Pacifica Journals Part II: Far East

Feb 17: Hong Kong

The airport is vast, clean and empty. We procure our bags and wander down the escalator and onto the tram without seeing any personnel or crew. All these finely calibrated machines appear to operate automatically.

We move through customs (two new stamps!) and the ATM for colorful red bills and then onto another empty train, accelerated by algorithm, a smooth track out into the open.

The air is hazy and humid, with mountainous lands across the water. There is no sign of civilization aside from the track itself and these isolated clusters of twenty-story skyscrapers along the steep coasts. There are no houses clinging to the cliffs or car-choked highways. A city run by robots.

Once we get into Hong Kong Island, it’s as though we’ve entered the hive of the colony. The central districts are identical to midtown Manhattan, all glass skyscrapers, innovative facades and well lit traffic lanes.

But when we get to the outskirts further east, the character begins to “pop”, the choreographed chaos of true cities that arises organically, not by corporate real estate moguls.

The signage grows denser, choked with Chinese characters and colorful paint. The glass facades give way to tenement high rises with laundry blowing on the railing, rusting air conditioners up the side like barnacles on a ship’s underbelly, the stone hued pink and yellow pastel. The streets are narrow and double-decker buses (completely tattooed to advertising) puff through, narrowly avoiding paint-scrapes with the similarly adorned trolleys. Red and white cabs weave like opportunistic fish in this coral sea.

We drop our bags at the ornate, if outdated hotel. The décor is French aristocrat, with Star Wars light panels. Then we go for a walk in Victoria Park, a sunny green oasis surrounded by skyscrapers and green peaks.

In the park we stretch our legs and grow warm in the morning sun, watching old ladies practicing Falun Gong and Tai Chi, some even synchronized with swords. Stray tabby cats lounge in the sun and weird birds perch on lush flora.

After a shower we head back out into the throng. The streets are busier now with the locals. There are all sorts like any big city, from the school girls in their iconic navy uniforms to construction workers and skinny suited businessmen, and youth in fashionable westernized clothing. The stores are a mix of corporate establishments (cell phones, banks and pharmacies) and more traditional and regional flair. There are little cook pots under the awnings of stores where smiling vendors fry up strange cuts of meat or churn fresh juice. We even spot an old couple hunched over in the center of the sidewalk, stirring a big iron bowl of coals, roasting chestnuts.

We eat at a clean (westernized) restaurant in a marble floor mall, overlooking Causeway Bay. We slurp down noodles in heavy soy sauce and fried rice and watch the boats in the marina, helicopters swirling distant.

Steph wants to try out foot reflexology. I’m reluctant, but she convinces me, arguing that even Anthony Bourdain did it on his Hong Kong episode. We sit in cozy chairs, like the den of some suburban house, and big wooden buckets are rolled in, steaming green water. We dip in our feet, slowly, the water just south of boiling, little gritty flakes grinding between our toes. After a ten minute soak, two guys come in, prop our feet up on an ottoman and commence an elaborate ritual of drying with purple towels. Then comes the lotion. They slick up our feet and their hands and forcefully run their knuckles along every tendon and muscles in the foot.

At first it’s painful and ticklish, but after about ten minutes the whole area seeps into a warm haze. They hand us a laminated chart of the foot, the regions for corresponding organs color coded. There’s a surprising focus on the sexual organs, the big pads on the bottom of the foot devoted to the uterus and genitals. So it’s odd and almost laughable, but after thirty minutes I’m completely relaxed and my entire body feels loose and vibrant. That’s something the west gets wrong when it criticizes Eastern Medicine. There probably is no direct link between a one inch radius on the side of my foot and my cardiac health – but receiving the massage relaxes my entire body. It’s this holistic approach I think is vital for overall health.

Understandably, we fall into a deep and peaceful nap upon returning to the hotel.

Once it gets dark, we ride the subway to a place called Jordan, on Kowloon. It’s a raucous Broadway of flashing neon and hordes along Nathan St. We’re off to see the famous Temple Street Markets, a long row of tents selling knockoff luxury goods and junk. The selection is pretty similar to any stroll down Canal in Chinatown. Steph broke her little coin purse wallet recently and she haggles down a cute knockoff Gucci to 45 HK, about 5 or 6 dollars. We cut off the beaten tourist path to some other streets, dark alleys with parked bicycles, the fresh food depot washing garbage into the gutter, a filthy aromatic slick on the sidewalk.

We wander around some more, snapping photos of the tenements, buy some fresh fruit, gawk at the strange live seafood (shrimp the size of hamsters with hideous Lovecraftian heads), bloody, dripping pig ribs and naked geese hanging in the windows. The butcher is washing away the guts, a scowl in a yellow jumpsuit, and he stares at me balefully as I snap his picture.

We finish the night heading down to the harbor to ride the Star Ferry. The pier is at the end of another long tourist stretch, Holiday Inn and McDonalds, neon lit stores and bars. We walk through a piled horde of paparazzi outside the deluxe Peninsula hotel devouring a pale Chinese celebrity.

The ferry lacks the high tech automation of everything else and we clank our coins into an old metal machine for plastic tokens to board. The famed ferry was once the sole means of transportation (for the normal folks at least) between Hong Kong Island and the mainland. The breezy harbor reflects all the shifting colors in wavy abstraction, more Vegas than Manhattan, and I snap the requisite skyline photos along with the other gawkers. Then back in and through the clean Central Station, one last ride to the hotel to pass out.

Feb 18: Hong Kong

I wake early, a final vestige of jet lag, and head up to the rooftop pool to try and photograph the sunrise. The skyline and mountains are arrayed in a haze, but the sun itself is shielded, and everything has a dull aura. So I return to bed and sleep another three hours, then we finally roll out, throw on some clothes, and stumble into the hotel buffet. It’s overpriced and Americanized, but its good to eat bacon and eggs. I do try Congee, a white gruel halfway between grits and oatmeal.

Today we want to see the Big Buddha on Lantau Island. All the guide books highlight it as a must-see, and it will be good to get out in the country. The city is sticky and has this perpetual sickly-sweet smell, like a fried wonton wafting around every corner. It’s only February and cloudy and a long sleeve shirt gets hot. This place must be hellish in summer.

At Tung Chung, the end of the rail line, we plan to catch a cable car up the slopes of Lantau Peak. Unfortunately, it’s out of service today, so we pile into bus Number 23 with fellow pilgrims for the windy cliffside roads up the peak. It’s a roundabout journey over a pass, down the backside to drive through beaches and the fishing villages of Tong Fuk and Shek Pik, then back up the narrow and steep roads to the Buddha, the bus choking in low gear.

The statue and tourist village are relatively new, built in 1993, and the bronze looks clean and non-weathered. But the silhouette of the peaceful prophet against the sky, his hand raised (something between a beckoning blessing and communion with the East) is certainly majestic.

We hike the “Wisdom Path” along the ridge line. Past the monastery and the hint of monks chanting inside, a subtle aromatic tea garden, and then back out into the sun on the slope of Lantau Peak. The shape of these mountains reminds me of Hawaii, jagged islands dwindling into the sun drenched sea. We hike until we see the statue once again, perched in profile.

I remark, “Buddha was the Jesus of Asia”. And though it feels alien to see the devout bowing at the foot of the 280 steps, hands clasped in prayerful respect, it’s no less a strange relationship than the camera toting hordes at St. Patrick’s or Note Dame. For all their neon-lit spectacle and happy commerce, these people and this place have religion too.

In the evening we meet my friend Sanoop in the lobby and hop a cab to Happy Valley Race Track. It’s a mile long loop of grass in downtown Hong Kong, surrounded by a row of stands and high rises and thousands of chattering spectators. Down on the ground are mostly well dressed ex-pats, sipping beer and filling out betting cards. I try my luck with two long shots, lose both times, but take in the cool night air, the chic atmosphere of the place swelling, and then lean out to snap photos as the horses thunder by.

After, we take a tram to a neighborhood called SoHo. From the upper deck of the tram we watch the roads and signs scroll smoothly past, moving from the clean and professionally designed towers of Central to a distinctively “seedier” vibe, bike delivery guys weaving the cabs and tram tracks, coat tails billowing.

Soho is perched in the foothills of Hong Kong’s mountains, and the narrow streets rise in a sharp outline. But there’s no need to hike because outdoor escalators ascend the path, past open-faced bars and restaurants. Sanoop explains this is an ex-pat hangout, and there are lots of Italian and Mexican eateries, Irish pubs and sports bars. We clamber off the escalator onto a cozy street, a little restaurant with a red-painted wood awning. It’s Manchurian, a region to the north of China: more meat and potatoes than fish and rice. We dive into an excellent meal of sautéed eggplant, spicy bean curd, beef and noodle soup and roast leg of lamb.

We finish the night tramping a few sets of stairs to a lower terrace, perhaps rowdier, with open aired bars and men hawking neon glowsticks. We settle into a cozy, dark lounge with marble tables and plush chairs and sip cocktails.

A conversation strikes up about Hollywood films, Oscar season, and worthy contenders. We bounce from Titanic’s success to Leo and Kate’s reunion, Revolutionary Road, and the tragedy it entails. The pressures of children verses travel and married life, and Steph reveals how we feel these same pressures.

And even when we return from this trip – this dream of Pacifica – we’ll return to those same trials and pressures, once again brought into focus.

Feb 19: Hong Kong

In the morning it is overcast and humid but we force ourselves to lace up and go for a jog in Victoria Park, dodging the elderly practicing their Thai Chi.

We check out and head off to a Dim Sum place a girl told us about last night – MetroPol.

It’s a sprawling floor of little tables in white table cloth, full of local business men on lunch, ladies pushing around carts stacked with steaming bamboo bowls. We’re still wary and unsure how to order, but when the first lady comes by, revealing the various dishes. I point to a basket, what looks like glazed orange or sesame chicken. When she sets it on the table and marks our card with the purchase, I see that it’s chicken feet!

Steph is disgusted and I chuckle about it. Even some nearby businessmen have a laugh at my expense. I’m willing to give it a few nibbles – a tasty, spicy sauce with the texture of fatty cartilage. We manage to order some decent steamed pork buns, beef dumplings and fried spring rolls, but by then Steph has had enough and we pay our bill and shoulder our bags.

The rain has relented and there are patches of blue between the clouds so we wander around Admiralty, all the big skyscrapers gazing down with their unique facades.

Maneuvering and traveling as a pedestrian in this city is interesting. Instead of crosswalks in the grid, there are complex and tiered bridges and stairways, connecting the public parks to the foyers of office buildings, then to the open aired shopping centers and malls, all linked with smooth escalators feeding into mass transit.

We ride the peak tram to Victoria Peak, a rickety car that climbs an impossibly steep slope, all the passengers pressed into the backs of their seats.

At the top is a small village of restaurants and shops, nestled amidst lush jungle and designer luxury homes. We walk a path that rounds the peak, moist from the morning rain, watch a film crew focus on two young, well dressed stars – probably some show like Gossip Girl Hong Kong. They recite dialog against the backdrop of Central, the harbor, Kowloon and distant mountains shrouded in brown smog. From here the view is spectacular but the pollution is tangible.

The backside of the island is mountains in the mist and big ships at sea, moving imperceptibly under the glare of the afternoon sun, the whole scene painted a blinding duotone of yellow and silhouette.

We’ve begun to get into the flow of moving through this city, riding the correct escalators and exiting from the right passageway (Victoria Park). When done right there is this choreography, this dance of people persisting in this metropolis, marching up the circular pedestrian roundabout and down the escalators, swarming the streets in dispersed, wide droves when the signal turns green and the audible click picks up speed, a ratcheting velocity…

Now we sit in our lobby, the grand piano playing Disney film scores, and we wait and watch night fall across the cityscape, the chandeliers coming into focus in the big glass reflection, a night-time dazzle.


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