Viewed from across Fragant Harbour, the magnificent Hong Kong skyline is a vision of the 21st century. Mammoth concrete, glass and steel skyscrapers rise in a towering wall along the harbour, with new ones sprouting even as you watch. Then a stocky green-and-white Star Ferry, smelling of oil and exhaust fumes, chugs into view, a reminder of an earlier era that seems almost obliterated.
Much of old Hong Kong has disappeared in the decades since I first glimpsed this serrated skyline, the instant-recognition calling card of one of the world’s most exciting urban hubs. Even the old name, Fragrant Harbour, is seldom used today. It would be too ironic, with the scent of diesel fumes replacing that of sandalwood on the hot, humid air. But traces of the marvellous old city, a few isolated remnants of its heritage and ancient ways of life, have survived down on street level, among the shiny new high-rises. And as a former longtime resident, now based in Paris, I frequently return to look for these architectural fragments and old ways, journeys that start just a few blocks from Hong Kong’s dynamic Central business district, on Hollywood Road: a depository of art and antiques, curios, bric-a-brac, old photos and just plain junk brought to Hong Kong after China’s 1949 revolution.
At the eastern end of this antique row, on Old Bailey Street, stands the imposing, red-brick police station, one of Hong Kong’s few remaining heritage buildings. Nearby, expensive emporiums display exquisite Chinese and Japanese furnishings, ornately carved Korean chests, wall hangings, textile screens, jade carvings, ceramics and porcelains. Farther west, the street goes down-market. Bargain chinoiserie overflows from open-air stalls: used opium pipes, junk ceramics, baubles and ivory Buddhas, worn abacuses, battered rattan birdcages, dusty paperback mystery novels, faded postcards and statues of a pudgy Chairman Mao. The “Hundred-Year-Old Photographs” — including cracked, yellowed street scenes of old Hong Kong and “Early Hong Kong Famous Hookers” — are likely as artificially aged as the 100-year-old eggs. From here, the street leads into Western District, Hong Kong’s “Chinatown” (an oxymoron, but locals use it to set the district off from the newer, Westernized parts of the city), where wedding boutiques display lavishly embroidered dresses and tiny, cluttered shops sell paper planes, cars and banknotes made out to the Bank of Hell, all for mourners to burn at funerals.
Gradually, the street becomes less commercial and colourful. The soft, sweet smell of cedar, sawdust and lacquer varnish drifts across the sidewalks from small furniture factories, where craftsmen build ornate, Chinese-style chairs, wardrobes and chests, and good-luck joss (incense) sticks burn before miniature red temples in shop doorways. Medicine shops sell dried lizards and snacks, pungent powders and weird potions; street barbers clip men’s hair and bamboo scaffolding cloaks building sites. Huge, clamorous dim sum palaces serve bamboo baskets of exotic steamed morsels and dai pai dongs (roadside food stalls) still cook noodles and rice dishes accompanied by side dishes unrecognizable to Westerners. The smell of hot cooking oil, garlic and ginger pours from makeshift kitchens.
At Ladder Street, Man Wo Temple, one of Hong Kong’s oldest (1847) and most important shrines, honours Man, the God of Literature (depicted holding a calligraphy brush), and Mo, the God of War (red-faced and bearing a large sword). Outside the great red doors, next to a hand-lettered sign urging visitors to not give to beggars, ancient, black-pajama-clad ladies cool themselves with paper fans and aggressively seek alms. Inside the temple, spirals of incense — like giant mosquito coils — hang from the ceiling and joss sticks burn in brass pots. Garish red electric bulbs, the kind found on North American Christmas trees, flickering candles and shafts of sunlight illuminate the dim interior. Occasional worshippers make offerings to the gods, light incense sticks and bow their heads in silent prayer. A temple cat struts by.
Here, my co-workers at the South China Morning Post once tested my culinary nerve at a snake-food restaurant. In fall and winter, aficionados feast on the blood-warming serpent concoctions at these specialty stalls, found mainly in the older districts such as Western and Causeway Bay. To the Chinese, snake is one of the great health foods. Vendors pull venomous snakes from wire cages, then slit them head to poisonous tip and collect the blood and bile in a cup to blend with Chinese herbs and a potent wine. The concoction reputedly strengthens the eyes and spine, invigorates and warms the body for the cool months — and enhances (blank) vitality, an ancient, natural (blank). Besides this bizarre cocktail, popular side dishes include soup and main courses that are stir-fried, braised, baked or roasted. But snake broth, with its three to five types of snake meat, and often with sugar cane, water chestnuts, mushrooms and bamboo shoots, is the most palatable reptilian repast. Forced to partake, or lose face with my newspaper colleagues, I dug in with a spoon and chopsticks. I know now that snake meat’s taste and texture resembles that of a tough old barnyard rooster — palatable enough as long as one looks away from the snake cages and repeats, “It’s chicken. It’s chicken.”
In a city with ultra-modern, efficient transit facilities, a triumvirate of age-old transport systems still operate: boxy double-decker trams, the slow, steady, stately Star Ferries and the Peak Tram. From Western, I board a tram to ride from one end of Hong Kong Island to the other. Since 1904, these old, open-air matchbox-shaped double-deckers have provided a close-up view of life in the city. We clatter through modern Central District, pass Wan Chai (the once-notorious nightlife area), then reach Causeway Bay. Here, elderly men take their caged birds for walks in Victoria Park, where, at dawn, men and women perform the semi-synchronized, slow-motion Tai Chi Chuan (shadow boxing). Farther on, we pass crowded residential areas, street-food markets and traditional Chinese shops. Only, today, the streets, and the trams, seem even more densely packed, a reflection of Hong Kong’s population boom over the past few decades.
Back in Central, I take the dramatic funicular railway that has transported passengers from Central District up the steep mountain to Victoria Peak since it replaced the mount’s sedan chairs — enclosed seats carried by porters — in 1888. The cars may be newer, but the exhilarating eight-minute ride skyward through the restful, green sanctuary of tropical foliage of bamboo, fig and hibiscus is still a botanist’s delight, and a heart-stopper with its steep inclines. The tram terminates at the Peak Tower, an unattractive concrete mass that is part of new Hong Kong. Its views of the harbour, Kowloon and even mainland China are incredible when visibility is good. From here, the Peak Walk is about an hour’s stroll on a level road, circumnavigating the mountaintop, with panoramic views of Hong Kong, Kowloon and the outer islands on those now-rare days when the pollution — mainly from China and its factories — lifts.
Far below, Star Ferries cross the teeming, ever-shrinking harbour, connecting Hong Kong Island to the mainland. The cross-harbour service, which started in 1898, provides the world’s most dramatic — and cheapest — boat ride. Splurging HK$2.20 for a first-class ticket, I board the upper deck for a trip down memory sea lanes. William Holden met Nancy Kwan on the ferry in 1960’s The World of Suzy Wong, the film that first attracted me to this remarkable city. The vessels have featured in numerous movies since, from romances to thrillers, all showcasing Hong Kong’s dramatic, steep mountain backdrop. The nine-minute ride, with the steady thumping of the big engines, the water slapping against the hull and the blaring horns from the boats in this busy harbour, is always a thrill that ends too quickly.
At Tsim Sha Tsui on Kowloon side, the old clock tower next to the Star Ferry terminus is the only remnant of a railway station that once linked the former British colony with China, and beyond. But the venerable Peninsula Hotel is just a few minutes walk away. Although it didn’t open until 1928, The Pen is Hong Kong’s grande dame of hostelries. A bellboy with white pillbox hat opens the huge, polished glass doors for me, and I enter the vast, 46-by-16-metre lobby, as imposing as that of a European palace. Marbled pillars crowned with elaborate mouldings rise to a richly gilded and adorned ceiling; tall palms sprout from huge, ruby-red, glazed-ceramic pots; the gentle strains of a violin concerto float down from a string quartet playing behind a railed balcony high above; waiters in black uniforms bearing silver drink trays pad silently by on the marble floors, serving an international clientele seated at marble-topped tables. Nearly every important visitor to this former colony passes through this historic lobby, as do mere romantics. The pleasant ritual of afternoon tea here (or an equally colonial gin-and-tonic) is a must for me on every visit. The opulent old hotel evokes sedate, more genteel, times and prepares me for the hubbub of commercial Kowloon.
Nearby Nathan Road, known as the Golden Mile, is as dazzling as ever, with its neon and noise, souvenir shops, “copy watch” hustlers and tailor touts. When I first lived in Hong Kong, some shop owners in this area poured free drinks for their prime customers. After work on Friday, my colleagues would often patronize a favourite tailor who served liberal amounts of alcohol during fittings for shirts or suits. This made for some unusual sartorial decisions. Today, that custom seems to have gone, along with the 24-hour suit, but express tailoring is still part of speedy Hong Kong’s mystique. Sam’s, Kowloon’s most famous tailoring shop, remains just as I remember it: long and narrow, like a large bus, decorated with business cards and photographs of previous customers, including Britain’s Prince Charles, Spain’s King Juan Carlos and David Bowie. This is authentic old Kowloon.
One way to catch a glimpse of old Hong Kong is to look to the future, courtesy of a traditional fortune teller. At the clamorous Wong Tai Sin Taoist temple, with its red pillars and golden roof, the rich scent of incense and the smoke from burnt-paper offerings hovers in the air along the stone steps. Gilded plastic amulets dangle from hawker stalls and a gaudy collection of bright, temple-red paper prayers, cards and packages of joss sticks clutter the shelves. Worshippers light the fragrant sticks, then kneel and pray for better health, luck in love or propitious business dealings. The rhythmic click-click-click of the faithful shaking bamboo cups with chim (oracle sticks) comes from the temple. While many worshippers pray, others gossip or take family snapshots as their children run around playing. Wong Tai Sin, by far the busiest, most boisterous, of Hong Kong’s 600 temples, illustrates the Asian custom of combining piety with socializing, worship with sightseeing.
I head straight to the bustling fortune tellers’ arcade and choose a woman soothsayer with an “Englishspeaking” sign. “You have a big nose,” Miss Lam announces immediately. Yes, but I don’t need a physiognomist to tell me that. And she has more bad news: I am actually a year older than I thought. According to Chinese tradition, the smiling soothsayer informs me, age is counted from conception, not birth.
I am paying to hear all this bad news.
I am a snake, she adds. In the Chinese zodiac, that is. “Your career line is strong. You can work all your life, without retiring.” I envision a lifetime of drudgery ahead. And finally, with a last glance at my face, she announces firmly, “You will be fatter in the future.” No one can accuse Cantonese fortune tellers of only telling you what you want to hear.
A few blocks away, Mongkok District, supposedly the world’s most crowded community, is a vast, open-air “boutique” for local shoppers, not tourists. From the Mongkok Mass Transit Railway (MTR) station, I plunge straight into its vivid neon depths. In this huge bargain basement, Chinese script advertises shoes, housewares and restaurants, while roman letters proclaim Japan’s gifts to the modern world: Toshiba, National, Sharp, Sony, Aiwa.
The Ladies’ Market on Tung Choi Street is a long garment row crowded with hundreds of stalls laden with bright sweaters, shorts, scarves, jeans, lacy lingerie and make-up at bargain prices. Designer labels here include “Good Taste” dresses, “Bed and Breakfast Daily Wear” photographer’s vests and “Canadian Traveler Place Trib” T-shirts. A stop south on the MTR, near the Jordan Road station, is Temple Street Night Market, a swarming emporium of cheap clothing, toys and other trinkets. Nepalese men squat cross-legged on the sidewalk selling tarnished silvery bracelets, weird Himalayan masks, statues of various gods and the shoulder bags once favoured by hippie backpackers. In a last-minute shopping spree at this chaotic, pulsating market, I once purchased nine Christmas presents in half an hour, which must be some sort of record — certainly for me.
Farther south, Chinese street culture is played out under the white glare of hissing kerosene lights. Sidewalk fortune tellers sit in Zen-like anticipation while others attract curious clients. At their feet: signs of huge palms scribbled over with arcane lettering, some promising “palmistry and face telling.” A street dentist with a few bottles of coloured liquid, a flashlight and a sample set of false teeth advertises, “One hour repair and reline.” New teeth are extra. The venerable medic pauses from his labours over a set of molars to poke his light into a passing patient’s mouth.
A physician sets up a sidewalk clinic, his strange concoctions and bandages spread out across a flimsy table. Patent medicine sellers display graphic photographs of patients with horrible diseases and skin disorders, of the type high schools once used to discourage young boys from engaging in (blank). From a side street, huge amplifiers blare the cacophonous noise of itinerant Chinese opera singers accompanied by orchestras of ancient instruments such as er hu, cymbals, drums and Chinese harpsichords. The youth and comeliness of the female singers, with their high-pitched, shrill falsettos, seem to determine crowd size. But there is always a crowd in Hong Kong.
It is the same press of humanity a few short blocks away, where I enter the Mass Transit Railway station and am instantly conveyed out of boisterous, odoriferous, earthy old China into the bright lights and smooth efficiency of modern Asia. It is a jarring transition, from the clattering of the abacus to the smooth, soulless efficiency of the digital calculator. And, as always happens when I leave a part of old Hong Kong that I love, I wonder how much of it will be left when I return.
Other islands, other eras
Old Hong Kong is not all big-city culture. Authentic rural China is just a short boat ride from Central District, with convenient ferry services connecting to Lantau, Lamma, Cheung Chau, Peng Chau and other islands with fishing or farm villages, ancient temples, abandoned villages, mountain paths and vegetable farms. Travelling from Hong Kong to these rural islands is like time travel, a journey from the 21st to the 19th century.
Some of the island harbour ferries are modern, fast and air-conditioned, but romantics may prefer the leisurely rust-buckets that still ply these waters. Those linking Hong Kong Island with densely populated Cheung Chau, for example, are true slow boats to China: Aside from a few modern stores on the waterfront, chaotic Cheung Chau is a traditional fishing village. Motor vehicles are banned, so, aside from bicycles, the only traffic is human. Food stalls and shops selling seafood products and other local delicacies line the narrow alleys. The sharp scent of fish and dried squid lingers in the hot afternoon air.
On the sidewalks, incense sticks smoulder and offerings of oranges and clumps of rice are laid out for the Hungry Ghost or other festivals. The rhythmic banging of meat cleavers hitting heavy wooden chopping blocks comes from an open-air butcher shop where barbecued chickens, ducks and slabs of pork hang from big hooks. Typical island restaurants with concrete floors, green-and-red plastic chairs and strings of bare bulbs hanging along awnings line the harbourfront street. Scrawny chefs in shorts and plastic sandals prepare some of the finest Cantonese seafood in Hong Kong.
Tiny, little-known Peng Chau is even more traditional, and slumberous, than Cheung Chau. In Chinese-village fashion, every building in this warren of narrow concrete lanes is a business of some kind — a store, workshop or restaurant. Within a few minutes’ walk, I pass the Society of Hoi Fung Natives in Peng Chau, several vegetable stalls, a rattan furniture shop, a fishmonger and many shops selling dried fish, seaweed or “100-year-old eggs” (actually, only a few weeks old) the consistency of black, runny cheese.
In the narrow lanes, men sit at knee-high tables playing mah-jong, slapping the green tiles down with great, showy gusto, then mixing them around with a kind of whooshing sound called “washing the tiles.” A faintly medicinal smell seeps from a herbal shop, where huge jars contain all sorts of strange potions, dried mushrooms, antlers, powders and gnarled roots. In the Chiu Kee Porcelain shop, a woman hand-paints a delicate blue rim on small rice bowls. Pots, dishes of all sizes and many shapes, plant holders, tea sets and decorative plates with traditional Chinese patterns and symbols are stacked around her. If Hong Kong’s Western District is a bustling, noisy urban Chinatown, this is an authentic, ancient Chinese village less than an hour from one of the world’s most modern, frantic cities. — G.M.