It has been over forty years since I visited Hong Kong, then as a naval officer on the destroyer USS Braine. At that time there was the popular saying aboard the ship that you “went broke saving money” in Hong Kong. The low prices for tailored clothing, stereos, cameras, jade and ceramics in this tax-free city encouraged you to spend heavily to take advantage of the bargains. That is no longer the case! While Hong Kong still carries a great variety of products, the prices in major shopping areas are similar to the United States, although less expensive than if purchased in Europe.
I don’t want to over-glamorize the bargains of the past. In my Navy days I recall going into a small tailor shop in Kowloon. The owner promptly offered me a drink as he began showing me fabrics. He must have showed me quite a few fabrics, because soon I was being fitted for a Madras sport coat, then popular in the United States. Several days later a package arrived at the ship containing my “tailored” sport coat. I must have been listing to starboard (right) while be measured for the fit, because my right sleeve was about two inches shorter than the left sleeve! Not a great bargain….
This trip, instead of arriving by ship, I landed at Hong Kong’s international airport where I took a swift, modern train to downtown Hong Kong. The harbor is still full of ships and junks, while huge cranes along the docks unload large containers with goods from around the world. When I arrived in downtown Hong Kong, I felt that I had gone back in time, with the familiar crush of people in the narrow streets with shops, banks and bars (The Old China Hand) on either side. Double-deck buses and trams appeared everywhere.
That night I had dinner on the 33rd floor of my hotel and admired Hong Kong’s magnificent skyline of lighted skyscrapers and tall apartment buildings, with the mountains and dark sky providing a stark backdrop. Hong Kong’s reputation for wonderful international cuisine has not changed; meals were as superb as I recalled—just pricier.
I had some banking difficulties in Chengdu, but in dealing with a Hong Kong bank teller who spoke excellent English, the withdrawals and currency exchanges went smoothly. Being a former British colony, I found people in stores fluent in English and quite helpful. Signs referred to trams and lifts in the British manner. I also found more respect for traffic laws, people queuing for buses and less pushing and shoving than on the mainland.
I took the Peak Tram to the top of Victoria Peak, where one enjoys an impressive view of Kowloon, Hong Kong and its large harbor, surrounded by islands and mountains. The cable cars are pulled upward by steel cables at a very steep angle; looking out the windows it appears that buildings lean at about a 45 degrees angle.
I also visited the Buddhist Man Mo Temple, surprisingly dedicated to Man (literature) and Mo (martial arts). Speaking of martial arts, hawkers everywhere sold T-shirts with pictures of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, two Hong Kong icons. Jackie Chan owns a large home overlooking Hong Kong bay near the Stanley Market. I enjoyed a Cantonese-style dim sum lunch of many small dishes aboard a large floating restaurant that could feed 450 people in Aberdeen. I recall eating at a similar large floating restaurant in the l960s, surrounded by fishing boats and junks. Some good things don’t change.
In Stanley I noticed a large, very modern apartment building with a hole through it that must have lost at least four apartments on two floors. I don’t know if this was the advice of a feng shui expert, who recommended this accommodation to appease the spirits. The apartment was propitiously located between a desirable mountain (in mythology, inhabited by a dragon) and the sea. Perhaps the feng shui required such a drastic change so the dragon could reach the sea, thus bringing good fortune to the owner of the apartment building. I’ve heard of such construction changes after accidents in other cities; many Chinese are quite superstitious.
One key change has occurred since my visit in 1964. Since the British turned over Hong Kong to the Chinese government in l997 as a special Administrative Region, the Chinese flag—not the Union Jack—flies everywhere. For 50 years the agreement specified “One country, two systems.” Democratic elections, a vigorous free press and the racetrack still operate in Hong Kong. The transition has been closely watched in Taiwan, but appears to be going smoothly.