The Queen's former Crown Colony of Hong Kong is easy enough to like, but hard to love, writes Erik Bergin, as he goes on a quest to find the real characters of a really good book.
There sometimes are books that make you want to travel places. One such story – having been filmed in part starring Pierce Brosnan, no less – is James Clavell’s epic saga about Hong Kong, more specifically his two novels Tai-Pan and Noble House, featuring Hong Kong in 1841 and 1963, respectively. These are true masterpieces, although somewhat old-fashioned, in the sense of storytelling – the intrigue builds up step by step, always taking unpredictable twists and turns, and showing off an astounding gallery of wicked characters along the way. That’s good enough. But if you have the slightest general interest in China and, more to the point, Hong Kong, Clavell, who passed away in 1994, will inevitably have you wanting to visit the place.
Noble House, by James Clavell.
Having read Noble House, I arrived in Hong Kongin part to find out what Britishness, if any, was still left in this former crown colony that was handed back by the Queen to the Chinese in 1997. And let it be said once and for all, Hong Kong is a fantastic place. And absolutely awful, too.
It doesn’t begin well, though. My first problem, arising as soon as I’ve landed, is to figure out how to get away. I’ve arrived at Easter, meaning, I quickly learn, that there are almost no flights out of Hong Kong for the upcoming week. Most are fully booked, and those that exist are pricey. However, by quickly rethinking my travel plan I manage to secure a flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The lesson here: Hong Kong may be one of Asia’s busiest travel hubs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean great access to transport.
This is one of the fine points with visiting Hong Kong, though, that this city-state never quiets down, never stops rotating. An Asian copy of New York, there is always something going on.
I’ve booked a small room close to Victoria Harbour on the Hong Kong Island. The room is not the cheapest around, but then, Hong Kong isn’t cheap at all. It’s easy to spend a fortune here, but getting by on a narrow budget is a challenge. Victoria Harbour, though, is really as close to downtown as I can get without getting ruined, and is precisely where I want to be on this trip.
I venture out in the streets on my quest to find the long-forgotten characters of Clavell’s masterpiece, or at least – perhaps easier when you think of it – whatever signs are left of the British, as they ruled Hong Kong for 99 years. It turns out those traces aren’t hard to spot. Take the police. While mostly Chinese, the officers still wear the distinctly British police caps and uniforms. After all, the force was formed and shaped under the empire of the Queen, commanded from London, and apparently Beijing thinks there’s no need to change what’s still working reasonably well. Another sign sits on every Hong Kong car — the tags. British, too, as well as the fact that traffic runs on the left side of the road.
Residential buildings in Aberdeen, Hong Kong. Photo: TravelingReporter.com
Having fulfilled a large chunk of my goals in just a few minutes, I set about trying to grasp the rest of the place. Hong Kong consists of mainly three parts: The Hong Kong Island, where most skyscrapers are, Kowloon, which is the part of the mainland closest to Hong Kong Island to the north, and the New Territories further north, by which the British expanded their colony back in the day as Hong Kong grew larger and its economy boomed.
What strikes you about Hong Kong Island are two things. First, how enormously crowded the island is, or at least seems. The population in the whole former colony is estimated to just over 7 million. And though less than 20 percent of these people live on the actual Hong Kong Island itself, those who do have to crowd together in the rather small parts, mostly to the north, of the island that are reasonably flat and suitable for housing. Slightly larger than Manhattan, most of the inland parts are made up by steep hills, covered in lush green. This is a fact that constitutes the next stunning realization about this place, as soon as you have time to get around: Hey, it isn’t that crowded at all! There are forests, parks! And a beach, too!
My search for adventure and a long lost era of Brits in khaki uniforms brings me to Aberdeen on the southwestern side of the island. Reached by a short bus ride, this small town plays a central part in James Clavell’s book – it was here, some might recall, that the run on the Ho-Pak bank began. And it was on one of the sampans – an old traditional Chinese cargo and fishing vessel (or, in Clavell’s writing, an opium smuggling vessel) – in Aberdeen’s harbor that one of the mightiest characters of the story lived, Four Finger Wu. These days, though, what strikes you are the residential buildings of Aberdeen. Reaching for the sky with endless rows of small windows, the houses look depressingly cramped.
Downtown Hong Kong Island. Photo: TravelingReporter.com
Another must-see is The Peak, which is what it sounds like, Hong Kong Island’s highest peak. Part of the experience is the Peak Tram, a hazardous-looking rail construction that climbs at around 45 degrees up the mountainside. A huge visitor’s complex looms at the top. But if you plan to enjoy the view in the evening, going up to the complex is virtually pointless. Instead, save some money and post yourself down at the viewing area just below the visitor’s center – the smog of Hong Kong is often so thick that visibility would only decrease anyway if you ventured any higher. It can be recommended to hit The Peak just before the sun sets. You’ll see the skyscrapers gradually descend in the dark, and then – boom! – they’ll all flash up by a million bright lights, showing off their contours against the night.
Having managed this far, I decide to venture over the strait to mainland Kowloon. This is done by boarding one of the classic Star Ferries, another British invention that hasn’t changed much over the years. The ferries are ancient vessels that connect the Hong Kong Island with the mainland to the north. Very practical, they run back and forth every few minutes, quickly navigating the waters and miraculously landing with precision at the opposite pier with their bulky hulls.
Kowloon’s main street is lined with cheap electronics stores, at which you better be ready to haggle good for the best price. Also, be on your lookout for scams here – these dealers know all the tricks in the book. As it turns out, I happen to wander innocently right into the trap. Wanting to buy a camera, I settle for a price and bring out the credit card, which is then charged with the correct amount.
The camera in question, though, is gone.
“Where is it?” I ask, baffled.
“No, no,” says the sales guy, “the one you tried was just one of the display cameras out of the storefront.”
“Well, so, bring me another one then.”
“We haven’t got any others of that model here,” says the sales guy, now starting to appear as ‘slimy’. “But,” he adds, “you can have this one.”
He brings out another camera, without lens but with the box and what appears to be proper papers. It looks new, too. But by this time I’ve a certain feeling there’s something very wrong here. Using my phone, I check the model – which turns out to be last year’s.
“I want the one I bought,” I establish, “I don’t want this one.”
Suddenly grumpy, the by this time extremely slimy sales idiot goes into total deadlock. He’s determined not to give me the camera I payed for. “It isn’t here,” he says again, “it’s at a stock inventory in China (mainland over the border). It’ll take hours to bring it here.”
I decide to wait him out. A bizarre act begins. I simply sit in the store, waiting, with the hugely dislikable sales-motherf***er at the other side of the counter. Nobody says anything for perhaps thirty minutes. He clearly hasn’t expected this. It soon turns out having me there is bad for business. Potential customers come in, see me there and, sensing the sour mood in the store, leave. They don’t sell pretty much anything. How long will this go on, I wonder, silently.
Finally the situation resolves itself – but not until I’ve threaten the store’s management with bringing in the lawyers and draging them to court. I’ve one advantage here: They don’t know me. Facing a possible legal fight over a customer who has a receipt for a product they haven’t delivered, they back off. I get my money back.
TV The Hong Kong Star Ferry approaching the jetty
This adventure tells something fundamental about Hong Kong. This place has always — from the days of the opium wars and onwards — been a place of gambling, bargain, huge profits, great losses, and tremendous risks. By annexing the Hong Kong Island in the 1830s and setting up their shipping business, the British lay the ground and built the framework for what was soon to become one of the world’s mightiest economic expansions to date. The Chinese, often disliking and detesting the bleak Englishmen, soon joined the game, although never letting go of their suspicion of the ‘barbarian’ westerners.
I continue to ponder upon this as I stroll up Kowloon’s main street, Nathan Road. I pass the notorious Chung King Mansions hostel mega-complex, where hundreds of thousands of backpackers have spent time while exploring the colony. To the east, across Kowloon Bay, is the remains of the Kai-Tak airport, closed in 1998, with its spectacular runway 13 approach. Aircrafts would first head to the northeast, passing over the Hong Kong harbour and then over densely populated areas of Kowloon; then, reaching a sign posted on a hilltop, the pilot would need to make a 47 degree turn to the right to line up with the runway, which would then be just a few kilometers away.
Having made my way back to the Hong Kong Island, I find myself standing outside the Star Ferries terminal with an empty stomach. Hong Kong features more restaurants than you can possibly expect to cover in a lifetime. I head for one of the truly Chinese ones.
On a backstreet close to Victoria Harbour, I enter a doorway and sits down at a table. Soon, a waiter who speaks no English attends to my needs. I speak no Cantonese, so I randomly point at something on the all-Chinese menu, not having the slightest idea what I’m ordering. A Chinese beer arrives, then a bowl of rice. Then, suddenly, it stands before me, the plate with a chicken which appears to have suffered the most gruesome death. The animal, half raw and barely dead, most have been pushed through a matrix, slicing up the body of the animal and its head, wings, skin and internal organs in small squares. I look at the thing, astonished, and feel the hunger suddenly disappearing.
The half-raw chicken. Photo: TravelingReporter.com
I know, it’s not nice to make fun of other cultures’ food traditions. Nor is it my intention. But it is nevertheless one of my Hong Kong experiences, so I can’t just leave it out. Funny, I don’t remember reading any cultural clashes within the food sector in James Clavell’s books.
Sensing the risk of salmonella looming, I end up downing the beer, eating the rice, leaving a generous tip and exiting the Chinese restaurant. Then, suddenly hungry again, a head for an American burger place.