We stood late at night on the open viewing gallery of the umpteenth floor of the Old Peak Road apartment block and looked out over the illuminated Lego shapes of Hong Kong island and across the water towards Kowloon; the air was alive with the drone of the traffic far below, the hum of insects and the distinctive singy-songy sound of Cantonese conversations not very far away. This is truly a singing city.
It was certainly a surprising experience for me. I did not expect to fall in love with it like I did. I thought it would be an experience to visit Hong Kong, certainly. But I had not anticipated an affair of the heart.
Part of the attraction of the city is just people. Lots of people. Millions of people. Different people. Speaking differently. Eating differently. Doing different things. Everywhere.
“What interests me, ” Paul Theroux wrote of foreign travel in The Old Patagonian Express, “is the waking in the morning, the progress from the familiar to the slightly odd, to the rather strange, to the totally foreign, and finally to the outlandish.”
In Hong Kong, like Dubai and the many emerging global quasi-city states of today, you can find the familiar and the foreign, even the ordinary and the outlandish side by side. This is partly due of course to the fact that it was a British Colony for the last 150 years. The Hong Kong Museum – a must-see attraction which we highly recommend – creatively portrays the development of this tiny fragment of what was considered to be unproductive south China soil, largely unwanted by the Qing Emperial government and largely uncalled for by the British, who back in London rather reluctantly received it, only really seeing the acquisition as a means to an end: the reestablishment of open trade with China after the first Opium War.
Who could have foretold its herculean rise from a small entrepôt colony into the global metropolis it is today?
So you can start with a Dim Sum brunch followed by Vietnamese soft-shell crabs for at lunch time, on to English Afternoon Tea later on and finish the day with a genuine Indian curry for supper. As we had such superb hosts in Graham & Luise – Judith’s brother and sister-in-law (Graham’s something big in RBSI in the far east, which, as the UK government now own a large chunk of the Royal Bank, probably mean he’s doubling up as British High Commissioner) – we were shown around all the best places and experiences in a finely planned and prepared itinerary.
We dined and supped on all manner of different international cuisines, since as Hong Kong is such a global cosmopolitan metropolis you can find the genuine gastronomic article there whether it’s American, British, French, Greek, Indian, Italian, Mexican, Spanish, or any manner of Eastern epicurean delight you are after.
“Nothing personal, but we don’t touch Chinese food. Never did.
All the grease, all the glue. And it’s always so wet.
Makes me want to spew.”
– Betty Mullard, the snobby English widow in Paul Theroux’s novel Kowloon Tong.
Well we do eat Chinese food, and what better place to enjoy it than Hong Kong? So we dined thanks to Graham and Luise’s generosity and excellent recommendations at some wonderful places large and small, grand and down-to-earth, urban and island-rural, and tried all manner of new tastes without the slightest hint of spewing.
In fact we very much enjoyed it. We did see some strange things in the markets though and wondered sometimes whether they were for decoration or nutrition. Hundreds of live frogs in a bag, for example or squashed and dried quid looking like something which had just been run over in a cartoon. I’ve often had frogs legs in France and I once ate dog with Robert Glover (neither of us quite realising what it was until after the event) the first time I visited China and so I was quite open to try anything out. Sadly the opportunity for dried squid and chicken’s feet risotto did not materialise on this occasion.
The people – so friendly, smiling, welcoming – continue to be the heart and soul of this city. Everywhere you look from the omnipresent taxi-cabs to the plethora of street markets selling anything you can imagine and some, from the simple fishermen landing their catch on Lama island to the sharply dressed secretaries travelling home on the efficient MTR system, there are the signs of industry, ingenuity and hard work. If it can be sold, someone in Hong Kong is selling it, if it can be cooked someone is cooking it, if it can be built someone is building it, if it can be discounted someone it discounting it, if it can be invested or floated someone is investing or floating it, if it can be made someone is making it, if it can be squeezed in where you thought there was no room, then someone is squashing it. As we speak.