Hoofing It In Hong Kong

by Amber Garrison

I stepped off the airplane into the subtropical heat of early summer and the immensity of Hong Kong, which feels like New York City on amphetamines. I wasn’t prepared for the urban landscape rising out of the water, each jutting skyscraper taller and more impressive than the last. Hong Kong feels like the center of the universe – the universe of the really, really rich. With more Rolls Royces per capita than anywhere else in the world – and, as far as I could tell, more shopping malls than a population of 7 million could possibly sustain on its own – the wealth is palpable.

And it’s coming from the north – one Hong Kong resident told me that the wealthy Japanese and Korean shoppers of 10 years ago are gone, replaced by Mainland Chinese. They come to Hong Kong to shop…and blow thousands without the slightest thought, mostly on European luxury brands like Chanel and Louis Vuitton. Cash only.

Mainland Chinese – and anyone else with cash to spare – are buying up real estate like crazy. Apartment flipping is widespread – with only a 1% closing cost on both the purchase and sale transactions, and skyrocketing prices, it’s not unheard of to hold a property for only a few weeks and turn a profit of several percentage points on the sale.

The nighttime harbor view from the top floor bar of the Mandarin Oriental hotel was spectacular…and vertiginous. While we sipped Asian fusion martinis, a friend explained that the hotel’s staff is trained not to say no. “Go tell the concierge you want to buy a tiger and have it delivered to your room,” she said. “They’ll look at you like it’s a totally normal request and ask if you want it in orange or white.”

The Mandarin Oriental also houses The Captain’s Bar, the local hangout of the international shipping elite. High rollers receive a sterling silver tankard engraved with their name and an invitation to celebrate once annually with other big spenders. Once you have the mug, it’s yours for life. I wonder if the beer has a silvery aftertaste…

I couldn’t leave Hong Kong without trying its famed dim sum. An acquaintance took me to Luk Yu Tea House in Stanley Street, packed with regulars on a Sunday morning, where I had the best pork dumplings and smoky black tea I’ve ever tasted. We talked about how life in Hong Kong has changed since the handover in 1997 and how the “one country, two systems” doctrine actually works in practice. “There’s so much money and commerce here that no one from the mainland wants to change a thing,” he said. “Besides, we have more freedom now than under the British. They’d just send over governors nominated by Parliament. At least now we seem to have choices…”

Friends took me to a noodle store in Kowloon where they serve noodles with seemingly infinite variety. The best were doused in spicy peanut sauce. On the way back to Hong Kong Island, we picked up popsicle-like desserts of fresh, cold strawberries wrapped in plasticized sugar. Sounds strange, but it was delicious.

As I hoofed it around Hong Kong, I kept thinking…how do people live here long-term? It’s hot and crowded, noisy and non-stop. According to a friend, besides massive quantities of dim sum, there are two secrets: the Mid-Level escalator and weekly foot massages. I tried both. The covered escalator that takes riders from street level all the way up the mountain is 800 meters long, the longest escalator system in the world. No walking unless you want to. And about halfway up, behind an unremarkable storefront, you can get a 45-minute foot massage for $20. After a practically boiling soak in brown disinfecting bath salts, the masseur dug his well-trained digits into parts of my feet that had never been touched before. I thought I was a tough cookie…but my whimpering and yelping proved otherwise. He got it and eased up. Afterwards, I realized my friend was right…I need one of those every week, forever.

After Hong Kong, I took a side trip to Singapore. A friend warned me about taking gum into the country. “It’s illegal to chew it,” he said. “You might get it confiscated at the airport, you know, as a precaution against breaking the law. Actually, you probably won’t–they’ll leave you alone because you’re a tourist.” But a well-connected Singaporean friend of his regularly buys massive quantities of chewing gum when he’s abroad and smuggles the contraband back into the city-state. He only chews it in private.

I’d heard about how clean and civilized Singapore is. But I found it devoid of the character and grit that makes life so rich. Even the hawker centers, lovely open-air markets packed with food vendors of every persuasion, were oddly pasteurized. One evening after drinks, though, I followed a friend and found some grit, well hidden. In an old shopping center popularly known as “Four Floors of Whores,” we visited several bars packed with available women. Or so I thought. I learned that many of them were Thai men dressed up as women…and some were Thai women who used to be men…along with a few women who actually began as women. I couldn’t tell the difference. But as my friend pointed out which were which, I did notice that the women formerly known as men were incredibly well conceived, nearly flawless…and the actual women, in most cases, were average looking at best. It was an education…but at least I found the rich and diverse character I was looking for…