Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Day and a Night in Hong Kong

I've done this before, ridden the #6 bus from near the ferry terminal at Central to the other side of Hong Kong island and the little village of Stanley. Stanley is know for, among other things, its market, which is a very Chinese-seeming collection of stalls and tiny storefronts set along narrow, winding alleys. It's mostly a tourist market, a fun collection of local stuff--paintings and carvings--and more generic Chinese industrial output--t-shirts and cell phone covers, etc. Like all these markets I've seen, it seems as much a place for the vendors to socialize as a market for selling things. More so than, say, the Best Buy in Appleton, there is a sense that the Stanley Market represents the lives of these vendors; they've all drawn this lot and they're in it together.

(Hong Kong's version of the Routemaster.)

But the real fun with the Stanley Market is getting there. Hong Kong island seems to have an unexpectedly huge number of bus routes (in addition to the old double-decker trolley system and a subway). The buses themselves exist in a hundred varieties, but most of them are sturdy double-decker units that seat about 80 and stand as many more (I suppose in deference to British custom, which is still so recently in the colony's past). So right from the get-go you're in for a treat, since plunking yourself anywhere upstairs gives you a vista of the passing scenery that you likely will not have experienced before.

(The view from up top.)

And what views. From the passage through the constant traffic jam of downtown Hong Kong, the bus climbs up narrow, winding streets which cling to the sides of the steep hills, with seemingly inches between the sheer rock face on one side and the opposite direction buses on the other. The tops of the buses are continuously brushed by the trees so that one appears to be driving most of the time in a tunnel. Today's bus was the 6X, which passes through a mile-long tunnel through the middle of the island, presumably cutting 10-15 minutes from the trip.

(Stanley with its market.)

(Roaming the Stanley Market.)

(The view from the #6 bus on the back of the island.)

(Repulse Bay seen from the bus.)

In a past life I spent 10 years driving a bus like this, but the ways this experience differs from what I know--the double-decker bus, the narrow, winding, mountainous roads, the right-hand drive--just conspire to make something as mundane as a city bus ride seem daring, almost adrenaline-filled. The double-decker buses have about twice the capacity of the buses I spent most of my career operating, and they seem near-to-full most of the time. In Minneapolis, where I drove, the larger capacity routes were assigned a bendy bus (called an "articulated"), but this solution would clearly not work here. Like Hong Kong's building practices, one must add transit capacity by going UP (or down) rather than OUT.

It's very difficult to get pictures on the bus, as the amazing scenes flash by and are gone, and everything is so close to you that it's tough to frame a shot.  There are a couple videos on YouTube, I see, showing someone's filming of the trip.

I got back downtown from the market about 5:PM and decided to see a movie. There are a zillion screens here, and most big American films can be seen along with Chinese and Hong Kong films and German and French movies. Not feeling up for The Help (which is supposed to be excellent), I defaulted to Rowan Atkinson's latest Johnny English installment (I'll review that separately).

Emerging about 7:30 PM into a drizzly night, the city is electric with possibility. The low-hanging clouds reflect the light from millions of bulbs to give a kind of twilight aspect to the entire city, and neon is everywhere, on signs and storefronts and decorating the sides of buildings. There are even decorative lights on some of the tour boats out in Victoria Harbor. The clotted mass of cars and trucks and buses and trolleys makes for a din that's almost overwhelming. I talked briefly on the phone to Susan (as in, $4.95 a minute briefly, but I needed to share the moment with my traveling partner) and conversation is not particularly easy in so noisy an environment. But you're flooded with a sense that a billion things are happening all around you--thousands of bars and restaurants, hundreds of open shops, meetings and gatherings, folks going to and from work in a 24-hour city. I am for the natives one of tens of thousands of daily visitors to the city, an obvious foreigner standing on a footbridge watching the city hum around me.

(The crowd at the Tsim Sha Tsui ferry terminal.)

(My hotel room view.)
One of my coworkers has a friend who flies for a competitor, and his company has a pilot crew base over here. His friend lives here now, moved over from the States with his wife and two kids.  I learned this in a discussion about whether that company's cost-of-living stipend for these displaced workers was adequate to the huge cost increase from living here. I could not help feeling envious, thinking of what an experience it would be to be here long enough to really get to know the place.


payingattention said...

So interesting and the photos are beautiful - can't wait to go there some day! Nearly as important to those of us this far away is the news of the new Johnny English flick! I hope it's true to the original - good/silly BritWit, that is.

wunelle said...

I confess I never saw the original. But I have a bit of a soft spot for Brit humor (esp. of the Monty Python variety), and this was a scream. Erm, in a low-key, buttoned-down way!

Like NYC--VERY like it, I think--the city itself trumps any individual experience.

Jon said...

As always, interesting pictures. Do you ever get the feeling that you are an outsider, what with taking pictures all the time? People must be used to it because they all have cameras too. It sounds an awful lot like NYC from what you have said about the night life and all.

wunelle said...

NYC is comparable in so many ways. And like NYC, it'd be pretty tough to feel like an outsider here since the place is so diverse. It's primarily ethnically Chinese, of course, but there are lots of Europeans and Americans (plus all manner of Chinese varieties that I am blind to). So nobody pays me any attention.

It's always a little odd to hear American English being spoken on a bus or tram or at a restaurant. Your initial instinct is to introduce yourself, but you quickly realize that you're not witnessing an odd phenomenon.

wunelle said...

And yes, at any given moment in a crowd there are 100 people snapping photos with their phones! Asians are at least as manic about their cell phones as Americans, and often they're way advanced from us (Hong Kong especially is probably the most technologically advanced place in the world).