“You know I love Hong Kong because it’s just such an unusual place, all those people crammed together. It’s really gung ho capitalism but the Chinese love it. It’s strange, there seems to be so much passion and yet it’s all money, money, money.”
Michael Hutchence, one time lead singer of Australian Rock Band INXS (*1)
I follow an elderly grey haired lady, who steps cautiously down the steeply sloped laneway. A thin, wiry, bow legged figure, heavily hunched over either from age or some form of poor bone development. Her feet shuffle slowly as she firmly grips her walking cane for support. We are on the island side of Hong Kong. She and I carefully navigate the uneven sloping ground, making the descent from Mid-Levels towards Central. Admiring her determined gait, I wonder where the old lady is heading. With her bags of groceries is she venturing out on her daily shopping trip at the fresh (wet) markets in the nearby lane-ways? Or is she is meeting a friend for lunch?
Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places in the world, (6,300 people per square kilometre.) A place where the streets and subways are crowded with people moving quickly, but where others seemed unaffected by the pace and population around them. I watch as pedestrians respectfully step around this elderly lady, or slow down until the opportunity presents itself to pass. There is no aggression or impatience, rather a sense of respect for an older generation. This moment embodies the essence of my love for Hong Kong – where old traditions mix harmoniously with the new. A juxtaposition graciously accepted.
Although this is my fifth visit, returning to the familiar Mid-Levels on Hong Kong Island, I still experience excitement. With each trip I continue to discover unexplored aspects of Hong Kong and I love re-visiting my favourite places. The best part about return visits is the sense of familiarity, rediscovering landmarks; streets; favourite shops; cafes and bars. Despite the passing of a few years they remain a constant. Similar to revisiting an old friend offering to catch up where you left off.
Hong Kong Island is where the city was first founded and is the centre of business and commerce. Mid-Levels, is located halfway up Victoria Peak, directly above the business area known as Central. Supposedly, the further you head up the Peak, the greater the affluence of the residents. Thanks to a very generous friend, I was staying in a friend’s apartment in Central – coming and going at my own pace and feeling like a local.
This older part of Hong Kong was built prior to the motor vehicle. Streets are narrow as are the stepped footpaths which become easily blocked with commuters or workers pushing their carts laden with produce or tools. The streets are usually one way, creating an interesting challenge for drivers as they pass in close proximity to local shops and pedestrians. During peak hour these roads become congested, but no-one seems to lose their cool. Somehow the crazy system works. People and cars combine in a harmonious working relationship – although like New York the use of the car horn prevails.
It always pays to look up and around at your surrounds when travelling, but in Mid-Levels it pays to look where you tread as the footpaths and steps are often uneven. The Mid-Level residents of the tall towers or apartments dotting the streets seem used to their geography. Ascending from Central is a cardio workout – a steep and continuous climb often a zig-zag through various laneways and streets. I watch Ladies brave enough to wear high heels teeter precariously as they make the steep descent into Central business district. I figure its safer to wear sensible shoes for the journey and pack the heels in your bag to change into when you reach the flatter smooth footpaths of Central.
Something I became familiar with and used extensively on this visit is the long outdoor Central – Mid-Levels escalator. These run from the Mid-Levels area downhill to Central. The escalator allows travel to Cochrane Street, Staunton Street, Hollywood Road, Caine Street and into Soho – where you find an assortment of bars, restaurants and boutique shops. The escalator system is 800 metres in length with a vertical climb of 135 metres. The total travel time is said to be twenty minutes, but most people walk – travelator style. If you don’t wish to walk, remember to stand to the right to allow those who do wish to walk to pass you – escalator etiquette. The escalators are a tourist attraction by themselves as its interesting to observe the variety of shops and street life as you flow past. These escalators seem to be the place for selfies pics as many of the tourists around me were happy snapping themselves!
Note anyone intending to use the escalators, they run downhill from 6am – 10.00 am to allow residents to get to work and uphill from 10.30am to midnight. Although on a few occasions I had to walk up the stone stairs next to the escalators as they had not changed over at the “recommended” times.
Hong Kong is steeped in tradition and evidence of the British rule remains, but on this visit in the back streets of Mid-Levels I discover a few new places intent on proclaiming the modernisation of Hong Kong.
PMQ – so called as it was once the Police Married Quarters – (35 Aberdeen Street) is a large building complex, re-designed and renovated (opening last year) as a creative hub for Hong Kong. Entering via the courtyard as they were dismantling the Christmas displays, I find a selection of small shops showcasing a mix of well known retail brands as well as small Hong Kong brands. From fashion, furniture, stationery, to children’s clothing and kitchen accessories, PMQ offers designs and merchandise you will not see in the Ladies Markets. I considered the merchandise quality was a higher standard than I found in the markets. This is reflected in the prices inside the PMQ – I’m guessing the store owners considered their items are more exclusive?
Directly opposite PMQ on Aberdeen Street (24-24 Aberdeen Street) I stumbled upon the Soul Art Shop (*2), showcasing hand made Chinese products unique to anything I had seen in Hong Kong. Lovely store Manager Siqiu Yang gave me the rundown on how each piece is handmade from polymer clay. I find it hard to resist anything artistic, especially if it’s a little individual and quirky at the same time. Siqiu boxed and presented my souvenirs so beautifully, I almost wanted to leave them wrapped when I arrived home in Australia. My three young men loved their miniature tigers – said to keep away disease and evil – purchased from this wonderful shop.
Following my day spent exploring the back streets of this fascinating area of Hong Kong I return to my quiet steep street and once again I’m following an elderly lady, stooped over with her cane, but this time we are ascending.
My pace slows and I pause to reflect. Hong Kong holds a special place in my traveling heart. Whenever I’m feeling a little jaded or tiring of the everyday-ness of life, an escape to Hong Kong always rejuvenates my spirits.
*(2) Soul Art Shop – Shop A1, G/F 24-26 Aberdeen Street, Sheung Wan, HK facebook: soulartshop