Let’s Start From the Beginning – My Origins: Hong Kong
I thought it appropriate that my first travelogue should be about the country of my birth – Hong Kong. Although a popular tourist destination, Hong Kong has never held the same allure for me as it does many of my friends and the millions of tourists who flock there each year. Some go there for the cultural experience without too much of a culture shock (as English is still one of the languages spoken there, in addition to Chinese Mandarin and Cantonese), whilst others consider it a shoppers’ mecca. Many foreigners still live and work there given its status as a major trading centre for South East Asia. So this particular travelogue will not be so much a guide for tourists looking for travel tips as a walk down memory lane from my perspective.
Since my family emigrated from HK nearly 30 years ago, I have hardly looked back at Hong Kong with much affection, if any. I know it sounds harsh and many people may be offended by this admission, but Australia has been my home for most of my life and I hope will remain so for its remainder. The Hong Kong that I grew up in was polluted, crowded, noisy, dirty, smelly (ironically, the definition of Hong Kong in Chinese is “Fragrant Harbour”), and had signs in public parks that read “KEEP OFF THE GRASS”. So it is little wonder that I fell in love with Australia from the moment I stepped foot on the grassy pavements and the wide-open spaces.
Having said that, a lot has changed for the better in the tiny country, now formally known as Hong Kong SAR (Special Administrative Region). Old buses have been replaced by new gas and electric-powered buses, reducing the pollution levels significantly; smoking indoors is prohibited; and with the outbreak of SARS in 2003 resulting in fatalities, hygiene has become a major focus in public areas. And so, in the last few years, my appreciation for this tiny island, or rather, group of islands, has grown. It is a country that is ever-changing, and I find that the more I travel around the world, the more I appreciate all the things that Hong Kong has to offer.
In January 2008, we returned to Hong Kong for the first time as a family, and this time with a small addition – my then-5-year-old nephew. For the first time, I began to see everything through his young inquisitive eyes. All the things I had taken for granted when I was growing up there took on new perspectives. Out of necessity to accommodate the 7-million+ people who live there, Hong Kong is a vertical city with both residential and commercial buildings seeming to almost touch the sky. Sights such as that depicted on the left with bamboo scaffolding and mesh drapes over buildings are not uncommon. However, it was not the height of the buildings that amazed my nephew most – it was the fact that they were being constructed with the use of bamboo poles and seeing the skinniest of construction workers wander down streets carrying these massive bundles of bamboo poles on their shoulders that held his, and my, fascination.
I remember when I was growing up, what was then known as Connaught Centre (now Jardine House) where my mother worked, was the tallest building in Hong Kong and Asia at 52 storeys high. Nowadays, it is completely dwarfed by its neighbouring buildings. The neighbourhood where my grandparents lived was once under the flight path of the old Kai-Tak International Airport (the one that every pilot dreaded for having the shortest runway in the world). With the opening of the new Chek Lap Kok Airport, built on reclaimed land, the height restrictions were lifted for that area and new apartment blocks (right) have quickly sprung up.
Building on reclaimed land is nothing new to the former British colony. The Peninsula Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui was once the place to be if you wanted to be seen (I guess it was the South-East Asian equivalent of Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood). The rich and famous all went there for its views of Victoria Harbour. These days, the only thing you will see is a road in front of the main entrance, across from which is the Hotel Intercontinental and the Avenue of Stars. On my last visit in December 2010, my mother and I joked that the speed at which Hong Kong continues to build on reclaimed land would likely mean the famous Star Ferry may be out of business in 10 years’ time – pretty soon we would be able to walk across what was once the harbour, or there may be a couple of new MTR stations to connect you from Tsim Sha Tsui to Central. It would be a sad day indeed if that was to happen!
So what is the best time of year to be in Hong Kong? As far as I am concerned, there is no better time than at Christmas with all the festivities, the sales, and the city is lit up with Christmas lights. Every major shopping complex is trying to outdo each other with their themed decorations and everything has to be done on a large scale. The temperate winters (mid-to-low 20s degrees Celsius are not unheard of at that time of year) make it, in my opinion at least, the most comfortable time of year to travel, unless you enjoy 90% humidity during the summer months or typhoons in the autumn months.
Each time you visit Hong Kong, I guarantee there will be something new because in Hong Kong, the only constant is change.