Let me begin by referring to my last post on the high-speed travel battle in China. The recent horrific train crash means I’ve put my train travel plans on hold until they sort out the safety issues. I’m not alone in feeling this way.
Last month I spent a few days in Hong Kong. Every time I visit I can’t help but notice how there seems to be two cities that coexist here: one stuck in the 1950s or ‘60s, the other as futuristic as Shanghai.
In the side streets off Kowloon and Queens Road, Chinese businessmen struck deals over endless cups of green tea while local residents waded through mounds of fresh seafood just after the catch came in.
Meanwhile, sharp-suited financial wizards clutching Styrofoam coffee cups, many of them ex-pats, strutted by as if that was a world away. Some of them headed to one of the many bars in Soho or the atmospheric heights of the new Ritz-Carlton, which occupies floors 102 to 118 in the International Commerce Centre.
For me, it’s Hong Kong’s smaller boutique hotels that hold a greater charm. The Lanson Place Hotel, a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, is tucked away opposite the Indonesian Embassy in Causeway Bay. While the exterior resembles a 19th century Parisian establishment, the clean modern lines inside are all very contemporary chic.
If the Lanson Place Hotel is European, then the Lan Kwai Fong Hotel at Kau U Fong – where I stayed on an earlier trip – is quintessentially Chinese, almost paying homage to Hong Kong’s tight spaces.
In one corner of a tiny reception area, there are turtles in a tank that seem to urge you to slow down as you enter the hotel. The teacups in the room are embellished with dragon patterns, while the card offering spa and massage services is framed in an imperial robe.
The hotel staff is also attired in casual black silk, which looks more appropriate for the muggy Hong Kong weather than a suit.
At the leviathan Times Square shopping mall just a short walk away, Warner Brothers was promoting the release of the latest Harry Potter film with a train engine standing at Platform No. 9 3/4. The contrast between a 19th century British tableau and a 21st century Asian mall couldn’t have been more striking as trendy Chinese teenagers took turns having their photos taken.
Meanwhile on the back streets, grannies shopped the markets with their grandkids. Couples headed off to work, saying their goodbyes at a bus or train stop. Bare-chested men heaved sacks and cartons onto carts. Looking at an old man, it was hard to tell if he was leaning on a pushcart for support, or to push it up a slope.
While he continued to toil in physical labour, others had their eyes glued to the foreign exchange rates and the Hang Seng Index.
As the morning progressed, the narrow streets jammed up with the ubiquitous red taxis, carrying Armani-suited executives in air-conditioned comfort.
Up in Kowloon, they were digging a new high-speed rail link that will connect Hong Kong and Shanghai by early 2013. Six hours is all it will take to travel from one financial hub to another. Maybe they shouldn’t be in such a hurry.