Thursday, October 09, 2008
The defining moment of the last two weeks in China and Hong Kong came not when I wandered into the Vegas-of-the-Orient (at least as far as the night-time electricity bill goes) that is Shanghai’s Nanjing Lu for the first time; not when we climbed the 88 floors of the deco steel framed Jin Mao tower (with an internal lobby of the same height); not when we indulged ourselves in the cuisines of the world (often at incredibly low tariffs); and not when we watched the Chinese National Day fireworks, all 23 minutes of them, from Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak. Although all those things, and much more, floored me...and I’ll get to some of them, in this post or next, none defined my trip.
No, the defining moment for me was far simpler. It happened outside the little boutique hotel in HK’s Cheung Wan district, on our second to last night, a few days back, when I got to call the police.
It’s a silly thing, but I’ve been building to it for a while. Back in a mall in Kuala Lumpur, hot, bothered and very tired in June, I lost it and threatened to call the police after a dispute with shop staff over an attempt to, how shall we say, rip off a customer. Hell...I wasn’t even the customer, but that’s beside the point. It was an invigorating moment though and many is the time, especially here in Bali, where one would like to ‘call the police’ to sort out the petty retail rip offs that seem to be the norm rather than the exception. Unfortunately in Indonesia, you’re more likely to end up having to pay the cop as well.
I can be as hot tempered as John McCain (but I don’t want to let that irrational volatility near any red nuke-linked buttons...thus putting a gulf between John and myself).
However I finally got my chance. A taxi picked us up from the airport train at Central Station, and, laden with bags from too much shopping in the lanes and markets of Shanghai we stuffed ourselves in, putting bags on laps and the like.
Upon arrival at the hotel, a fairly short distance, he demanded over double the displayed fare...too many bags he said. Since a) he’d not helped us in any way, b) he was demanding monies for our shopping bags and Brigid’s handbag and so on, and c) it ran contrary to the wording on his displayed tariff sticker, we said a resounding no and proffered the correct fare. After starting in English, he started yelling at us in Cantonese and gesturing wildly...refusing to let our bags go. Call the police I screamed…and he did...thinking, and this is conjecture, that we’d happily hand over the rest of the cash to this rather clearly praying-on-tired-tourists rogue instead of facing the cops. Having faced down, once or twice, the cops of Bali and Kings Cross, both of who are philosophically, and in practice, closer to Kowloon’s triads than the Hong Kong force, I wasn’t worried.
And neither should I have been. The clearly bemused officer who turned up a few minutes later was both pleasant and keen to move on. First up he said that the taxi driver spoke no English…which was somewhat odd as he’d clearly had a grasp of the tongue a few minutes back. Secondly he too was confused as to how the guy could charge as he did based on the published tariff but said that it was written so as to be open to some liberal interpretation. We stood our ground, the cop didn’t quite know what to do and little happened until I pulled out a notebook and began to write the driver’s taxi number and name down….this non-English speaking driver seemed to understand the phrase:
I’m going to report you to the Tourism Authority and ask that they revoke your license.
With that, he grabbed the correct money and took off in a hurry, no doubt back to the station looking for less feisty passengers.
But the story does take this somewhere else in that I was / am intrigued by the policeman’s uniform. In 2008 the constabulary of the Special Autonomous Region of The People’s Republic of China that is Hong Kong has a uniform that is, except in detail, exactly the same as the iconic uniform that British colonial police forces wore across the Empire in the last few decades of it’s life.
Which to me really sums up Hong Kong. I absolutely love the place...it’s one of the most exciting, vibrant and cosmopolitan bits of dirt on the planet. So much has been written about HK, there is little I can add beyond the fact that every corner you turn ramps up that excitement just a little in a way I’ve rarely found in a western city, aside from maybe New York, but that’s a big maybe (but found have in the east in a few places…for me I guess it’s those formative years as a toddler in Singapore).
But for all that it’s an oddity stuck in a time warp placed in a bump located in a pimple on the torso of a superpower. I’m sure at many levels things have changed quite dramatically since 1997 but on so many levels they haven’t too. It’s so very hard not to think of Hong Kong as a part, still, of the British raj. It looks, thinks and behaves like a bastion of the old empire, albeit a part that, in 150 years, the British never really quite managed to extract absolutely from China. Take Stanley, on the southern sea facing coast, the name aside, you’re still in the cafés drinking Newcastle Brown Ale on a boardwalk that, if you overlooked a couple of tiny details, like the PLA garrison on the point (much smaller than the British had in the same barracks I’m told) you could be in Brighton.
For the city, a small dot, against the mammothisity (I invented a new word) of China next to it is both futuristic and rooted in a past that is supposed to be long trashed. But I suspect that it’s that past, the British Empire and the stern administration of that from dusty Whitehall, that gave the city it’s future. Singapore, Malaysia and India are evidence too, that for all the uglier side of British colonialism (The Opium Wars for example….you go to war with a country if they resist your attempts to subjugate them all as junkies), they were the least ugly of all the European powers when it came to pillaging. I wandered through, of all things, the Hong Kong Medical Museum (the Sun Yat Sen one I wanted was closed) and in places like that the pride and the sense of lineage with their past, which is uniquely Hong Kong, is fairly evident.
Of course, after wondering about all that then you go back onto the streets and do the things that people do when visiting a place where 70% of the world’s luxury goods are sold…shop, and eat the food….Gunga Din’s in Wyndham Street offered us fantastic, complex, North Indian; and then the next night we stumbled across Cecconi’s in Elgin Street (we were actually looking for the place next door…Brigid wanted to study the walls but we happily walked into the wrong door and sat down anyway), which not only floored us with it’s food (like the Pan seared scallops with cauliflower puree, sundried tomato and chorizo…oh yes…) and service, but actually wiped one of the main courses off the bill at the end as a bonus. Or the food found on the streets or in the MTR stations. As our friend Felix said, in Hong Kong not only do you get what you’ve paid for, but often you get far more than you’ve paid for.
And sometimes you get less
The common wisdom is that Hong Kong is very expensive …they’ve not been to Australia and New Zealand. Maybe it is for the average Hong Kong salary / wage earner but so much was ludicrously inexpensive and little was beyond what you expect to pay in Australasia…even the ever present designer goods (a pair of Armani jeans was about half what you’d pay for a pair of Workshop jeans).
And our hotel room, a tech hotel, no less with every gadget known to mankind, including free blistering fast in-room wi-fi, was about $100 a night…then again if you really want to do things like the shoddy overpriced tourist trap of the Peninsula Hotel’s High Tea, it can get pricey, especially when it includes stale. I guess it’s your call…..
But as a Hong Kong newbie (this was my second visit) I just loved wandering the streets with my mouth open, I loved Hollywood Road with its Chinese antiquities (both real and not) and the Communist memorabilia on Cat Street (mostly as phony as the claim to such in the mainland these days), and walking the god knows many stairs up from Hollywood Rd to the elusive Sun Yat Sen Museum
And I watched the psychological tussle between saving ones physical self and going into just one more shop that Typhoon Hagupit caused amongst so many young Hong Kongers down there in the shopping mayhem and mecca that is the chaos of Causeway Bay.
The shopping generally won out as did the taxi drivers who tossed an extra $20 danger charge onto the fare…I bet that prick from Central Station was there.