Monday, April 18, 2011

Changes in Latitudes and Attitudes

It's amazing what a difference a change in latitude can make.  Hong Kong is nine degrees north of Bangkok and 1,100 miles away, a two-and-a-half-hour trip on no-frills Asia Air.  They're both major Asian cities (Hong Kong has six million people, a million less than the larger Thai capital).  But oh, what a change in attitude!  Hong Kong is certainly the New York City of the Far East, a frenetic place where you have to be more aggressive, less polite, and shout louder to make an impact.  The inhabitants of this archipelago metropolis, called "Fragrant Harbour" by the original Cantonese for the pervasive scent of sandalwood incense, walk too fast and smile too little.  Like Manhattan, though, it's an exciting city to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.

In earlier retirement years, I traveled extensively, to Mexico and Guatemala, Europe, Argentina, and to India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Cambodia.  Despite going on several package tours and attending language schools, I abhorred the epithet "tourist" and thought of myself more as a traveler and even explorer. Daniel J. Boorstin explains the distinction:
The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes "sightseeing."
Mass production in the late industrial age, according to Paul Fussill, has "generated its own travel-spawn, tourism, which is to travel as plastic is to wood. If travel is mysterious, even miraculous, and often lonely and frightening, tourism is commonsensical, utilitarian, safe, and social." As a tourist, Fussell says,
you go not where your own curiosity beckons but where the industry decrees you shall go. Tourism soothes, shielding you from the shocks of novelty and menace, confirming your prior view of the world rather than shaking it up. It obliges you not just to behold conventional things but to behold them in the approved conventional way.
A previous travel companion once disparaged my use of Lonely Planet as a travel guide, complained that all the locations we visited had been ruined by the tourists, and lamented the lack of cheap backpacker hostels since the baby boomers had grown up.  I withered under her critique, just as I had when another girlfriend had once called me "conventional."  We hate to have our bubbles burst.

Now that I am a certified expat, living a glamorous and romantic life in the mysterious Orient, I should no longer feel the need to defend myself.  Since settling down in Thailand, though, I've only managed a couple of trips to Laos (not counting last winter's forced excursion to California), in addition to in-country travel. Nan and I have visited numerous islands, but this was our first trip together out of the country.  Unlike me, she is unencumbered by the need to be innovative and adventurous.  For weeks she has been squealing happily in anticipation of our journey.

We  planned our five-day Hong Kong getaway to coincide with the three days of Songkran, Thailand's New Year holiday when Buddha images are bathed and water-fight madness reigns in the streets.  She had the week off from work and school. We packed coats and sweaters and left shorts and flip-flops behind because Hong Kong was supposed to be ten degrees cooler and more formal.  Our flight landed at Chep Lak Kop airport on the island of Landau where we bought Octopus cards (like the Oyster card I got in London) to fund our transportation, and took the sleek and fast Airport Express to Kowloon.  A short taxi ride brought us to The Minden which came highly recommended ("almost boutque") by LP.  Our 18th floor room had a view of the short street for which the hotel was named and the string of singles bars opposite from which late at night we could hear happy/angry shouts.  A block away were the crowded sidewalks and neon jungle of Nathan Road, and a convenient MRT station.  We were within walking distance of the Star Ferry dock and the Tsim Sha Tsui East Promenade with its spectacular views of Hong Kong Island across Victoria Harbor (only San Francisco Bay comes close to this Kodak vantage point).

Our three-day itinerary was basic:  Tour Hong Kong, see Disneyland, and visit Macau.  You couldn't get much more touristy than that, but I also hoped to be able to gain some wisdom and take some insights away.  Nan wanted to eat congee and noodles, check out women's fashions and shop for clothes and makeup.  Her goals were more easily obtained.

My expectations of Hong Kong were conditioned by movies and books, James Clavell's Tai-Pan and Noble House, and William Holden as the archetypal westerner smitten by beautiful Asian women in "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing" and "The World of Suzie Wong."  On a hazy morning we rode across the harbor in an almost empty Star Ferry boat  and walked around the glass skyscrapers and through the parks in the central business district surrounded by too many men in suits and hundreds of cops in blue shirts monitoring a noisy demonstration outside the Legislative Council building (it's purpose was impossible to determine).  We got a splendid view from the 43rd floor of the IM Pei-designed Bank of China building and toured a few floors of the spacious HSBC Bank headquarters designed by Sir Norman Foster where we patted the two battled-scarred bronze lions in front.  In St. John's Cathedral we heard an alto saxophonist play Bach's "Air for G String in D." We took the famous Peak Tram to the top of the hill, soaked up the views, and ate a ridiculously expensive lunch at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company at the top of Peak Tower.  Back on the Kowloon side, we traveled by MRT to the cheap shopping district of Mong Kok where Nan found bargains in a tiny mall crammed with clothing stalls (Hong Kong girls she found favor leg warmers, which I'd call tights, and boots).  At dusk we strolled the busy waterfront Promenade where the Avenue of the Stars honors the Hong Kong film industry with pavement plaques (we found Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-fat).  The view from there of some of the city's more than 7,000 skyscrapers was awesome, even more so after dark when the son et lumiére "Symphony of the Stars" show began, a coordinated display of lights on both sides of the harbor.  From there we took the MRT to the Temple Street Night Market in Yau Ma Tei which contained the kind of junk the Chinese are so good at exporting west, and had a deliciously cheap dinner at a congee and noodles shop nestled among a number of porno shops and nudie bars.

I quickly learned that my 71-year-old body is no longer adept at exploring a city by walking without some pain.  The next day was easier.  I've been going to Disneylands in California and Florida for over fifty years, but it was all new to Nan.  Opened five years ago (and celebrating it), Hong Kong's version is on Lantau island near the airport, easily reached by MRT and a special connecting train equipped with mouse-shaped windows and strap hangers.  The park is smaller than those in the U.S., France and Japan (Shanghai opens in 2014), and the all-day ticket at $67 is relatively cheap.  On a bright sunny day (we had little use for the cold weather clothes we'd brought), crowds were sparse and there was no waiting for Space Mountain.  We went on the Jungle River Cruise, the Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters ride and sang along with "It's a Small World."  We met Snow White and one of her dwarves, watched the afternoon parade, ate a tasty Asian-themed lunch at the River View Cafe in Adventureland, and took lots of photos.  Sure, it's a manufactured experience, but we had fun anyway.

Our third excursion was to Macau.  Although China took over the Portuguese territory in 1999, it still required getting our passports stamped when leaving Hong Kong and again on entering Macau after the hour's ferry ride (packed on the way over by a tour group of elderly Chinese wearing red Nike hats).  I didn't know what to expect other than the famous ruins of St. Paul's, the first Christian church in Asia.  We signed up for a tour around the island aboard a double-decker bus with an open top.  Macau is full of gigantic hotels and gambling casinos (which we avoided like the plague) and apparently has left Las Vegas behind in the dust as a paradise for punters.  We drove by the graceful Kwan Yin statue, which resembles the Virgin Mary, and past the Macao Tower where people were preparing to bungee jump, and around the corner of the main island near the A-Ma temple dedicated to the  goddess of the city.  We could get on and off the bus route and I chose the wrong stop, far from the old quarter of Macau.  Competency fears bubbled up.  Nan quickly learned of a city bus that would take us there, but I was stubborn.  "You never listen to me," she said.  I finally relented, guilty, knowing she was right as a tried to be a macho man even in old age.  A short while later we found St. Paul's surrounded by hundreds of tourists gathered at the site all the guide books recommended.  The only adventure was in discovering the best camera angle.  "Mai pen rai," as we say in Thailand.  We enjoyed the no-doubt reconstructed Portuguese architecture and strolled the cobblestone streets, flanked by McDonald's on one side and Starbuck's on the other.  In a lovely second floor restaurant, we enjoyed a delicious meal of Portuguese-influenced Macanese cuisine, codfish soup in a bowl of bread for Nan and African chicken for me.  Afterwards, we bought a dozen egg tarts, ignoring the greasy meat jerky on sale everywhere, before heading back to Hong Kong.

Our hotel was on a street behind the infamous Chungking Mansions which Wong Kar-wai fictionalized in his film, "Chungking Express."  Our friend Janet stays there but thought it a little rough for Nan.  The neighborhood was filled with Indians, Arabs and Africans, with numerous men, in groups or singly, standing around doing nothing.  It was vaguely menacing.  We sought shelter in the elegant new ISquare Mall across the street and had another delicious congee and noodles dinner in the aptly named restaurant, Praise House Congee & Noodles.  Afterwards we decided against seeing the new 3-D soft porn film, "Sex and Zen" (tour buses from the mainland were coming over to view a film the Chinese would ban).  Walking the sidewalks was scary.  In Bangkok people flow smoothly but in Kowloon we were jostled, nudged and pushed.  Pedestrians glowered when you caught their eye.  It was not cold but we were no longer in the tropics.  "Indolent" is not a word you could use to describe the Hong Kong Chinese.

After living in Thailand for over three years, perhaps I'm inoculated against the exotic.   An American or a European leaving home for the first time would probably experience the delicious disorientation I felt on disembarking in Bangkok (of course some first-timers never recover their balance and flee back to the certainties of home).  What I noticed were similarities, the ubiquitous brand names and the omnipresent technologies.  Being a minority amongst Asian faces was nothing new.  It was the too-loud voices and the unsmiling waiters and waitresses that jarred.  The surfaces of Hong Kong are clean and modern but you can find the dirt if you look, just like in Bangkok.  Pico Iyer, in an excellent essay on "Why We Travel," writes that the real distinction is not between traveler and tourist but "between those who leave their assumptions at home, and those who don't."  A tourist is one who complains, "Nothing here is the way it is at home," and a traveler grumbles, "Everything here is the same as it is in..." wherever they're from.  For me, Hong Kong was both different and similar.  Iyer also says that "every trip to a foreign country can be a love affair, where you're left puzzling over who you are and whom you've fallen in love with."  What our getaway to Hong Kong helped me realize is how much I love Bangkok and Thailand.

1 comment:

Sam said...

I'm glad the latitude didn't induce lassitude.