By Christina Lee
I’m packing a pair of worn jeans, a toy camera, a drawn map and two-way tickets in my backpack. I’m going to Hong Kong and I’m ready to be lost in its huge stone jungle for New Year’s Eve.
Notes from my diary:
Chapter 1. Letting in the Jungle
It was eight o’ clock on a warm morning, when I woke up from one-hour train trip.
The sunlight was falling fast over the skyscrapers in the Kowloon district, historically known as Kowloon Walled City – the local ghetto with thousands and thousands of tacky shacks called “houses.”
The locals, who had been chattering and shouting over their evening drinks, had disappeared inland to watch colorful dreams, which allowed the sun to take its course over the peninsula.
I guess the first explorers of Hong Kong saw this city as I did. As a pioneer and an adventurer, I was getting through some pretty heavy cover of concrete high-rises. Somewhere in the heart of the Kowloon district, the crowd of tourist started pushing and I got swept away to the main entrance of the Chunking Mansions (重庆大厦). The mansions consist of five 17-floor tall blocks, connected by a shopping arcade on the ground floor, and one of the blocks face Nathan Road.
The Mansions were quickly flooded with immigrants, particularly, Indians, Nepalese, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans till the end of 1990s.
The Mansions gained popularity after the film “Chungking Express” directed by Wong Kar-Wai. He grew up there in the late 1960s and knew the district quite well. In the film, the Chungking Mansions were shown as the lair of drug businesses and corruption.
The Chinese name (重庆森林) of the movie is translated as “ Jungle of Chongqing” and represents the metaphorical concrete jungle of Hong Kong.
Initially, the owners of the Mansions were against filming because they were afraid of distorting its ambiguous reputation. But after the movie came out, the Chungking Mansions immediately became a magnet for aesthetes.
It’s post-modern Casablanca—all in one place!
Chapter 2. Her Majesty’s servants
After a couple of hours spent in Kowloon, I continued my little journey to the boardwalk. There, at the Star Ferry Pier in Victoria Harbor, endless blue sky kissed the water’s surface, and their love gave birth to numerous tower blocks that caught my eye.
Hong Kong could also be the other Jewel in the British crown. Why not?
The city was under British rule from 1841 to 1997. It’s 156 years of separately evolving and shining history! Literally “shinning” – some people still have a shining treasure at the bottom of their wallets. I mean the Hong Kong two-dollar coin with the featured Queen Elizabeth II until its replacement with the Bauhinia flower in 1993, which has since been featured on all Hong Kong coins.
Who knows? You could probably be more lucky than me and could see that living legacy of the British colonial past with your own eyes.
Unfortunately, the city is losing its “British charm” because of the globalization and influence of the mainland. British buildings are kind of lost in this jungle of modern skyscrapers, and sometimes you need to spend more than two hours to discover at least one of those “British Jewels.”
But enough about money. I was still standing at the Tsim Sha Tsui Ferry Pier under the Hong Kong Clock Tower, thinking about how to find any British buildings. And the nice idea came to my mind as soon as I lifted my head and saw the Hong Kong Clock Tower. Built out of granite, peaks at 44 meters, the clock tower was constructed in 1915 and became the symbol of the city. The Clock Tower had previously been open for visit, but is currently closed.
Aside from the Clock Tower, there were plenty of other incredible places with breathing history, but several pages are not enough to describe them all. If you go there, just don’t forget to look around…or even look up, and you will be engulfed in that “Brave Old and New World”.
Chapter 3. The Undertakers
I finally arrived to Hong Kong island on the Star Ferry trough Victoria Harbor.
It was getting darker and darker. That time of day always brings me a certain wistfulness mixed in with wintertime sadness. Guess it was a right time to “memento mori” and go to see the Hong Kong cemetery at the Happy Valley. It’s the weirdest name for a cemetery, isn’t it?
That day saw one of the early Christian cemeteries dating back to the British colonial era. It is located along with the Jewish Cemetery, Hindu Cemetery, Parsee Cemetery, St. Michael’s Catholic Cemetery and the Muslim Cemetery.
All sections were separated – one was for military graves and the other one is for civilian graves.
Walking through graves unexpectedly calm you down and you start looking around to get to know all the cemetery’s inhabitants.
Many famous people who helped the city develop were buried there. For example, physician Sir Kai Ho, who was a supporter of the Reform Movement and a teacher of Sun Yat-Sen. One of the most dangerous airports, “Kai Tak Airport,” was named after him and his son-in-law Au Tak, though he died in 1914, long before the idea of an aerodrome was first mentioned in 1925.
Long story short, the Hong Kong cemetery became my personal guide to the Jewel of the British colonial crown’s past and all inhabitants there were my guides to that journey. Hong Kong history is written on its gravestones in the Happy Valley.
Another lesson that the cemetery taught me was to remember your past, pay attention to your present and now embrace your future. It was worth crossing half of China to get to the Hong Kong cemetery and understand that. Life is short, now you’re on the ground with heaps of audacious plans for tomorrow, and you never know when you will be taken “under.”