Home truths

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 September, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 September, 2002, 12:00am

IT IS 4PM IN THE 7-ELEVEN shop at Repulse Bay and I'm just about ready to punch an old woman. I wouldn't, of course, but on this hot and humid Sunday, the convenience store experience is proving anything but. The task of taking a bottle of water from the fridge and manoeuvring to the till is like boarding the Cheung Chau ferry with a set of suitcases on the day of the Bun Festival.

I've been elbowed in the ribs twice by diminutive pensioners - battling with a coachload of mainland tourists over ice creams and curry squid balls - and enough Speedo-trunked males to run a Mr Puniverse contest. When I finally emerge from the ordeal, somehow unscathed, I step outside to almost have my eye poked out by the spoke of an umbrella, a local weapon of choice that is equally hazardous when the sun is blazing as when it's pelting down with rain.

The day is far from over, but I'm already regretting my decision to traipse around the SAR in the footsteps of millions of tourists. Repulse Bay is the third most popular stop-off with Hong Kong visitors, and it feels like they've all descended here at the same moment with a simultaneous craving for ice cream. But this is the mission I chose to accept, to see Hong Kong as the tourists see it - providing they keep their eyes that is.

Last year, 13,725,332 visitors trudged around Hong Kong, spending $64.28 billion. The top 10 attractions they headed for were The Peak (43 per cent), Ocean Park (25), Repulse Bay (23), Wong Tai Sing Temple (18), the Convention and Exhibition Centre (16), Aberdeen (12), Stanley Market (10), Tsim Sha Tsui Clock Tower (8), Lan Kwai Fong (5) and the Cultural Centre (5). Ocean Park, Repulse Bay and Convention Centre are prominent because almost every mainland tour group heads there, according to Tourism Board number-crunchers. The Tin Hau and Kwan Yum statues on the beach are the main attraction of Repulse Bay, while the Golden Bauhinia is the focal point of the Convention Centre stop.

All but two of the top 10 stop-offs are on Hong Kong Island, and the Tourism Board's Web site describes a tour of the island as a 'must-do' activity, so I do it. Rather than shell out $200-$300 to be bussed around on a guided tour (most itineraries include a stop at a jewellery factory in Aberdeen), I decided to gumshoe it around myself.

At 9am, I set out along Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, to discover it is too early to be accosted by the tailor touts, spivs and and unscrupulous traders that have tainted the Golden Mile's reputation. In fact, it's too early to do anything but head for the other side of the harbour. From the waterfront, the impressive Hong Kong skyline shimmers in the August haze and, as I board the Star Ferry towards it, I begin to envisage a perfect day ahead. The ferry - taken by one-quarter of visitors - is one of the cheapest yet most delightful experiences in Hong Kong. The terminals are a little drab, save for a colour mural at the Central terminus advertising the China Jump club in Causeway Bay which closed last year, but the journey is a repeatable joy.

Spirits raised, I exit the terminal into the path of a withered man who loudly expectorates phlegm into a litter bin-cum-makeshift spitoon. Local customs are part of the travel experience, I figure, so tourists may as well witness them close-up. The tools of a more enchanting custom, however, stand dormant nearby. Six red rickshaws are chained together with a 'for sale' sign hanging on them. These colonial relics endured for more than a century, although in recent times more as props for tourist snapshots than as a viable means of transport. But dwindling business has seen the rickshaw-pullers pack up for good, taking with them a part of Hong Kong's history.

Lamenting the loss, I stroll through the underpass to Des Voeux Road where I see another historic means of transport thankfully still in operation. Trams trundle along the lines between Kennedy Town to the west and Shau Kei Wan to the east as they have done since 1904. They are an endearing and cheap form of travel, a reminder of the time before buses, taxis and pollution. Sadly, they are no way to get around town in the 21st century. Apart from being cramped, the windows are open to the filthy summer smog. Heading westbound to Sheung Wan, I pass an electronic sign erected in the Central shopping district to warn pedestrians that their wallet or purse is likely to be snatched. I wonder if it should also include a warning about the dangers of breathing.

Alighting at the bottom of Cat Street bazaar, I head uphill to the curio and antique shops that dot the area. It's a hard climb and I wish I'd taken the world's longest escalator, but once I begin poking among the broken typewriters, Mao paraphernalia and dusty copies of his Little Red Book, I find myself once again remembering the joys of foraging around Hong Kong.

Heading east along Hollywood Road, the scent of burning incense and presence of a parked coach announces the Man Mo Temple. It's not as grand as Wong Tai Sin, but it offers a fragrance of the city's spiritual side.

Further east through the increasingly gentrified SoHo, I cross the escalator and walk along to Lower Albert Road and Government House. The only glimpse I can get of it though is through the gates. It is one of Hong Kong's true historic attractions and you can't get within a rotten tomato's throw of it, except on the four open days a year the government holds.

Across Garden Road lies a more accessible heritage attraction. The Peak Tram is 114 years old, but it's still the quickest way to scale Victoria Peak. It has also retained its quaint charm - once you've endured the stampede to clamber on and secure a seat. Unfortunate passengers forced to stand for the funicular's seemingly vertical 400-metre ascent (it feels far more than the official 27 degrees) get a body-numbing experience of gravitational pull that the Science Museum can only dream of replicating. Once the urban scenery gives way to views of the harbour all discomfort is forgotten - there are more 'woos' and 'wahs' than at a Jackie Chan movie.

The Peak's stunning view, on an increasingly rare clear day, is one of the finest urban panoramas in the world, and there are plenty of platforms from which to view it. But on this hazy day, the pall of smog hanging over the harbour means most of Kowloon is barely visible, and Tai Mo Shan is nowhere to be seen. The constant click of camera shutters suggests the hundreds of tourists don't seem to mind as they jostle for prime position. Then again, they've never seen it on a pollution-free day.

The spaceship-style Peak Tower may not have been everyone's choice of design for Hong Kong's premier monument, but it offers plenty of family fun. Ripley's Believe It Or Not offers a modern freak show, albeit in celluloid and sculptured form, the Peak Explorer provides a moving-seat ride back to the age of the dinosaurs (if you can stand the lengthy queue), and posters outside Madame Tussaud's wax lyrical about the latest life-like celebrities to be added to their 100-strong collection: Andy Lau Tak-wah, Jiang Zemin and Li Ka-shing. It also has a chamber of horrors, but instead I choose the Peak Galleria complex opposite the Tower. The tacky souvenirs on offer here are a horror show in themselves. The shopping centre includes an outlet selling 'Hooked on Jesus' T-shirts alongside Chinese fortune badges promising to bring a 'blessing of high rank and salary'. There are also two cigar shops, various trinket retailers, several cheap clothing chains and a place where you can have your photograph put, rather fittingly, onto a mug. Familiar names such as McDonald's, TCBY, the Harley-Davidson shop and Hard Rock souvenir outlet prove the addage that the more you travel, the more the world stays the same. Thrifty tourists looking to sample local food here will be disappointed by the lack of options. Those with more to spend at least can dine in the excellent Cafe Deco and Peak Lookout restaurants.

At the Tourism Board's shop inside the Galleria, an enthusiastic assistant thrusts a Mega Hong Kong Sale booklet and discount card into my hand and excitedly tells me I could win '10 carats of dazzling diamond jewellery'. But by now I'm more concerned with getting to my next destination - Aberdeen. Unfortunately, I discover that while it's possible to catch a bus to Shau Kei Wan and Central from The Peak, not one means of public transport serves the south of the island. To get to Aberdeen or Stanley you must head back to Central bus station. I suddenly understand why people take the island coach tours.

By the time I'm back in Central, I decide I'd better skip Aberdeen and head to Repulse Bay if I'm to reach Stanley before sunset. The ride is scenic and when I arrive at the bus stop in Repulse Bay, I head across the road to read what looks like a map - only to find it's a blank notice board covered with blue and black graffiti. Verdant shrubbery and palm trees mark the path down to the beach, where I am greeted by a yellow warning sign - the second in a day informing me that my belongings are likely to be nicked if I'm not careful. A few steps on to the beach is a sign with a list of a dozen things that can't be done on the beach, including such reckless activities as kite flying. More alarming is the next notice I pass: 'The probability of any sharks entering the area despite the shark nets should not be disregarded.'

With a swim suddenly sounding as attractive as plunging your hand into a tank of hungry piranhas, I wander in search of some spiritual sustenance at the eastern end of the beach, where I find Chinese tourists bowing and Western tourists snapping away at the feet of the Goddess of Mercy. It's a wonderful evocation of colourful Hong Kong, and much the better for the recent demolition of the nearby KFC, McDonald's and Dunkin' Donut beachfront outlets (although this may be temporary). Only some blue graffiti on the side wall mars the site's distinctive beauty.

Thirsty and tired I head for the 7-Eleven and, after scrummaging in and out, I decide I've had enough of the seaside resort caper and venture forth to Stanley. A short bus ride later, I'm strolling into Stanley market, one of Hong Kong's perennial tourist delights. It's so popular that officials have more than once proposed razing it for development, only to about-turn after public expressions of horror. The Save Our Stanley campaigners have a good point, too. Where else in the world could you buy all of the following in a half-hour trip? Valuable chinese crafts; beautiful engravings; fake 'designer' clothes; a 'Burberry' sun hat for $40; a glass bauhinia sculpture that flashes red; a pieman-sized XXXXXXXL T-shirt; a tweeting wooden bird ornament; 'magic heat pads for sore joints'; and brass plaques bearing such phrases as 'You don't have to be mad to buy this but it helps' (okay, I made that one up). The warrens of Stanley market are a veritable treasure trove in which you can lose yourself for hours.

The appeal of the whole fort town does not end there. Next to the strip of bars and restaurants along Stanley waterfront stands the relocated Murray House, a great reminder of Hong Kong's architectural past and now home to a cluster of eateries with terraces overlooking the water. There's a covered amphitheatre and on Sundays the pedestrianised waterfront develops into an alfresco festival.

The bland Urban Council promenade to the east lets the side down, but on this Sunday the whole waterfront is alive with action. A six-piece Canto rock band has pitched up near the market and more than 50 people are tapping toes to the show when the singer suddenly announces: 'Sorry, we have to pack up because there's been a complaint about the noise.'

Oh well, that's Hong Kong for you. And just when I was beginning to have fun.