Fragrant Harbor

I am a small-town kid. Although I have been very fortunate to live where I have lived, traveled where I have traveled, and work where I have worked, home to me has always been some place quiet, detached, and offering some solitude. However I do enjoy exploring large cities. Paris for example is a near yearly destination for us. But excursions to such large metropolises usually are only enjoyable for a couple of days. At some point being cheek-to-jowl in the cacophony of a sprawling urban jungle grinds on my nerves and I long for a refuge from the seas of humanity. This is probably why we live where we do.

I think that this has a lot to do with my initial reluctance to travel to east Asia. While interesting, supercities aren’t what I go out of my way to visit. Combine that with some honest trepidation at cultural differences, not unlike my initial misgivings about South Africa, and I wasn’t exactly excited about taking my first steps into the orient.

One maxim that I have come to appreciate, however, is to try and get outside of one’s comfort zone. Although some times difficult, this guide has served me well over the years. Elise has been hinting that we should visit Asia for years. And besides the well-intentioned hinting of one’s wife, life also often has its way of nudging one in the right direction. Our friend, Jerome, transferred to his Hong Kong office, giving us perfect reason to finally hop on a plane due east, introducing us to a fascinating, colorful, and delicious part of the world.

Once a gathering of sleepy fishing villages around the Pearl River delta, Hong Kong became a center of trade in the early nineteenth century after being won by the British in the Opium Wars. Benefiting from the commerce of being an important shipping hub, Hong Kong quickly grew. In 1997 the British returned the city to China as a Special Administrative Region such that Hong Kong maintains its own government, economy, and currency, though the mainland has taken not-too-subtle steps to bring Hong Kong under its direct control. Today, Hong Kong has become one of the world’s most important financial centers.

One of the most obvious symbols of Hong Kong is its skyline with hundreds of skyscrapers, the most of any city in the world. While impressive, these towers are only one level of a city made of multiple layers. Located mostly on a harbor, much of the city expands up the mountainside from the water, made up of steep, narrow streets lined with colorful shops, merchants, and food stands all crowded with people. Connecting the city are the central-mid-levels escalators that transport nearly 100,000 people daily. In between all of this is a network of roads, trams, footbridges, overpasses, ferries, and tunnels that make up a city of myriad strata.

In between towering buildings and amongst the ceaseless ebb and flow of people, there are surprising refuges of calm that would seem out-of-place anywhere else but in Hong Kong, like the nineteenth-century Man Mo temple. Wedged between high-rise apartments, the temple is almost easy to overlook except for the strong smell of incense it ceaselessly emirates. But once discovered, its traditional Taoist design is jarring amidst the modern city looming over it. Similarly the cathedral of Saint John, also dating from the nineteenth century with its gothic revival architecture, seems just as out of place. But its green gardens offer a peaceful oasis in the city.

Now and again, between the gleaming towers of steel, glass, and concrete, one also gets a glimpse of the verdant mountain against which Hong Kong is nestled between the Victoria Peak and the harbor. It is actually quite amazing how one, by foot or with the aid of one of the world’s steepest funiculars, can in a matter of less than an hour be enjoying the cool breeze blowing through the green forest far above the city. A bit further out are wetlands protecting the natural heritage of the region offering protection of birds, waterfowl, fish, and other life under the shadow of skyscrapers in the distance.

In the end I suppose it should not be a surprise that a city of over seven million people that has long served as a trading gateway between east and west should prove multifaceted and so fascinating. And though I might be a small-town kid, it was nice to be reminded how much fun a megacity can be with amazing dining, museums, shops, and the hidden away speakeasies, all making for a colorful and memorable trip. It was nice to return home to the quiet of the Swiss countryside, but like our regular trips to Paris, I have a feeling we will return to Hong Kong.

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