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Time For Some Culture In Hong Kong, But Not What You Expect

View of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak
Chuck Tue, 2017-02-28 23:35

Does going to Hong Kong mean we can say we’ve been to China?

A while back we decided that “going to” a country requires, among a few other qualifications, that we have a stamp in our passports from that country. This means, for example, that we can’t claim to have been to Japan since we only connected through the Tokyo airport on our way to the Philippines.

But even though we spent four nights in Hong Kong and trekked around plenty of the city’s sights, we don’t have a stamp from China in our passports. The reasons for this go back a century and a half to Hong Kong’s days as a British colony, but that’s a story for another blog. Today, Hong Kong is governed by China as a “Special Administrative Region”, militarily defended and represented diplomatically by China but otherwise left alone. What this means to travelers is that you don’t have to have a Chinese visa to visit Hong Kong: when you arrive, you’ll get a visitor’s permit on a small piece of paper that will be collected from you when you leave (if you lose it, this is a great dishonor upon your family).

So in our travel logs, Hong Kong counts as a completely separate “been to”. We have been to Hong Kong; one day, we’ll also go to China. This is entirely fair, since Hong Kong is a British-flavored blend of east and west. It wouldn’t be fair to say we’ve been to China, no more than going to Las Vegas qualifies someone to say they’ve been to the USA. In fact, I suggest the Trump administration declare Las Vegas a Special Administrative Region and build a wall around it, for which—of course—the casinos can pay.

Our description of Hong Kong might sound a little like our description of Singapore. But the latter feels more sedate, more laid back, cleaner, and, well, more British. Hong Kong is busy, frenetic, and generally more crazy than Singapore.

To get a feel for Hong Kong, imagine yourself walking against a sea of a few million people, mostly Asian and every single one of them staring down into their phones but somehow managing not to run into one another. You—an outsider—don’t have the secret of how to avoid getting run into, so you wind up dodging left and right, as if in a human edition of Frogger. You get really adept at it, actually.

The cellular networks here must be something else to accommodate this sort of digital volume. You’ll assume the Hong Kongers (or Hong Kongians or whatever natives of Hong Kong are called) are all working on important stuff. But when I would catch a glimpse of their iPhone and Samsung screens, it seemed they were usually playing games: massively multiplayer phone games while unwittingly engaging in massively multiplayer human Frogger.

If you’re not a people person, Hong Kong will get under your skin.

Fortunately for us, we’re pretty good people persons (or people people if you prefer). Still, we’ve been traveling pretty intensely the last few weeks and by the time we hit Hong Kong we were ready for a change of cultural pace. If we had figured this would be our only time ever in Hong Kong, our attitude might have been different. But we assume we will return, especially since Hong Kong is a major transportation hub for all of Asia. Notwithstanding our unexpected demise, it’s almost inevitable we’ll return to Hong Kong. And it’s then that we will be more immersive in Hong Kong culture.

This time around, we needed some American culture. We needed something that didn’t require much thought or research or contemplation. We needed pre-packaged, homogenized, easy, and shrink-wrapped fun. In short, we needed some Disney time. Fortunately for us, Hong Kong Disneyland more than adequately fit the bill, and even more fortunately for us, our wonderful, extra-special daughter managed to send us tickets.

Hong Kong Disneyland

Hong Kong Disneyland
Top: Hong Kong Disneyland's Castle; Bottom: Mystic Manor, The Coolest Ride Disney Has Ever Created

 

We spent one full day at Hong Kong Disneyland, walking from ride to ride with ridiculous grins on our faces, holding and swinging hands like we were on a first date. It was great. It was especially great since it seemed we left the millions of Hong Kongians back downtown. We rarely had to wait more than 10 minutes in line for a ride, and we rode our favorite rides a couple of times each. The only stuff we missed were a couple of shows we had decided were optional anyway.

It’s the small differences that are particularly interesting. Space Mountain here is called Hyperspace Mountain and it’s entirely Star Wars themed. The castle (compared to Walt Disney World in Florida, anyway) is TINY (we’ve heard the same said of the castle in the original Disneyland in California, but it’s hard to imagine the castle getting any smaller than the one in Hong Kong). Tom Sawyer’s Island, the Swiss Family Treehouse, and the Jungle Cruise (Florida style) are all combined into a single site at Hong Kong Disneyland and the tree house updated to be Tarzan’s Treehouse. Disneyfied Asian food is served at snack carts throughout the park (but we drew the line at “Korean Squid”, jerkey-like fish pressed into pancake shapes).

If you’re a Disney fan and considering a visit to Hong Kong Disneyland, you won’t be disappointed. But there’s one can’t-miss ride: Mystic Manor. Sensitive to Asian religious beliefs concerning ghosts and the afterlife, a Haunted Mansion was a no-go. Instead, the Imagineers came up with a totally new concept and this old pair of Disney fans from way back think it might just be the best ride Disney has ever created. The concept is that riders are touring the collection of Lord Henry Mystic (a nod to Hong Kong’s British colonial history) and his monkey, Albert, inadvertently lets loose the magic of a new artifact, a music box. The entire manor and all its artifacts come to life. The 6-passenger cars are high-tech magnetic carts that glide along, computer-controlled, on a trackless path through the manor in sometimes complex and confusing patterns through a wild and crazy array of visually fantastic displays. It is, simply put, awesome. We rode it three times.

We didn’t actually skip all native Hong Kong cultural sites in favor of going to Hong Kong Disneyland. Our first day in Hong Kong we took the subway to the north end of the city and spent a few hours at the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery. You climb a steep hill lined with hundreds of life-size gold (colored) Buddhas, each one different and interesting. At the top is the monastery complex, the center of which is a temple—you guessed it—featuring ten thousand Buddhas (actually more than twelve thousand). The monastery also offers great views of the city below.

Ten Thousand Buddhas Temple, Hong Kong

Ten Thousand Buddhas Temple, Hong Kong

Ten Thousand Buddhas Temple, Hong Kong

Ten Thousand Buddhas Temple, Hong Kong

Ten Thousand Buddhas Temple, Hong Kong
Above: Scenes from the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery

 

Speaking of great views, we also took the famed Star Ferry across Victoria Harbor and rode the Peak Tramway to the top of Victoria Peak. It was one of our worst tourist experiences ever. Don’t go on a busy day. Just don’t do it. We went on a Saturday (perhaps a weekday is better), and we learned later it was a holiday weekend. If there is a crowd buying tickets, turn and run away as if chased by an angry Bruce Lee. Otherwise you will be jammed like sardines into a waiting queue, you’ll have 50/50 chances of whether you’ll get to sit on the ride up, and at the top you are deposited into…wait for it…a mall. Yes, a shopping mall complete with a Bubba Gump Shrimp Company restaurant (which is actually where we ate lunch) and a Hard Rock gift shop. Sure, you get to soak in some great views, but just to maintain our sanity we left the mall and took a nice walk along the hillside, away from the billion or so other people staring into their phones and playing games. We sure missed Disneyland that day.

Lastly, and well worth the mention, we visited another Buddhist temple called the Man Mo temple. This unassuming temple of three pavilions had the feel of a real-life, active place of worship. Dozens of spiraled coils of incense fill the place with pleasant smoke, while the faithful, coming and going in a regular stream, add to the smoke by lighting and praying with incense sticks. The incense is so intense, we’ve smelled like smoke for three days now. If there was any Hong Kong experience that could have been more anti-Disney and more satisfying than our trip to Victoria Peak as the Man Mo Temple, I can’t think of what it might have been. So in that regard, we had a very balanced visit to Hong Kong.

Man Mo Temple, Hong Kong

Man Mo Temple, Hong Kong
Top: Entrance To The Man Mo Temple; Bottom: The Frangrantly Smoky Man Mo Temple

 

Junk boat in Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong