09 March 2008

Travel: Chinese New Year in Hong Kong

Stephen and I arrived in Hong Kong the night before the start of the Lunar New Year celebration. The weather was perfect - cold and blustery. I finally had my winter here in Asia. We stayed right by the harbourfront in Wan Chai, a good central location close to the MTR and with a view of Kowloon. A quick tour of the area gave us a sense of the celebrations to come - the buildings were lit up like Christmas in the States, with massive displays of bright lights and animations to welcome the Year of the Rat.

Kung Hei Fat Choy! That is how the Cantonese say Happy New Year. (In Singapore, where Mandarin is spoken, it is Gong Xi Fa Cai.)

We headed out on February 7 - the first day of the new year - to check out the escalators. It was pretty quiet, as few shops were open, but that meant fewer crowds. We walked around the mid-levels for a good part of the morning and early afternoon, and then we headed to the ferry pier, as we were to try our luck at the casinos in Macau.

Talk about crowded. The ferry terminal was packed, both in Hong Kong and in Macau. It took us 30 minutes to get through immigration in Macau, and the line for the shuttle bus to the Venetian was at least another 30 minutes. So, we jumped in a cab for the ride across the causeway.

The Venetian was even more crowded than the ferry terminal! Fortunately, most of the visitors were there to take in the sights, and we were able to find plenty of room at the tables. The Police were playing the casino's arena that night - they had been in Singapore three nights earlier - but we skipped the show. After a run at the tables in the Venetian, we headed to the Wynn (retracing my steps from my October visit). This was a more laid-back atmosphere, not nearly as crowded. We didn't say long, however, as we had wisely booked our return ticket to guarantee we would leave at a reasonable hour. And so after the short ferry, we were back in Hong Kong.

Day Two of the new year was my 40th birthday. We headed across the harbour to Kowloon to explore. It was very quiet out, as again few shops were open. We wandered around the street markets, and checked out the Tin Hau Temple (Tin Hau is the Taoist goddess of the sea), but my main focus was on food. I wanted to try a Temple Street chicken claypot restaurant featured on Anthony Bourdain's show, but we couldn't locate it (it is called Four Seasons, but I suspect the signboard is in Cantonese, so I wouldn't know it if I saw it; regardless, very little was open). We ended up eating at a very local noodle shop, ordering off one of the few English menus on the premises. I love this type of local eatery - it is one of the things I really like about Singapore, as well. It just seems so genuine. And the food is really good.

We continued to wander through the deserted stalls of Temple Street, happening upon a traditional Lion Dance along the way, heading to our ultimate destination of the harbourfront. I wanted to visit two upscale hotels, the Peninsula with its fleet of green Rolls Royces, and the Intercontinental, which features a stunning view of Hong Kong Island from across the harbour.

The Peninsula plays a role in two Bond movies, so I was eager to check it out. So were several hundred other tourists, as well! There was quite a queue for the high tea service in the lobby (with its Tiffany china teacups), so we opted for The Bar, a quiet spot one floor up, where we had the full attention of the staff (being the only patrons at the time). It was a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the city, and I could have stayed for hours.

But, we had other plans, and we wanted to get back to the island side before the crowds overwhelmed us and the MTR. I wanted to find the Bottoms Up club, where Scaramanga made his first kill in The Man With the Golden Gun. It used to be just around the corner from the Peninsula, and we found the location. Little did we know, however, that it had moved within the past few years to Wan Chai, where we were staying, so we never found it.

Undaunted, we headed to the Intercontinental's Lobby Bar. They were getting ready for the fireworks show, which is the highlight of the second day of the new year, so we only had a few minutes. But, the visit was well worth it - the view was amazing. The hotel sits right on the water, with a clear view of the impressive skyline of Hong Kong Island. It would have been a spectacular location for viewing the fireworks.

We decided to see the show from our own hotel, however. It was pretty easy getting back to the island side, and we found a place in the lobby bar that gave us a pretty good view of the harbour (the view is obstructed by the Convention and Exhibition Centre), as well as the constant wave of people walking to the harbourfront for the fireworks. An estimated 400,000 people viewed the show on both sides of the harbour. The temperature had been pleasant during the day, but after sunset, it was pretty chilly. Considering the size of the crowd, as well, I was glad to not be outside.

The fireworks were incredible. I was spoiled by the show in Sydney during the western new year, but these were even better. The show was nearly 10 minutes longer, and it was a constant barrage of light and sound. We found out later that we could only see about a quarter of the total show from our vantage point, but it was still great! I did not get any pictures of the show, but here is one I found on the web. Photo courtesy of Kayson Lau.

Not a bad way to spend my 40th birthday.

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