Tuesday 26 April 2016

Impressions of Hong Kong

In 1988 my wife Annette was appointed to a military post in Hong Kong, based at Osborne Barracks at Kowloon Tong. As a civilian in Child Guidance for the military schools there, she was given the honorary rank of captain.The was not quite a straight reversal for us, because for the first 15 years of our marriage, Annette was an air force wife, and I a mere sergeant. Anyway, I was by then earning my living as a full time writer and so became 'husband of' Captain Annette Kilworth. I had to ask her to get me a library ticket, could not visit the Officers' Mess unless accompanied by her and generally had to put up with being an also ran. True, I had my writing to do and could meet other husbands in similar positions for - well, not coffee mornings - but a beer in a bar at lunchtime. One of the tasks I set myself when I arrived in that exotic and marvellous place, was to keep a journal of my impressions and experiences of the colony that was to be my home for the next three years. I intend publishing in chunks in my blog those writings as I did them at the time which some may enjoy. They do not exactly rival Bill Bryson but I hope readers will find them mildly if quirkily interesting.

{Unfortunately, as you can see, changing formats has resulted in a few line jumps.)

The Crown Colony of Hong Kong

The Crown Colony of Hong Kong consists roughly of four distinctly
separate parts: the New Territories, Kowloon, Hong Kong Island and the
outer islands. Between the New Territories, which is mostly hilly
countryside and Kowloon, which is mostly skyscrapers, runs a ridge of
hills. These hills are the 'nine dragons' which gives Gow Lung its name. Between the southern tip of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island is a stretch of water which takes a few minutes to cross in the famous Star Ferry. Also connecting all main three parts are tunnels, through the hills and under the sea. Hong Kong is a land of tunnels and water, hills and skyscrapers. The outer islands, 230 of them and many
inhabited, are reached by ferries and jetfoils. Those who cannot
afford to live on Hong Kong Island or Kowloon, live in the New
Territories or out on the islands. There are around eight million people in
Hong Kong: most of them live in Kowloon and space is expensive:

Kai Tak airport is on the east side of Kowloon, a strip of runway
built out into the sea. Flying in over Kowloon, landing aircraft aim
at a giant red-white chequerboard, then bank sharply to travel down a
U-shaped tunnel of low buildings between the skyscrapers. Passengers
can look out of their windows and see people in their apartments
having supper. Those in the apartments often look back. Sometimes they smile at each other when they get just a little too close: weak, sickly smiles. When there is
a typhoon in progress, the aircraft passing our window on the 7th floor of our
apartment block flap and wobble and make an interesting spectacle. If they are going
to give up, it has to be done before the chequerboard, or they're committed to
landing on a strip of tarmac stretched out on a wild sea. We make
bets on this according to the airline. Cathay Pacific, the local airline, is a good
bet for landing in the highest winds, while others grow feathers and cluck.

The underground (Mass Transit Railway [MTR]), roughly in the shape
of an H on its side, joins Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, and reaches
the east-west extremes of both. It is clean (no food, drink or
smoking allowed), efficient (a train every few minutes with few
breakdowns) and packed to the gills. The guard, through a speaker
system, announces each station in Cantonese and English. 'Coming
station is Shep Kip Mei'. He also says, 'Mina doors’. If
there is a blocked door, he says it again, only in a more excited
voice. One more failure of the doors to close and he goes berserk in
both Cantonese and English. Kowloon is connected to Canton (just over the Chinese border) overland Kowloon-Canton Railway (KCR). There is very little difference in the trains and efficiency between the MTR. and KCR.

There are ferries and jetfoils going everywhere, criss-crossing
each other's seaways like waterboatmen on a pond, somehow
missing each other. Across the mouth of the Pearl River lies the
Portugese Colony of Macau, which exists on the proceeds of gambling.
In Hong Kong, unlicensed gambling is illegal. It is my belief that the
telephone company and jet foil operators are responsible for
engineering this heads and tails situation. They must both be very
rich on the traffic between the two colonies which results from the
gambling addicts who use both methods to make their bets.

The road traffic in Hong Kong is one of the densest in the world. For
some reason, or many, there are no roundabouts and if you leave a main
road by mistake you can only get back on it by way of Peking or Shanghai. If you are on your way to work, forget it: change your plans and have a drink in some town in the New Territories you have never seen before. There is a road digging policy which says that even though a surface may still be perfect, you dig it up on a
due date and replace it. New roads, flyovers, bridges and
underpasses appear overnight, with consequent changes in road signs and
directions of traffic. Road maps are useless things which cause a
great deal of amusement amongst residents and bewilderment amongst
visitors. No driver ever knows Hong Kong. Fortunately it covers a
relatively small area and you can only remain lost for half a day
before passing a recognisable landmark (probably going in the wrong
direction). Taxi drivers shrug their shoulders when given a
location. One has to direct them, and few of them speak English,
many being immigrants from Canton. A schoolteacher friend was
taken to a pig farm in the New Territories when she gave her address
to her house on Nathan Road, Kowloon. She was not best pleased.

Street names in Chinese and English do not directly translate - beneath the words 'Rhonda Road' (pronounced 'Lon Dak Do to taxi drivers) appears the Chinese characters for 'Lotus Avenue'. When Annette first began driving in Hong Kong she found herself accidentally crossing the border into China in one morning. Since she was driving a military car, they let her through. They must have had long talks that evening about the 'blonde smiley lady' that kept doing frantic u-turns
just inside no-man's-land and waving at them as she passed back and forth.

The driving, it has to be said, is as good. as anywhere. Horns
are used frequently, but not with any malice. Hong Kong is no
Bangkok, where rules of the road do not exist. The average driver in
Hong Kong is courteous and civil and refuses to give an inch of space
only because inches in Hong Kong are precious commodities.
Hong Kong has literally changed shape over the last century, is
changing shape all the time. Much of it is built on land reclaimed
from the sea. They pinch a mountain from here and fill in a hole
there. Hong Kong has been stretched and flattened, pummeled and

kneaded, used and reused.