On our penultimate day in Hong Kong I was lucky enough to have the afternoon off, so I got a taxi back to Kowloon as I had a lot more exploring to do. I started at the Jade Market off Kansu Street, the day-version of Temple Night Market. Don’t go here for jade unless you’re aiming for cheap and cheerful over quality, but it’s good for traditional snuff bottles, stone pendants and ornaments etc. They do overcharge, or try to, but it’s still fairly reasonable compared to the UK even with a 200% mark-up, so if you’re not a fan of haggling you can still pick up affordable souvenirs. The conversion rate can be confusing though, so just be careful they don’t add on an extra zero when typing the price into a calculator for you, taking £7.50 up to £75 for example… “Oh sorry, mistake” will get the price back to normal if you point it out.
I then headed North to Public Square Street, as I was curious about the Tin Hau Temple marked on the map there.
Apparently the square used to directly face the Yau Ma Tei waterfront in the late 19th century, but it is now almost three kilometers from the shore as a result of land reclamation. Which seems a shame to me, denying the temple of its marine vista and influences (I’m particularly enamoured of a certain church in Cornwall thanks to its waterside location), but Hong Kong and Kowloon are woefully short of land on which to build. In front of the temple and enclosed by reposing banyan trees is the Yau Ma Tei Community Centre Rest Garden. It is meant as a gathering place for senior citizens, though I saw people of all ages enjoying the peace and quiet as they dozed on benches, or ate packed lunches whilst contemplating the trees.
The temple is free to enter, the only stipulation being that you refrain from photographing worshippers and staff going about their work. There were perhaps a handful of people inside when I visited, half of whom were tourists like me, so this wasn’t a difficult rule to abide to. It is a small building, a little like a renaissance theatre in that the centre of the roof is open to the elements and the walkways surrounding it therefore cast into exotic shadows. As a willing spectator you are simultaneously a part of the spectacle and separate from it, until you stand or kneel before an altar where you are cast into a unifying glow of light. Unlike Buddhist or Taoist temples and monasteries, Chinese temples are built to worship Shenism, the Chinese folk religion, where people revere nature gods and ancestors.
Huge, richly-hued incense-coils are suspended from the ceiling. Golden trays hang beneath each to catch the falling ash, and inscribed prayer cards laconically rotate at the centre of each spiral.
There are also a number of different altars at which to worship, though I observed supplicants moving between these in an incense-fuelled circuit, so suspect prayers to each and every deity are more likely to yield results.
This guy was my favourite
In addition to statues of the gods, the Tin Hau temple was also adorned with walls of photos of the worshippers’ ancestors
I spent as long as I could here, without wanting to intrude. The atmosphere was peaceful, but also somehow intense. Clouds of incense drifted through the air, giving you the faintly surreal sense of having stepped into another world or plane, and the gentle ‘shhh’ of ash falling to the ground like snow was one of the few sounds to break the silence.
When I finally emerged back into the sunlight I decided to follow Shanghai Street, and weave my way South to the Star Ferry pier via Kowloon Park.
I was quite pleased to capture this photo, as I’d read about these women in a guide-book! They look like they’re pushing carts of rubbish around the city, but in actual fact are often transporting mail, machinery and fresh produce as well as recycling and… yes, actual rubbish. Apparently they’re very efficient, and effective at traversing the steep and narrow backstreets. The bright-blue medical scrubs are a little alarming at first though, in conjunction with air-pollution masks and bags containing who knows what (or who)
A typical Hong Kong skyline, populated as much by jungle as by skyscrapers. Vegetation is everywhere here and, rather than being planted in neat lines as in other cities, resembles more a perpetual invasion. Trees grow out of cracks in the buildings, and bougainvillea suspend umbrellas of delicate, fuchsia lanterns like tissue-paper origami above walkways.
After perhaps 15-20 mins of ambling through the crowds, a few wrong turns and some mimed directions from non-plussed, non-English speaking locals, I found it. Compared to the bustle of the streets Kowloon Park is a verdant oasis, in a way that London’s parks never quite manage.
The usual cyclists and joggers (or more serious ‘runners’ in their neon lycra) were absent, contributing to the peaceful atmosphere. There were plenty of people exercising, but they wore normal clothing in muted shades of navy, black and cream, stretched against the railings with calm expressions rather than histrionic grunts aimed to garner attention, and either jogged quietly or made use of the exercise equipment.
Scattered across the park is a series of climbing frames, monkey bars and balancing poles, NOT it seems aimed at children, but in fact for the very-lucky adults to use, turning the entire area into one big adventure playground. I am very jealous of this, as these days I have to borrow a child to be allowed into a play-park, which quite frankly is one of the greatest disappointments of adulthood. I still want a tree house. And a swing please. In fact I’m planning an all-out Robin Hood Prince of Thieves style forest-village (you never know when you’ll need it – skip to 1.40), when Tom and I finally buy our own place.
I may or may… not… have told him this. I’m sure he’ll come round to the idea.
Meandering steadily upwards along tiered paths I came across an aviary of tropical birds, and then spotted a flock of flamingoes below.
There was a lot more to see but I had to get back by this point, so trotted off down Kowloon Park Drive to the Star Ferry pier, past huge designer stores with floodlit windows and gallery-like displays. As I mentioned before this ferry really is incredibly easy to use (insert coins or notes into machine, and your change plus a token for the barriers instantly rattles back out at you), and costs a mere 29 pence. It also provides the best views of Hong Kong, returning via the sea and weaving in and out of other boats.
Tom and I had a rather special dinner-date planned, as we’d been invited to use Duddells, a private member’s club not far from our hotel.
Any excuse to wear this Diane von Furstenberg dress
Our taxi dropped us off at the top of a dilapidated looking side-street, and we made our way somewhat trepidatiously along it until we found the entrance. Inside of course it was a different story, and the external camouflage gave way to a leafy, roof-top bar and crisp, light-filled restaurant.
We were recommended cocktails based on our favourite spirits, and the bar’s erm… mixologist? came over to explain the ingredients in each in detail. He was very nice. Plus mine had a scented feather on it, which pleased me no end.
The grin of a girl with a feather in her drink
After an hour of chatting beneath the stars (you can’t see them obviously because of the light-pollution, but they are there) we headed back downstairs to the restaurant. The maitre d’ was keen to recommend our courses, which I cautiously acceded to once I’d explained what I could/ couldn’t eat (no red meat, no poultry, no fish, only seafood). I’m not sure this was entirely grasped, as Tom was brought enough meat dishes to feed three people, with – we realised – the expectation that I would be able to share them, but the courses specifically recommended for me were fantastic.
For my main, the ‘Braised Imperial Bird’s Nest with Fresh Crab Meat’ was suggested for me. Now, I wouldn’t have chosen bird-saliva soup on my own, but when in China… this is about as adventurous as I’m going to go in culinary terms (technically it’s not meat either, so I can hardly complain), so I thought I may as well pluck up the courage to try it. Edible bird’s-nests are a Chinese delicacy due to their rarity, and are literally nests constructed by swiftlets from solidified saliva. They’re harvested from huge caves, and are apparently the most expensive animal product consumed by humans. They’ve been used in Chinese cooking for over 400 years, typically softened into faintly sweet-flavoured, gelatinous strands and added to soup.
I did actually enjoy it, and it was amazing to have the opportunity to try something I’ve read about but never actually seen served in a restaurant before. I probably wouldn’t order it again, as although there were no prices on the menu I suspect it equated to at least a third of the total bill (which was a lot, though was very generously paid-for by our clients without our realising at the time), but I would recommend it.
Just enough time for a quick glass of champagne in The Wing, Cathay’s Business/ First Class lounge
The next morning we returned to London, after teaching one final lesson on top of Victoria Peak. This time, the flight was divine, as we were flown back in Cathay Pacific’s Business Class. Instead of rows of chairs, each passenger has their own little booth, angled away from the others and separated in the central aisle by an actual wall. The chairs slide forward and then recline until they are entirely horizontal, and everything is ergonomically designed to perfection. Every time you go to lean an arm or elbow on something, there is an ideally angled ledge or cushion waiting for it. The food was no better than in Economy, simply more fancily presented, but you don’t fly for the food do you, you fly for the reclining chair. Never again Economy, your days of torturing me are over.
I didn’t take the above photo, I had to steal it from the internet, as I got so excited I forgot to take proper pictures
We both enjoyed Hong Kong immensely, and there were even discussions about the possibility of moving there in the future. I don’t know if I could give up the British seasons though… it’s so nice to have four distinctive parts to the year rather than just ‘hot’ and ‘too hot’.
There will certainly be a return visit though, next time for a holiday, so any recommendations on what to do are very welcome.
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