Our Woman In Hong Kong

Lise Lingo

 

 

Get In Lane: Victoria Harbour, Shenzen & Macau

 

Not one of the brigade of uniformed bellboys and gloved doormen at the Island Shangri-La batted an eye when we dropped down from the cab of a brightly painted but grubby delivery truck -- the only vehicle at the airport that would hold all our gear. In a calm, efficient swarm, they disposed of two medium-size bags, two big bags, one huge bag we’ve labeled the "toy chest," and two bikes in boxes. That left us with only two worn backpacks (holding two computers), a guitar, a toolbox, a camera bag, and Steve’s battered straw hat. No one else like us in the lobby (possibly ever), but we fit in well, because Hong Kong is all about contrast.

Our 42nd-floor room fronts onto an atrium with a 16-story hand-painted mural. The entire outside wall of the room is window, curved so we can see north across the harbor to the skyscrapers Kowloon-side, east across the maze of skyscrapers Hong Kong side, and south across the street to the abrupt hills that lead to Victoria Peak. That’s on a clear day, in the afternoon. In the morning we’re lucky to see the water at all, as the sun burns fiercely behind a solid screen of cloud and fog and haze. It’s hot.

Picture a tropical San Francisco with New York’s energy level. Two hundred and fifty cars fill every kilometer of the roads, which only fit on the island in the first place because most of them are suspended in layers. They contour around the hills, dripping off in underpasses, overpasses, and flyovers that peel away abruptly. Road signs say "Get in lane" and that means do it now, or miss your turn. Pedestrian pathways are more tangled, a Habitrail of Minneapolis skyways gone berserk in the humidity, curling around and over and through most of the office buildings. They dump you out at the foot of twisting switchbacks, curved steps cutting straight up, or--if you’re lucky--the Mid-Levels escalators, which carry commuters under some shelter down nearly half a mile in the morning and up again in the evening.

In the harbor barges plow sturdily through the main traffic lanes; small high tugs barrel through their wakes; ferries plug away steadily (eight minutes over and eight minutes back, all day long): all of them at any moment on apparent collision courses, but there are very few accidents. Congestion -- automotive, marine, pedestrian -- is as ordinary as the fog, or the noon-day gun I have yet to hear, or the wail of heavy machinery I’m already used to hearing. Hong Kong is a giant construction site, all the new glass and steel skyscrapers-in-the-making swathed in simple bamboo scaffolding reaching 50 or more stories into the haze. And every one is different, giving this high-rise city more texture than any other I’ve seen. It can’t be easy, laying typhoon-resistant foundations on sites that drop 40 feet from one side to the other -- and with no elbow room for swinging cranes and pile drivers around -- but it’s as ordinary as the congestion. Residents of the older buildings that squat around the site, peeling and blotched by years of damp, don’t even flinch when the pile drivers start up 20 feet away. The floors vibrate, the windows rattle, you start talking in a Cantonese-style shout. Noise and change are the only constants.

 

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Our Thanksgiving was turkey-less. Completely birdless, in fact. But not without things to be thankful for, foremost among them that we don’t live in China. We spent Saturday there -- just barely over the border, to Shenzen, but far enough to qualify us for new Hong Kong entry visas (the reason we had to leave the country in the first place, since tourist visas are only good for 30 days).

Shenzen is a big boom city, a Hong Kong wannabe without the oomph, smack up against the border and backed by the Shenzen Special Economic Zone, which is the drawing card for the Hong Kong investors who’ve fueled the boom. So a tourist destination, it’s not. But it’s only about 40 minutes away by subway (and a long queue through passport control), so ease of travel was the drawing card for us.

You get a little complacent in Hong Kong, where there’s always someone nearby who speaks enough English to help you out in your gweilo ignorance. Shenzen is reportedly closing in fast on Hong Kong and international business is its raison d’Ítre, so we hadn’t even considered that communication might be more difficult. Lunch in the border train stations was both a rude awakening and a hilarious start to the day. After polishing off our noodles, we wanted some dim sum, which were not on the menu but which we’d seen on some plates earlier. Specifically, we wanted pork dumplings (your basic potsticker) and shrimp ones. Steve started drawing on the placemat: a detailed bamboo steamer, a couple of blobby dumpling shapes, and a cartoon pig. I added a shrimp. We showed this to the waitress, who was both entertained and slightly embarrassed and giggled behind her hand. More waitresses came over and soon we were surrounded by half a dozen, all of whom seemed to get the gist of it but couldn’t stop laughing. The commotion drew the hostess over; she smiled, slightly more reserved than the bevy of waitresses, still pointing out the drawing to each other and covering their mouths while they giggled. "Dim sum-a" she pronounced, and we agreed. Steve was quite insistent about the pork. The hostess craned over to look at the drawing and carefully said, "peeg"; we pointed to the shrimp drawing and she said "har gow." That finally rang a bell. (We’ve been practically living on frozen dim sum, which is surprisingly good, and har gow are the shrimp dumplings.)

It became a theme for the day, that laughter. Everywhere we went we were trailed by surprised faces and giggles. And it’s not just that Steve’s height is far more noticeable here than in Hong Kong, though that’s what generated the most giggles. It’s the dearth of gweilos in the streets of Shenzen. We saw just six, a group of three and three individuals, all day long. And none of them was in the rabbit warren of passages that contained the street market, where I trailed Steve by a few yards and enjoyed the spinning heads in his wake. They’d glance at him, start to laugh or whisper to a friend, then look back and catch me smiling at them, and have to laugh again (because it was so obvious that I knew what they were laughing at).

This is the first time either of us has ever visited a country where we knew so little of the language and where the locals speak so little English. Hotel staff became our steady resource, as we wandered down wide streets clouded with construction dust, sucking in god-knows-what pollutants, looking for the market. (The word puzzled everyone we asked, but there has to be a market, right?) High rises are going up everywhere, though with more elbow room than in Hong Kong. We finally found a Chinese arts "mall" and browsed through dreamy watercolors, carved jade sailing ships, and assorted whatnots in the dusty hallways. The highlight was the music. A couple of stores sold traditional instruments, a massive multi-stringed board like an oversized zither and a tiny one-stringed instrument played with a loose fuzzy bow. The "zither" has a pretty tone, but the "violin" was what caught me. An old man selected one and sat down to try it out, hammering the one string with his fingertips at different points while sliding the bow, testing it. A beautiful sound, like water falling, and deceptively simple looking.

We tripped over the real market later. After plowing through the open stalls, trying out snacks like grilled corn on a stick (bland and dry) and fried cornmeal patties (bland and moist), and testing out our hand-sign skills (the Chinese have a one-handed counting system), we headed back towards the train station. What’s initially, and finally, striking is how many more beggars there are, and how much more insistent they are, and how much worse their disabilities are than in Hong Kong. A young guy with a twisted foot sat on the sidewalk twisting bamboo leaves into elaborate grasshoppers mounted on sticks and we promptly bought two. Beautiful and ephemeral. They’ve shriveled, but we’ve still got them stuck in the incense vase, charmingly ancient. The one fleeting thing all that day that made me say "oh!" in appreciation.

 

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Okay, we’ve been Macau’d. A "been there, done that" trip to the Atlantic City of the East, a third world New Jersey (Steve’s phrase), another stamp in the passport. There’s an "if we build it, they will come" air to it, except that the building has clearly been under way for quite a while, and "they" haven’t come yet. The Macau Tourism Commission is evident everywhere, pumping up the sights, but their propaganda is aimed at the travel industry more than the tourists.

The fun part about going to Macau is the ride there, 37 minutes by jetfoil from the Shan Tuk terminal in Hong Kong Harbor. You’d never know you were cutting through waves, once the boat is up to speed: the huge hull is entirely out of the water, floating over the skis, which cut just under the surface. It feels like skiing, too, when they turn, dipping down and sideways, as we skimmed past undeveloped stretches of China’s coastline.

The fun part about being in Macau was the ride around the islands. Macau used to be just the tip of the peninsula, but came to include two small islands to the south, Taipa (site of the Jockey Club, the stadium, and the university) and Coloane (site of the golf course, the Westin resort, and not much else). We rented a Moke (one of those little convertible carts like they used on "Fantasy Island"), a toy car, low to the ground like a golf cart or go-cart. And the roads in Macau feel something like a toy car course. It turned into an extremely entertaining afternoon, driving madly around on the left-hand side of the road, Steve’s knees sticking up above the steering wheel so the gear shift wouldn’t hit him in the calf -- yes, it had a manual transmission, so not only was he driving on what felt like the "wrong" side of the road, but he was shifting with the "wrong" hand. All the while playing a live Asteroids video game, dodging buses, trucks, taxis, and pedestrians, with scooters whining by on all sides, as I tried to find the tiny Portuguese street signs (since I couldn’t read the large Chinese ones) before we passed them. Everything tasted of exhaust. We were the only Moke downtown, a real standout in traffic, not least because the car was hot pink.

Macau’s real tourist attraction is gambling, in the casinos that line the roads from the ferry terminal and end at the venerable -- and unmistakable (round, orange, and festooned with white icing and lights) -- Hotel Lisboa. We don’t gamble. But we cruised through the Lisboa, after a delicious dinner in a Portuguese restaurant revolving over the Macau skyline. Not-too-subtle hookers make invisible efforts to attract the Hong Kong and Macanese customers away from the gaming rooms, mostly by not doing anything but standing around in Lycra-bound groups like they were waiting for a train. We were the only gweilos in the place, apart from two men headed for the baccarat rooms on the upper floors and a few tall blonde dancers grabbing snacks after their performance in the not-so "Crazy Paris!" show (billed in one of our guidebooks as "Miss Green’s School for Dance and Deportment for Semi-Naked Young Ladies").

At the sleekly modern ferry terminal, a woman taking surveys for the Tourism Commission asked us if we’d recommend Macau to our friends. It seemed too rude to say "no" flat out, so we equivocated, saying it depended on which friends. This, not 10 minutes after we’d agreed that Macau had nothing to make it worth recommending!

 

Lise Lingo can be reached at LiseMarkl@aol.com