Sunday, 15 April 2012

HONG KONG


1st - 14th Apr 2012
Before I start, I would like to point out that the 'proxy' server I have used to access and transmit this 'blog' has worked very well. If anyone else ends up in a country which blocks websites I recommend using the: 'my-private-network.co.uk.' site. It costs £5 per month and WORKS!
Hong Kong
Train from Beijing West left on the dot at 1308hrs. The check in was through customs as we were going to Hong Kong which, to all intents and purposes as far as immigration is concerned, is still another country. I was in a 6 berth sleeper and the rest of the train was full due to it being the Easter holidays. The blasted world population goes on the move at Easter, and the holiday in HK is extended by a further day because the 4th April is national ‘ancestors’ grave cleaning day’ as explained earlier I think. I spent most of the journey in the dining car. Got chatting to a couple of Aussies who were travelling deluxe 1st Class on their way back to Brisbane, as well as a charming octogenarian Chinese gentleman, Mr Huang, who spoke perfect English. In fact he was a retired teacher who had previously taught Chinese diplomats English and had spent some time in Washington teaching American diplomats Chinese. Being the age he is he was caught up in the ‘Cultural Revolution’ when in his 30s and a teacher then. Interesting stories about being put to work in the fields, but he survived to teach again. We arrived at Kowloon after a relatively quick and smooth ride at 1330hrs the next day.

I was to spend the first two nights in a flea-pit in Chunking Mansions in Kowloon. It was cheap. It did, however, have free Wi-Fi and, surprisingly, no fleas. Decent accomodation, and much else, is rather expensive in Hong Kong. I was interested to note the number of irritating Indian hawkers on Nathan Road in Kowloon ( aggressively flogging crap tailoring services and fake Rolex watches ) and Nigerians ( what they were flogging I didn’t even bother to find out ). 
I last visited HK about 30 years ago; pre ‘hand-over’. Not a lot, in essence, has changed. It has just got bigger and more high-rise and even more frenetic. They still drive on the left, the signs are all still in English and Cantonese and there are still lots of the Jardine Matheson types sloping around wearing suits; even if a bit more of the ‘Flash Harry’ variety than ‘City Gent’ nowadays. The Star ferries are the same, the MTR ( metro ) has expanded, expensive afternoon tea at the Peninsular Hotel is still popular with wealthy tourists and they have kept the British standard three square-pin plug. The religion is still Money and more shiny temples have been built to facilitate worship of the Great God Lucre. Ostentatious display of wealth is considered a virtue and I have never seen so many new top-of-the-range Rolls-Royces, Mercs and BMWs in any other city.

They have a maximum 15%  tax rate here and no Capital Gains Tax, no Inheritance Tax or any other Taxes as far as I could tell. I am told they have even removed tax on imported wine! HK is now the largest ‘storer’ of expensive wines. Entrepreneurs, finance houses and businesses are encouraged and flourish without over-regulation. This system seems to generate an awful lot of investment and money. HK is awash with it and their public services are second to none. I am not an economist but it seems to me that our ( UK ) complex and punitive tax regime has exactly the opposite effect. Maybe someone can explain why our successive ( UK ) governments persist in this iniquitous and debilitating robbery. So, nothing has got worse since the dubious ‘ call me Chris’ Patten left ( he wore a belt with his suit trousers; always the sign of a dodgy dealer, and not quite a gentleman ). Wasn’t it he who caused such angst amongst the Chinese because he insisted on them having a democratic system of Government in HK. This was rich coming from the Brits who, since the advent of rule over Hong Kong, had a Governor and an Executive Council which demonstrated absolutely no ‘democracy‘ at all! The appointed Governor ruled, with no votes, no arguments, least of all from the local Chinese. It happened to work rather well. Democracy??!! Pull the other one.

Thanks to Hugo (left), an ex-army (Coldstream Guards, no less) colleague who works here (and for some inexplicable reason was sporting Lenin style facial shrubbery), I was provided with more salubrious accommodation in Sheung Wan district on Hong Kong Island. He encouraged me to go on a hike with him over the hills to the beaches on the south-east tip of the Island. He does this twice a week. Good exercise and we ended up at Shek O beach and had a good lunch. There is an upmarket golf club here. It was on this golf course in 1941 ( around Christmas ) that the invading Japs beheaded five British nurses. To this day the golf club does not accept any Japanese members.
My stay here was to be prolonged because of the Easter hols and the Chinese National Ancestors’ Grave Cleaning holiday, effectively shutting the consulates down from the 4th to the 10th. My Rooshan visa would be ready on the 10th (very smart efficient Russian Consulate with rather smart and polite staff as it happened) and I would then have to get another Chinese visa to get me back into China. ‘One country two systems’ my arse. It’s still two countries. So a bit of enforced lounging around and the opportunity to do a bit of touristing.
I have a friend, Chris, ex-Royal Navy, ex-British Airways, now working for Cathay Pacific who lives on Lantau Island, where the new airport is. A ferry ride to visit and what a change Lantau is from Hong Kong. A very rural setting around the town of Mui Wo with lots of walks around the hills. We were joined by another Cathay chap, Michael, who, coincidently went to the same prep school as both myself and Hugo. That’s quite some coincidence! Right: Michael and Chris.











A couple of days of heavy rain put paid to a few outings. No shortage of good  pubs and eateries to pass the time in though and well entertained by the generous Hugo. And I then got a stinking cold, but soldiered on especially when the sun came out for most of the time thereafter.
Walks around the town featured a few landmark buildings such as the old Police HQ (left) on Wyndham Street which will either be pulled down or turned into a hotel. There is a severe lack of hotel accommodation and so this is the fate of many large no-longer-needed buildings.




Right: The old High Court which has been replaced by a mammoth high rise shiny glass and concrete tower. This building is still used by the ‘Legco’. 
















Left: The old Governor’s House, last inhabited by the Pattens ( plus their two vicious little dogs Whisky and Soda ) until 1997. Now not lived in and hardly used, but still guarded. It used to be a pleasant cream colour. Millions of gallons of ‘battleship’ grey paint must have been unearthed because this place, with it’s Japanese styled roofing ( they did this during their occupation ), has been repainted this colour along with many other public buildings.















Right: The statue of a New Zealand soldier in Hong Kong Park which was the site of Victoria Barracks until pulled down in the 1960s. This soldier is commemorated because he won the VC fighting someone somewhere or other. Looks a bit WW1ish. I’ve forgotten. Lovely park, with fish ponds and gardens, plus the old Flagstaff House ( the GOC’s residence ) which is now a  tea museum, and beautifully preserved. 


Left: An example of a particularly odd looking office block. Designed by an Australian, or for an Australian company, I was told and supposed to feature Koalas on the outside.There are so many weird, wonderful and impressive high-rise architectural constructions in this city it is imposible to single out any one as outstanding.






Right: Up to The Peak on the Peak Tram; a very touristy thing to do. This was the first bit of public transport initiated by the British at the end of the 19th century. Up until then the ‘nobs’ going up to the Peak were carried there in sedan chairs. Must have been a bit of a struggle for the carriers. The tram used always to keep the front two seats free and reserved for the use of the Governor until 2 minutes before departure. It involved much queuing on the day I went.
Left: The view from the Peak, and they have built a new high-rise ‘sky-tower’ platform at the top with numerous restaurants, bars and shops, which affords a good view of the city and north over Victoria Harbour towards Kowloon....when the mist, cloud and pollution allows, which is not often. It was very windy when I was there, but fortunately not in cloud.




Easter Monday was spent at Sha Tin races up in the New Territories. It was the same day as the Morpeth Point-to-Point in Northumberland. The weather was sunny but not too hot and the going good on the turf track. The racecourse features an enormous hi-tech stand and somehow we managed to blag our way into the Members enclosure.





No expense has been spared on mod-cons although it soon becomes apparent that the facilities are 90% geared to gambling and corporate boxes, with 10% to the sport itself. It is all rather clinical. Most of the members (inside the stand) sit in comfortable chairs with an armrest table to write out their bets and an electronic machine in front to place them plus a large screen TV on which to watch and hear the races. They only had to move to get food and drink or have a pee. In fact most of the view from the stands only allows sight of the winning straight. The race in the back straight is watched on a giant screen beside the winning post. 


Right: The covered parade ring is very plush and all on an artificial surface. They don’t appear to provide decent race-cards; only a rough paper list of runners. The punters all bring local newspapers with all the details. 







Left: The jockeys all wore immaculate shiny silks which looked brand new (not a speck of mud, sweat or blood on them) and the horses bridles were of garish coloured plastic. Curiously I didn’t see any of the horses carrying weight-cloths. I wondered where they put the lead.






There were eleven races on the card of both the turf and dirt variety; quite a marathon. The races only varied in distance between 1000 and 1800 metres  (whatever that is in real distance) on the right-handed track. The crowd were comparatively muted in their cheering on of the runners and welcoming in of the winner. No raucous ‘Irish’ style celebrations with singing, dancing, hugging the horse and trainer (and the trainer’s wife) and hats being flung in the air. No way! 



Left: The presentation ceremonies for the winning connections were somewhat perfunctory with only the press photographers allowed in the immediate vicinity. I think this lot had just won the ‘feature’ race of the day which might have been the ‘Skol Cup’. The owner with the tasteful purple hair is, I was told, an actor. The crowd were not very interested; they were all back inside gambling.
I mentioned the local (English language) newspapers which gave all the relevant details of the runners. They also featured several pages given over to the ‘pundits’ and ‘tipsters’ who all forecast the results both in verbose ‘expert’ language and in a detailed chart. It was noticeable that not a single expert/pundit/tipster forecast correctly the winner of a race! I am always incredibly cynical of ‘tipsters’, even in our comparatively honest British racing. I wouldn’t dare name names, but there are several TV pundits whose ( you can almost 100% guarantee ) ‘fancy’ will absolutely not win, ever! I am always conscious that the bookies have a serious vested interest in persuading the public to bet on a loser. I would hope that ‘tipsters’ are never ‘encouraged’ by bookmakers to provide dodgy information. Of course not. Racing in Hong Kong is all about lots of money and efficiently run by the Hong Kong Jockey Club ( they are the ‘bookies’ here as well, as it happens ) which is one of the wealthiest organisations around. It contributes a lot of dosh to the local economy and good causes, so it is popular.
Anyway, it was a very interesting and jolly day out. Having said that I know that a lot more fun and competitive sport ( and drink, with people ‘tripping over molehills’ ) would have been had, despite Arctic conditions, at the Morpeth Point-to-Point.



No visit to Hong Kong is complete without a trip on a Star Ferry across the harbour between the Island and Kowloon. They are a HK institution. I spent a couple of days over there. Right: The Ferry terminal on the Island side. 







Left: One of the Star ferries approaching the Kowloon side with the old clocktower ( where the original railway station was ) and a new concert hall in the background.














Right: The two-deck ferries feature a ‘control room’ at both ends so the drivers just use the other end to go back (no turning around required) and the bench seats all have reversable seat backs. They are still a quick, popular and cheap way to get across Victoria Harbour. 








Left: The front entrance to the iconic Peninsular Hotel (near the Kowloon ferry terminal). 














......which is normally surrounded by Rolls-Royces and similar (right).














Left: There was a long queue (at 2.30pm) for ‘afternoon tea’ in the restaurant by the foyer. This meal features a large cake-stand and pots of tea and costs a fortune. I suppose the pack of Americans at the back of the queue would be sitting down to their tea at the more respectable time of about 4.30pm.






Right: On the 28th floor, with a good view over the harbour, is the Felix Bar. This is of an ‘interesting’ 1990s design by a famous designer whose name I forget. It has rather loud ‘trendy’ background music which I thought was incredibly annoying. The sort of place where you sip your dry martini wearing ear-defenders.




Left: A junk in the harbour.












I visited both the Science and History museums in Kowloon. Actually I only wanted to visit the History museum and I went there on Tuesday, to find that it is open every day of the week...except Tuesdays. That was why I went into the Science museum next door which was open until 9.00pm. It was ‘quite’ interesting. It had a large display of mirrors and the curious effects that can be obtained using them. Right: Mirrors (a complex geometric science) are responsible for many of the so-called magic or illusions one sees on stage and TV. It only took a couple of well placed mirrors to make the bottom half of this girl disappear. 
Many other gizmos and machines and demonstrations were on show amongst which I found a display concerning the population of the world. It featured a light display of the globe showing population expansion from the year 500 AD. It was quite alarming to see the ever accelerating world population growth, a classic exponential curve. In 1650 the estimated world population was 500 million, in 1850 it was 1 billion, in 1980, 4.5 billion and, with a present day net worldwide increase of 3 people ( accelerating ) per second was, at 5.35pm on Tuesday 10th April, 7,007,369,723. By 6.40pm, as I was leaving, it was 7,007,383,824. The population of China is now ( or was at 5.35pm last Tuesday ) 1, 373,916,195 increasing by 0.5% per year. The population of India was 1,221,668,236 and increasing by 2% per annum. I don’t know about you, but if these statistics are even half correct I find it a frightening trend. What is the answer? In UK they are just planning to build a new city of 2 million houses! I’m not sure if this addresses the underlying impending catastrophe. Another vital statistic I discovered here is that 10,000 pigs are eaten per day in Hong Kong; 3.75 million per year. At least the pig population is being kept under control.
A couple of days later I went to the History museum. It is excellent ( as I had been told ). I gave myself 4 hours and it was not long enough.  It took you through the history of Hong Kong from prehistoric times to almost present day. I ended up by rushing through WW2 and subsequent periods. It was remarkably respectful towards the period of British occupation ( and understandably scathing about the Japanese ). Facsimilies of the Treaty of Nanking (1842), Convention of Peking (1860) and the Lease of the New Territories (1898) were on display. 


Left: Lots on the flora and fauna of the area. Can’t say that I’ve noticed too many tigers in the vicinity. Behind you!!............













I was quite taken with the pictures and memorablia from the early days. The Hong Kong Club (founded 1846) for Europeans of the Upper Classes featured, as did the Kowloon Cricket Club as per this photo  (circa 1907). Those were the days, eh?
I got my visas. Another drain on the budget. That is all what visas are; a money-making racket and buggeration factor. If I was a terrorist or gangster I would hardly be likely to admit to it on the visa application form. So back to Peking on the next available train which is on the 14th April. All the transport out of HK is pretty booked up after the holiday period. I have, I think, managed to download a ‘proxy server’ which might allow me to access my blogsite in Peking. If so you will be getting this rubbish on or about the 15th April. If not, haven’t a clue.

PS. A few pics missing above. The proxy works well but slowly, and I couldn't be arsed to wait for the remaining 3 photos to download.  

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