Hong Kong’s New Year celebration is a dazzling event worth putting on your 2011 agenda.
As our Air Canada Airbus slowly taxied down the runway at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, I believed I had some insight into how Jed Clampett felt when he left for Beverly Hills. Accompanying me on this 15 hour non-stop flight were my mother-in-law Faye and her two grandchildren, cousins Meaggie, 13, and Alex, 15.
Granted we were on our way to celebrate Chinese New Year in Hong Kong, not to buy real estate in Beverly Hills, and Faye would probably object to being called Granny. My niece Alex is half-Chinese and had never been to Asia before so she and her gwaipo (“white ghost”) cousin Meaggie, my stepdaughter, were literally bouncing with excitement.
Arriving at Hong Kong’s new airport, Chek Lap Kok, I remarked on how spacious and well laid out it was. It did, however, lack the view into nearby apartments that the old airport in Kowloon provided. (They were so close to the runway you could wave to children on their balconies and they’d wave back!)
From the Airport we were whisked to our hotel, The Ritz-Carlton, in Central, the heart of Hong Kong’s business district. Central is usually traffic and pedestrian choked, but over the New Year it empties as businesses closes down, most for the week. We had its parks and unique buildings almost to ourselves by Hong Kong standards.
The Ritz-Carlton proved to be quite opulent, yet maintained the friendly atmosphere of a boutique hotel. Our rooms overlooked Victoria Harbour with a great view of the Star Ferry Terminal.
These vintage ferries once provided the only public means of transportation from Hong Kong Island to the more residential district of Kowloon. This fact once proved useful to affluent businessmen whose families lived across the harbor and whose mistresses resided on Hong Kong Island. One could always claim that, working late, they had missed the last ferry, thereby being “forced” to overnight on the island. Unhappily (for some), a tunnel was constructed under the harbor and this time-honored excuse bit the dust.
The Star Ferry also proved handy for us being only a few minutes walk from the hotel and allowing access to the blandishments of Kowloon. Our first morning in the city required some consultation as to what to do first. Possibilities included climbing Victoria Peak via its storied tramway, having tea at the legendary Peninsula Hotel or visiting the huge bronze Buddha on nearby Lantau Island. Due to pressure tactics from my two young charges our first stop, instead, was the Teddy Bear Museum in Kowloon, followed by shopping for “designer” apparel in the street markets.
The Teddy Bears were actually quite interesting with one looking uncannily like Chairman Mao, and another tooled in solid gold. The girls insisted on getting their photo taken cuddled up to a huge panda (a stuffed one).
The markets were intriguing for my young wards who snapped up rather shoddy looking goods similar to famous name brands. We also toured the colorful flower market thronged with people purchasing flowers to decorate their homes for New Year’s Eve.
Now it was my turn to choose destinations and the girls accompanied me to The Peninsula Hotel for High Tea. A holdover from the Empire, the ambiance is strictly Victorian with white-coated waiters passing out tea, scones, tiny sandwiches and clotted cream with jam.
fter taking tea, male tourists should avail themselves of the restroom in the exclusive upstairs restaurant where one has unequaled panoramic views of Hong Kong Island while using the urinals.
Following tea we toured the halls of the Hong Kong Heritage Museum. This is a must see for tourists. Alexandra, whose father’s original family name was Sung, was amazed to discover that the last Sung Emperor the so-called “Boy Emperor” fled to Hong Kong eight hundred years ago to avoid the advancing Mongol hoards. Her ancestors may have been part of his entourage.
The museum diplomatically skirts the reason Hong Kong came into British hands. I, on the other hand, had done a little more reading on the subject. It seems that in the mid 1800’s the British, French and Americans had a hunger for Chinese goods. Since the west initially had nothing the Chinese wanted they began exporting large amounts of opium and quickly got much of the Chinese population hooked on the narcotic. When the emperor tried to ban the importation of opium into his country the three powers began the endeavor known as the Opium Wars. Militarily if not morally superior to the Chinese, they won and extracted many concessions including Hong Kong.
Somewhat later an agent unknown laced with arsenic the bread made at the Chinese bakery,which supplied most of the European residents. They underestimated the dosage resulting in several hundred very sick colonists but apparently no fatalities. Afterwards the British imported European bakers.
New Year’s Eve is singularly unexciting in Hong Kong. Analogous to Christmas Eve, most people spend the time quietly with family. New Year’s Day (February 9th), however, makes up for this when a lively International Parade marches through Central. Participants come from all over the world. I discovered this at lunchtime when I noticed a table full of gorgeous ladies with southern accents (American not Chinese) at the adjacent table. Investigating further I discovered these were the fabled Miami Dolphin Cheerleaders.
Later that night at the parade, I saw them displaying their ample talents and also took in a panoply of dragon dancers, Germans in lederhosen, and an Australian marching band. The Caribana crew provided Canadian content from Toronto whose exotic costumes stole the show.
We noticed that chickens played a major role in the parade. One of the bystanders informed Meaggie and Alex that this was the year of … shall we say a synonym for Rooster which I had been avoiding using. A stern frown quieted the ensuing giggles.
The next day we boarded a ferry for Lantau Island to climb up inside the world’s tallest seated outdoor bronze Buddha at the Po Lin Monastery. I took this to mean that there are taller non-bronze standing Buddhas, located indoors in other parts of the world.
Nevertheless it was quite impressive, though less so after climbing 260 steps to reach the base of the statue. Inside is housed a relic of Buddha and tradition has it that you may make a wish. Tradition says little about whether the wishes have a tendency to come true or not.
We also visited the fishing village of Tai O on Lantau Island. This is a traditional village where locals tolerate busloads of nosy tourists and still manage to carry on with their way of life (a bit like Nova Scotia’s Peggy’s Cove). A gastronomic specialty of the village is a shrimp paste made by burying buckets of the little crustaceans under the sand in the hot sun for three weeks. I decided to pass on trying this delicacy.
That evening we enjoyed a half-hour of awesome fireworks launched from four barges in Victoria Harbour. The skyline of Central provided a great background from our vantage point on top of a parking garage in Kowloon.
Another New Year must-do is a visit to the Wishing Tree at Lam Tsuen. For approximately four dollars Canadian a prospective wisher purchases an ornate scroll attached by a ribbon to an orange. You then write your wish on the scroll and must throw the orange into the tree, hopefully wrapping it around a branch. The higher the branch the more likely the wish is to be granted.
Since the scrolls showed a disconcerting tendency not to stay in the tree the whole scenario quickly degenerates into something resembling a university cafeteria food fight (which my teenage fellow travellers thoroughly enjoyed).
Our next-to-last day was spent finding a McDonald’s (the girls having grown a bit sated with Chinese food) and visiting Ocean Park, a large amusement park with a Chinese theme. I should mention that Ocean Park has spectacular views of the South China Sea from a cable car, two live pandas, and a great shark tank you can walk through.
At New Years it also has crowds like Disney during March break. Fortunately, having learned amusement park guerrilla tactics at Disney World a couple of years ago, I planned my assault on Ocean Park carefully, managing to avoid long waits for rides and getting into most of the shows.
Our final day, having twice celebrated the New Year in less than two months, Faye, Meaggie, Alex were ready to head home. We had been educated, entertained and given a good appreciation of how another culture celebrates its New Year.
If You Go…
Hong Kong Tourism Board:
9 Temperance St., ground floor
Toronto, ON M5H 1Y6
Tel: (416) 366-2389 or 1-800-563-4582
Online at www.DiscoverHongkong.com
“New Years fireworks with Hong Kong Central in background” © George Burden
“Hong Kong Central; old court house and government buildings” © George Burden
“New Year’s Dragon and lanterns” © George Burden
“High Tea at the Peninsula Hotel” © George Burden
“Meaggie and Alex with Jackie Chan (in wax)” © George Burden