Friday, 8 February 2013

Hong Kong: World City

Formally part of the British Empire until 1997, Hong Kong has had a short time to evolve independently once again. What sort of identity has it taken on; has Hong Kong reverted to a Chinese heritage, or has it taken to a unique international identity of its own? 

A monstrous feat of engineering, my journey begins aboard the epic Emirates airbus A380. Towering three storeys high, I am at a loss how this mammoth beast can get airborne. 

Defying gravity it seems, after take off my first flight with Emirates is a very impressive one; exquisite food and genuinely pleasant cabin crew. The connection in Dubai and onwards flight to Hong Kong is a hazy jet-lagged blur and I arrive at the huge airport terminal.

The various taxi choices upon leaving the airport - different colours attributed to Hong Kong districts - seems a baffling one after two long haul flights, but easily aided by a helpful English speaking staff member. I am handed a card, and the green urban taxi, it seems, will be the one to take me to the hotel.

Soaring further upwards than I care to crane my neck at, the Hotel Nina Et Convention Centre is a contemporary and comfortable choice, located in Tsuen Wan West and with easy access to the metro. It's not difficult to summon a yawn to pop my ears for the hundredth time today, as the elevator ejects me to what feels like the stratosphere on the 71st floor. I'm taking off again!

Vast by Asian standards, my room is spacious, with a transporter pad-esque circular glass shower extending out into the bedroom. The harbour view is epic, although the height of the building dwarfs the surrounding skyscrapers into a miniaturised cityscape. A trend in Hong Kong residential construction planning is already clear: to build as high as possible in a star shaped configuration. These buildings appear so unconventional to me as if they are too tall to support themselves. Rooftop gardens and swimming pools are further lost and minimised in their numerousness as I gaze down.

After a solid 8 hour sleep, the automatic curtains open to reveal a perfect clear January day. Travelling down to the 41st floor for breakfast seems a little whimsical, and I cannot wait to get down to ground level. Further sweeping views entice me down.

For a first glimpse introductory view of Hong Kong, I head to the Avenue of Stars, which directly overlooks Hong Kong Island. Purchasing an Octopus card is a wise decision - a card which allows me to top up funds for the metro, as well as make other purchases around Hong Kong quickly and easily.

Leaving East Tsim Sha Tsui station, it's not immediately obvious that I am at the waterfront. The disappointment is short lived after I make my way through a small park to reveal the most spectacular view of Hong Kong harbour. An audible 'wow' escapes me as I take in the panoramic splendour of soaring majestic buildings, glistening in the perfect sunlight, and fronted with calm waters traversed by the occasional Chinese junk boat.

The avenue of stars has a somewhat cinematic theme, and wandering further down the hollywood style hand-print lined boulevard, I encounter a statue of perhaps one of Hong Kong's most prolific connections to the western world - at least in the movie world - Bruce Lee. Almost surrealy placed against this sprawling international backdrop, in a 'ready for the world' martial arts pose, it serves as an unlikely symbol of the stereotypical undertone; a media representation of China that persists for Hong Kong.

Accompanied by a sprinkling of museums, the Clock Tower, although standing short of of its companions, still holds its own against them. Built in 1913 as part of a train station, the classic architecture looks almost alien in contrast to the brushed metal and glass around it.

Just opposite the clock I move towards another relic of old Hong Kong: the Star Ferry. Since 1888 this iconic ferry service has remained both a nostalgic and vital link between Kowloon and Hong Kong. I wind through an over-pasting of political protest posters and await the ferry at the dock. A symbol of Hong Kong's past, perfectly preserved, the ferry docks and I take a seat on the wooden benches downstairs.

Stunning open views of Victoria harbour ensue, and I watch mesmerised as a helicopter swoops in from nowhere and lands on top of one of the skyscrapers - like a scene from a movie. This is a piece of Hong Kong's identity I won't forget.

From the manic streets, weaving in and out of pedestrians, surrounded by endless glass and towering concrete structures, it's difficult to get a sense of Hong Kong as a whole. From ground level, the Kowloon side gave a much more wholesome impression. On this side, I need to get as high up as possible to appreciate it. Victoria Peak is my next destination.

On a whim, I board a bus which I think is taking me to the peak tram terminus, but is in fact taking me all the way up to the peak itself. Ultimately this will prove to be a good decision. At the top is a plethora of restaurants and shops, as expected. I take a break from the heat and grab a quick bite before seeking the much publicised view.

Not failing to impress, I fight for a spot amongst the tourists and take it all in. Without the traffic, the noise and the busyness, from this relatively peaceful wooded area Hong Kong seems more tangible at arms length. The air cools as I follow a path down through the trees; joggers and hikers galore pass me by.

Not wanting to miss the experience of the famous inclined tram, I had back to the tram station for my return journey. As it arrives, I observe with concern the cable pulling the tram up the hill, and secretly hope it has brakes. I claim a seat, and the tram begins to move and tilt backwards into an obscenely steep angle. The car is Victorian-esque and elegant - a nod perhaps to Hong Kong's past relationship with Britain.

Huge impatient queues greet me at the bottom, and I realise that taking the hill-climbing bus earlier was definitely worthwhile, and afforded me some bonus picturesque views.

My evening is spent on the Kowloon side again, this time to take in the 'Symphony of Lights' - a night time show which will allegedly utilise the entire Victoria Harbour skyline, occuring every night at 8pm. Perched on a stand just above the Avenue of Stars, I wait for the show to start, buffeted by chilly harbour winds.

A little bewildering at first, I see lots of flashing lights and lasers blinking from the tops of skyscrapers, amid complete silence. Eventually the music kicks in - it seems that there was some sort of speaker fault.

It may have been the lack of music, but I am left with an impression of a technically sophisticated yet generic show, projecting a more globalised vision of Hong Kong than I imagined.

Anchored to Hong Kong's religious roots, another morning sees a trip to the Big Buddha, via Ngong Ping '360' - a terrifying cable car experience, as I am about to discover.

The long journey starts as the cable car swings and soars up over water, overlooking the airport - made worse by the fact that the floor is made of glass. I try to work out what's less forboding to look at: my feet and a sudden drop to water, forest and rock, or up and ahead at seemingly the longest mountain traversing cable I've ever seen. Fog makes the journey mystically endless, but strangely ethereal with only the occasional bird heard echoing nearby. The Buddha looms ethereally out of the fog as I finally reach the top, and the sun pierces through the clouds.

Sleeping dogs (at least I hope they are sleeping) lay on every corner as I approach the bottom of the 240 steps needed to climb in order to reach the Buddha. A huge peaceful beacon, I am drawn upwards towards it, passing wafts of delightfully smelling incense. 

The top plateau feels extremely high; almost heavenly. I walk around the Buddha, enjoying the views and warming calmness. I feel far removed from the city. 

Admittedly I miss the express elevator back at the hotel as I begin the long journey back down.

I pay a visit to the markets at Mong Kok in the afternoon; an overwhelming, bustling mega-crowd. My senses are overloaded with strange smells that shift with the crowd and dizzying noises bellowing from every corner. The streets overflow to breaking point and the suffocating neon jungle above creates a never-world that doesn't feel like a city street.

Back in the realm of international Hong Kong, shopping and Hong Kong Disneyland fill the rest of my time before heading home. It would be difficult not to say that parts of Chinese culture inevitably shine through; particularly the food choices in Disneyland, and recurrence of Chinese medicine shops in international shopping malls.

Ultimately a picture is painted of Hong Kong that doesn't take too many 'brush strokes' from anywhere; not British, American, or even predominantly Chinese. Perhaps a sign of the city of the future, Hong Kong feels so rapidly evolving, it feels young, culturally eclectic and in some respects timeless.