The D&O Diary’s Asian mission continued this week, with Hong Kong the next stop on the itinerary following Beijing. If Beijing is a Chinese city wearing a new Western-style business suit, then Hong Kong is a Western city with a Chinese heart.
Hong Kong is topographically complicated; it is divided by bays, harbors and waterways; and it includes islands, peninsulas and even a bit of the mainland. All in, it is physically smaller than Los Angeles, though its population of 7 million is nearly double that of L.A. On Hong Kong Island, the city spreads along the slopes of rugged mountains covered with lush vegetation. Packed into every bit of buildable ground, Hong Kong is a densely populated urban area with crowded streets jammed with traffic.
Despite the density and slope, however, Hong Kong is still a surprisingly walkable city. At the second story level, a network of walkways connects much of the central city, by-passing the busy city streets. In addition, a clever center city escalator system connects the lower business district along the waterfront with the residential area in the “Mid-Levels.”
One basic thing you need to know about Hong Kong (that I did not) is that it has a humid, subtropical climate. Its latitude and climate are both about the same as Honolulu. I definitely did not pack the right clothes at all. Hong Kong is also yet another island locale with right hand drive vehicles, along with Great Britain, Japan, Ireland, Australia, Bermuda, New Zealand and Singapore. The currency is the Hong Kong dollar, which currently is valued at about 7.7 HK$ to the US$. Invoices and bar bills are simply presented in dollars, which can induce heart attacks late at night when you get a bar bill for $250 for a couple of rounds of drinks.
Upon arrival on a steamy Saturday, we set out for an afternoon walk, starting amongst the thick foliage of the Hong Kong Park and of the Zoological and Biological Gardens. Our roving stroll quickly revealed the incredible diversity of Hong Kong’s sights and sounds. First, in one of those chance events that makes travel so interesting and rewarding, we happened upon a musical rehearsal at St. John’s Cathedral , which is close by the parks. The church’s cool interior was a welcome relief against the humid afternoon heat, and we were treated to a rehearsal of the musical ensemble Die Konzertisten . The ensemble was rehearsing Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, which the choir and orchestra were going to be performing in concert that evening.
We then strolled into an area of narrow pedestrian lanes and alleyways lined with shops and vendors selling clothes, toys, leather goods and shoes, and vegetables and fruit. Butchers carved meat right out along the street and fish vendors displayed tanks full of lobsters, crabs and assorted other kinds of sea life. You can buy fried or dried octopus, fermented bean curd, curry fish balls , put chai ko (a sweet pudding cake), and chee cheong fun (rice noodle roll stuffed with meat). Or maybe you might just want to walk past and content yourself with wondering what, say, snake meat might taste like.
After wandering through this colorful street market scene, the thought did occur to us that it would be awfully nice to find a place to sit down and have something cool to drink. Almost simultaneously with the thought, we found ourselves in the Soho neighborhood, full of restaurants and bars. We went into the Globe Pub on Graham Street, which turned out to be every bit as British as if it were in Notting Hill. We sat at the bar and drank draft Old Speckled Hen ale. Though it was evening in Hong Kong, back in merry England it was still early afternoon, so we were able to watch an English Premier League game live. The bar was full of vocal Arsenal fans, who were disappointed that the Gunners played to a nil-nil draw against London rivals Chelsea. After the game, we returned to our hotel quite persuaded that Hong Kong is a fabulous town.
The next morning dawned clear and bright, so we took the Peak Tram to the top of Victoria Peak. At about 1,800 feet, the Peak (as it is known locally) is the highest mountain on Hong Kong Island. Oddly and incongruously, the tram terminates near the top at a modern shopping mall. Outside the mall, a paved pathway winds around the Peak through parklands and near some very high end residential real estate. The path affords glorious panoramic views of the harbor and the Kowloon Peninsula to the North and of the South China Sea to the South.
After we descended, we went to the waterfront and took the famous Star Ferry across Victoria Harbor to Kowloon. With a bit of wandering, we found our way to Kowloon Park, a cool, shady oasis on a muggy afternoon. We didn’t know that we had wandered into the Sunday afternoon singles’ scene for young South East Asians. The park was full of young men and women in their late teens and early 20s – Malays, Thais, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and a host of other ethnic groups and nationalities that I could only guess at. Many of the women were wearing head scarves and others were wrapped in colorful silks fabrics. Some groups sat on fabric ground covers and chatted. Others were playing music and dancing. One group of gently swaying and elaborately dressed women played drums, tambourines and bells. I felt as I were from another planet.
As the afternoon light faded, we took the ferry back to across to Hong Kong Island, and hopped into a cab to go back to Soho for dinner. Seconds after we jumped out, I realized I had left my backpack in the cab. Shock and surprise gave way to distress as it sunk in that in a city as massive as Hong Kong where there are literally thousands of essentially identical taxi cabs, there was no chance I would ever see my backpack again.
We went to get some (excellent) Thai food but not even a couple of Singha beers could raise my spirits. As I picked at my Pad Thai, I slowly remembered all of the things I had been carrying in my bag – my camera (with all of the pictures from my trip); guide books (borrowed from the Shaker Heights Public Library); a CD play with a Berlitz Mandarin language CD in it (also borrowed from the library); a memory stick with my presentation; important traveling accessories, like a corkscrew and a bottle of aspirin and several packages of gum. And then – I remembered the envelope. The envelope with the cash. Over 400 U.S. dollars, plus US$300 worth of Singapore dollars. My spirits, already low, plunged to new depths. (I know you are thinking -- what kind of idiot carries around that much cash in a backpack? Well, apparently the same kind of idiot that would leave a backpack in a taxi cab. That is to say, a complete and total idiot.)
Back at the hotel, I told the concierge what had happened. He was friendly and polite and he dutifully took down all of the information. He said that he would call the taxi commission and that he would let me know if he learned anything useful. However, the look on his face pretty much told me that I was never going to see my backpack again.
When I went up to my room, I picked up my iPad for a quick email check. To my astonishment, in my inbox was an email with the following Re line: “Your Missing Bag in a Hong Kong Taxi.” The email, from a woman whose email domain was “christiandior.fr,” said
My husband and I just got in a taxi in Hong Kong where we found your missing bag. We got your name card from your bag and tried to call you without success. Now we left the bag with the taxi driver Mr. [name] (you could find attached his Driver ID card picture), his phone no is : [phone number]. Please contact him asap. Good luck!
Attached to the mail was a photo of the driver’s taxi license, with his name, the name of his taxi company, his taxi ID number, and the driver’s picture.
I ran back downstairs to the concierge. He called the driver’s cell phone number and got him on the phone. They quickly figured out that the cab was not far from my hotel. Within minutes, I was reunited with my bag. The driver went home with a tip so big that he couldn’t stop thanking me. After the driver left, the concierge said, “I have been working at this hotel for a long time. Guests are always leaving things in taxicabs. Of course we always try to do whatever we can, but this is the very first time that anyone actually got their stuff back.”
The whole sequence reaffirms my faith in humanity. The lengths to which the lovely French woman went to try to find me fills me with a sense of gratitude and indebtedness. And then there’s the driver. He not only returned my bag, but he returned all of its contents – including every last one of the US and Singapore dollars. All I can say that as unlucky as I was to leave my bag in the cab, it was incredibly good fortune that these two were there to protect me from my stupidity. By the way, the pictures accompanying this post were nearly lost forever.
My Hong Kong sojourn also included the highly successful inaugural meeting of the Professional Liability Underwriting Society in Asia. It was a standing-room only event at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club. I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to meet and to address so many industry colleagues from Hong Kong and from all across Asia. I was also delighted to learn that so many of them are loyal readers of The D&O Diary. (The Internet is such an amazing thing).
I came away from Hong Kong with very warm feelings for the place. It is a dynamic city of incredible charm as well as a seemingly endless supply of diverse sights and sounds. Put Hong Kong down as a new entry on the list of favorite travel destinations. The next time I visit, though, I will remember to put my valuables in the hotel room safe. And friends, if on some future occasion you should find yourself riding with me in a cab, before we exit the vehicle, please ask me to make sure that I remembered to take all of my belongings.
More Hong Kong Scenes: