inside thoughts on China and beyond

Hong Kong Hassle (HK.1)

Hong KongHong Kong has always been an intriguing city. With its rich colonial history, its endless skyscrapers and neon signs, its ever present hilltops and, of course, the dizzying busyness between Kowloon Bay and Victoria Harbour, it was the Crown Jewel of the British Empire for most of the last a century. It was the optimum of opportunities for daring entrepreneurs and the dream of many. It was the ultimate sensation of the Orient. Hong Kong has, as Prince Charles once said, “created one of the most successful societies on Earth.” Hong Kong, in short, is a place you had to have seen before you died. But for all its magic, I tell you, never go there after Chiang Mai.

It should have been so simple: leave my hotel in Chiang Mai to catch an early Air Asia flight for Hong Kong. Instead, I had one of those remarkable humbling mornings where God seemed determined to teach me patience and kindness. And really, I am always very willing to learn, but just don’t do this to me when I’m in a hurry!

It started with the taxi driver who didn’t come. The evening before, we had agreed on a price to pick me up at 4 in the morning, but he must have had an afterthought -or a dominant wife- and decided that 100 Thai Bath wasn’t really worth waking up for that early. And honestly, I couldn’t agree more. The irony was that I had been willing to pay him double, but stopped when he named his price of one hundred. So there I was, the only not-sleeping soul in all of Thailand -at least that’s how it felt on that abandoned dark street where even the ever active troops of barking stray dogs appeared in deep coma- waiting for a cab that would never come. Desperate to leave, I made some early morning calls, angered some, humored others, and in the end found a gentle soul willing to bring me to the airport.

Arriving late at the airport, a long que awaited me, forming a snake through the whole departure hall. At least everyone was decently filling in, that is, until the short little guy arrived. With his trolley full of bags, he ignored the line and went right up to the counter. Some near to him tried to enlighten him of 21th century civilization, but being Chinese, that was lost on him. From a distance -after all, I was all the way back at the end of the tail- I was quietly hoping for a lynching party but no one was warming up to it. Those Thai are just too friendly. So I set out on a mission to change this: why do the arrogant always get away with it all? Why do the rude get to have half the world; jump the que; jump THIS que? But just at that moment two other counters opened up, and the line instantly disintegrated. Some good people stayed, thinking that one line feeding into 3 counters works best. Others simply created new lines, rushing in especially from the back. But someone lost count and the chaos settled not into 3, but 5 new lines. With me, since such was my day, at the end of one without counter. My mood was set.

Hong KongAnd that’s how I arrived in Hong Kong on this early February morning. It was cold, the air was bad, cars didn’t stop when you attempted to cross the road, sun couldn’t reach you beneath all those high buildings and people were morose-and I was tired. As it was, I concluded weary, desperate for some consolation of sorts, it does make for a smooth transition back to Chengdu. I decided to rest awhile first and face this brave new world with more refreshed eyes later.

My hotel was on Hong Kong Island and only a minute walk from Victoria Harbour. I took a green Star ferry across to Tsim Sha Tsui. These ferries are a miracle, really. Nothing survives the urge of modernization in Hong Kong and you would think that ferries are among the first to be updated -if not for speed and esthetics, surely for the improvement of safety -but here they are: iconic ‘landmarks’, just as they looked when first introduced in 1880. Last remnants of bygone colonial days. On the round, open decks there was little protection against the cold sea breath that blew across the harbor and carried the salty smells of sea and fish and weed and oil. Smells of memories and of adventure and wildness. The air of my youth. The harbor was bustling with activity and spotted with freighters and cruise ships pulled by tugboats and wherever I looked I saw tourist versions of the nostalgic Hong Kong junks and many, many other ferries. From my seat not far above the waterlevel, I quietly soaked it all up and, well, I had to admit that Hong Kong, after all, wasn’t half as bad as I thought only a few hours ago.

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