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Singapore Journal - Hong Kong excursion

  • Submitted by: Matt Donath
  • Submission Date: 09th Feb 2005



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This issue consists of a travelogue relating a short trip to Hong Kong and Macau. For the benefit of those coming in on a Hong Kong link, Sybil and I are starting out from Singapore.

Learning a bit from our past mistakes, we finally leave enough time to get to Changi airport. We jump on an Airbus on Orchard Road with over two hours before our flight. Of course we can never get to an airport without some incident. This time the driver stops the bus after a point and comes back to tell us we didn't pay enough fare. We're surprised because Sybil thought she read the fare chart correctly, but never mind, how much more do we owe?

It's only 20 cents Sing, but the bus driver won't let us pay the difference. Instead, he wants us to pay the entire fare all over again. Typically, I have a knee jerk angry reaction and mouth off to him. He backs down and drives off, but then Sybil quickly convinces me that we should just pay him anyway. I agree, as it's just not worth the ill will. They can be very silly here about sticking exactly to the letter of the law and never mind how ridiculous the circumstances.

Remember all the time we spent in Changi airport the last time we were here after missing our flight to Bangkok? (See Part Nine) One would think we've seen all the 'attractions,' but nope. Continuing with our tradition of always going to the wrong terminal (tough at Changi since there are only 2 choices, but we manage) we go to terminal one instead of two. No worries as we have plenty of time and get to see some nice fountains along the way. At terminal two we find the 'Science Discovery Center!' It's just a few small displays but we have fun looking at the holograms, the radioactive Barbie dolls, cooing in the whisper chambers, and playing with the electric light art. Great stuff for an airport.

We have Singapore Airlines out and Cathay Pacific back. Both are excellent airlines with in-flight entertainment. (Sing Air has better food but Cathay Pacific gives you more drinks.) The flight to Hong Kong is long enough to see movies so we are content.

The new Hong Kong airport at Lantau is just about to open, so we get a last chance to fly into Kai Tak. This is one of the most exciting landings in the world as you get to swoop down into the center of Kowloon between all the buildings. It's really insane - you can actually see people inside their apartments as you descend - so they clearly needed to move the airport, but some of the thrill of coming into Hong Kong will be lost.

It's been almost 9 years since I was last in Hong Kong. Last visit, I was leaving Beijing right after the Tian'anmen Massacre. Troops lined the street to Capitol airport and machine gun nests were set up at major intersections. I had been stuck in Capitol airport with hundreds of other fleeing foreigners, trying to grab any flight out of town. An incredible stroke of good fortune allowed me to catch a late night Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong. When that plane took off the passengers erupted in applause and shouts of joy.

I still have a bit of that feeling coming into Hong Kong. It's always been good to me - very much a favorite destination. Now it is Sybil's first trip there and I get to show her around, assuming I can recognize anything after all that time.

We catch an Airbus to Tsim Sha Tsui and walk to the Marco Polo Hotel, where we have reservations.

OK, those of you who know me are now shaking your heads in astonishment. Did Matt Donath just say he was staying in a hotel (a rather nice hotel too) and did he also say he had reservations?! I know I'm risking my reputation as a rough, tough 'hard' traveler, but wait, I can explain! Well, maybe not much. We just jumped on a good deal from the two airlines. Tourism is way down in Hong Kong, so the airlines are including hotel stays at not much more than the airfare itself. Plus, the cheap accommodations in Hong Kong are not so cheap and not very nice either.

For our first night here I offer Sybil the Temple Street night market or a stroll on the Promenade. She wisely chooses the latter. It's a beautiful night for walking along the harbor, catching the fabulous views and joining the other lovers on the Promenade.

Saturday, I catch the end of the Bulls basketball game on cable as we get dressed in the morning. This is the first time I've seen them all year. They win over Charlotte and I take this as a good omen.

We hop on the Star Ferry, relishing the views on the water. Then Sybil the Researcher insists we take a peek into the Public Library. She wants to compare it with Singapore and for all the fancy gizmos of the new Singapore National Library, the Hong Kong one seems to be more useful.

Cutting through several building, crossing scenic overpasses, we pick up some sandwiches and finally make our way to Hong Kong Park. Wait a second! I've lost my hat! Normally I wouldn't care a bit about losing something so insignificant, but Sybil made this hat for me by hand so we must go back and find it. Retracing our steps, we check the sandwich shop (no luck) before I eventually find it on a library stack. Whew!

Back to Hong Kong Park. Last time I was here it was being constructed. We're very happy with the result. First, they kept the tea museum, and as tea fanatics this is an obligatory stop. Next we sit by a man-made waterfall to eat our sandwiches and watch parents following their toddlers around with video cameras. Then up to a fine conservatory, and back down to an impressive aviary. This park is on a hill, not far from central Hong Kong, so you get impressive views of the skyscrapers from amid the green walkways.

The tram to Victoria Peak is at the edge of the park. Here I note some big changes since my last visit. The tram is modernized and there are hokey 'attractions' at the top of the peak. There's even a mall! Last time I was up, there was just a sleepy cafe (still there but now upscale). Actually, it's not at all bad. They did a good job of creating amenities for tourists without spoiling the atmosphere too much.

If you want to get away from the crowds you can still escape to the Hong Kong Trail, which winds it's way along the western side of Hong Kong Island before shooting back all the way to the eastern side, hitting every park along the way. It's a great path with incredible views of the city below and we happily hike a loop back to the Peak, reaching it just in time for the sunset.

Sunday, we have plans to explore the New Territories with our friend Alfee. (Remember Alfee from our trip to the kelong in Malaysia? No? OK, see part ten.) Alfee has a car and takes us first to City University, where he goes to school part time, in order to see the 'Pillar of Shame,' a monument for the Tian'anmen Massacre created by Danish artist Jens Galschiot. If you want to see it you can find a picture of it on his web page at http://www.aidoh.dk. On the base it says 'The old cannot kill the young forever.' The statue will travel to all the major Hong Kong universities. Alfee says that most of the school officials want to place it in an out of the way place but most of the students want it in a prominent position.

Alfee asks me where I want to go and on a whim I pick Fung Ying Sin Kan Temple in Fanling because I've heard it has a nice cemetery and I want to show Sybil a Hong Kong cemetery before some in Macau. Alfee tells us that his grandmother is buried there so he can pay his respects to her memory. Then Alfee's friend Michelle calls Alfee on his car phone. Michelle is also a friend of our good friend Peggy; we met her briefly in Singapore once. She wants to joins us. Turns out she lives a stone's throw from this temple! Even more surprisingly, she hasn't been there yet. Two big coincidences so it must be a good choice for our first destination in the New Territories.

Fung Ying Sin Kan is a Taoist temple known mostly for its cemetery. Several famous Hong Kong movie stars have their remains there. We see a picture of Yan Kim Fai, who was a noted Cantonese opera star - a woman who often played male roles. Like most Hong Kong cemeteries, this one consists of rows of boxes where cremated remains are interred. The box is sealed with a ceramic plate that usually includes a picture of the deceased. Alfee's grandmother's remains are housed inside a small building. He buys some incense, lights them, and dutifully says some prayers while waving them in the direction of her box.

As I've mentioned in another episode (remember my conversation with my friend Yew Chong?) some Chinese have a tradition of burning models of items that will be useful to the deceased in the afterlife. So here at the temple they have models of houses (complete with servants and guards), automobiles, and even airplanes. They also have a small altar house to protect the souls of the unknown dead.

Just as in the Kwuan Yin temples that we've visited, this Taoist temple has bamboo fortune telling sticks. Since our coming to this place seemed so fortuitous, Sybil and I decide to ask the local deity what our fortune will be. Coincidentally, we both wind up asking about our upcoming Big Trip around the world.

We each shake out a stick and collect our fortune paper. Alfee and Michelle both try to translate but it is a rather complicated affair. Many locals use a professional fortune teller to interpret the paper. Fortunately, I later show the paper to Peggy and she gives me a pretty good translation.

Sybil's fortune says that she is in the early stages of her wish. She's only half ready now but she will soon be ready. She can expect a lot of help from others because she is popular. Her destination is promising. If she does good things she can expect good in return. She is advised to take the easy, comfortable path and to check timing of events. Everything should work out well for her in the end.

My fortune says I'm at the end of a bad situation. If things should not go smoothly at first then I should not be unhappy. I can recover from a broken relationship and forge strong ties from the same source. It says I am a dragon among carp.

I can see several things in both fortunes that make sense to me. We'll see what happens.

Next we visit the Fortune Trees at Lam Chuen (sometimes written as Lam Tsuen). Again, it is a chance location because Alfee was telling us about these trees and Sybil spotted them as we were passing by. So, we turn around to have a look. They are a bit to the northwest of Tai Po. Many people stop to buy oranges and fortune paper. Alfee gets one and writes down the names of his friends and what he wishes for each of them. Then he tosses the paper, attached to the oranges, up into the branches of the tree.

There's also a small temple here where a woman inside yells at Alfee and Sybil because one of them paused atop the threshold of the entrance instead of walking over the entrance board on the floor. Remember this when entering Chinese temples! Actually, this is true in Thailand and a few other places as well. Best to always avoid stepping on entrance boards.

Outside the temple is a path into the surrounding countryside. It's very rural, with orchards and a small stream. To me it looks a lot like the countryside in Guangdong province in the PRC. Very peaceful, but it's rather hot so we don't walk long.

Michelle uses the Cantonese phrase 'lou king' after taking a photograph and she and Alfee attempt to explain it to us. It seems to mean saying something bad to someone who is down in order to cheer them up. Yes, I know, I'm confused about it as well. Somehow I think she was saying something bad about her photography skills in order to improve them.

Next we travel to the 10,000 Buddhas Temple on a hill overlooking Sha Tin New Town. We climb up a scenic path that leads to the back of this temple and take a different, equally charming way down. They have some great statues here, including one of a blue guardian beast that looks like a cross between an elephant and a dog. We eat a tasty soy bean pudding before leaving, catching glimpses of some old deserted buildings on the way down.

Next stop is the recently restored Sam Tung Uk Museum in Tsuen Wan. This recreates a walled Hakka village that used to sit there. The museum is only OK, but they have a wonderful temporary exhibit on Chinese advertisement posters from the 1920's and 1930's. Sybil and I love this stuff and they have some fabulous posters. One of the more interesting ads graphically displays a woman suckling her aged mother-in-law while her hungry child looks on. The ad is for a sewing machine (shown in the corner) and the message is supposed to convey the idea of extreme self-sacrifice and duty. Truly an ad for a different world!

OK, time for some real Cantonese food! We head for the famous Yue Kee Restaurant, known for its goose. This place is directly under a highway bridge next to a polluted canal. The brand new bridge to Lantau Island can be seen nearby. Did I mention that this is Mother's Day? Sybil and I called our mums the week before but everyone in Hong Kong wants to take them out for dinner, mostly to the Yue Kee Restaurant it seems. Fortunately we arrive just before the incredible crowds gather and have a delicious meal.

Alfee and Michelle have to go to another dinner with their parents. They each pick up some goose to bring along. After dinner, we drop off Michelle and then Alfee swings towards Kowloon. As night falls, he shifts to jazz music after serenading us with excerpts from famous classical music for most of the day. The lights come on in Kowloon (we pass the 'BeerBank') and the nightlife scenery is intoxicating.

We arrive at Mongkok station in Kowloon where we have arranged to meet Peggy's brother Ming. Ming gives us the keys to Peggy's apartment at Tai Koo on Hong Kong Island, where we will spend our last two nights. We walk around Mongkok with Ming for a bit. This is where I stayed the last time I was in Hong Kong and I enjoy the busy street life and the signs here. However, Sybil is tired so we call it an early night.

Monday morning we walk through Kowloon Park, which is greatly beautified since I'd last seen it, now full of flowers, ponds, and swimming pools. We have brunch in a Chinese diner (Sybil loves diners) and then check out of the Marco Polo. We are supposed to meet Alfee at Tai Koo MTR station and called him from the diner to tell him we would be 20 minutes late. When we arrive we see Ming instead of Alfee. Turns out Alfee had to be somewhere at 2:00pm, so Ming filled in to show us exactly where Peggy's apartment is located.

We quickly drop off our bags and grab a bus to Stanley. This carries us on an amazing ride along beautiful narrow roads. At one point we reach a long skinny bridge where the bus has to wait until no other 'big' vehicles are coming the other way. Stanley is a pleasant, quiet expat area. We walk through the market and happen upon the Tin Hau temple there. This is a tiny place that dates back to the 18th century. A ratty looking tiger skin hangs on the wall and an old dog barks at us inside. We head over to the beach and enjoy the views there. We wind up chatting with a few expats, finding them far friendlier than the Singapore expats. We can't quite figure out why this is so, or even if it is generally true.

We take a bus into Central, cross the harbor on the ferry, and wander up Nathan Road on the way to the Temple Street night market area. Despite being in the consumer-mad shopping areas of Hong Kong, we're not interested in shopping. We're basically just enjoying the scene. I love the neon signs in Hong Kong and just like a moth, I'm attracted to the most brightly lit streets.

Tuesday, we take a jetfoil over to Macau. This Portuguese enclave will turn over to China soon, so we seize an opportunity to see it before it changes. The ATM machines at the ferry building conveniently dispense both Hong Kong and Macau money. You can use Hong Kong currency at either place, but it is worth slightly more than the Macau money. You can't use Macau money in Hong Kong, so we know if we take out patacas then we will have to spend them all. Since we're planning on having a nice lunch here, I take out some Macau money, figuring we can always use Hong Kong money should we run short.

While exiting the ferry building, two touts descend on us. One says the distance to the attractions is much too far to walk. If we have only one day we need to take his pedicab for HK$30. Straight off I know his price is outrageous so I have fun with him. 'Oh, we're not here just for the day, we're here for 4 months.' He's incredulous and persists with his '8 kilometers to anything' ploy. 'Eight kilometers is nothing to us. We could walk 40 kilometers easily. We'd enjoy such a short walk.' He finally gives up on us.

We want to head for the Kuan Yin Temple first and try to skirt around the north side of the large hill where the Guia lighthouse sits. I vaguely remembered trying and failing to do something similar during my first trip here. Once again I learn that it is practically impossible. We could walk back around the reservoir, but I decide to just skirt the hill to the south, as I did last time. However, we happen upon a tunnel for cars that goes right through the mountain. Since it seems like your allowed to do anything in Macau that isn't expressively prohibited (the opposite of Singapore) we plunge in, tightrope walking along the narrow path on the side.

It works! This is a great shortcut. In just a few blocks we make it to the Kuan Yin temple. Actually, here they call the Goddess of Mercy 'Kun Iam,' so it's really the Kun Iam temple. The first treaty between the US and China was signed here. The porcelain figures on the roof are extraordinary. In the first courtyard, surrounded by pots with turtles inside them, are two sacred trees. Couples tie a ribbon around one tree if they wish to give birth to a boy and around the other for a girl. On this day we see five ribbons around the 'boy' tree and none around the 'girl' tree. In the last chamber, one of the guardian statues on the side depicts Marco Polo, although it's hard to make him out through the dirty glass. In a back chamber, to the right, is a famous tree that has been shaped to grow so that it resembles the Chinese character for longevity. Amazing they could torture a tree by twisting it so much - think of the insane patience necessary to do this! Anyway, supposedly a wealthy Japanese businessman offered the monks a million HK dollars for this tree and they turned him down. Restores my faith in monks a bit. The back chamber on the left has a spooky feeling, being used as memorial to the dead. There's a lot more to see here as well and we greatly enjoy our visit.

Next, we head for St. Michael's cemetery, as for a long time I've been telling Sybil about the great cemeteries they have on Macao. Unfortunately, I misplace our good map from the tourist office at the temple so we're using a crummy little map that is hard to read. While trying to decipher it, a local offers his assistance. He tells us he has just come from St. Michael's where he was visiting his wife's grave. Sybil's suspicion rises after hearing about this coincidence but I feel he's just a friendly guy and happily chat with him. He says he used to work for Macau intelligence (more warning signs for Sybil). He tells us the other Macau islands are nice and describes how to get there (we won't have time though). He says he was afraid of the black people in America because some of them looked mean while trying to sell him some hats. He does point us in the right direction and off we go. He was kind of goofy but I like talking to locals with character.

When we feel we are close to the cemetery we ask another local and she points us down a street that turns out to be incorrect. It leads us to the Camoes Grotto and the Old Protestant Cemetery, so we decide to see these first. Camoes was a famous 16th century Portuguese poet who used to live in Macao. Tablets inscribed with his poems adorn the grotto, but of course we can't read them since they are in Portuguese. Nice place for a walk though.

The Old Protestant Cemetery is closed! This is one of the places I'd praised highly from my first visit, so a determined Sybil repeatedly rings the gate buzzer, but the workers inside just ignore her. Hoping the place is just closed for an afternoon siesta, we kill some time by visiting the nearby St. Anthony's church. Our prayers are answered because the cemetery gates are open when we return. Many large headstones, inscribed with graceful and interesting epitaphs, make this small cemetery special. Sybil the Researcher could spend many hours investigating the interesting lives memorialized here.

OK, now back to St. Michael's. This time we find it without difficulty and have a look at this fascinating Catholic cemetery. We see lots of great statuary and a wide mix of grave site styles. Some sites look very European, while others are in the traditional Chinese 'omega' shape. Ceramic photographs and rosary beads abound.

Next, we visit a pair of famous Macau tourist attractions that have both changed a lot since my first visit. The ruins of St. Paul's church now have a stairway behind them. More interestingly, excavation has been done on the site. You can now view a tomb of martyred monks and they have a small museum of church artifacts. At the top of nearby Monte Fort they have built a museum. We don't have time to go through it but we quickly check out their computer directory describing the collection. Looks like it's worthwhile.

It's a hot day and we're extremely hungry at this point. We spot a Brazilian restaurant not far from St. Paul's but decide to look around a bit to see what else is around. Nothing looks as good though, so we return to the Brazilian place, which is called 'Yes Brazil.'

Good choice! The food is tastily authentic and reasonably priced. The people there are friendly as well. The staff uniforms resemble the green and yellow jerseys of the Brazilian national soccer team. A newspaper review of the place hangs on the wall, noting that the owner insists on charging tourists the same prices as locals. What a novel concept! After a satisfying meal we wander over to St. Dominic's church. I love the Macau streets with their European style plazas and Chinese shops. It's really a unique place, despite becoming a bit more Hong Kongified since my last visit.

Next we tour the lovely Leal Senado building. I think a guard lets us wander into a room that's normally closed and I'm glad he did. From the Leal Senado I recognize the post office building and we head there to get a stamp commemorating the Chinese Year of the Tiger. Unfortunately, they are out of them, but the teller sends us around the corner to another bureau. We arrive 5 minutes after closing and the teller won't reopen her window to sell us a stamp. I'm crushed. However, only about a block away, Sybil sees another building where they are selling philatelic stamps! They have Tiger stamps here but will only sell them in an expensive set that includes all kinds of philatelic paraphernalia I don't really want. I'm about to break down and buy it anyway but Sybil vetoes. The woman behind the counter takes pity on me and writes down the name (in Chinese) of a bookshop where she says I can buy the stamp.

After showing these characters to a few people on the street, we eventually make our way over to this bookshop. 'Do you have stamps?' I ask the cashier. 'No,' she says. 'Tiger stamps,' insists Sybil, and eventually we make her understand that we want philatelic stamps and not regular stamps for mailing. In general, people speak a lot less English here than I'd expected. She sends us upstairs where I finally get a Year of the Tiger stamp!

We have very little time before we need to leave for our return ferry and we still have Macao money to spend. I'd planned on getting some wine with lunch but the Brazilian place didn't have any red. So, we look for a bottle to take home. Wine is very expensive in Singapore. It's about as costly in Hong Kong where it's saddled with a 70% tax. In Macau the tax on wine is only 20% and there is no tax on Portuguese wine. We find a grocery store where we purchase a promising Portuguese red.

Need to rush for the ferry now. We catch a cab (fairly reasonable here - ignore the touts!) and get caught in a rush hour traffic jam! We get through it eventually and make it to the ferry OK.

After landing at Sheung Wan on Hong Kong Island, we poke around that neighborhood a bit before collapsing back at Peggy's apartment. Another wonderful day!

Wednesday, we have an errand to run in the morning. Sybil had forgotten to pack some of my clothes when we left the Marco Polo. I'm not too concerned as I usually purposely leave clothes behind in hotel rooms, but she wants to retrieve one of my few good shirts. The hotel staff was able to dig up the clothes, even retaining the Singapore coins I had in my pockets. All in all, it's a pretty good hotel and I can recommend them if you don't mind spending some money or get a good deal on a room like we did (tel: 852 2113-0888, fax: 852 2113-0022).

We have plans to meet Ming for lunch, so we spend a few hours in the Hong Kong Art Museum (free admission on Wednesdays). They have some great historical pictures and a nice collection of calligraphy, as well as traditional and modern scroll paintings. It's not a huge museum but it's well laid out and right on the harbor with great views out the windows.

Back at Tai Koo, we meet Ming for lunch at the Cityplaza Mall. Ming tries to steer us to two of the nicer restaurants, but since they are both jam packed for lunch we wind up eating at the equally crowded but faster moving food court there, grabbing some Vietnamese food. Ming is an extremely amiable guy. Sybil talks to him about genealogy and he talks about possibly emigrating to Australia with his sister Peggy and his girl friend.

After lunch I had plans to do some more hiking, perhaps on the Wilson Trail. Unfortunately, my poor Sybil is not feeling well, so we go back to Peggy's apartment to rest. Our return trip is easy as the Airbus leaves from Cityplaza every 15 minutes. Sybil stocks up on chewing gum at the airport to smuggle back into Singapore. A great trip!

One funny thing about our Hong Kong friends (Peggy, Alfee, Michelle, and Ming) is that they sometimes refer to themselves as 'honkies', meaning that they are from Hong Kong. We've already warned Peggy that this word has a very different meaning in the States. I find it very humorous to imagine Peggy describing herself as a 'honkie' to someone in America.

Reasons why one might prefer to live in Hong Kong rather than Singapore:

Movies aren't censored.
Bigger city with much more to do.
Hills! The landscape of Hong Kong is far prettier.
Expats are friendlier.
Wages are better.
Western food is cheaper.
Great hiking trails nearby.
It actually cools off once in awhile.
Libraries are better.
City invests more money in infrastructure.
Less constrained society.
Better news coverage.
Reasons why one might prefer to live in Singapore rather than Hong Kong:

Housing is much cheaper.
Many more flowers.
Streets are much, much cleaner.
Multi-cultural society.
People don't smoke everywhere.
Nearby countries are more interesting (when they don't have riots).
Food courts are cheaper.
Not part of the PRC.
People are far less rude.
Pace of life is slower.
Tap water is much cleaner.
Less cheating of gweilo westerners.
Actually, I like both places a lot. They both have great food, wonderful public transportation and no winters. One the downside they both have too many (stressed-out) people, alcohol is expensive (although this can be a plus), and the societies are too materialistic.

Reciprocal links:

The introduction to the Round The World Journal can be found at http://www.travel-library.com/rtw/donath/. Still thinking of starting in Java provided it's safe enough. I know that may be overly optimistic.

The 'Singapore Journal' can be found on Brian Lucas's Rec.Travel Library pages at: http://www.travel-library.com/asia/singapore/matt_donath/index.html. If you want to send me email my address is mdonath@yahoo.com.

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