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Battye Family’s Travel Diary

Tuesday, 06 Mar 2007

Location: Hong Kong

MapHong Kong, hemmed in by mountains and sea, is home to an astounding seven million people. The Kwun Tong district in Kowloon, in fact, is the most densely populated spot on earth. Governed by the British for the one hundred years leading up to 1997, Hong Kong exudes western influence from the moment you touch down. We felt a bit lost at first. After being a part of Thailand in so many familial ways, we were suddenly tourists again. We kept catching ourselves thanking people in Thai, realizing a little too late that they did not know what we were saying. Jennifer spotted a Thai Airways flight attendant in the airport arrival area and sprinted after her, eager to be able to say, “Sawatdee ka!” and receive the typical warm Thai greeting in return.

As we traveled to Kowloon, we gawked at the immense skyscrapers and billboards advertising Rolex and Prada, gave a resigned little sigh and commenced to get down to orienting ourselves in this strange land. On the way to our destination, we asked our cab driver to help correct our pronunciation of Cantonese greetings, “Lei Ho!” (Hello, how are you?) “Ho Ho!” (Very good!) This time we had the luxury of knowing where we were going as our hotel in Hong Kong was one of the few we’ve booked ahead on this trip, mainly because our visit coincided with Chinese New Year.

By Chris Battye

Chinese New Year, also known as the Lunar New Year, is the biggest and longest festival in China. The date is different every year but falls sometime between January 21 and February 19. Every year there is a different animal in the Chinese zodiac that represents that year. The 12 different animals are the rat, the ox, the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the ram, the monkey, the rooster, the dog, and the pig. 2006 was the year of the dog and 2007 is the year of the pig. The pig symbolizes good luck and wealth. There are many legends about how the animals were chosen; one of them is that the Jade Emperor sent the rat to call the animals together for a banquet. On the day of the feast, the animals raced one another to get there. The order in which they arrived is the same as the order of the animals in the zodiac. According to the legend, the pig grew tired in the race and stopped for a mini-feast of his own. That is why the pig is 12th and last of the animals of the zodiac.
The Chinese New Year is called the Spring Festival in China, Tet in Vietnam, and Sol in Korea. Decorations include colored lanterns, banners, and flowers all around. Preparations happen in the week before and include cleaning the house to sweep out evil spirits, paying off debts, and painting doors and windowpanes red (red being the lucky color). In the evening before the New Year, family gets together and eats dinner with each dish symbolizing some kind of good luck. At midnight, people set off fireworks to attract attention from their benevolent god and scare away evil spirits. According to legend, on New Year’s Eve a man-eating beast called Nian came out of hiding and attacked innocent victims. People used bright red objects and firecrackers to scare him away and then celebrated their victory. Those celebrations are the origin of today’s New Year holiday. Fireworks continue until dawn and randomly throughout the next two weeks.
On the first day of the New Year, people put on new clothes to discard the old year and its misfortunes. Gifts are common between friends and relatives and adults give red packets of money called Hong Bao or Lai Sea to unmarried people, servants, and children. There are also many traditional things that are important in Chinese culture. People celebrating the Chinese New Year should wear red for luck, eat sweets for a sweet year ahead, and eat vegetarian food to ensure more good luck for the year ahead. Celebrators do not clean their houses in the fear that they will sweep their good luck away. They also do not wash their hair during the Chinese New Year period because that means washing away the wealth of the coming year. They do not buy books or buy shoes because they believe that means a rough year ahead. Festivities include dancers on parade carrying dragons and lions made of paper accompanied by gongs and drums. Acrobats also perform in parades. Festivities end with a lantern festival with lanterns hanging everywhere and children parading around with lanterns in the streets.
We were in Hong Kong at the time of the Chinese New Year, and there were many Chinese tourists from the mainland. We found out in Hong Kong that wearing red and shopping on Chinese New Year are considered lucky things to do. I did both and saw many other people doing the same. The Chinese New Year this year started on February 17 with a massive parade that went past our hotel. The streets were packed with people shouting and screaming. Although the parade was 45 minutes late, it was spectacular. Individual companies sponsored different floats so it was like a competition to see whose was better. I enjoyed the Disney float with Mickey and his pals, a massive float on wheels being pushed along by about 50 people in white costumes, and the lion and dragon dancers. There were also many stilt walkers who did a great job not falling over on the long parade route. It was a great experience to be in China to enjoy all the color, the tradition, and the celebrations of the Chinese New Year.

We stayed at a lovely spot on the harbor in Kowloon-the local YMCA. Set up and revamped for travelers, it suited our needs perfectly. I asked at check-in, rather futilely I thought, for one of the handful of rooms that overlook the harbor. We will never know what created the tipping point-perhaps it was the magic of rapport or perhaps we just looked in need of a little TLC having spent the previous 30 hours straight on one form of transport or another. The deciding moment might have been when Emily looked up at me from amidst a mound of luggage, and asked in a quavering little voice, “Do they have milk in China, Mommy, do you think I could just have a little taste of some milk?”

Whatever the reason, we were soon upstairs marveling at our good fortune-it was a corner room with walls of glass looking out over Victoria Harbor and Hong Kong Island in the distance. We spent some time reacquainting ourselves with western conveniences-bathrooms with toilet paper, drinkable water from the tap (sans typhoid,) and hot showers.

In the restaurant downstairs, we all stared dumbfounded at the napkins they gave us, great dinner platter sized things that were as thick as a wool blanket. In Thailand, we’d gotten used to the fact that napkins are simply not part of the culture-you rinse your hands after the meal with water from the cistern. It seems clear which parts of the world are creating the most trash waste and although the napkins were a nice luxury, we all felt a bit uncomfortable about the whole thing. We must have made quite a sight in the restaurant that first night-the kids entertaining the other tourists by loudly Oohhing and Ahhhing over their steaks with mushroom gravy, John ruminating about the fact that he’d fed the whole family for a week in Thailand for the same amount we’d just spent on dinner, and me tearing my napkin into smaller bits so as not to waste too much paper.

Hong Kong is working hard and investing lots of capital into establishing itself as a top tourist destination. As evidence, every single night the city puts on a huge light show on the harbor and surrounding buildings, choreographed to music. Standing on the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, with the breeze coming off the South China Sea, the effect is dazzling. We explored the city, mostly on foot, eager to find the exotic and eastern Hong Kong.

Before trade with Britain began in the late seventeenth century, this city was a quiet place inhabited by farmers, fishermen, and pirates. One hundred years later, the British started running opium into China via Hong Kong, an extremely profitable business. Despite bans by the Chinese emperors, the practice continued until the Chinese destroyed a large shipment in protest. This was the pretext the British needed to wage war, and Hong Kong became a British possession three years later. By 1900, the Kowloon peninsula and the New Territories had been captured by England, prompting the Chinese to agree to a lease agreement with Britain for a period of 99 years. A magnet for refugees fleeing famine, war, and the communist revolution; the population grew and prospered, turning itself into one of the world’s greatest success stories.

Evidence of the city’s affluence and western influence were everywhere and we set off searching for the Hong Kong that was still Chinese. Once we got into the small streets and alleys, we found what we were looking for… chicken feet for sale, traditional Chinese medicine shops, and people checking their futures by tossing fortune sticks in the temple courtyards. We sampled noodles in little shops and wondered at the enormous number of stores selling electronics.

In one of the street markets, Chris and Tim went searching for watches for themselves. They picked out two rather economical (shabby) looking ones and bargained the price down to 17 Hong Kong dollars (or roughly $2.) At the very next booth, a watch seller gestured to them, “Psst! Psst!” “Nike watch. Good price.” Like moths to the flame, they drew nearer. When they showed him they already had watches, he shook his head vigorously. “No, no. Those cheap Chinese watches. Break soon. Nike watch, real thing.” He reached into a bag hidden under the table and drew one out. “See, real logo!” I walked over; amused by the performance and feeling like somehow I had stepped into the middle of a detective novel. “Is that a copy watch?” I asked. “Shhhh!!!” He whispered urgently, looking over his shoulder. “Real Nike,” he replied as he evaluated me. “It has best batteries from Australia.” I had not realized that Australia was particularly known for top-notch batteries, but said nothing. “You from Australia, yes?” he asked. When I told him I was from America, his face fell. “Oh, America makes good batteries, too.” He made a quick recovery, “How about Christian Dior…Gucci…straight from New York? What color you like?” Another bag emerged from under the table. The whole thing was mesmerizing, like watching a snake charmer. In the end, Chris went for the Nike, and true to the watch seller’s prediction, it runs like a top. Tim remains loyal to his original purchase and continues to insist that it runs great despite its homely appearance. He can be heard professing its merits even while it runs up to half a day behind all other timepieces.

We shared a memorable meal at Sweet Dynasty, a long-standing Kowloon restaurant that serves dim sum, congee, and desserts in an environment of efficient chaos. We ordered several dishes, guessing at what they contained. The “peasant’s soup,” for instance, had large chunks of some sort of organ meat floating on top. We speculated for a while and used it as an opportunity to discuss anatomy…Intestine? Gizzard? Section of bowel? John kindly spooned it into my bowl but as I have a rule never to eat anything colored grey, it remained uneaten (and carefully hidden under my spoon) at the end of the meal.

That same day, we resupplied ourselves with books, the kids at this point in our travels being reduced to reading their books backwards to keep themselves interested. Everywhere we went, Jennifer, our little language lover, surprised us by speaking Cantonese to anyone possible. “Doh je!” she would chirp, thanking people with a little bow and her angelic smile.

On our last day, we traveled by ferry and cab to Hong Kong Island’s Victoria Peak. It is on this hill that the taipans built their summerhouses to escape the heat and humidity below. Topped, to our disappointment, by a shopping mall, the peak looks down over the whole of the city and the surrounding islands. We packed a picnic and walked the loop path, stopping to admire tea trees and Indian rubber plants and break up arguments between the kids over the most unbelievable things. “He touched my elbow!” “She breathed on me!” It is moments like these when it seems very clear that we have had just a little too much “together time.”

The grand finale for us was the Chinese New Year Parade. A huge production lasting almost three hours, it traveled through the streets of Kowloon and passed right under our hotel window. We spent a great evening watching the red-clad dragons dancing by and cheering wildly when Thai Airways float came into view, with the traditional costumes and dancing we’d come to recognize. We felt sure that no one else in all of Hong Kong felt happier to see them than us.