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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Hong Kong Files by guest blogger Brian Leiken

Enjoy my son Brian's first impressions of Hong Kong. Here are the first two travel entries:

James Clavell. 

After reading his two Hong Kong novels, Tai-Pan and Noble House, I have always wanted to visit Hong Kong.  I picked up Tai-Pan out of the school library at South Gate. It was my first year teaching and after arriving in the morning to monitor a meaningless home room, I became a refugee as I was kicked out of the classroom by a more senior teacher.  

With two hours before my first class, I'd head to the library which was mercifully quiet and pick up the book to be transported far away from the broken black top and troublesome students, one last bit of escape before the beginning of four class periods of hell blended into a smooth puree of indigestible agony.

Eight years later, I'm finally here.   Although the British no longer run Hong Kong, their thumbprint is embedded into the city; drivers in Hong Kong follow the British model with the steering wheel on the right hand side of the car.  Instead of stop signs there are "turnabouts" to handle traffic congestion. 

Most signs are in both English and Cantonese, and most of the residents are at least semi-fluent in English. Many of the names retain a distinct British flavor: Victoria Harbor, Southron playground, Flagstaff house, the Quarterdeck club and Colonel cemetery. This is the city the British ruled but the Chinese built.

Hong Kong is efficient and modern; free Wi-fi is offered throughout the entire city to all the residents. (unlike the U.S.) The trains here are known as the MTR, or mass transit railway and are remarkably clean.  

Before using the train, you buy an "Octopus" pass for about $100 HK dollars ($13 American) which gives you a card you scan when you enter and exit the station.  When the card gets low on funds, a nearby kiosk allows you to put more money onto the card. 

Although I haven't been here long, I have the feeling that almost everything in Hong Kong is easily accessible by mass transit. 

I'm at the Eaton hotel in the district of Kowloon, which is centrally located and the heart of many of Hong Kong's hotels.  Victoria Bay cuts the city in half. Across the water I look over at Hong Kong island, a glass menagrie of skyscrapers that overlook the harbor. 

Behind the skyscrapers stand green colored mountains; the combination of mountain, city and water makes Hong Kong one of the more impressive cities I've seen.
Kowloon is more residential, covered in towering apartment buildings, surrounded by mountains, the only place to build here is up.  Many of the apartment buildings look like they've seen better days; residents string clothes out the window to dry; the tile of the buildings are weathered and beaten. The apartments can't be older then the 1970s but look like they were built in the 1920s.  

Immigration was a snap; the airport is designed for tourists with helpful signs pointing the way to the trains and busses.  Employees stand at attention throughout the airport to guide you to your next destination; even though its 5:30 AM, they stand like attentive soldiers waving me through.

Catching the train from the airport, a free shuttle from the train station, brought me to the hotel and short of getting a taxi it could not have been easier.  
I was informed I should ask for an upgrade by someone who stayed here before, so when I arrived I asked if they had anything better.  The conceirge immediately offered a deluxe room (at no exta cost) but have to wait for them to clean it.  So now I'm in the hotel lobby, just waiting.

 - Brian

Hong Kong Files #2

The city is almost suffocating.

Hong Kong is muggy, sticky and sultry, the air damp with a thick moisture that nearly overpowers me as I weave through massive crowds of people. 

 People here rush about like New Yorkers, moving with an intense purpose despite the heat.  Most are Chinese but there are a smattering of Filipinos, Indians, Burmese and trickle of Europeans thrown in. 

The harsh jangling of Cantonese reverberates and echoes off of buildings, a verbal cacophony of clashing cymbals. Kowloon reminds me of San Francisco’s Chinatown dosed up on PCP steroids. 

I stop to get my bearings, checking the navigation map on my phone.  The city confuses me; within five minutes I’m not sure I’d be able to find my way back to the hotel, the landmarks endless neon signs flashing Cantonese hieroglyphics.  

A few signs are in partial English, typically for a hotel or sauna, but most are in indecipherable Chinese characters, a language system so far removed from my background and experiences that I am unable to make external references that will help me translate the sign's meaning. 

Chinese is not phonetic; its symbols are characters based on ideas, not sounds.  On the plane I met a Chinese girl native to Hong Kong who told me it’s easier to write in English even though it's her second language. English she said is designed to more effectively convey ideas in a succinct manner.

I note that the trees here have roots hanging from their branches, the roots able to collect enough moisture out of the air without bothering to sink into the ground. 

People brush past me; foreigners are common here and attract no special notice outside of the Indians that constantly hustle me as I walk down the street.

 “Do you want knock-off watch?  I have fake Rolexes!”

“You want Hashish? Me get for you!”

“You want purse? I have all brands.”
I smile and keep on moving, after about two blocks I’ve been asked ten times if I want a watch, and another six if I want some form of marijuana.  I note that the Indians speak slightly better commercial English than the natives and make a note to ask one of them later for directions if I have a question.

I meet a man claiming to make tailor-made suits.  This is something that interests me, I have planned to buy one when I’m here and it takes time to make a suit, so I follow him back to his shop.  He offers me a three-piece suit for $450, I tell him I only want a coat and pants, and he goes down to $350. 

I state I still need to look around, heading for the door and suddenly we’re down to $300.  I take a look at his fabrics, pretend to know what I’m doing, but shake my head and tell him I need to think about it.  The price lowers to $250.
Now we’re in the ballpark.  I state I’m sorry but I still need to think about it.  His son enters and offers $230.  This is a decent price, I could probably push further but decide that’s fine and he measures me. 

I agree to come back Monday for a second fitting and put down a $1000 Hong Kong dollars as a deposit.  He hands me a receipt and tries again to sell me a shirt; I decline but decide to get a second pair of pants for another $100. 
I weave my way over to the night market, an outside collection of stalls selling knock offs, miscellaneous junk, and bizarre curios that begins at dusk and runs until late at night. 

Angry bird key chains, plastic smurf figurines, busts of Batman and Captain America, stuffed animals, bronze Buddha’s, toy guns, T-shirts, American and European magazines, (inside plastic sleeves to prevent moisture damage or from someone browsing the wares) cheap jewelry, wigs,  keychains,  inferiorly bound, empty journal books with leather covers.

Tomorrow I’ll take pictures because I can’t even begin to remember the sheer collection of crap that must go for at least half a mile in every direction.
People sit outside at small plastic tables eating food; food vendors keep lobster and fish alive in plastic tubs as Chinese families share dinner in a family style manner. 

I pass by an old woman praying over her shop, a handful of incense sticks in her right hand as she sings a chant to bless her business.  I walk by an off track betting parlor filled with Chinese men feverishly checking horse races, flat screen TVs line the walls with betting forms lining the walls.

I’m looking for Dim Sum, but there doesn't appear to be any nearby, so I settle for one of the more popular outside food vendors.  It reminds me of eating in the Philippines; one of the more popular beers I see people drinking is San Miguel light, the most popular (and only light beer) one can get in the Philippines. 

A waitress sits me down at a table across from another white man, a Canadian staying in Hong Kong until the Chinese process is work visa so he can go back to teaching in China.
His name’s Kevin and he’s spent the past 8 years teaching in Korea, but got bored with it so wanted a change of scenery.  He’s teaching in a northwestern province near the border of Tibet, and tells me that Hong Kong is nothing like the rest of China. 

 “Hong Kong is non-stop action, the rest of China is much more sedate, beautiful.  Here people are just on top of each other.  I love it!”
The people next to us are Hong Kongers, but overhear us and strike a conversation with a slight British accent.  I ask them where the best Dim Sum is Hong Kong; they tell me the Sheraton, or Vancouver.   My jaw drops. 

Dim Sum is not really Chinese; it’s a more Western invention.  I order a noodle dish with chicken; it's heavy with MSG but filling and tasty, nothing amazing but nothing offensive about it either.
I walk with Kevin back to his hotel, the Kowloon Mansions.  The rooms are twenty bucks a night, have air conditioning and TV, and just wide enough where if you stretch both your arms you can touch both sides of the wall.  

I suppose it’s a more authentic Hong Kong experience, but I’ll take my 3 star hotel. We agree to meet up tomorrow and I walk home, confident I can find my way back.
I get lost. 

I check my google maps, but I don’t see my hotel. I know it’s nearby, but somehow Hong Kong has magically concealed a 21 story red building behind a puzzle maze of other buildings.  I ask a cab for directions, but the cabbie speaks no English.  Frustrated, I spot an Indian looking man with dark skin and remember he probably speaks better English.  Turns out he does. 
I’m a half block away from the hotel.  I’ve walked past the side street leading to it twice.   I spotted a T-Shirt that had a slogan written on it:  “I got lost in Hong Kong.”

Might have to buy that now.

- Brian

 Copyright 2012 Brian Leiken

LA Teacher

Brian Leiken is an LA inner-city, Special Ed teacher and author of three books for and about his students available on He's also penned I Went Into Teaching for the Money about his first year of teaching in LA. And best of all, he's my son:)

Crossed Out, Messed Up and Knocked Down by Brian Leiken at