Hong Kong Island from Kowloon

Chi Lin parkThe last time I was in Hong Kong was in 2002, and then only for a short time before heading on to mainland China (look out for a film retrospective on this very topic in a few weeks). Not much had visibly changed – it was still hot, dirty, hopelessly overcrowded and quite vibrant. With so much unexpected time to spare, I could consult with Amy on ideas for the wedding (mostly thanks to the free internet access at the central library) and still cover most things on a tourist itinerary (museums aside, which were all closed for New Year). I had hoped to get out to Macau, but the New Year rush (quite possible of people going gambling, having being fortune-told that they’ll come into money) meant that only super-expensive deluxe seats were available and so I left it as something new to do should I ever visit again.

Above: Hong Kong Island from Kowloon. Left: The park at Chi Lin Nunnery. Below, left to right: A statue of Bruce Lee in Kowloon, the Mid-Levels; The Central-Mid-Levels Escalator, an alleyway in Central, Cheung Yee’s Crab in Kowloon Park.

HK's most famous sonMid-Levels

Central-Mid-Levels EscalatorCentral alleywayCrab

Central from Victoria PeakTowering above the Hong Kong Island skyline is Victoria Peak (扯旗山) – home of rich expats looking to escape the heat and smell of the lower areas, great viewpoint when the weather is clear and location of a very inconveniently-sited tourist office. I traipsed up the footpath on one fairly clear day (note to urban planners: in subtropical environments, smooth concrete paths quickly develop a layer of slime and become quite treacherous), only to find the upper reaches wreathed in mist by the time I got there and the entire city completely obscured by cloud. On my next trip, the mist didn’t drift in until the evening and the neon lights down in the maze of buildings immediately brought Blade Runner to mind.

Left: Central from Victoria Peak. Below, left to right: Neon lights on the water, the suspiciously-named Giant Foot Restaurant.

Hitachi vs China MobileGiant Foot restaurant

Kowloon from Wan Chai

Chi Lin Nunnery (1)Hemmed in in an otherwise-unassuming neighbourhood of the usual cookie-cutter concrete apartment towers and elevated roads is the Chi Lin Nunnery (志蓮淨苑), a Buddhist retreat that was presumably once in the middle of nowhere. If one can ignore the pale tower blocks perpetually in one’s peripheral vision and block out the constant hum of traffic, the place is quite serene and certainly deserving of its Lonely Planet entry. As the tourist guides are fond of pointing out, the wooden buildings are constructed using traditional techniques that do not require nails (though, technically, neither do the modern techniques used to build the concrete metropolis everywhere else).

Above: Kowloon from Wan Chai. Left: Chi Lin Nunnery. Below, left to right: A combination lantern/collection box/zodiac , a lotus pond; Chi Lin Nunnery.

Chi Lin lanternChi Lin lotus pond

Chi Lin Nunnery (3)Chi Lin Nunnery (2)

Hong Kong Island

The evening after the parade, the city government treated its citizens and visitors to a giant New Year fireworks show in Victoria Harbour, just between the main areas of Hong Kong Island (香港島) and Kowloon (九龍). Throughout the day, large explosive-laden barges anchored themselves just off the pier, fire-fighting boats chugged round them to douse any mishaps and police speedboats skipped to and fro making sure that everything was aimed up. The best vantage point was reckoned to be the Avenue of the Stars, Hong Kong’s equivalent of Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, which looked out across the water and had the city skyline as a gorgeous backdrop. I, like several thousand other people, arrived well over two hours early and quickly found that the best spots along the waterfront had been taken by people who’d arrived even earlier. With memories of trying to set up a tripod at the Busan Fireworks Festival still relatively fresh in my mind, I resolved to get a spot as quickly as possible and resist all efforts to move me from it. The roof of the nearby Intercontinental Hotel was out, so I found a really short local photographer (already the the front) and surreptitiously set up my tripod behind him so it could peek over his head.

Hong Kong New Year Fireworks 2010 (13)As things turned out, the gods smiled on my efforts to get a clear shot and a young couple just next to the short photographer left to get some dinner, offering me their place against the safety railings. I quickly set up so that my tripod could still see into the action if they decided to return, but they either found a better spot or couldn’t get through the crowds later on. To top things off, the light rain that had been falling all evening stopped just before the fireworks were due to start, drying everyone out and removing all fears about equipment getting wet. Thankfully, this time my lens stayed factory-fresh throughout a spectacular display, and you can see the results here.

Above: Hong Kong Island from Kowloon. Left and Below: Hong Kong New Year Fireworks.

Hong Kong New Year Fireworks 2010 (1)Hong Kong New Year Fireworks 2010 (2)

Hong Kong New Year Fireworks 2010 (3)Hong Kong New Year Fireworks 2010 (4)

Hong Kong New Year Fireworks 2010 (5)Hong Kong New Year Fireworks 2010 (6)

Hong Kong New Year Fireworks 2010 (7)Hong Kong New Year Fireworks 2010 (8)

Hong Kong New Year Fireworks 2010 (9)Hong Kong New Year Fireworks 2010 (10)

Hong Kong New Year Fireworks 2010 (11)Hong Kong New Year Fireworks 2010 (12)

New Year BalloonThe Year of the Tiger dawned with little perceptible fanfare in the city, the major civic events being unapologetically scheduled for the next couple of days. The first one was the heavily-sponsored New Year Parade, a collection of floats, balloons and various local and international dance/performance groups taking a short walk around the Kowloon (九龍) area. Thousands of people braved the light rain to come and cheer everyone on, though there was noticeable confusion over the inclusion of recycled Halloween- and Christmas-themed entrants such as the American Express Giant Carved Pumpkin Balloon.

Left: A New Year mascot balloon (which looks a bit Korean to me). Below, left to right: A traditional multi-person dragon costume; an anachronistic entrant, a steward keeping the right distance between acts by telling them to speed up, one of the flag-carriers.

New Year Dragon (2)New Year Dragon (1)

Anachronistic mascotFloat directionsArezzo Flag Wavers (1)

Hong Kong Police Band (4)While everyone was waiting for the events proper to start, a few warm-up acts were released to provide some entertainment to distract from the enormous delay (though the arrest of a few nearby pickpockets proved entertaining enough). The most notable of these was the local police bagpipe/marching band, the story behind which I have no idea. They stopped just a few yards down from where I was standing, played Highland Cathedral (which is the HK Police Force’s unofficial anthem) and then walked past to cheers and sniffles from the crowd.

Left: The bagpipe/marching band.

Hong Kong Police Band (2)The strobe light-like effect of hundreds of peoples’ camera flashes announced the arrival of the first floats long before we could actually see them, one of which was the stately Cathay Pacific “here are some flight attendants” effort – I mention it due to the heart-warming sight of two old guys chugging it along at 2 mph paying scrupulous attention to in-flight safety by wearing seatbelts.

Left: The bagpipe/marching band. Below, left to right: A Swiss tiger-themed band; the bagpipe/marching band, the Belgian stilt-walkers; a flag-carrier throws and catches his flag.

Swiss tiger band (1)Swiss tiger band (2)

Hong Kong Police Band (1)Hong Kong Police Band (3)Royal Stiltwalkers of Merchtem

Arezzo Flag Wavers (2)Arezzo Flag Wavers (3)Arezzo Flag Wavers (4)

Notting Hill (1)There were plenty of dragons and tigers in attendance of course, and for some reason more local ballet/dance schools than I could count. Of the international acts, the Italian Arezzo Flag-Wavers did a great job wowing the crow, as did the Belgian Royal Stiltwalkers of Merchtem. The UK sent a rather overwhelmed-looking marching band in full military regalia, and some rather more audacious Notting Hill Carnival acts. However, especially after some slightly staid floats promoting tourism in China and Thailand, the contingent from South Korea really stole the show. It was as though Seoul’s government got one of the up-and-coming-and-eager-to-impress local performance groups and said to them, “We have our own thing going on here with Seollal (Korean New Year), and we don’t really care about promoting ourselves to Hong Kong. Forget anything tiger-, China- or Korea-related, be creative and do whatever you like. Here’s 100 million won; try and make it fun.” Whoever got that commission simply took it and ran with it – from all the way down the street, we could hear a giant musical racket and could just about glimpse gigantic Alien-esque figures running about. As they came closer, they revealed themselves to be very lightweight wearable puppets that could move and dance at astonishing speed (one expects large float mascots to move ponderously), accompanied by bicycle-powered aquatic animals pumping out the tunes. They jigged past us in a flurry of unrehearsed dance moves, and everything after them felt a little flat.

Left: Notting Hill’s swan costume. Below, left to right:Seoul’s aqua-themed floats; two of Seoul’s dancing alien puppet mascots, a dragon from the Notting Hill Carnival crew.

Seoul aquatic costumes (1)Seoul aquatic costumes (2)

Seoul alien (2)Seoul alien (1)Notting Hill (2)

Bali mynahIn an effort to get back to South Korea at minimal cost to both my finances and the environment, I took a long flight to Hong Kong (香港) with the intention of subsequently catching the train up into mainland China and then the ferry service to Incheon (as the overland trip from Europe and flights to both mainland China and Korea were shockingly expensive). I arrived right in the middle of preparations for Chinese (Lunar) New Year, the chaos surrounding which stranded me for over a week (I had planned on staying only a few nights). This did give me a lot of time to explore, though, and I took advantage of the clement (if cloudy) weather to walk most of the area from Causeway Bay (銅鑼灣) in the east to Central (中環) in the west. The streets were far more crowded and chaotic than I remembered (from my last trip in 2002), which could have been New Year shoppers but might just be what the place is like. I was glad to escape into the comparatively deserted Hong Kong Park (香港公園), a planned oasis in the heat and bustle of the central business district.

Left: Bali mynah (Leucopsar rothschildi). Below, left to right: Greater green leafbird (Chloropsis sonnerati), blue-winged leafbird (Chloropsis cochinchinensis), emerald dove (Chalcophaps indica), the aviary.

Greater green leafbirdBlue-winged leafbird

Emerald dovesEdward Youde Aviary

Alexandrine parakeet (2)The main feature of the park (aside from the “Fighting SARS” monument, of course) is the Edward Youde Aviary, a giant walk-through cage containing all kinds of birds found in the Asian ecoregions. The public viewing area is an elevated walkway that winds through the tree canopy and thus prevents ground- and water feeders from being disturbed, though it does place some of the interesting specimens quite far away. Fruit-containing feeding stations are strategically placed along the route so that the canopy feeders come quite close to the visitors (but not so close as to invite touching or risk territory defence).

Left: Alexandrine parakeet (Psittacula eupatria). Below, left to right: Yellow-faced mynah (Mino dumontii), Alexandrine parakeet (Psittacula eupatria).

Yellow-faced mynahAlexandrine parakeet (1)