29 October 2007

Travel: Hong Kong, Part 1

Hong Kong!

I finally got to see the self-styled Asia's World City. I went up for work on a Thursday and stayed the weekend earlier in October. It was a nice change of pace from Singapore, as the weather was just a bit cooler, almost Fall-like. At least to someone used to the tropical heat of the Lion City.

You fly into the nine-year-old Hong Kong International Airport on Chek Lap Kok island, west of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. The airport opened in 1998, replacing the old Kai Tak Airport located in Kowloon, amid densely populated land and surrounded by not insignificant hills. HKIA is beautiful, and it really is nice to fly there from Singapore's Changi Airport, because you travel between two of the cleanest, most efficient, most modern airports in the world.

Of course, one of the most beautiful sights at HKIA is the Krispy Kreme inside the main terminal building, near the Airport Express train.

My first stop was Cathay City near the airport, headquarters of Hong Kong carrier Cathay Pacific and its sister airline DragonAir. In front of the HQ building sits an old Cathay Pacific DC-3. It is a beautiful plane, and although I didn't get a picture, I included one here.

After my meeting, I headed into the city on the Airport Express (after stopping at Krispy Kreme), the high speed train that makes two stops before terminating at Hong Kong Island's Central Terminal. The train is a modern, very comfortable ride that cuts your travel time to the city to about 20 minutes. Once there, I jumped into a cab to my hotel in Causeway Bay.

My first ride in a Hong Kong cab, on my way to my meeting, was distinctly different than what the experience at Central. Cathay City is on Lantau, and only blue cabs can take you there. These mirror the outlying island's slower pace, as I waited more than 25 minutes in the humidity (not as bad as Singapore, but not quite as cool and dry as it would get later in my stay) before one pulled up for my leisurely two-kilometre ride to Cathay City. Hong Kong and Kowloon are served by the red cabs, which are more in line with the hustle and bustle of the city. As we pulled out from the station, I was struck by how much the city reminded me of Chicago. It is built up right to the edge of the harbor, and hurtling from Central towards Causeway Bay on the freeway brought back great memories of Lake Shore Drive. It really is a mix of Chicago and San Francisco, however, as a glance to the right revealed the hilly streets dotted with residences, shops, restaurants, and bars that lead up to the Mid-Levels, where many Hong Kong residents live (and which is served by the largest escalator system in the world - more on that later). It was fantastic.

Luckily, the hotel was within a block of an MTR station. The MTR is a clean and efficient way to get around the city, both Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. I dropped off my bags and headed out for a look around. I decided to get off in Wan Chai, knowing I would find a mix of decent pubs and hostess bars (which you want to avoid, unless you like your money flying out of your pocket for the "privilege" of talking to one of the hostesses). I was able to defend myself against a few very aggressive door-women (they literally try to drag you in) and found a couple of ex-pat pubs, one where a middle-aged American was loudly discussing the merits of 80s rock before accompanying Stairway to Heaven (on the bar's stereo) as loudly and off-key as possible, and the other offering a quieter atmosphere as well as quality music. It was here that I found myself in a Hong Kong bar listening to the Highwaymen. Not a bad experience.

But, I wanted to get some rest before my two days in Hong Kong started, so I was back to the hotel at a reasonable hour.

07 October 2007

Mid-Autumn Festival

Singapore is a city of festivals in the Fall. The first of three (Hungry Ghost not included) is the Mid-Autumn Festival, which is celebrated in China and east Asia, falling on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month (September). It is also known as the Moon Festival and, in Singapore, as the Lantern Festival or the Mooncake Festival. It is the second most important holiday in the Chinese calendar, after the Lunar New Year.

The festival falls on or near the Autumnal Equinox, and it celebrates the abundance of the harvest. The moon plays an important role in Chinese society, and it is supposedly at its brightest when full during the festival.

The festival has a history dating back more than 3,000 years. It is associated with several versions of a legend of the archer Hou Yi and his wife Chang Er. One has the skilled archer shooting down nine of the ten suns that orbit the Earth at the behest of the Emperor (each sun would cross the sky once every ten days, but one day, they all appeared in the sky, burning the Earth). He was rewarded with a pill that contained the elixir of everlasting life, but Chang Er found it and consumed it. It gave her the ability to fly, and she flew to the moon, much to Hou Yi's dismay. Hou Yi was granted a home in the sun, and once a year the gods allow the two to meet. That is during the full moon of the Mid-Autumn Festival. The moon and the sun here also represent the female and male principles of Yin and Yang. Legend has it that if you look at the full moon, you can see Chang Er's celestial companion, a hare with a pestle, working on an antidote to allow her to return to Hou Yi.

To celebrate, families give mooncakes to their relatives. These are dense round cakes made with lotus and often containing duck eggs. They provide a mix of sweet and salty. They also served a practical purpose, at least in legend. It is said that in the 14th Century, during Mongol rule of China when group gatherings of Chinese were banned, mooncakes that were distributed as part of the festival contained messages to the Chinese rebels (the Mongols did not eat moon cakes) stating the time of uprising during the festival. The Mongols were defeated, ushering in the rule of the Ming Dynasty. This is not necessarily supported by historical record, but it has become a part of the lore of the festival.

As part of the festival, a display is put up in Chinatown with models of various temples, churches, and other places of worship throughout the world. I am not sure the connection (other than that the models are essentially very large lanterns), but I have included some pictures. I will leave you to identify each one.