e_SDLqAh money, money, money!" the cabdriver exclaimed with no small sense of sarcasm in his Cantonese-accented English as he waved in the direction of the spectacular skyline of Hong Kong, a city that revels in its reputation as an international financial capital.
This was our first trip to Asia to visit our son, who has lived in Hong Kong for several years, and our expecting daughter-in-law.
After a 16-hour flight from Newark Liberty International Airport, we landed in Hong Kong as the city was commemorating the 20th anniversary of the handover of the former British territory to mainland China.
Commemorate seems to be the right word. This was not exactly a celebration unless, of course, you are Beijing. Over the past two decades, Chinese promises to regard Hong Kong as part of a "one country, two systems" status, allowing the territory to retain much of its British justice, education and democratic political systems, have steadily eroded.
Dissidents have been jailed. Legislators who refused allegiance to Beijing have been removed from office, and during our visit we happened upon a number of prodemocracy demonstrations.
But none of that should discourage a visit to this beautiful, robust city of almost 8 million people, pulsating with life and culture.
One of the first introductions a visitor experiences in any city is its transportation system. On that score, Hong Kong has a world-class transit grid beginning with a modern, fast train connecting the airport to the central city.
The city also operates a vast, easily accessible subway system that connects with surface transit options such as double-decker buses and the delightful Ding-Ding rail trolleys. Cabs are plentiful and inexpensive.
A quick note. The Octopus card, a sort of debit card that gets you on and off the subway, the buses, the Ding-Dings and can be used for purchases in some stores, is absolutely essential.
Just about everywhere is a tourist’s adventure in Hong Kong with sights, sounds and smells. Victoria Peak, the highest point in the city at 1,800 feet, offers a panoramic view of the sprawling metropolis. And getting to and from the peak aboard the 129-year-old funicular train is an experience as well.
Given Hong Kong’s rich history, a walking tour is advisable. Our guide, Stephen Tse, was knowledgeable, patient and good humored as he led us through the city explaining the nuances of Chinese culture and superstition and even a few basic language tips. Using the number 13? Noooooooo! And they’re not too crazy about the number 4 either.
Stephen introduced us to the various markets, explaining the Chinese tradition of maintaining shrines to the departed, seen in front of so many stores.
The Man Mo Temple, which movie buffs will note was featured in a scene from The World of Suzie Wong, is home to the gods of the military and martial arts, Stephen explained. My wife, Angela, asked the gods if we would win the lottery. Stephen said the gods were laughing at her. We moved on.
A short visit to the towering HSBC building in central Hong Kong is a must. Two massive bronze lions, Stephen growling and imposing, and Stitt calm and reserved, guard the entrance. Upon closer inspection, you’ll find several bullet holes in Stephen, the result of a gun battle toward the end of World War II.
Our final stop was the Kowloon Walled City Park, which dates to about 1668 during the Qing dynasty. The roughly 6-acre fortress has been painstakingly restored over the past few decades. Once a city within a city teeming with 33,000 people, today it is a rather restful, bucolic coda after a long day of walking.
No trip to Hong Kong would be complete without spending time in some of the city’s many markets. Stephen took us to the Wet Market in the Sham Shui Po neighborhood, filled with just about any food you can imagine and some stuff you never heard of.
As, uh, charming as these markets are, several nongovernmental organizations have noted that many people who work in them live in virtual abject squalor, often resorting to sleeping in cages stacked upon one another. Money, money, money yes. But not necessarily for these people. Local color comes at a price.
On a broader note, Western visitors to Hong Kong will be relieved to know that almost everyone speaks at least a bit of English, a remnant perhaps of British influence. The people we interacted with were very welcoming and helpful to the occasionally lost tourist.
Our first grandchild will be born soon. So we’ll certainly be returning to Hong Kong. Maybe someday the lad will be able to teach his grandfather how to use chopsticks.
Daniel Ruth writes columns for the Tampa Bay Times.