Hong Kong calls itself Asia’s world city so why is it an urban nightmare dressed in grey? Every time I venture there it is overcast, and either misty or drizzly coupled with humidity or damp. Yet I appear to be the only one who isn’t celebrating the place. Worshipping it as a deity city in neon knickers. Granted there is at least something to do in HK. I am here this time courtesy of Great Hotels of the World, and it’s the first time I don’t have to run around on the visa trail.
15 years ago we British handed it back to China (yet we still have trouble handing back Northern Ireland or the reaching a deal with Argentina on the Falkland Island’s which are nowhere near as valuable one would conclude fairly easily). One also must question to what extent China’s role is. The city has its own flag, currency (including the world’s most hideous $10 note), government and passport control. One country, two systems says China. So what do they call Taiwan and Tibet? That’s not to say I dislike the Chinese, far from it – they have been mostly generous and warm to me over my tenure there, but how can this be China if all of the aforementioned governmental issues exist, not to mention the freedom of an otherwise closely scrutinized internet. Having said all of that, I am not a political writer.
Anyway I digress, some say the best thing about HK is the airport but even that is losing ground; an information ‘intern’ incorrectly tells me that the train into central will include the MRT fare to my onward destination. It doesn’t. I cannot get the airport bus because well, they won’t accept my $1000 bill. So I am forced to take the train (whose airport staff can give me change) but costs three times as much. Wow, thanks HK international, it’s almost as if you’re an international airport with transport connections into the city you serve.
Next up is the metro itself. At central station I cannot find the walkway to the connecting MTR station – this is what the way-finding system is for but alas it’s pretty redundant here. When I do find it, it’s at the end of a nightmare consisting of never ending walkways (the first of many). Each station like Bank on the London Underground; you can walk miles with no sign of where you are or how long it will take to get to where you’re going, up a ever increasing gradient with matching blind man’s curve. It is astonishing that such a system exists! The HK metro is modern by comparison to London’s but it has been designed by Muppet’s or the same person who designed their $10 dollar note. I finally get to the customer service desk to be told that I can’t buy a ticket there. No, buying one from an actual person cannot happen in Hong Kong. Everything is automated and it is greatly assumed that everyone knows this. He thus omits to tell me that like the airport, I can’t buy a ticket – this time with a $100 note. I am fully aware my tone may appear like a cantankerous old man – never satisfied and easily irked but is it any wonder I have to contemplate if there is anything that can be done simply in HK. On return to another queue at the same customer service desk, he gives me some coins and again points back to the computer kiosk (possibly manufactured by the same team who built HAL 9000, the demonic computer system from Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) BUT I need $5 and now possess a series of $2’s. To save going back a third time I ask at a bagel place and to my surprise they give me the correct change.
My urban nightmare continues. It’s approaching 7pm yet the rush hour is seemingly still in play and the first train will not allow my boarding. The next is not far behind and I manage to get on. For a few moments all is well until.. the next station. I’m now sandwiched by the hoards of commuters – self styled junkies of the iGeneration, just about all of them have headphones on and are dazed by the glare of their iPhones/iPads; you may refer to them as the living dead or iZombies. At Causeway Bay I alight only to dart in and out of people, sorry zombies who not only stare vacantly at their screens but move with the pace of a constipated slug to find the map that should tell me what exit to take. It says A, after which another extended tunnel walk concludes with me having to walk downstairs toward the bowls of a shopping centre before having to make my way back up to street level. No wonder HK’s residents are so glum, you would have to be a specific kind of person to think living here is neat.
It is now dark and an Olympic tide of sweat covers my dowdy green t-shirt. All I have to do is find the hotel but it’s in the worst possible location. When I get there, I am asked for a ridiculous deposit to make sure that I don’t use the mini-bar. This irksome trait is common in Asia but I didn’t expect it here when they know it’s my birthday. Is the room complimentary or not? The latter. I pay their deposit which means that instead of enjoying my stay I am terrified that I’ll be charged for some heinous crime like drinking some water or eating an apple, so both are left undisturbed. To some degree I’m fortunate that the internet is free as is the breakfast, sadly the lifts are similar to the Chungking Mansions and take forever to amble up and down the 20 storey building. Anyone would think it was 200 stories. The breakfast bar is not 5 star though fine enough. What grates me most here is the staff who take my plates before I am done and a chef who can understand any other customer and speaks English perfectly well yet insists on making me wait for a supervisor to tell him I want 2 eggs! To say I am perplexed is an understatement.
So, can anything be done simply in HK? I’ve seen the Symphony of Lights; where the cities most prominent buildings take turns to dazzle with light and lasers – a kind of Jean Michel Jarre show minus him. To be fair it is kind of neat, however, as I’ve seen it and I’m on the island instead of Kowloon I decide on a walk; it doesn’t get much simpler and is (unless I’m breaking some quirk of South East Asian law) free. Over on Kowloon, there’s a park which has an aviary but Hong Kong Park has a walk through one which is even better, even if I’m fighting a losing battle against the humid moisture around my lips, neck and face. The aviary is fantastic and is mostly populated by the white Bali Mynah. There is a plump Emerald Dove, a beautiful shiny emerald Asian Fairy Bird and another which looks like it has broken its wing and is lying horizontally unable to move. Concerned, I fetch the warden to take a look. Only then does it burst into life and into flight! Apparently, it was just sunbathing!
Although I’m not quite as enthused as Bill Oddie, I do happen to like things that fly and having survived the walk through aviary, I begin to think about the statement that the airport is the best thing about Hong Kong and the current status of the old Kai Tak; where I first landed in HK 35 years previous (perhaps I really was an old git after all). At a bookstore near the Star Ferry terminal there are plenty of HK pictorials but little sign of the airstrip. It appears to be a blemish on the landscape of the otherwise ‘beautiful’ fragrant harbour. Back at the hotel I revert to You Tube; there I find a romantically nostalgic look at the terminal on its last day of operation. Amazing how old it looked in 1998 and more so how it was ever considered a suitable plot for an airport in the first place. The video is especially moving when the runway lights are switched off. It’s my last day here too. Beyond lay the red abyss of China’s mainland and internet lock down, yet its people are remarkably kind; unlike that of HK or that I experienced anyway.
Sadly, my ‘experience’ is not over yet. On the train back up to the border – one I have caught many times, I’m pulled off by over eager conductors who assume I am riding in first class deliberately. In my haste, my only crime was to run from the west line train to the waiting east line train which was near ready to depart. Inadvertently I find myself in what is the only carriage designated ‘first class’ without tapping my new Octopus card on the platform. They issue a warning letter and in his smug satisfaction, the superior conductor makes me leave and re-enter the station with all of my luggage just to ensure I am on the right fare structure. Clearly I’m unknowing of the first class carriage hardly anyone is using and that most cities urban transport systems do not utilise on their subways. Now if it had been the Orient Express that would have been a whole different story. Earlier that same day I was stopped by Police checking my passport to make sure I hadn’t overstayed my welcome. Is it any wonder I can’t wait to leave the place. Conclusion, it is not so much Asia’s World City but Asia’s Worst City.