The highest level of Typhoon warnings (called “T8”s) are bizarrely popular here in Hong Kong. But not for the dubious excitement of a tropical storm… it’s the free booze what does it.
If a T8 strikes (as it may do tomorrow), the bar of Lan Kwai Fong and Wan Chai will show their entrepreneurial spurs, and offer all kinds of inducements to get the expats venturing into their space. Lock-ins, free shots, offers of a free round if you can beat the barman at Heads’n’Tails, 4-for-1 deals.
This is, of course, the city where the nightlife frequently turns into “morning-life”, and for many visitors, the Hong Kong experience passes in a blur of crazy but all too-brief nights on Hong Kong Island, or in a couple of sleep-deprived hours in the impressive but sterile Chep Lak Kok terminal.
I had my share of blur in the first few days here, but for various reasons (see below) I’ve spent 10 days here. As a result, different sides of Hong Kong have emerged from the mayhem.
Restorative respite on Lantau and Lamma
“What do you fancy doing tomorrow? A spot of hiking?”
It was a Saturday morning. I peered up from my temporary blow-up bed and raised an eyebrow at Tom, a friend from cricketing days and my host in Hong Kong.
“Hiking? In Hong Kong?” I said, wondering if this was another of Hong Kong’s drinking metaphors along with the apocryphal “T8 warning”. It quickly became clear that it wasn’t – and that Hong Kong in fact boasts some excellent hiking – so I readily agreed, eager for some respite from the madness.
Despite Lantau being only a 15-minute ferry ride from Hong Kong Island, it wasn’t till early afternoon that we made land-fall in the small main harbour town. (Lantau is the biggest island in the Hong Kong SAR, and dwarves Hong Kong in lateral and littoral, if not in vertical, size).
It was somehow fitting that the first person we spoke to was a clown (yes a real clown) on his way to entertain some kids. His laid-back demeanour, sprouting hair, goofy teeth and Aviator sunglasses made a refreshing contrast to the crisp dress and urgent energy of the main island.
Given that the guidebook had decided to spend the day on the sofa, we were reliant on local knowledge to get us to the start of the trail. Our taxi-driver clearly had a sense of humour – within minutes of him driving off, we were in the thick of steamy jungle on a trail that is officially closed.
In a show of traditional British fighting spirit, Tom and I battled enormous spiders, valiantly protecting Tom’s French girlfriend (that’s how we saw it anyway) from certain death. The trail was fabulous, and after a couple of hours we arrived at the 34-metre high bronze Tian Tan Buddha, eventually descending via cable-car with a unique opportunity to look down on the Hong Kong airport from above at sunset.
A few days later I also visited Lamma, Hong Kong’s third largest island just across from Aberdeen, the main island’s second largest town. With no cars and beautiful beaches, Lamma provides more rapid relief for Island fever.
The island has hippy colony aspirations – the irony of the huge glowering coal-fired Lamma power-station not lost on residents, who have installed a huge wind-turbine for their own needs.
Modern Metropolei” – linking Hong Kong and Shanghai in the popular imagination
Hiking’s not the only distraction for residents here – there is also a flourishing arts scene.
Two exhibitions are currently riding high – one at the Hong Kong Art museum with a superb display of contemporary art with contributors from Gilbert & George to Richard Prince, promoting Louis Vuitton’s new Frank Gehry-designed Jardin d’Acclimatation which is being built in the Bois de Boulogne.
The other, at the History Museum, is even more interesting – a six-room temporary exhibition drawing parallels and links between the respective 20th century histories of Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Exhibitions like this always involve a certain amount of weaving of facts into a coherent story, but the narrative construction here is fascinating. The story presented is one of ‘adoption and incorporation of the Western ways” into Chinese life, of “infusion of western artistic techniques with Chinese painting styles”, of “sinonisation of Western cuisine”.
This is a picture of a progressive and ancient Chinese civilisation that sees the 200-year period of foreign influence as a mere blip on its journey – but one that the Chinese can learn from, adopt as necessary, and move on from.
Now, so the story goes, both Hong Kong and Shanghai will rise again to offer a “cosmopolitan life, offering residents a diverse array of choice and lifestyle”. I wouldn’t bet against it.
My efforts to learn Mandarin in China have been of nil benefit here, given the gulf between the mainland Mandarin and Hong Kong Cantonese languages.
Anyone who knows the city is familiar with the harsh vowel sounds of the Cantonese and the effect his has on spoken English, immortalised in the constant “BA-BA!” valediction you get whenever you leave anywhere.
Simple phrases like “Your cappucino is on the counter. Thank you,. Bye bye!” become the grating full-volume “YA-CAPPACHEENA-AS-AN-THA-CANTA-THANK-YA-BA-BA!” And I thought Mandarin was hard…
I leave here on Monday to go to Kunming, and thence to a monastery north of Dali, where I will be attempting to learn Kung Fu with some Buddhist monks. You can read about someone else’s visit here.