not want to leave. And we were sincerely glad we came back.
by Maryann Jones Thompson, January 2017
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Keywords: family vacation, family travel, travel with kids, hong kong weekend, hong kong layover, hong kong memories