In the 1960 movie “The World of Suzie Wong,” William Holden approaches Hong Kong on a scenic Star Ferry ride across sampan-littered Victoria Harbor. Fifty years later my husband and I were sealed inside a gleaming, nearly-deserted bullet train whose windows revealed only black tunnel walls racing by. Our progress from Chap Lap Kok airport to Central Station was marked by the progressive illumination of an arc of blue lights on an electronic signboard. The only sound came from a flat-panel screen displaying stock reports and gold-future prices with narration alternating between Cantonese, English and Russian.
With its jumble islands, waterways and mountains Hong Kong can be challenging to navigate. Fortunately there are a wide variety of public transportation options, and my husband and I made good use of almost every one of them during a week in and around the city. We had read prior to our trip about the “Octopus Card” pass, valid on eight types of public transportation (hence the name; eight also happens to be a lucky number in Chinese culture) and we planned to pick on up at our first opportunity.
We stepped out of downtown Hong Kong’s Central Station into the hot mist of a drizzly subtropical night. An attendant escorted us to the head of a long line of waiting taxis and piled our luggage into the trunk. Our driver glanced at my crumpled Expedia hotel reservation printout and sped off through the slick streets.
Bleary from a 14-hour flight from Vancouver, BC we gazed out of the cab’s rain-spotted windows at our first glimpse of Asia. I had read plenty about the mighty forest of neon-lit skyscrapers that comprises this city of seven million, but nothing could compare to seeing it for the first time with my own eyes. As the cab dodged and wove on the “wrong” side of streets that since the 1950s had never known darkness, the dazzling kaleidoscope made me feel much more than a day away from home.
Our hotel, the Lanson Place, was located in the Causeway Bay district. Central enough to be neon-y and skyscraper-y and unmistakably Hong Kong, the neighborhood is nevertheless far enough from some of the major tourist sights to necessitate public transportation.
The next morning we made our way through twisting streets jammed with underwear markets, sidewalk displays of whole crabs wrapped in banana leaves, backpack-toting kids in school uniforms and business people in sharply-cut suits. After getting lost several times (“turn right at the Starbucks” isn’t good advice when there are two of them within three blocks of your hotel) we finally made it to the subway station. Inside, we found Octopus card machines with English instructions. You insert money (cash or credit card) in the amount you want, and out pops the card. From then on, you just tap or swipe it at a reader for any form of transport. A display will shows the amount remaining. To add more money, just insert the card in a vending machine and repeat the process used to purchase it.
The MTR, Hong Kong’s immaculate, air-conditioned subway system, gets crowded at rush hour with commuters (including a surprising number of Westerners) reading the South China Morning Post on their iphones on their way to banking jobs. Most of the stations are located in immense, shiny multistory shopping malls filled with luxury goods like Ralph Lauren, Prada and Gucci. We enjoyed the window shopping and air conditioning, but after a while the sense of being hermetically sealed from the outdoors became too much and we ventured back out onto the streets.
Central Hong Kong is a maze of skybridges and overpasses, a sort of concrete Habitrail lined with potted bougainvillea. It was confusing at first but there are small signs in English and we quickly found our way around.
Our favorite neighborhood was the Mid Levels, a steep warren of streets crisscrossed by escalators and packed with tiny restaurants and shops. We wandered from skybridge to escalator to stairs and back again, scaling a cliff face of wine bars, pubs, dressmakers and noodle shops. Old buildings moldered away behind the neon, with banyan tree roots cracking through the pavement. One surprise was the Sunday takeover of the skybridges by thousands of Indonesian housekeepers. Sitting on pieces of cardboard spread on the walkways, they whiled away their afternoon off in large groups chatting, drinking tea and combing each others’ long black hair.
One morning we decided to try one of the historic double-decker trams we had been watching from our hotel window far above. Tapping our Octopus cards at the driver’s station we climbed a narrow strairway to the upper deck. With the decades-old signs sweeping by at eye level we could see that the neon tubes had been replaced by rows of LEDs. The bus lurched and swayed, making our ride in the wooden crow’s nest less than comfortable.
We postponed our trip up Victoria Peak for several days while we waited for Hong Kong’s notoriously hazy skies to clear. On the day the South China Morning Post finally declared the weather would cooperate, we joined crowds for the rattling Peak Tram ride up the vertiginous slope. Banana leaves slapped the windows as the funicular creaked higher and higher. The skyscrapers disappeared into the still-swirling mist while the summit remained out of sight even as we reached the station.
The tram’s terminus was, unsurprisingly, a sleek shopping mall. I take a back seat to no one as a shopper, but on this occasion nature had more allure than Armani and we opted instead for the Peak Trail. This paved, level path circles the top of the mountain through a subtropical jungle of ferns, vines and towering ficus trees. Butterflies and jewel-toned dragonflies wafted by in the breeze. The clouds parted as scheduled to reveal an undulating vista of white skyscrapers bristling between green forest and blue sea, with the gray, still misty mountains of mainland China receding into the distance. Huge hawks skimmed between the buildings and swooped down to snatch fish from the bustling bay. Placards every few hundred yards helpfully identified birds, trees and insects and reminded visitors that “It is an offense to pick the fruit.” In the clearing distance the South China Sea was dotted with freighters waiting to enter the harbor.
Enticed by the sea view, the next day we boarded a ferry for the peaceful, car-free island of Lamma. Our Octopus cards bought us a roughly hourlong scenic cruise through a warm sea churned by thickets of sampans, barges and high-speed catamarans loaded with Macau-bound gamblers. Fleets of laughing schoolchildren darted about the deck while tourists snapped photos of receding cityscape.
Near the end of our trip we boarded a Star Ferry for the trip back across Victoria Harbor after an evening in Kowloon. By then we’d learned the locals’ trick of simply holding our wallets up to the reader, which could scan our Octopus cards through the leather. Imagining William Holden and Nancy Kwan sitting on the same battered wooden bench half a century ago, I smiled at the thought of how much, and yet how little, Hong Kong had changed.