Hong Kong

Hong Kong hiking- Devil’s Peak


In previous posts, I’ve pointed out that Hong Kong, despite being famous for its concrete jungle, is actually covered by a lot of mountains and nature parks. But besides that, Hong Kong is also a maritime city, surrounded by water and virtually next to the Pacific ocean. Well, specifically, it’s the East China Sea, but that leads to the Pacific. So Hong Kong is also full of coves, bays, and even beaches, as well as lots of small islands. While some of these places require a bit of hiking and/or a long transit to get to, others are a few subway stops and a short hike away.

One such place is Lei Yue Mun (Carp Channel) near Yau Tong, on the eastern edge of Kowloon. Between Yau Tong and Hong Kong island, there is a narrow gap that leads to the sea to the east, while to the west is Victoria Harbour. The two sides of the gap collectively are called Lei Yue Mun. In the old days, this was a vital strategic point that guarded the eastern side of Victoria Harbour from enemy ships. As a result, the British built forts and gun batteries in Lei Yue Mun. In Yau Tong, you can see the remnants of some of these battery walls, but not cannons, on Devil’s Peak, which is only a little over 200m high, but has some brilliant views of Junk Bay and the sea. You can also see Victoria Harbour as well though that is partly obscured. Despite its name, hiking Devil’s Peak isn’t that hard, but it does involve a long walk from Yau Tong subway station to the trailhead along a steep road (the Lion Rock hike is also the same – the walk to the trailhead from the subway is harder than the actual hike). Once you get onto the trail, it takes about 20 minutes or less to reach the summit and gun battery.


Just over the hill is the Lei Yue Mun gap

Looking to your right on Devil’s Peak lets you view Victoria Harbour, Wan Chai (left) and the rest of Kowloon (from the centre to the right)


Part of the gun battery 


The start of the trail

Junk Bay. Even such a secluded cove has a large residential complex 

Hong Kong kite, the local bird of prey

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China · China travel · Travel

China travel- Datong and the Hanging Temple


As Datong used to be a capital of a regional dynasty in the 3rd to 5th centuries, it features several historical attractions in addition to the Yungang Grottoes. Foremost among these is the 1,500-year-old Hanging Temple. It doesn’t exactly hang, but it is an elegant wooden temple complex that is built onto a cliff wall. It already looks unbelievable in photos but it is more impressive in real. Sixty-five km from Datong, the Hanging Temple is located within Hengshan, which is also a major attraction in its own right as one of China’s most sacred mountains. As the temple, which was built during the 4th century AD, is precariously mounted on the cliff wall, it is narrow and visitors enter in a one-way direction from top to bottom.
Another historic sight is the Sakyamuni Pagoda, built in 1056, the oldest wooden pagoda in the country. The attractive, large, multi-layered tower stands 67m. While it is impressive that such a tall wooden pagoda could survive for so long, visitors cannot ascend it. I visited this pagoda as part of a day-trip arranged by my hostel to the Hanging Temple and while they are one hour apart, the pagoda is worth seeing as a secondary attraction. That said, the public toilet in the temple grounds was the nastiest I’ve ever seen, which forced me to almost run out without using it, and that is saying something (the only detail I’ll provide is no running water) given how many bad washrooms I’ve been to in China.

Aside from the Yungang Grottoes, Datong is a relatively nondescript and not-so-prosperous city. There are a couple of temples, Huayuan Monastery, a huge compound with several halls and a pagoda, and the Shanhua Temple, which features some attractive wooden buildings. The temples are more sleek than most traditional temples in China, with less animal and deity statues on the curved roofs. The Huayuan Monastery looked impressive, but there is a distinct lack of authenticity as only three of its buildings are original, as an employee told me. Meanwhile, another difference is that Huayuan Monastery’s entrance faces east unlike many Chinese temples, due to the Khitans being sun worshippers.

Datong had a mayor who had huge ambitions to build it up into a tourist mecca, which culminated in creating a new “ancient city centre” and putting up towering, brand-new city walls to replicate ancient walls that had been torn down decades earlier. However, this mayor got transferred to the provincial capital Taiyuan, so the city wall was not completed. In addition, the plan saw thousands of residents relocated and homes destroyed. While the wall looks impressive, it is completely fake so I didn’t bother to visit it.
  
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Hong Kong

Hong Kong hiking-Lion Rock


As one of Hong Kong’s most well-known mountains, Lion Rock is regarded as a symbol of Hong Kong’s working-class resilience as it developed into a prosperous financial hub in the latter half of the 20th-century. This originated from a local 1970s TV show called “Below the Lion Rock” about working-class families living in communities below Lion Rock.

At 495m, it is not very high but it commands the best views of urban Hong Kong, letting you take in Kowloon, Hong Kong island and even the smaller islets in the west. To have so much of Hong Kong spread out below you is a fantastic feeling, though one which you will likely have to share with dozens of people around you on the peak. Lion Rock also has a special role in recent politics as a physical platform to express ideas. Since the Occupy Central protests in 2014, Pro-Hong Kong democracy activists have scaled its cliffs to hang political banners, which were then promptly taken down by the police.

I climbed Lion Rock from east to west, going from Wong Tai Sin MTR station to the Shatin Pass Road, going up the trail head there, and coming down by a small garden to Chuk Yuen Road. I followed the directions here, which is an excellent site for Hong Kong hikes. The walk to the trailhead on Shatin Pass Road was probably the most gruelling part. It is a funny trait of several Hong Kong hikes that the walk to the trail is much tougher than the actual hike itself. The Peak hike on Lugard Road is the same in that the walk to the trailhead from Sai Ying Pun station is the most arduous part.



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China · China travel · Travel

China travel- Yungang Grottoes, Datong

During my final months working in China, I took a couple of weekend trips including to Datong, in Shanxi Province. While Shanxi may be better known as the dusty, heavily polluted, coal-producing center of China, it is also one of the country’s oldest core areas of civilization. China’s coal city of Datong was a former capital of the Northern Wei dynasty, a Xianbei (Mongolian) regime which ruled much of northern China from 386-535 AD, from which was built the impressive Yungang Grottoes. Yungang is one of the three largest and most famous Buddhist grottoes in China. The others include the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, Henan, which I’d visited a few years earlier, and Dunhuang in Gansu. Datong also has a few temples, and a large city wall that was newly built to recreate the city’s old wall. Further away from Datong is the Hanging Temple, a wooden Buddhist temple built on a cliff, and Sakyamuni Wooden Pagoda. I also wrote about all this for a newspaper feature about Datong.

Yungang features dozens of caves and countless stone carvings of Buddhas cut onto the cliff walls of a mountain stretching from west to east. There are gigantic towering Buddhas, smaller human-sized ones and even tiny intricate carvings smaller than your hand. The most impressive are the number 7 and 8 caves, the entrances of which are enclosed by multi-story wooden structures. The caves feature giant Buddhas, walls filled with intricate stone Buddhist figures, and cave ceilings painted with colorful murals of scenes from Buddhist legends. It is an impressive sight, as are the giant Buddhas on the outside further down.

 
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Beijing travel- Yonghegong Lama Temple and Imperial Academy


Beijing has so many famous sites that it’s not surprising that its largest temple is somewhat overlooked. But the Yonghegong Lama Temple is still a nice place to visit, being a rare instance of Tibetan Buddhist building that blends both Tibetan and Chinese Buddhist architectural aspects. Built in the late 17th century during the Qing Dynasty, Yonghegong actually was a residence for an imperial prince, before being converted into a lamasery, a monastery for Tibetan Buddhist monks. I first visited it during my first week in Beijing when I came to work there in 2013, then brought a friend visiting from Trinidad there. The temple is always full of worshippers and tourists, and saffron and red-clad Buddhist monks can be seen walking around as well. Unlike some other Chinese temples, the commercial aspect is toned down so there isn’t a ton of vendors and stalls in the temple ground. While the worship halls and the largest building, the three-storey Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses at the northern end, are all interesting, the most fascinating aspect of the temple is the exhibit of small Buddhist statues, specifically deities wrapped up in erotic Tantric coupling, as you will see in my photos below.

Across the street from Yonghegong temple in a nearby lane is the Imperial Academy or Guozijian, a former imperial college for officials. As the name implies, it was the highest place of learning in the country and used for training and testing officials throughout the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Built in 1306, making it older than the Yonghegong temple by centuries, the Guozijian is also worth a visit and is a quieter place than the Yonghegong Temple. Inside the ground is also the Confucius Temple, the second largest in the country.

Outside the temple, there are a bunch of fortune-telling and Buddhist paraphernalia stores along Yonghegong street, as well as sadly, numerous beggars, some of whom are handicapped and missing limbs. It might be different now, but back then, there was always a lot of them on that street.


  

After you are done with the Yonghegong Temple, head to the Confucius Temple nearby.

The famous Chinese sage

Emperor’s seat 

Rows of massive stele inscribed with Confucian classics

  


Yonghegong Temple from outside

Nearby Hutong, which may or may not still be around, given Beijing’s recent destruction of hutongs

Books

Everything Belongs To Us- book review

I like to read novels set in Asian countries, such as India, China, Myanmar, and even Malaysia. Now I can add South Korea to that list after having read Everything Belongs to Us, a coming-of-age novel about three young Korean university students in Seoul living under military dictatorship in the late 70s back when the country was still poor. I reviewed it for the Asian Review of Books, which forms most of my post below, with a few slight changes.

South Korea was not always a prosperous, democratic and cutting-edge country. In the seventies, it was poor and ruled by a harsh authoritarian regime desperate to catch up with the West while cracking down on any form of public dissent. 

Namin, Jisun and Sunam are students at Seoul National University, the best school in the nation. Graduation means an almost guaranteed life of lucrative employment, connections and advancement. For Jisun, the daughter of one of the country’s richest tycoons, this life of privilege is exactly what she hates. But for her friend Namin, the daughter of street-food vendors, it is everything, though not for purely materialistic reasons. In between is Sunam, who desperately wants to climb the school’s social ladder by becoming a member of the Circle, a campus secret society. He soon falls for Namin and starts dating her. But their relationship becomes complicated as their contrasting backgrounds and ambitions clash.

The students’ personal struggles take place amid stark societal problems such as violent factory worker protests, a clandestine Christian activist network trying to agitate for workers, and the sad fate of Namin’s bitter older sister who leaves her factory job to work in a red light district and gets pregnant by an American GI who later leaves her. The latter brings the starkness of poverty to the fore, especially when she then leaves her baby with Namin’s sister. These disparate elements are not explored very deeply but mesh together to form a subdued background. Sometimes, it seems as if too much is going on and some plot elements such as the Circle are introduced then discarded; the narrative might have benefited from a tighter focus on the more central elements.

The settings vary from Namin’s working-class sparse home to Jisun’s ultra-wealthy household, but they are still subject to the same forces that dominate society. Under President Park Chung-hee—the father of the recent female president who was just impeached—South Korea is a rigid, conservative nation that has forsaken personal liberties for economic growth and prohibited dissent. While Namin is constrained by these stifling norms, Jisun actively pushes against them. All this works to create an intriguing story, especially as it is never apparent whether Namin or Jisun will prevail in their respective challenges.

The historical context is notable, not just because it is a particularly precarious time during the country’s economic development, but also because there are very few English-language novels set in South Korea and not about the Korean War. As such, the novel provides a welcome glimpse into a country that is still not that well-known or portrayed in the West except for its electronics brands.

Wuertz’s female protagonists are strong and driven; but the male characters, however, are flimsy and superficial. Sunam has little going for him, other than being a good player of baduk, also known as go. It is unclear why both main female characters are drawn intently to him and at times, this mars the storyline. Other male characters, such as Juno, Sunam’s supposed mentor, and the American missionary, Peter, play a very minor role or act mostly as a foil for Jisun. In fact the latter starts off as a love interest for Jisun, but by the end is reduced to begging her for money for a legal case.

The more memorable male characters are minor ones such as Namin’s brother whose cerebral palsy caused him to be sent to be raised by their grandparents in the countryside, and Sunam’s controlling, tycoon father. The former is a major reason for Namin’s incredible drive for trying to advance herself at school as she has a dream of getting rich and buying a large house that she and her brother can live in.

Nevertheless, Namin and Jisun are compelling characters that deservedly soak up most of the attention. Together, they drive a worthy literary debut in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Hong Kong

Urban Hong Kong photo roundup

Urban Hong Kong might be crowded, cramped and noisy but it still makes for interesting sights. It is probably the most built-up urban environment in the world, especially on Hong Kong Island, which is very hilly but apartment towers line the slopes of upper Central, Sheung Wan and Mid-Levels all the way up to just below the Peak. It is an impressive sight but on the other hand, the actual living spaces in a lot of the buildings (not Mid-Levels) are not, such as older towers, especially in Kowloon but even in supposedly trendier neighborhoods like Sheung Wan. It would be nice if the authorities spent more time, effort and funds on renovating existing buildings and neighborhoods, especially historical ones.


Probably Hong Kong’s most well-known mural, located in Central


Kowloon, above and below

Tram with retro advertising

I usually don’t go to these kinds of street markets as they are too crowded for me.

Wetmarket in Central – a non-touristy aspect of an increasingly touristy part of town
“Little Indonesia” – side street in Causeway Bay

Above photo and the following two are from the inner courtyard of Yick Fat Building, a public housing estate in Quarry Bay. A scene from Transformers 4 (the one with scenes in Hong Kong and China) was shot here.

The next four photos are of Central and Sheung Wan.

Hong Kong

Is Hong Kong a world city?

To some people, this question is obvious. Hong Kong is one of the world’s greatest cities, almost on par with New York and London, basically “Asia’s World City,” according to them. But they are wrong. While this may have been true a long time ago, maybe even up to 15 years ago, despite what some people profess, Hong Kong is not and is actually moving further and further away from being a world city every single day. There are experts who have made this claim and they look at macro-political, economic and governance factors, but I think just looking at society tells its story.

Now Hong Kong is a top financial hub. It is also unique as a city-state that has its own flag, currency, administration, police, educational system, and legal system. But it is not a city that can call London and New York its peers.
First, a great city is strong in more than one area. If you look at New York, it is the US center of gravity for arts, media, advertising, business, finance, tourism and so on. London can claim a similar status for business, arts, media, education, and political power. In Hong Kong- finance, yes, but nothing else. Going through key areas, the situation is bleak. In sports, there is the Hong Kong rugby sevens annual tournament which is certainly well-known, but no other major events. Its entertainment industry used to be well-known regionally, back in the 80s and 90s, but its singers and movie stars are no longer famous outside of Hong Kong. It may be a financial hub and boast some incredibly rich tycoons, such as Li Ka-shing, one of Asia’s richest men, yet none of its companies dominate banking or finance. HSBC is not a Hong Kong company despite its name, while AIA may be one of the world’s biggest insurance companies, but it is headed by a Westerner and was spun off from AIG. Customer service is alright at best, often dismal and sometimes downright rude. You can easily find better service in Taipei, Tokyo, and Seoul. And Hong Kong doesn’t produce or develop much of anything, so there isn’t anything here that you can’t buy elsewhere.
Also, a great city should be the most important city in its own country, for example, London in the UK, Paris in France, Toronto in Canada etc. Hong Kong, however, isn’t even the most important city in China, or even the second.

Second, a great city should be multicultural. One might say Hong Kong has loads of expats, as well as Westerners and Indians who’ve lived in Hong Kong for generations, as well as a multitude of Southeast Asian helpers. But Hong Kong is still overwhelmingly ethnic Chinese (almost 95%) and its government and institutions are all run by ethnic Chinese with a thin layer of Westerners holding senior positions. Meanwhile, all those Southeast Asian helpers are temporary workers who fulfill an important role but who are not exactly part of regular society (they are not eligible to apply for permanent residency and are bound to live in their employers’ homes). Longtime Westerners may be doing alright as do some Indian business families, but a lot of South Asians who grew up here still struggle to get proper education, jobs and representation. Unlike Singapore, no non-white minority holds or has held a top governing or administrative post and there are hardly any minority faces in entertainment. On the contrary, it is common to see white expats hold positions of power in administration as well as business and education. Not that they are all unqualified, but this is both a reflection of colonial heritage and a lack of local leadership talent. Of course, by this same rationale of multiculturalism, regional metropolises like Tokyo, Seoul, and even Shanghai fall short and for the same reason, they are not really great world cities.

Third, some folks try to label Hong Kong as the perfect example of East meets West. However, the result is not so much a dynamic, unique blend, but a watered down mixture. That doesn’t mean there aren’t talented and quality people, because there are, but it’s that the society and culture does not create anything spectacular. The reason is probably due to a mix of factors like cramped buildings and streets, sky-high living expenses, animosity towards China’s growing control, and so on. There is a lot of negativity in Hong Kong between people, and I don’t mean my little rant here. The strong notorious anti-mainland Chinese sentiment still exists but I’m not just talking about that. A lot of Hong Kongers are trying to emigrate, even young people, which says something about how they perceive their future here. And to be honest, a lot of people, especially locals, some expats, and even the SE Asian helpers, don’t like it here and don’t like each other.

By being unable to be great at anything except as a business/finance hub and by failing to become truly liveable and truly integrate non-Chinese minorities, Hong Kong is not able to break out from its box. In a sense, it is already special, but more as a fading star still living on past glories.

This issue has perplexed a lot of people, including those who are more intelligent and informed than me. But in short, a city cannot be great if its only purpose is as a finance hub and that is pretty much all Hong Kong has got going for it.

China · China travel · Travel

China travel- Anhui’s Hongcun village

One of two old UNESCO World Heritage Site villages near Huangshan, Hongcun is the most attractive Chinese village I’ve ever been to (not that I’ve been to that many, but trust me, it is beautiful).
Situated next to a stream, with a small lake in front of it and a pond within it, Hongcun is also where scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were filmed. In real life, the village is just as scenic, and you’ll sometimes see Chinese art students sitting across from the lake painting the village.

I went to Hongcun on a cold, overcast morning on the last day (having gone to Xidi, the other World Heritage village in the area on the first day) of my Chinese New Year trip to Huangshan a few years ago. Unlike Huangshan, the village was not too crowded with tourists, which was a good thing because it is full of narrow alleys. To enter Hongcun, you cross a narrow stone bridge with an arch in the middle and no rails (so be careful! Or you can just walk around to the side of the lake) into the actual village and its lanes of traditional and well-preserved black-roofed white houses, examples of Huizhou architecture. Many of these were built by wealthy merchants and officials during the Ming and Qing dynasties which the size, design and workmanship, such as wooden frames and carvings, attest to. Several of the larger houses feature open courtyards with ancestral halls featuring portraits of illustrious ancestors and wooden frames.

When you get to the middle of the village, you’ll reach the Moon Pond, and the sight of old houses and their reflections on the pond is an incredibly photogenic sight. It is also exactly where one of the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon scenes was shot, specifically the part where fighters are gliding across rooftops and leaping onto water while duelling with each other. There was a small meat market behind held that morning by the pond, which certainly didn’t seem like it was for tourists, while dried pork flanks, split-open fish and ducks hung right in the open on the walls of a few nearby houses.
Those were reminders that Hongcun, as with Xidi, is a living community despite being a tourist hotspot. That’s not to say there aren’t many villagers who’ve opened restaurants or sell souvenirs and local food specialties, but it isn’t as over-the-top as many other Chinese tourist areas. It’s been a few years since I was there so I hope it remains so.


Crossing the bridge to get to the village



An ancestral hall in one of the larger houses

Moon Pond





Meat market


   


Traditional pastries on sale. I think I bought some of this.

China · China travel · Travel

China travel- Anhui’s Xidi and Tunxi

Huangshan may be the most famous attraction of Anhui, but it is not the only interesting one in the area. The surrounding villages, whether it be the traditional villages of Xidi and Hongcun, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites, or even Tunxi, known mainly as the area’s tourist hub but with a great ancient street, are also very much worth a visit. The reason why there are so many preserved historic villages around Huangshan is because this area used to be home to prosperous merchants who thrived during the Ming and Qing dynasties (14th-20th centuries). With over 600 years of history, both Xidi and Hongcun boast lanes filled with traditional homes, including large houses with massive halls and two-storey high ceilings, which no doubt belonged to the wealthier merchants. In these villages, the majority of old homes have been preserved with little or none modern houses. But far from being deserted relics or over-touristy theme parks, Xidi and Hongcun are both thriving communities with people living their daily lives while tourists come and go.
Both are attractive places but Hongcun really stood out for me with its small lake and arched bridges fronting the village and a pond within, the combination of old homes and water resulting in some very gorgeous scenes. So magnificent that a scene from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was filmed there as well. Hongcun is so beautiful that I’ll devote another post to it, so let’s go on to Xidi and Tunxi.

Xidi was less spectacular, but it also features a famous landmark – a high 3-layered stone paifang (traditional Chinese gate) at the entrance next to the pond bordering the village. Walking through the paifang takes you into a series of narrow lanes among which are several impressive compounds with giant open courtyards, wooden halls and ancestral tablets and paintings of illustrious ancestors. But even the “regular” buildings are attractive to look at, especially as they all feature curved upswept eaves and black tiled roofs, both distinctive architectural features in the region.
Getting there from Tunxi takes an hour by public minibus, which I took, but as it was during the holidays, I couldn’t get one back so I got a “black cab” minivan with a few other people, including a Cantonese family (one weird thing is I always run into Cantonese people when I travel in China).
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Tunxi is where I got off after coming from Nanjing by sleeper train as that is where Huangshan train station is location. Back then (2014), you could only get there by the regular slow train but they have since built a high-speed station, also in Tunxi. While the town is for the most part a hub for getting to Huangshan and not too special, it boasts an attractive old street with a lot of traditional wooden buildings. Many have been converted into stores and restaurants, but a number of them are still homes, as indicated by the dried fish or laundry hanging by the windows. Most of the stores sold souvenirs, while there was one that sold ethnic minority goods and another that sold faux Maoist stationery. Some of it was a bit too gaudy as Chinese tourist areas can be, but it was still a nice walk at night.

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Xidi
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Tunxi again
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