The view from the Peak

Having seen what’s happened in Hong Kong since we were there in My 2019, we’re grateful for our timing. Looking back, we may just have seen Hong Kong at its best, before China flexed its muscles.

But at that time, Hong Kong was not China. Not quite. Our Chinese visa was collected as we left Shanghai on an international flight. The minibus that transferred us from the new airport on HK’s Lantau Island was right-hand drive. The traffic lights and pedestrian crossing were British-style. We were effectively in a part of Britain inhabited by something like seven million Chinese. Facebook and Twitter worked once again, as did Google.

Our hotel was in the Whampoa district of Kowloon, with a view from our suite – nice birthday upgrade by my wife – of most of the strait between us and Hong Kong island, from the old Kai Tak runway – now a cruise terminal – on our left, and across to Causeway Bay.

The hotel staff showed levels of service and politeness that I can only imagine must have held sway back in the days of empire. They brought me a little birthday cake!

We headed out for a walk round the immediate are, past a grand, stranded motor yacht that had been converted into a combined shopping and arts centre. We found a shop that sold beers and soft drinks, and went back to the hotel to drink a couple of the same, then head up to the rooftop pool.

It was a generous-sized pool, with a stunning view over to Hong Kong Island. We swam and stared, then got in the hot tub and stared some more.

Then we remembered we were on our own: no Amy to take us to a restaurant! So we caught the courtesy bus into the Tsim Sha Tsui district (which we learned later is pronounced chim sha chewy), getting dropped off by the Peninsula Hotel, arguably the most luxurious in the city.

We merged with the crowds, and wandered uncertainly through the hot evening, until we headed down into a basement network of shops and fast food places. We chose one that allowed us to identify dishes from pictures, and collected them from the servery. It was very nice too, as was that milky drink with the small beans at the bottom of the cup.

More walking, round the piers where we would catch the iconic Star Ferry in due course, and back to catch the bus back to the hotel for a nightcap as we gazed from our windows across to the lights.

We’d booked a half-day tour of Hong Kong Island, since it seemed to cover pretty much all we wanted to see and still left us plenty of time to fill in any gaps. We got picked up after breakfast – breakfast with one of the greatest breakfast views anywhere (maybe second to the bacon rolls at the top of the Jasper SkyTram).

On the tour were three of our fellow travels from the mainland China tour, and it was good to see them. In fact, there were only five of us in total on the tour, and the guide was very informative.

The first item was going up the Peak – by bus, sadly, since the tram was out of action for its refurbishment. The guide was good, pointing out that house prices climbed as the bus climbed. Once up on the viewing platform, with a view that we’d seen so many times in films and on TV, there was another of those ‘I can’t believe we’re here’ moments. We did note that one whole side of the mountain was forest: it was by no means an urban jungle all across it.

From there we were taken south, past Repulse Bay – and an anecdote about the golf club we saw: one million HK$ to join (£100000). Wow. The punchline is that it’s a nine-hole course.

We got to Stanley and were let loose for a time in the market, with advice to haggle – hard. I haggled. My wife haggled more. I got a tiny drone for about £17. She got a dress with a necklace for some undisclosed amount (but she had haggled – hard).

We were feeling peckish so we bought a bizarre thing: some kind of waffle, freshly made and then wrapped up, with ice cream blobbed inside. Nice, but difficult to eat, especially towards the end.

From there it was over to Aberdeen, and a trip on a sampan through an unbelievably busy harbour – and the sight of a floating restaurant amongst floating homes, and a sampan scooping rubbish from the water as it buzzed around.

We got another hard sell preceded by a tour of a jewellery factory: very nice, very expensive, and too much time given to it.

The tour guide was good, and gave us some home truths about Hong Kong, including the fact that bsuniesses – and their workers – were being drawn to mainland China because there was no minimum wage there.

Then back to the hotel and out to Tsim Sha Tsui. My nephew’s father-in-law is a pilot with Cathay Pacific, and lives with his wife in Hong Kong. At my nephew’s wedding earlier in the year, we’d said we must meet up. So meet up we did.

First was drinks in their apartment, looking out from something like the 29th floor over Victoria harbour, and an insight to the ex-pat lifestyle – which sounds pretty damn good, I must say, if you can cope with the crowds and the air quality.

Then down to the Pacific Club. I’d googled it and found it was on a pier jutting out into the harbour. I was slightly wrong. The Pacific Club is the entire pier. We got the tour: several restaurants, gyms, a swimming pool, treatment rooms – a whole leisure centre.

We had dinner outside, facing Hong Kong Island, drinking beers. The eight o’clock harbour light show, where all the buildings on the Island go crazy, came and went. And then nature put on its own light show: lightning and thunder.

We had a great evening, much enhanced by the stories of their lifestyle here, and many anecdotes. At the end they asked if we were busy the next evening. We said no. So did we want to come to the races at Happy Valley. Did we? Hell, yes!

We made our own way out to Lantau Island on the underground, which was actually overground for much of the way. The platforms have glass walls to stop you falling on the tracks, and the doors on the trains match up. There are arrows on the ground to show how you let people out before you get on. These sort of worked. Inside the train, there is the standard underground map, but these ones have lights to show the line you’re on and the next station. Foolproof!

We’d booked the glass-floor Ngong Ping Cable Car going up. It’s a long ride with a 60 degree turn at one point (and a bit confused at the start: we waited roughly for our time slot and then queued without realising we didn’t have to do any of that) and well worth it for the spectacular views over Lantau and the South China Sea, including the massive airport. How did they manage at Kai Tak?

The big Buddha came into view, and got bigger and bigger. And bigger.

We disembarked at Ngong Ping village, which was a collection of shops, restaurants and fast food outlets. We walked past them all, ever onwards to the Buddha, which still kept getting bigger and bigger, and then finally the long, long flight of steps to the base, along with hundreds of others.

At the top we walked round a couple of times, marvelled at the view, and kept looking up at the Buddha, with the smile and the benevolent wave ot his arm. There were things to be done inside the base – at a price – but we had the briefest of looks, and back to the steps. Here I was accosted by a young man who asked if he could have a picture wth me. Of course!

And we again crossed paths with the three members of the China group again.

From here it was down to walk round the grounds of the monestary, and back to the village for something to eat – a sandwich of some sort – and then back on the normal cable car to sea level, and the train back to Whampoa, via a couple of connections.

We changed and went back into town on the courtesy bus, and back to the same fast food place as the Monday evening. It was just as fast, but not as good. Still, it filled a gap.

From here it was the ridiculously cheap Star Ferry – I opted not to pay the concession rate of something like 16p but the full fare of 22p, or something. On the other side it was the metro for a couple of stops, and met my nephews in-laws again. We went up to the street – mobbed, of course – and onto the tram – the ding-ding. Exactly like the Glasgow trams I remember from my childhood, but smaller. Or maybe I’ve got bigger. Again, the cost – paid on exit – was stupidly low: I paid the concession rate this time.

Why do people drive in Hong Kong?

We’d seen the Happy valley race track from our tour the day before, but its location was even more stark this time because of the stadium lights in it, and the streetlights and lights from the high-rises all around. It was right in the middle of the city. And it was packed.

For many, it seemed, it was a social occasion, or a tourist thing. But for many Chinese it was a serious evening’s gambling. We were given programmes, queued for very expensive wine and beer in plastic cups, and shown how to fill in the betting slips – like machine-readable multiple choice answer sheets. We managed to fill them in wrongly every time, but the person on the other side of the desk just sighed a little and rubbed out what needed to be rubbed out, and ticked the correct box.

Most of the action was watched on screens, except for the final straight where we could see them thunder by. As my losses mounted up, and my quest for a win grew ever more scientific, my wife kept cheering every time her horses – chosen at random – romped home.

It was quite mad and very exhilarating. A solid bit of Hong Kong life.

On the last day, we were due to be picked up in the evening, so we had the whole day. A couple of former colleagues live in Hong Kong – she is CEO of a group of international schools – and they said they could fit us in for coffee at four.

One of theperks of being a Rotarian is that you can turn up for a meeting anywhere in the world. I checked online, and found that there are many Rotary clubs in Hong Kong, and one met this lunchtime in the Peninsula Hotel. I emailed to let them know we were coming along, and to tell them we had no jacket or tie with us: no problem said Marco, you’ll be most welcome. The clincher was that my wife wanted to get inside that hotel!

We duly turned up, were accosted by a member of staff, and explained why we were there. Up to the first floor, and into the area to meet the president, secretary and a couple of members, and choose our lunch. The price of £47 is a bit dearer that my own club in Broughty Ferry, but it was three courses with wine, which is fair enough.

We were one of a few guests. The president and secretary were both Swiss, who had worked in Hong Kong and stayed there. Some of the other men – it was an all-male club – looked like ex-pats too, but most were Chinese (though a Chinese-speaking club met at the same time just down the corridor).

It was interesting chatting to them over lunch, and hearing from the Rotaract young people. Then, as ever, the visitors told a little about where they were from and what their club did. I did my thing about Broughty Ferry and said they would all be most welcome. Then the guy from North Milan gave a wee talk, which was much funnier than mine. He said their club used to have the most amazing parties – because Berlusconi had been a member!

From there it was over on the Star Ferry for a wander until it was time to meet our old colleagues. They lived in an apartment block reaching up from the four seasons shopping complex. They took us to the coffee lounge in their leisure suite – on the 59th floor. We looked way down on the Pacific Club and my nephew’s in-laws’ apartment by Victoria Harbour.

We had a good catch-up, and also an illustration of what life was like here – they are both very keen runners, so a lot of their life is about running. But they also told us about the new extradition law that was potentially coming in, and predicted that there would be trouble. I don’t think they expected quite so much trouble.

We said cheerio, went back on the Star Ferry and the courtesy bus to our hotel, and waited for our pickup to the airport, and the 12-hour flight to Heathrow.

Aberdeen harbour

Final impressions?

We’re so glad we went, and everything we’ve seen and heard since we got home has confirmed that. This once-in-a-lifetime trip had all the wow factor we’d hoped for. We saw those sights: we walked on the Wall, we were in the Forbidden City, we stood at the top of the Peak.

But there’s more than that, because travel isn’t just about seeing things.

We feel we have a bit of an understanding of what the Chinese government is trying to do, and that it is – broadly speaking – doing a lot of the right things. The ‘strong government’ that our tour guide Amy spoke about is developing the country in a massive way: on a documentary we saw a remark that China has poured more concrete in the past three years than the US has in the past thirty. That’s the scale of the development. And they are taking people out of poverty, boosting the middle classes.

For all its crowds and traffic, China feels very safe. There’s no online abuse. That’s because the Internet is locked down and monitored, of course. People walk around looking happy enough, and – apart from the pushing through – they are well-behaved and courteous to each other.

Of course, there is not exactly an even division of wealth. It’s now well-known that President Xi has accumulated a huge fortune, and put it all in his family members’ names.

And if you speak out against the government, you will be arrested – picked off the street if necessary – and there are no checks and balances on what happens next to you. Muslims in the north-west of China, where there was some terrorism a few years ago, are having a very bad time of it indeed. 

Hong Kong is an interesting one. It was so free and open, with Facebook and Twitter and Google and all, but Chinese control is  coming. At the time of writing, it looks like Chinese control may come very soon indeed.

Let’s be honest, we couldn’t live in China. For a fleeting time, Hong Kong looked like a vibrant, thriving city, with excellent public transport and low taxes, but recent events have changed that.

But, to repeat, we’re glad we went. We have some understanding of this remarkable country, and only because we went there.

On the Yangtze