I suppose it was when we’d nipped out for a break from watching the Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament and two guys strolled past dressed as bananas, that it struck me that I’m warming to Hong Kong.
I was with the family in the outer concourse of the mid-level west stand at the big rugby stadium, just up the hill from the old racecourse, an oval of green in the middle of Happy Valley.
Supping a bucket-sized Pimms, listening to a jazz band playing just along the way, watching bunches of face-painted people from all over the world wearing wigs and weird clothing, animatedly drinking, talking, laughing and snacking. The Sevens was like nothing I’d experienced before (more of that another time) – but this realisation about Hong Kong was about more than the Sevens.
The west side of the stand looked out on to tall blocks of apartments, bedded on the rock that rises up behind them, some of it covered with scrub and bushes, some of it exposed cliff. Around the buildings, only thirty or so metres above us, soared eagles and buzzards. The sound of parrots squawking from a patch of greenery between buildings down below seemed out of place until one remembered that this was the tropics. Going for a walk in HK is like a trip around the Indoor Plants section of a British garden centre.
I never had any ambitions to see Hong Kong. If son No2 didn’t live and work there, it would still be a mystery. But at that moment, for whatever reason – I’m not ruling out the Pimms entirely – I could see the attraction and it occurred to me that Hong Kongers just about have it all.
They live in apartments, some with views some without and you have to strike a deal quickly in HK – the property market flows fast and smooth. They have scores of reasonably-priced red taxis buzzing about the streets and a spotlessly clean, efficient speedy underground to get them to work or the airport. Failing that they have buses or brilliantly cheap rattly trams that give you a slower view of the world. Those who live in the Mid Levels, above Hong Kong Central even have an escalator which takes them down into Central to work in the mornings and changes direction to take them homeward in the afternoon and evening.
There is every kind of shop, from top international designer names and Shanghai Tang to Ikea local supermarkets and all the dried fish shops you could shake a sturgeon at, plus cut-price markets where cheap is often cheerful and actually very worthwhile. The best dim sum is served in City Hall with beneath sparkling chandeliers, on snowy white tablecloths where the dishes are wheeled over to the tables so you can choose what you like from an array of food just out of the steamer or the wok. Afternoon tea is a colonial custom that continues in HK.
There is a seemingly endless variety of restaurants offering every Chinese regional food you could ask for plus Mongolian, Italian, Vietnamese, Belgian. I didn’t personally see any Mexican restaurants but I wouldn’t rule them out either. There are night clubs and chic bars to cater for the executives who don’t finish work until 2am, then meet colleagues for a drink before going home at 3 or 4 and starting again at 8am the next day. Galleries and music venues are part of a vibrant arts scene and racing – by far the most popular sport – is attended by thousands every week at Sha Tin racecourse across the water and the smaller older-established Happy Valley racecourse . Every punter dollar goes to the non-profit making Jockey Club which ploughs money back into community projects including housing.
Cycling doesn’t look very feasible in the packed, fast-moving multi-lane confusing world of Central but across the water in the New Territories, it’s a different more rural story. For the psycho climbers there is always the route which snakes up and up from Central via 1 in 5 gradients to the Peak itself. The local cycling club runs an annual Hill Climb to the Peak – just a shame no-one seems to have filmed it as it’s the only way I’m ever going to see it!
There are yacht clubs from the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club to the most modest hobie-sailing club but my favourite vessels, constantly plying the waters from Victoria Dock in the shadow of great hulking white cruiseships, are the Star Ferries. Positively the best way to see Hong Kong is from the lower deck of a Star Ferry, close to the choppy grey waters, with the locals, to whom a journey across the water is as routine as breathing.
It’s not just the soaring metropolis of finance and corporate business that I imagined either – because beyond the glossy shiny architecture, tropical greenery is never far away. Yes many of the slopes above residential areas and pathways have been sprayed with concrete – typhoon damage limitation – but trees and bushes grow through gaps intentionally left for them and there are country parks and acres of unspoilt wilderness where rare orchids other wildflowers, songbirds, snakes and other wildlife thrives.
Walk the Dragon’s Back and you might find yourself alone on the spine of the hills of Hong Kong buffeted by winds with views of both sides of Hong Kong island and the beautiful beaches of the south, where swimmers are protected with shark netting across the entrance of the bay but in the surfing bay of Shek O you take your chances. For me, the town of Stanley is all about the market and stocking up on great jewellery and goods to take home for friends but it’s also retains that colonial feel with a promenade and waterfront cafes where you can sit and admire the elegant ironwork of Blake Pier, which was originally in Central but moved to Stanley and rebuilt in 2006.
The Peak tram – which transports people up to Victoria Peak where there are, if you’re lucky with the weather, superb views over Central and across to Kowloon and the mountains beyond – is maintained in, appropriately, peak condition. Opened in 1888 it was the first cable fenicular railway in Asia. Built to serve the families living in beautiful colonial mansions on The Peak, these days it takes mostly tourists to enjoy the views.
The only thing that living in Hong Kong requires is wealth; quite a lot of it, although the graduate twenty-something friends of son #2 seem to get by fine without super-high-flying jobs.
Where there is high pay, there is hard work. Leaving work at 7.30pm at the earliest and staying on at the office until 1 or 2am isn’t uncommon. I’m told that Chinese etiquette requires one not to leave work before the boss. It’s a work hard, play hard world. Not sure that would be my scene as a day-to-day thing, but as a visitor, it’s a buzzy, remarkable place to explore.