I now have a new language in my passport: Chinese. I'm in Hong Kong.
I've been here about a day so far, and I already like it a lot. I think it compares favorably to both Tokyo and Bangkok. With regard to the latter, it seems a little more orderly, somewhat less polluted, and a tad bit less crowded. With regard to the former, I think it's just prettier from a topological standpoint, with lots of soaring ridges and open waters, plus I think it's easier to get around as a non-native tourist. Japan was pretty cryptic if you didn't read Japanese. Hong Kong is less so because there's more ambient English on signs and in announcements, plus most people can speak it to some degree if you need it (apparently they all begin learning it in kindergarten).
On the other hand, I think I liked the food better in Tokyo. In Tokyo you could eat just about anything, including a variety of native dishes. In Hong Kong you can find anything, but the prevalent native cuisine doesn't strike me as particularly varied. I'm struck by how plain everything is - lots and lots of barbequed meat, with just rice or a noodle and a few pieces of bok choy. So far I haven't encountered any particularly interestingly flavored sauces. But then again, I've only been here a day, so we'll see. On the other hand, so far the only place I've found which serves salads or anything with fresh fruit or vegetables is McDonalds… There are, however, bakeries everywhere, many with not only various sweet buns but also delicate French patisseries. Unfortunately my favorite Chinese dessert - sesame balls - seems not to be of the region, as I can't find any anywhere (instead I'm forced to settle for almond or walnut cookies, my runner-up favorite Chinese dessert).
But as I said, I've only been here a day. I flew in yesterday, landing at the brand new (or at least pretty darn new) airport. It's a very usable airport as far as I can tell right now. It's amazing what can be accomplished when you can build airports from scratch on gigantic portions of land… My only objection is that there were not a lot of ATMs available in the arrivals terminal, which turned out to be a problem when my withdrawal transaction wouldn't go through. But other than that, it was all very smooth getting out and getting transportation to my hotel.
Actually it's not really a hotel. It's a "guest house," and much more hostel-like. Hence the title to this post, because it's run by the YWCA. The YWCA and YMCA seem to have a bunch of guest houses all over the city. I suppose as these things go they're probably fairly affordable, though they are a bit spartan. The beds are kind of hard and the bathroom is in the hall, but it's pretty clean and safe and offers pretty much all the basics that you need, plus it's not too far to walk from the subway.
Today I took the subway a few stops and went to the history museum. It's a very good museum, and it was enhanced by the excellent free tour that was provided. In the airport I'd picked up several pamphlets put out by the Hong Kong tourist authority. One of them indicated a list of several cultural activities people could do for free. They included everything from Tai Chi classes, to harbor cruises, to various tours led by guides. I caught the one at the museum and very much enjoyed it.
After the museum tour was over I began to walk towards Victoria Harbor. My guest house is in Kowloon, as is the museum. I though I might take the ferry over to Hong Kong island. However, I was jetlagged and started dragging (I'd accidentally been up since 3am!). And then it started raining. So after eating lunch somewhere involving soup, noodles, and roast goose, and after waiting out the rain with a hot chocolate at Starbucks… I went back to the hotel instead.
(A note about Hong Kong: Hong Kong is a region comprised of several parts. There is Hong Kong island, which was taken over by Britain in the 1800s following one of the Opium Wars. There is also Kowloon peninsula, which the British also subsequently took over. However, because of the topography - namely sheer hillsides - there was not a lot of usable land available to use. So two things happened: one, much of the water was infilled to create more buildable land, and two, Britain gained control of even more land through a 99-year lease from China. Much of this land is called the New Territories and connects Kowloon peninsula to the mainland. It also included various islands, some of which, like the one the airport and Disneyland is connected to, are quite large. When the lease expired in 1997, Britain gave up the whole region, since it was not possible to sustain Kowloon and Hong Kong island without the additional land, and because the treaty that had given Britain control of those parts in the first place was not equitable. Hong Kong is now a Special Administrative Region of China, meaning that it is Chinese territory, but it is governed locally in much the same way that it was when the British were in control. According to the tour guide, not much changed following the handover in 1997 but I wonder how long the status quo can remain. Though the policy is stated as "one country, two systems" it does seem that the dichotomy in liberties available in Hong Kong versus the mainland must create some tensions. I thought it interesting to note, for instance, that on tv there were commercials both telling people that they needed to get their new ID cards, and also that they should be aware of their human rights. On the other hand, it's not necessarily in China's interest to make Hong Kong more Chinese. Right now Hong Kong seems to serve as a front door to China. It's Chinese, but it operates more as a Western locale. Businesses like doing business there because it's predictable to them, more so than dealing in China proper would be. So it's in China's interest to make sure they continue to feel comfortable there.)