Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch



October 1, 1965 -- Mention Hong Kong and one person will think of Oriental mystery and intrigue, of international spies playing tag with secrets of the East and West; to another guy, Hong Kong will mean almond-eyes beauties of the night offering their favors, while a third will think only of bargain-basement shopping that would shame the American discount stores and put our clothing chains out of business. There are some grains of truth in all this, since Hong Kong is truly one of the most provocative and pulsating cities on the face of the earth, but these simplifications, and in some cases, distortions, miss the real drama and excitement of the beautiful British Crown Colony, which perches so precariously but proudly on the coast of Communist China.

True, this tiny enclave of less than 400 square miles has many of the tantalizing elements of the exotic East-more than ninety-nine per cent of the crowded 4,000,000 inhabitants are Chinese; you can still travel by rickshaw; taste unfamiliar and unusual foods; marvel at strange customs, and watch the land being tilled with meticulous deliberation by man and beast, as it has been for centuries. But keep this in mind: From the moment you land at ultra-modern Kai Tak Airport, or arrive by ship at this most scenic of harbors, you feel at home—immediately. Not only because virtually everyone you come in contact with speaks English, and there are no problems with signs or directions or menus, but because even in the most remote Chinese quarters, where the fun-loving, festival-minded, industrious citizens have, over the long decades, become accustomed to their occidental neighbors and visitors.

And the visitors keep coming, with Americans and Canadians accounting for about forty per cent of the 400,000 expected this year. The odds are high that if you’re saving up for that once-in-a-lifetime trip, the destination will be the Far East. And there’s no doubt that Hong Kong will be on your itinerary. My wife and I spent seven memorable days there, and the Hong Kong Tourist Association recommends eight. I won’t argue. You’ll find that even two weeks will fly by amid the movement, the action, the excitement of this unique paradoxical city. It’s not an easy place to leave; you become attached to it.

The advent of the jet age has also brought Hong Kong within a day’s distance from almost anywhere in North America. At least eighteen international airlines serve the Colony. There is also a regular steamship service from the West Coast, and around-the-world cruises usually pay a call. Flying to Hong Kong is still expensive, although there are some hopeful signs on the horizon. The U.S. Aeronautics Board has been urging the airlines to reduce Pacific fares by at least fifteen per cent, and this may eventually come about. Lowest round-trip economy fare from New York these days is $1,137, but charter rates, if you belong to an eligible group, run approximately half that. Round trip by air from the West Coast costs about $900. By sea from Los Angeles and San Francisco, it is as low as $700, return.

You’ll need a visa from the nearest British embassy or consulate; a smallpox vaccination certified within the past three years; cholera and yellow fever shots are recommended, but not required, unless you’ve come from an infected area. Naturally, a valid United States passport is necessary. On departure, you’ll have to pay about $2.80 per person for privilege of leaving.

Before you go however, you’ll discover that despite what you’ve seen on television and in the movies, or read in novels, Hong Kong is hardly a hotbed of international hanky-panky or crime. It is probably a transit point for agents from both sides of the Bamboo Curtain; smuggling is reportedly still a popular way of life, and there are arguments pro and con about the colony’s role as a gateway for heroin from Red China. None of this touches the tourist. In fact, Hong Kong is probably one of the safest cities in the world, day or night. It’s certainly a good deal more secure these days than the sidewalks of New York. The Hong Kong police are courteous and efficient, the Chinese well-behaved and respectful. The low incidence of crime is especially noteworthy in view of many hundreds of thousands of refugees who have flooded this tiny thumbnail of land in recent years. The ambitious and heart-warming resettlement program by the British has not been able to keep pace with the influx, and people live on roofs, in tents, in shacks, on the hillsides, on the water in boats, in alleys, in tiny apartments, wherever there’s space. Despite the obvious property among the wall-to-wall refugees, they appear neat and optimistic. You’ll visit the resettlement areas on at least one of the tours, and you’ll come away impressed.

My wife and I were treated to a personal demonstration of the friendliness of the Chinese community. One evening, we went sight-seeing with an outfit called “Private Tours with a Difference,” operated by two young Australian gals whose husbands fly for Cathay Pacific, the Hong Kong-based airline which connects many key cities in the Orient and Far East. Among the places we toured was Temple Street, a gaudy combination of Times Square and Coney Island, dense with strollers and trades-people with their colorful wares and snacks spread along the road, fortune tellers and medicine men, small temples filled with incense, and a sense of being in another world, almost of intrusion. But our young hosts were perfectly at ease as we edged though the throngs, virtually ignored—except when we were ringed in by a sea of smiling faces while we had our fortunes told. The translation wasn’t very clear, but the forecast must have been promising, since the onlookers nodded encouragingly.

Not many westerners come to Temple Street, especially on foot at night, we were told, but the girls said they’d never had an unpleasant experience.

In order to locate Temple Street for you, let’s take a quick look at the Colony’s geography. First, there’s Hong Kong Island itself, which holds the capital city of Victoria, a handsome mountain which terminates in Victoria peak, the Repulse Bay resort with excellent beaches, the Aberdeen, with its fishing junks and famous floating restaurants. The local area is twenty-nine square miles. Second, you have Kowloon, less than four square miles, which is a mainland peninsula, ceded to Britain in 1860. Here you’ll find Temple Street. Third are the New Territories, including 235 islands, with the land lying between Kowloon and the border of Red China. This part covers about 366 square miles. Hong Kong lies about 6,900 miles west of San Francisco.

The magnificent harbor is formed by Victoria’s skyline on Hong Kong Island, facing the Kowloon business district, separated by just a few minutes (and three and a-half cents) by Star Ferries, which swarm back and forth endlessly until well past midnight. The harbor, always alive with ships and boats of all sizes, is also distinguished by several typhoon shelters, which house permanent colonies of fishing junks and sampans, and the Kai Tak airstrip, which juts out onto the bay like a long concrete finger. This harbor probably lends itself to more superb views than any other.

For my money, the most breathtaking is when that jet circles down inside the hollow formed by Victoria Peak and the mountains behind Kowloon, an amazing vista of green slopes and blue water, hillside homes and the concrete clusters of the twin cities facing each other across the bay. The vistas are also marvelous from Victoria Peak looking across to Kowloon; from the Carton Hotel, high on a hill behind Kowloon, looking toward Hong Kong Island; from roof-top dining rooms on both sides of the harbor, and from the ferries as they sweep back and forth. I would not care to make a choice between the visual splendors of day and night: they’re both incomparable. Bring much color film.

Speaking of beauty, the ladies of Hong Kong are generally attractive–petite more often than not, and frequently attired in the cheongsam, with its wide, slit skirt, shape-clinging lines and carefully fitted collar.

The Wanchia section of Hong Kong Island, home of the “Suzy Wong” district, which comes down to the waterfront, is crowded with bars and cabarets, as well as girls for hire. This is a favorite hangout for British and American servicemen. To imply, however, that Hong Kong is some sort of wide-open Oriental “sin city,” with a large cast of young and beautiful prostitutes, is to embroider the facts. It’s there, but hardly as a pervasive factor in the city’s character or day-to-day appeal. We drove through Wanchai several times at night and found the area rather tame and dreary.

Shopping is just the reverse. Its lure dominates the Victoria business district and Kowloon. The little shops, the big stores, the tailors, the small hand-craft factories open to visitors—they all bring the tourist, hold him, induce a desire to return, and are a vital ingredient among the components which make up Hong Kong.

There are pleasures and pitfalls to shopping in Hong Kong. Let’s start off with suits. Be sure to use only those reputable shops recommended by your travel agents, someone in a managerial capacity at a hotel or the Hong Kong Tourist Association. A twenty-four dollar suit made in twenty-four hours is likely to be nothing more than a waste of twenty-four dollars. A minimum of four or five fittings is recommended. Select good English woolens and count on spending between forty and sixty dollars. There seem to be more American-style tailors in Kowloon than on the island, but even an English tailor in Victoria can copy to perfection something you have with you. (I had suits made at Chan Tuck in Victoria and Taylor King in Kowloon, and they are both good.) The women should bring along a design, photograph or magazine clipping.

Complicating the search for goods in ivory, jade, brocade, porcelain, silks, semi-precious jewels and lacquerware is a requirement by United States Customs that these articles, whether carried or chipped, be accompanied by a Comprehensive Certificate of Origin, proving that the goods did not come from Red China. It takes as long as a week for such a certificate to come through, and there’s a charge in every store (you can group items at each place) of about a dollar.

Local currency, incidentally, is the Hong Kong dollar; one dollar Hong Kong is worth about seventeen cents U.S.

Some ninety percent of the shops in Kowloon are along Nathan Road, just a few minutes on foot from the Star Ferry Terminal. You can spend hours wandering though the arcades of the Miramar and Ambassador Hotels alone. On the Hong Kong side, you’ve got the Gloucester Arcade and many others, all within walking distance of the Stat Ferry. Bargaining is an accepted practice in all but the plushest department stores. Doing a little comparison shopping is also a sound idea.

Aside from two suits, I came home with a hand-carved ivory chess set for twenty-six dollars, and my wife did very well with beaded sweaters, hand embroidery, and brocade and small jewelry items–all with a Certificate of Origin. It’s a good idea to get the certificates. Don’t try to run the Customs gauntlet.

Although Hong Kong prices keep rising, and the United States keeps reducing the duty-free allowance for homecoming citizens, there are still plenty of excellent buys over there. This even applies when you have to pay duty. Keep in mind that my twenty-six-dollar chess set runs as high as $125 in New York; thus it would still be a bargain with a sizeable U.S. Customs imposition. Uncle Sam will give you a table that will approximate the percentage of duty on various items.

In case you don’t want to do all your shopping on foot, the double-decker trams in the island and the double-decker buses in Kowloon will carry you anywhere for three and a-half cents, U.S. Taxis are metered and moderate. Rickshaws, if you like the idea of being pulled around in this fashion, cost eight cents per every five minutes. If the Star Ferry has stopped running for the night, or you’d like to cross the harbor in a motor boat, there are walla wallas, which hold six passengers at about fifty cents a head. Finally, if your driver’s license is valid, you may hire a car in Hong Kong, but remember (when you’re walking as well), they drive on the “wrong” (left) side of the street.

You’re liable to get hungry in Hong Kong, which is an excellent idea if you go for Chinese food, and equally fortunate for other cuisine, from Continental to Japanese. There are four different kinds of Chinese food: Cantonese (southern Chinese); Shanghai (east-central China); Peking (north), and Szechuan (central). Authentic Cantonese is strong on sea food, and I’m especially fond of the shark-fin soup and the “dim sun” lunches, which consist of tiny portions of up to twenty different dishes. A typical Shanghai dish which we tried is Beggar’s Chicken, prepared in a coating of heavy mud to keep the flavor and juices in. Shanghai cooking is sweeter and more salty than Cantonese. Szechuan is hot and spicy (dried beef with peppers) and Pekinese is famous for the fancy treatment of the duck.

Not to be missed is the visit to one of the floating restaurants in the fishing and sampan village of Aberdeen, the Sea Palace and the Tai Pak Fong, both elaborately outfitted, and ablaze with lights at night. The multi-course fish dinners, served with a flourish, come directly from tanks at the restaurants; you can choose your own. Another treat is to dine Western or Chinese style on the top floor of one of the many hotel restaurants which line both sides of the harbor. You’ll enjoy the food, the service and the unforgettable night view.

Except for the popular resort hotel at Repulse Bay, Hong Kong’s major establishments are clustered in Victoria and Kowloon, generally within walking distance of the ferry terminals. As recently as 1958, Hong Kong had less than 1,000 rooms suitable for tourists; today, there are 7,000. Several hotels rank with the world’s best. The sumptuous Mandarin on the island, for example, was designed by the same man who did the sets for the movie, “Bridge on the River Kwai.” No expense was spared. The Hong Kong Hilton is another work of splendor. On the Kowloon side, there’s the venerable Peninsula Hotel, with Old World dignity and the finest pastry this side of Vienna. There are also the Ambassador, Empress, Miramar, Palace, Park and the relatively new and de luxe President among others; Doubles at these hotels run from about thirteen to twenty-five dollars a day, without meals. Other good hotels offer doubles for as low as six dollars daily. Hong Kong has long had a water problem, and the liquid is rationed at some of the hotels. The newer ones are all air-conditioned.

Hong Kong’s weather is usually temperate, with spring and fall averages in the seventies, winter in the sixties, and summer warm and humid in the mid-eighties. Topcoats are sometimes helpful from December through February; you’ll appreciate the air-conditioning in the summer months.

Sight-seeing is a pleasure the year round, and there are four or five basic tours which will cover the highlights in the Colony. The half-day “Island Tour” features Hong Kong’s most famous ride, the Peak Tram, to the top of Victoria Peak. Climbing almost vertically, the tram’s eight-minute ascent affords a moving, all-embracing view of the great harbor complex. The round-trip costs less than ten cents. Once on top, you can take a forty-five-minute stroll around the mountain.

Just the tram ride, a leisurely walk, and the refreshments are worth several hours. Other stops on the Island Tour include the bizarre Tiger Balm Gardens, with the often-photographed 165-foot-high pagoda; Happy Valley, the island’s sports center (there are currently three good golf courses in Hong Kong); the Chai Wan refugee-resettlement area; the pleasant suburb of Stanley; Repulse Bay, Deepwater Bay, a favorite for skin-divers; Aberdeen, and Hong Kong University.

While the specter of Red China looming over the Colony’s shoulder may add a certain element of “we’ve-been-there” excitement to your visit, the peek across the border into the world’s largest Communist state is little more than that. The excursion of several hours to the border was worth a while. We drove past miles of rice paddies and farmland, worked as they have been for centuries by hand, buffaloes and water wheels. One feature which stands out sharply is that many of the workers who patiently cultivate the soil are women. Our driver also took us into ancient walled villages, which contrasted sharply with the modern homes, beaches and towering Castle Peak along the lovely estuary of the Pearl River. On the way back there were more rice fields, duck farms, the old walled village of Kam Tin, two eighteen-hole golf courses at Fanling, the fishing village of Taipo, and finally Shatin, for a look at the famous “Amah” rock, a natural outcrop shaped like a woman with a child on her back.

A water tour of the harbor is a must. The two-hour swing abroad a comfortable launch through the bay’s heavy traffic will take you into the typhoon shelter, home of thousands of “boat people,” who rarely ever set foot on land. An estimated 150,000 Hong Kong Chinese live this way. These floating communities have shipboard schools, clinics, grocery stores and everything else, found in a self-contained village. You’ll also move past the Wanchai waterfront; the Kai Tak airstrip; the sampans and junks, many flying the flag of Red China; maybe an American warship; an occasional luxury liner, and freighters and tankers.

Once the sun has drifted beyond the peaks of Lan Tao Island, you’ll enjoy a Nigh Tour, which may include a visit on the Kowloon side to a Chinese opera, a dinner featuring one of the four chief “schools” of Chinese cooking, then onto a night club where the entertainment will probably be Western, and finally over to the island for a drive to Victoria Peak and the glittering nighttime view.

Set aside some time for walking tours of the Chinese quarters in Kowloon and on the island. Further, there’s a festival of some kind almost every week of the year. Descriptive calendars are out far in advance, and you’d enjoy seeing at least one of these colorful pageants.

We’re not going to go into detail this time around about a side-trip to Macao, a tiny Portuguese outpost on the China coast, just fifteen minutes by air, or three and a-half hours by ferry from Hong Kong. Macao has casinos, dog races, same intriguing old Portuguese-style buildings.

If your travel agent isn’t already up to date on Hong Kong, he will be soon. The American Society of Travel Agents held its annual convention there this month.

This column originally appeared in Argosy magazine.

Copyright © 1962-2007 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.