Letters From Japan ~ Vol IV ~ Hong Kong


Introduction: I recently began writing letters to send to my friends and family regarding my experiences here in Japan. I've received some encouragement to release the letters net-wide and am doing so in the hopes of providing some entertainment and maybe even some useful information...

The other week I had to go to Hong Kong in order to obtain a work visa since I've been here in Japan officially as only a 90-day tourist. Obtaining the visa entails leaving the country, going to a Japanese consulate to apply, and returning to Japan when (if) the visa is granted. The visa is granted the next day IF everything is in order. Having to leave the country just to get a work visa seems a bit excessive but I wasn't complaining at the opportunity to travel to some place I'd never been before.

I left Tokyo Friday the 15th and returned the 20th for a five night stay in Hong Kong. The plane arrived after nightfall allowing me a stupendous view of Hong Kong from the air. Cluster upon cluster of high-rise apartment and office buildings were lit up like thousands of candles in the night. "So many lights, so many people," were my first thoughts. I didn't really notice it until it was mentioned later but Hong Kong has an ordinance against flashing neon signs. So there are many giant, bright neon signs advertising various companies but none of them are blinking or changing as they do here in Tokyo. And none of the giant television screens that we have here were to be seen.

Upon arrival I met up with an internet friend, Kelvin, whom I had never met in person before. He had offered the use of his couch which I accepted because the company didn't provide me a hotel for the two nights that I didn't need to be in HK for business purposes.

Kelvin and I hit it off quite well. I was surprised by his command of English. He's a native Hong Kong-jin but is completely bilingual although sometimes hard to understand due to the rapidity of his speech. Even more surprising is that he has pretty much an American accent! This, it seems, is due to the fact that much of his English was learned watching American television, proving that sitcoms may actually be good for something besides escapist entertainment. His vocabulary is vast and sometimes esoteric even to the point of knowing the "real" name of the "pound" key found on the telephone keypad! I still managed to teach him a few words, though -- "scuzzy" and "cooties" should be part of everybody's vocabulary.

I knew virtually nothing about Hong Kong and hadn't even seen a map at that point. My host quickly gave me the overall picture which is that Hong Kong consists of Hong Kong Island, several other islands and, to the north, a portion of the mainland which includes the Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territories. Beyond that is the mainland of China. The entire territory only encompasses 400 square miles but contains about 6 million people, most of which reside in less than half of the total area! The territory is actually growing, however, as they are rapidly creating more land through the process of "reclamation" (landfill).

Hong Kong Island is volcanic in nature (long since inactive), consisting of a series of small peaks of about 400-500 meters in height on which are most of Hong Kong's Island's population. At the main waterfront area to the north (aptly named Central) are the majority of buildings and "action." Huge skyscrapers dominate the skyline providing an awe-inspiring cityscape.

South from Central are the "Mid-Levels" which is the region that is elevated on the side of Victoria Peak. This is where the middle to upper class live in Hong Kong's own version of "suburbs." The actual distance from Central to the Mid-Levels is probably only a couple miles but travel to them by car entails traveling several miles via steep, narrow, and winding roads. Due to traffic conditions, a fit person could easily beat the bus from the Mid-Levels to the Central area or vice versa. The trip to/from the Mid-Levels by foot has been eased recently by the construction of The Escalator, which is a multi-million dollar series of escalators running straight up from Central to the top of the Mid-Levels.

I don't want to bore you with too many details so I'll try to stick to the highlights and not relate my experiences from hour to hour. One thing I found surprising is that the American influence is much more widespread than that of the English. Since HK is, after all, a British Territory I was expecting the opposite. But given the fact that America is the world's major consumer market as well as largest producer of television and movie entertainment, it makes sense. British influence seemed to be relegated to remaining legacies of days past such as double-decker busses, left-hand-side driving, and British-sounding street names.

American influence was evident in the advertising of American companies, American fast-food chains and most products were either from or produced for America. American cars were in the minority, however. Most cars seemed to be Japanese or European. In fact, Kelvin, a veritable storehouse of information, told me that Hong Kong contains more Mercedes than all of Germany.

One thing Hong Kong is famous for, with good reason, is shopping. Most everything seems cheap there, especially if one is coming from Tokyo! There are many street vendors selling cheap T-shirts ($1-$3), all kinds of handbags and clothes (I didn't check the prices), silk ties ($1-$8), etc. My best deal, probably, was a good sized athletic bag for about $4. The athletic bag was actually a "not to be sold" J-League (Japanese soccer) promotional item. In general, most everything was at U.S. prices or below. I also bought a pair of Reebok hiking shoes and a pair of dress shoes for about $40 a pair.

Meals are cheap as well. An all-you-can-eat Japanese buffet at the Hilton which included sukiyaki, teriyaki, sashimi, caviar, beef, salads, fruits, desserts, etc. as well as live entertainment cost only about $35 per person. Even McDonalds is around 25% cheaper than U.S. prices with an extra-value meal running about $2.50.

Unsurprisingly, Chinese food was available in abundance and worth the trip. Probably the best dish of the trip was the lemon duck we had in a restaurant in Central. choo oishikatta. At the same meal I took the opportunity to try "bamboo fungus" (I think one could probably come up with a more appetizing translation) which made me think of eating a loufa sponge. It wasn't bad, though.

All kinds of fruits are available in HK and I tried a durian for the first time. It's a very strange fruit, totally out of my realm of experience. The skin is hard and consists of many sharp, pointy protrusions, similar to a pineapple, except much more lethal. My host informed me that in at least one country there's actually a law prohobiting its use as a weapon! Its size is about the size of a pineapple or larger. Cutting it open is usually left to the green- grocer but my fearless friend split through the tough skin with a cleaver and pried it open with little ado.

The inner portion of the durian's skin is similar to that of a pumpkin but its interior is filled with fruit pods, about the size of popsicles. The fruit (the interior of the pods) is the texture of ripe avocado, creamy and smooth, but tastes very unusual. The best way I can think of to describe it is a taste like a combination between banana and almonds. It's not refreshing, more like a dessert and when placed in the freezer for an hour makes a great treat! The fruit has a distinctive, fairly strong smell which I didn't find offensive but apparently many people can't stand it and refuse to go anywhere near it, let alone eat it.

Getting around Hong Kong is pretty easy because English is widely spoken and the place is pretty small anyway. The subway/train system is very simple with only three or four lines. Busses and taxis are abundant and trams are available in Central as well. Transportation is also cheap with subway rides running about $1 or less, busses are less than 50 cents and trams rides are less than a quarter. Even taxis are an inexpensive mode of transportation with a minimum charge of $1.50 and the cost to get most anywhere you'd want to go on the island rarely costing more than $5. Even a 40 minute ride to the airport cost only about $15. A trip like that in Japan would cost well over $100.

The sights I saw included Victoria Peak, 10,000 Buddha's Temple, Lantau Island monastery, Hong Kong Park and Aviary, Hong Kong University, Jade Market, and the new Science Centre.

Victoria Peak affords a nice view of the territory, particularly of Central, Kowloon Peninsula and Victoria Harbour. Visibility was pretty good but a bit hazy from either pollution or humidity. Also got to see the location of an opening scene from Jean-Claude Van Damme's movie, Bloodsport, which is at the top of the peak. In the shopping plaza on the peak, there's a fountain which consists of a large, flat stone surface about 10 square meters out of which shoot a couple dozen or so water spouts at random intervals and in various patterns. The water then runs off the sides. As we watched, Kelvin suggested we run across and the excitement mounted as we contemplated actually performing such a dangerous feat. Sometimes all the fountains were on, guaranteeing one would get soaked but other times it was a hit-or-miss proposition as the fountains came out in random patterns. When we saw what seemed to be a lull, we ran across to the cheers of the crowd and, as luck would have it, avoided getting wet. Feeling a bit conspicuous after that, we made our retreat.

The trip up to the 10,000 Buddha Temple was fairly strenuous as it is mostly uphill. The path was lined with banana trees, bamboo and other plants of unknown variety. The temple actually contains around 13,000 little golden statues of buddha along with a few big ones. The place has some overtones of Christmas because the color scheme is all red and gold and hundreds of replicas are placed on rotating cone- (Christmas tree) shaped racks. There were the usual temple fixtures of fortune tellers, burning incense and souvenir vendors. Visiting temples quickly becomes boring unless one learns about them and can recognize their distinguishing features and the significance of the icons. I haven't reached that point myself but this time was fun for me as I hadn't been to a temple in a couple years.

Hong Kong Park is a fairly large park which is kind of neat because it's like an oasis in the middle of all the high-rises. It contains man-made pools and a waterfall as well as a restaurant, observation tower, and aviary. The aviary is especially interesting as it contains all kinds of bright-colored, exotic-looking birds including the Maroon-Breasted Crown Pigeon whom we just called The Punk Rocker. The park seems to be a favorite wedding spot for taking bridal party pictures as well as for actually tying the knot in the park's chapel. The flora was also exotic (to me) because the Hong Kong climate allows for palm trees and the like.

Lantau Island is a 45-minute ferry ride from Central. The double-decker passenger ferry holds probably a few hundred people and the ride affords a nice view of the water and western side of Hong Kong Island. Lantau doesn't appear to contain much except small villages and the Po Lin Monastery which recently built the world's largest outdoor bronze daibutsu (statue of Buddha) on the 520-meter high Ngong Ping plateau amid beautiful, mountainous scenery. We took a quick tour of the temple grounds and discovered the source of a noise that I had at first taken to be geese but was, in fact, a pool full of frogs. In the pool were cylinders about 10 inches across which vastly amplified the frogs' croaks. Both the monastery and the 10,000 Buddha's temple contained pens of turtles. As to their significance, I have no idea.

I was also treated to a few experiences that not many tourists get. One was a midnight tour of Hong Kong University. HKU is Kelvin's current habitat as he is working on his PhD and as a TA, as well. The nighttime air, warm and still, made the experience a bit surreal... the HKU students still in the computer lab at that late hour working on their projects, the goldfish sleeping in the pond, the scarcity of people there in a city of 6 million, the cat walking the halls of the main building, two other cats fighting. Hard to describe but a memorable, pleasant experience.

Another experience was our trip to Stanley which is on the south side of Hong Kong Island, out in the "country," so to speak. Night had already fallen when we took the 6A bus from Central. The ride took almost an hour but since my companion knew little more than I about the area (he lives on the other side of the island, after all!) we missed the proper stop and took the bus to the end of the line which happens to be Stanley Barracks. At the base, a young British-looking soldier entered the bus and motioned us (the last two passengers) off with a curt nod of his head. The bus rode off into the base leaving us standing there along with the two sentries. So we started hoofing it back the way we came -- along the traffic-less road which was paved but unlit. A few kilometers down we cut across a beach, back up to the road until we were standing in front of a prison. From the guidebook I had, we determined that we were pretty close to our intended destination and walked the rest of the way to Stanley. The famed Stanley market was closed but we found an elegant French restaurant that was worth the trip because the food was delicious. It's a good place to keep in mind if I ever return with that "special someone."

The third experience off the beaten path was our trip to another place in Hong Kong which will remain unnamed so as not to jeopardize one of my friend's thinking spots. This place is open to the public but closes in the evening and, after closing time, is a great place for somebody looking for solitude. We watched the lights go off, the guards call the last warnings and then sat and talked for a while. I was ill-prepared for stealth as half my clothes were light in color and I was carrying my waist pack but there seemed to be little danger of getting caught. When we got up to leave, however, we walked around a turn only to almost walk straight into two guards who were checking the grounds! We turned around and beat a hasty retreat to my friend's alternate exit, a spike-topped metal gate. A quick climb over and we were home free. We couldn't tell if the guards were in pursuit or not -- they may not have seen us. In any case, the incident gave me another story to tell...

So, even with all that, I still managed to fulfill my mission -- in fact, my only reason for being in Hong Kong. Monday I went to the Japanese consulate to file my request for a visa. When they opened at 9:30, there were over a dozen people in line. The process is very similar to the process of going to the Secretary of State or DMV in the U.S. In other words, a major pain the rear. I presented my "Certificate of Eligibility" provided to me by my company only to find that I needed to fill out a Visa Application, provide a copy of the aforementioned certificate and provide another passport photo! I was a bit annoyed at not being prepared for this by my company but filled out the application, went to the 2nd floor to make the photocopy, and then found an instant passport photo machine in the Central subway station. I was then able to submit my papers and my visa (hooray) was available for me first thing the next day.

So that's the story. All in all, the experience was pretty cool.

(C)opyright 1994 Mike Chachich

This material may be freely copied and distributed for non-commercial uses provided this copyright information remains intact. Commercial uses are strictly prohibited without prior written consent. All stated opinions are solely the author's and do not represent those of any other person or organization.

Back to Japan Page Questions or comments?
Sign the guestbook.
Created: Apr 28, 1994
Last Updated: Mar 30, 2005