The best of East and West
By Mateen Kaul
TERRIFIED screams pierce the air as the roller coaster turns sharply and ascends into an inverted loop. The coaster comes out of the loop and straightens, and there is nervous laughter as an image of being suspended upside down hundreds of feet above the ocean crystallises in the mind. Before the terror of that image takes hold, the coaster ascends into another inverted loop, accompanied by more screaming. It is all over in less than a minute, and the passengers, shaken but glad to have survived, step out of their seats with wide grins on their faces. They have just conquered The Dragon, the meanest ride in Ocean Park.
I am here on a weekday - accompanied by two other Pakistani journalists on a trip sponsored by Cathay Pacific and the Hong Kong Tourism Board - but the park is still very busy. Earlier, in the Lowland section of the park, we visited Jia Jia and An An, two giant pandas donated by China in 1999. The pandas live in luxury in an air-conditioned building. Jia Jia, the female panda, slept contentedly in her section (pandas are not very sociable, preferring to live alone), while An An, the male, chowed down on bamboo shoots flown in from China (pandas spend about 14 hours a day eating), oblivious to the cameras trained on him by snap-happy tourists. The pandas looked unnervingly fake, as if I had believed they only existed on television or in pictures. They were undeniably cute though.
The other highlight of the Lowland section was a tropical bird show. Exotic flyers swooped past the audience in a cosy arena to show off their colourful plumage, or performed various tricks to the delighted squeals of toddlers.
A serene eight-minute cable-car ride takes us to the Headland, where I wander off towards the rides while my colleagues decide to watch clever dolphins jumping through hoops. We also visited a shark tank and the Atoll Reef aquarium – a huge tank on four levels that is home to 2,000 fish of 280 species. I walked into a giant aviary to mix with all sorts of birds as they went about their business. One exotically-named pheasant eyed the exit doors as I approached, perhaps planning to make a break for it as I left, but otherwise the birds were impeccably behaved. There was much else to see at the park, but four hours was not enough time to see it all. Incidentally, Ocean Park will have serious competition in Hong Kong when Disney opens its theme park there in October.
AT night, we drive to Victoria Peak, the highest vantage point in Hong Kong (except for some of the tallest skyscrapers). Staring down from up there at the bright lights of the business district is like looking into a volcano.
We dine at Café Deco, a trendy restaurant that offers a wide variety of food, an accomplished jazz band and gorgeous views. I am happy with my starter of soft-shell crab sushi with roe and avocado, followed by a thin salami pizza.
We take a scenic tram ride down from Victoria Peak, which, incidentally, is the only place in Hong Kong you will see actual houses rather than apartment buildings.
Next stop is the night market at Mongkok, a kind of Chinese Landaa Bazaar. This is a great place to buy cheap clothes (all fake, but of decent quality). Bargaining is expected. Nearby are dozens of electronics stores. Beware of buying anything too expensive unless the shop displays a QTS (Quality Tourism Services) sticker, a guarantee from the Tourism Board that the shop sells genuine goods.
Another good cheap shopping market is in Stanley, a district near sandy beaches in the south of the island. The market teems with Western tourists looking for cheap souvenirs, of which there are plenty. After a spot of shopping, we have shrimp cakes and crab curry at a Thai restaurant overlooking the sea.
The sparse and serene surroundings of Stanley are completely in contrast to the human gridlock around Times Square, a huge 11-storey shopping mall. Here we mix with crowds of shoppers, office employees just getting off work and hordes of tourists. They are easy to distinguish. The native glides effortlessly through the crowds, often staring at the screen of his mobile phone, earpiece in place. The Chinese tourists have less adventurous haircuts and look less comfortable in the mass of humanity.
There are similar scenes on Paterson Street, which houses outlets of Hong Kong’s best homegrown designers. Their clothes are trendy and much cheaper than the international fashion labels.
ON our last night in Hong Kong, we sit in a bar in Lan Kwai Fong, which consists of a few streets housing rows of bars and clubs. The trendiest clubs do not advertise, but are distinguished by two bouncers standing outside an innocuous-looking door. Michael, our tour guide me, tells me that on weekends, the roads are closed to vehicles because the rush of people inevitably spills out of the bars and onto the streets.
The relative calm of a Thursday night allows us to observe the punters at ease. Three brunettes in short dresses stumble out of bar across the street. “They are Chinese,” Michael says with conviction. “They are not wearing enough clothes to be natives.”
You would certainly see more scandalous clothes at clubs in Europe or America. Hong Kong’s colonial past – it was ruled by the British for over 150 years – had a major influence on its people. It gave them a decent system of administration that allowed them to focus on making money. It also opened them to Western cultural influences, which gave the city its ultra modern feel and fashion consciousness. But at its core, Hong Kong society has maintained its Chinese cultural identity and traditions, in many ways giving it the best of both worlds. It is this that makes Hong Kong a must for any traveller.
This is the final article of a two-part series.