Wednesday, December 19, 2012

HKTrip12: Day 1 in Hong Kong

This third installment covers the first full day of adventures in Hong Kong, including comments about the MTR, dinner at Din Tai Fung, and photos of Sheung Wan, Grand Millennium Plaza, and Tung Lo Wan.

Rain, rain, and more rain. Apparently this is quite unusual for this time of the year, when the temperatures are supposed to be mild and with clear skies. Oh well...

Stepping outside the hotel in the mornings, you'd see taxis, busses, and trucks whizzing past, and lots of people. Carrying umbrellas, since there was rain every single day. Sometimes lighter, sometimes heavier. But rain every day. However, apparently this is quite unseasonable weather, as November is supposed to have the best weather of the year (mild temperatures and clear skies). Oh well...

Since this was a Sunday morning, the pedestrian traffic was relatively lighter, though even then it was hard to tell judging from the number of people dressed in suits jumping off busses in a hurry that day.

Nathan Road - One of the defining aspects of this road are the row of palm trees in the middle, and the busy traffic (e.g busses) passing through.
An older style building juxtaposed against the modern "iSquare" shopping complex (with all its multi-level escalators).

Colourful lights in the restaurant where we had breakfast on Sunday morning

Mixture of old and new, tall and not so tall. Entry to MTR network on corner of Nathan Rd and Haiphong Rd on the left (yellow building).

Firstly, I have to say that I was quite impressed with the MTR system. In particular, the pervasiveness and efficiency of the network, especially when combined with the Octopus smartcard payment system were especially great points. While it is possible to buy single fares for individual trips on the network, Octopus make things much easier (i.e. no more careful cross-checking of routes, calculation of exact fares needed, scrabbling for spare change, or finding a ticketing booth) and thus more enjoyable. With sufficient mastery of the key MTR routes and stations, an understanding of where/when to flag down a taxi, and a pair of good walking shoes (combined with willingness to walk a few blocks), you can get practically anywhere in the city.

Although I would have liked to include some photos here to give an impression of what its like, this ultimately turned out to be too difficult (and perhaps even illegal) to accomplish. For example, I had originally wanted to take some shots while heading down to Central (from Tsim Tsa Tsui), but eventually gave up this idea after observing and temporarily being shadowed by a creepy-looking middle-aged guy lurking around the pay-gates - within the space of a few minutes, he alternated between going back and forth through the gates, leaning against the wall just behind the gates chewing gum, rushing up to someone who seemed to be having trouble with the gate while carrying several large bags, and looking around with shifty eyes. Furthermore, once you're down at the platforms, there are simply too many people moving back and forth (and many "moving parts") that it's not exactly that safe to walk around with any extra appendages than necessary (though that apparently doesn't stop some people reading stuff on their smartphones still).

In general, the layout of the train stations are the same.
- On ground level, there are a number of structures on side streets with stairs and/or escalators leading to and from the underground network

- On level 1, there is the network of underground tunnels allowing you to just about walk from point A to B without jostling with other pedestrians, traffic, and/or weather out in the open (more on this later). There are also a number of shops - typically bakeries selling cakes and/or specialist breads and other treats, Hang Sang bank branches, shoe shining/repair services, and a few others.

In the middle of each terminal (the shops are on the edges of the terminal), there is the "secure" area. You have to pass through the cattle-stop barrier gates, inserting either a one-trip pass or "beeping" your Octopus card over the card reader. Inside this area, there are two pairs of escalators (one up one down per cluster) or perhaps more (3-4 up and 1 down for example). On the one side is the info/helpdesk, which you can turn to for help with gates not working/balance problems.

- On level 2 (i.e. below the foot-traffic level), you get the train platforms. For single-line stations, there will just be one platform, with trains on either side passing in opposite directions. However, for multi-line exchange stations, different lines are laid out in a similar fashion but separated by a little extra distance.
Over time, you come to learn that different stations often have different colour schemes. For example, IIRC Central is Blue, Admiralty is Green (?), Sheung Wan is Yellow, while the ones over in Kowloon are mostly a generic colour.

The Trains
At least in most of the central (i.e. close to and in/around Victoria Harbour) areas, passengers standing on platforms are separated/protected from the train tracks by walls of glass panels which completely enclose the train tunnels. At regular intervals along these walls, there are pairs of automatically opening doors which open automatically when trains stop at the station and close before they leave. Above these, there are a row of beige panels which display simplified metro-diagrams showing which line the platform serves, the current station name and those either side of it, and an orange indicator light which glows when the doors are open (there's a small sign just below this which says something along the lines of "Warning: Live wires overhead" or so).

It's quite a sight seeing a chain of these lights all glowing, far off into the distance and around a corner, while commuters swarm in and out of the entrance-ways below and off into the inner bellows of the stations. Within seconds, the crowd has dispersed. This is especially notable when at an "end of line" station such as Sheung Wan (located on the "light blue" Hong Kong Island line, and where the platform is located within quite a striking tubular cavern, with the spring-green walls curving around the platform and tracks on either side of the barriers). An eerie quiet sets in once all the passengers have left, but allows you a chance to take a good solid look at the architecture and the strong leading lines it evokes.

Trains regularly arrive and depart stations, with a high frequency such that I never really needed to wait long (about a minute or so at most, often just a few seconds) after heading down into the escalators at various times of day (and at different times past the hour). In fact, in the Central district during or close to rush hour (more on this in the Day 4 report), a train arrived mere seconds (< 20) after the previous one we'd just missed had left.

Their arrival is usually preceded by a loud rumbling noise for 2 seconds, before the headlights flash past, and the glowing windows of carriage after carriage streak past. Most are jam packed - some more than others, and almost none empty or with much room to spare - as they whoosh past, before grinding to a halt, and stopping, nearly almost always, perfectly aligned with the automatic doors. Before the doors have even fully opened, people are in motion, perhaps prompted into motion by the sleek calm voice blaring from a set of hidden speakers - "chang mut cow gun cheah moon. please stand back from the doors to let disembarking passengers out. <blah blah blah blah blah blah blah> (repeated for the sake of rollercase-toting "northerners").... bip-bip-bip-bip  bip-bip-bip-bip" (a similar set of messages is broadcast everytime the doors on the train open and close, and soon becomes etched in your mind like one of those annoyingly catchy tunes). (EDIT: a recording can be heard of this sequence at the start of this video)

Despite these warnings and markings on the ground indicating that boarding passengers should enter from the sides and departing passengers exiting straight out ( / / | | \ \ ), this almost never really happens. Exiting passengers shoot out of the train before the doors are even fully open, pushed by others already on the train who want to get out, but also by those jammed in between them like sardines who are forced to go with the flow. Meanwhile, boarding passengers are already huddled in a sizeable blob in front of the doors, and start streaming forward into the train and the stream of passengers trying to get off. Somehow an efficient transfer of passengers occurs, and before you know it, everyone is packed in relatively close to the doorways (though it should also be said that each carriage has two doors, within 2-3 meters of each other).

From time to time, there are a few stragglers who rush in just before the doors close (or even after the doors have closed and reopened after a previous straggler was leaning back a bit too much when the doors closed, eyes already glued to a smartphone). Interestingly, "phablets" (especially those of the Samsung Galaxy ilk), were quite popular and common among subway and fast food outlet customers, who'd carry these ridiculously sized things in some kind of large wallet-sleeve (much like those that people used to store plane tickets from travel agents in as late as 5 years ago) and would even sometimes be seen holding these things to their ears if they weren't busy reading the latest headlines while standing in the middle of a crowded train carriage.

Did I mention how jam packed these carriages tend to be? There is literally standing room only, unless you happen to be a white-haired granny who manages to get a silver-haired granny to vacate one of the 4 "granny seats" located on the sides. As a result, most people tend to just walk straight in and grab hold of one of the many stainless steel bars (which are coated in red paint in areas where most people's arms can reach - IIRC it was either a sticker on one of these or the handrails on the escalators which said that they were coated in some special antibacterial film) running the length of the carriage, from floor to ceiling directly between the doors, or just beside the doors. Having said that, on some of the more crowded trains, it's sometimes difficult to do even that, though the dense collection of bodies means that you won't really be going very far if you didn't hang on in such cases).

Watched a few parents taking young children with them on such trips made me realise that - wow... it's a great place to live and work when you're a young early/mid-career type, but it's definitely not a walk in the park to bring kids up in such an environment (not to mention the cut-throat competitive nature of schooling and extra-curricular activities, abundance and perhaps oversupply of potential distractors or "avenues of procrastination and laziness" available to young undeveloped minds). It's also not really such a great environment to live in as an aged citizen, as the daily hustle and bustle (and walking distances involved - not always along flat+dry surfaces) can also take its toll.

Fortunately, most trips between stations are relatively short affairs, typically taking just a few seconds. Travelling under the harbour (along the Tsim Sha Tsui to Central "red" route, or along another one which I can't remember) is the longest sector, and involves several hustling/bustling turns at high speed. This is perhaps one of the most enjoyable parts of riding on the subway - hanging on for dear life (or to prevent serious injury) - as the train speeds down the tracks, while a cool refreshing breeze blows in through some of the windows that people may have opened, providing temporary relief from the above-ground humidity and buckets of sweat dripping down from walking here and there. It's also quite a sight watching people - dressed in anything from crisp black suits down to t-shirts - hanging from their handholds (or not), and being jostled to and fro by the movements of the carriages.

Finally, about the carriages: by and large, these appeared quite clean and tidy. They all share a similar modern look, with stainless steel interiors and identical layouts. Adjacent carriages open into each other via rigid connecting joints between them (a solid ground plate and centered pole rising through this sit between carriages and bridge the jiggling joint between them, allowing free flow of passengers). Above each doorway, there is a little map of the entire metro network, with flashing indicator lights to show where the train currently is, where it is heading, and which side(s) of the track the doors will open on.

Underground Network
 One of the Level 1 "corridors" between different MTR stations

One of the things which impressed me during my first visit to Hong Kong 2 years ago, and again this time was the underground network of passages between MTR stations which allows you to walk seamlessly from one place to another without needing to step foot outside on the pavements. So, on a rainy day, you don't have to get quite as wet as you would if walking outside. Or if it's hot (as it frequently is), you can spend some time in a cooler environment.

In fact, it is often possible to walk directly from one major building/shopping centre to another just by going through the relevant Level 1 corridors, as many passages lead directly into the basement levels of these complexes.

The downside to these tunnels though are that they do feature less shops than you would find on ground level, meaning that you do end up missing out a bit on the life, sights, and smells on ground level. Navigating these can also sometimes be a bit of a puzzle, as there are relatively fewer landmarks to guide you around. This is sometimes a problem, as the placement of signs is not always that great, while signs guiding you to a target can sometimes suddenly vanish without a trace after turning a corner, only to reappear down a few remote passages. Confusion may occur in these cases.

Sheung Wan
Sheung Wan is one of the districts on Hong Kong island, and is in many ways another a commercial hub with several notable landmarks.

 Street sign in Sheung Wan

Licensed food vendors - these green booths are used by specially licensed small food vendors, and can be found across the city.

Exiting the subway, you end up on Connaught Rd, a busy 6 lane or so motorway running parallel to the harbour, with a massive high speed overbridge running straight up the middle overhead. Nearby there are two twin glass cube buildings which serve as one of the two terminals for ferries to Macau.
Connaught Road Central - View from near the subway exit. Among the traffic on this road are double-decker busses like the one pictured, but also taxis, and private cars.

Wing On
If you turn right and keep walking around the corner, you'll be walking beside Wing On Plaza...
Wing On Plaza on the right, and Grand Millenium Plaza straight ahead.

"Wing On" is one of two the big department stores in Hong Kong with a long history. IIRC, one of my great/great-great relatives was one of the founders of this company (and was eventually bought out or something by the other guy), and this particular store was the main/original store. Apparently, mum and grandma lived in an apartment above the store for a few years when mum was little.

Another view of Wing On from across the road (looking towards Victoria Harbour) down a pedestrian crossing. On the left, you can see one of the historic trams ("ding ding") which run along this road - more on these later.

Grand Millenium Plaza
One of my favourite places in Hong Kong was Grand Millenium Plaza. In fact, IMO it is much nicer and grander than the infamous Times Square (see Day 5), as it is has much more wide open space, as well as suitably nice architecture all around. In particular, I really loved the symmetry and curves present in the design.

Grand Millenium Plaza - A wide angled shot of this square, which doesn't quite do it justice, but gives you a rough impression about what it was like. As can be seen, there's a giant star pattern made out of mosaic tiles on the ground, and a beautiful red locomotive stands in front of a grand staircase and landscaping. On either side, there were tall buildings on either side with matching architectural style, with cafes and restaurants on ground level, and accommodation or offices above.

Close up of the train and Christmas decorations around it.

The fountain/water feature on the raised embankment, which leads to the road up above/behind. The terrain on Hong Kong island is really hilly and can be quite steep at times.

Another view of the square from beside one of the buildings

Shiny stuff - reflections of one of the two mirror towers on either side of the square as seen on the stunning gold-plated building on the south (?) end of the square. It's interesting how the reflections and the neighbouring building (blue) line up so well to look like a single curved building...

While there, it started to rain (a common occurrence over the next few days), and would be first of many times fumbling with umbrellas while trying to shoot.

Ride on the Trams
Following lunch with relatives at the "Ho Choi" restaurant (IIRC that was the name of the place - it was on a corner, harbour side of this main road, and can be easily identified as the one where there are three dark brown box-like windows showing diners inside. In Hong Kong, all yum cha restaurants, or at least the larger ones, tend to be multi-storey things spread over the second and third floors, with a waiting room on the ground floor), I took a ride on one of the historic trams running along the road. These are otherwise known affectionately as the "ding ding" trams due to the distinctive sound of their bells/horns they regularly ring as the trundle along.

Just down the road from the restaurant, there were three little green huts in the middle of the road, one of which had a great hunking air conditioning unit on top of it. Apparently those may be some of the central station/offices for the tram service.

The tram approaching

The trams themselves are slim-line, electric powered, double-decker vehicles, with wooden interiors. Relative to other forms of transport in the city, they tend to be some of the slower moving ones, though despite that, they can still rumble along quite quickly at times. And like many other things in Hong Kong, they can also get quite crowded with people tightly jammed right down the aisle in a massive log jam. This particular tram was also quite popular with a few migrant domestic helpers (namely, Filipinos). Then again, in all fairness, this was on a rainy Sunday afternoon...

Here are some photos I took out the windows as the tram slowly rumbled down past the Central district to Tung Lo Wan. There was quite a bit of water (especially sizable water droplets) on the windows at the time, and the rain had a bit of a tendency to ominously dribble around the frame threatening to come in at any point in time...

A vibrant side street where small businesses ply their goods. Apart from the umbrella toting pedestrians, the ramshackle assortment of roofs and umbrellas seems to be a standard part of the markets. In this instance, a few of these seem to specialise in cheap clothing.

A snapshot of the different types of transport available:
  1) Busses come in single and double decker variants, with the double-deckers more common.  
  2) Red taxis can be seen everywhere and can usually be easily (unless you're very very unlucky that day) hailed down; At one point, I saw a very large swarm of these (more impressive than what's seen here) rushing down a side street. 
  3) The green-roofed minibuses, which are apparently the fastest moving of all three of these while seating just a few people.

ADMIRALITY (?) / CENTRAL - Financial Hub
One of the tall bank/finance corporate office towers (IIRC, this one might have been the HSBC tower, where Occupy protesters had camped for a few weeks before being evicted by a court order). Also, a "slutwalk" was taking place outside one of these that day, with a heavy police presence before and after the protesters (IMO the protesters here were much more orderly and "subdued" than the ones locally+USA - i.e. less gawdy tattiness). Dunno what the ambulances were doing outside it though.

Grand lion/dog stone statues standing guard either side of a bank window. The HSBC entrance above also had two lion statues - one on either side - supposedly for superstitious reasons to "ward off evil" and/or "bring good luck". In any case, these statues are often quite large, and really help make these buildings look even grander.
Christmas decorations being installed around the entranceway to the Bank of China. A few days later, these were still not complete, but clearly have a very detailed design. The use of circular vs squarish shapes in Chinese architecture are apparently steeped in tradition: rounded shapes represent the natural world and "heaven", whereas squarish shapes are "ground" based or the crude products of man which cannot even begin to approach the beauty of nature. This curving, semi-circular entrance-way design overlaid over a largely blocky, dark squarish wall therefore makes some rather interesting statements.

Where east meets west, modern meets poor, and hustle-bustle is abound. Here we see a KFC restaurant (yay!), again on the second floor and with large billboards above the store, and a Pizza Hut down the road (Trivia: Last time I was in Hong Kong, I spotted an interesting situation where there was a McDonalds located right below a KFC. They were literally on adjacent floors. Unfortunately at the time the Point-n-Shoot I was carrying at the time was too slow and pathetic to capture this amusing sight, somewhere near Mong Kok). On ground level, there's what appears to be one of the pharmacy chains. In the crowded side street, we have yet another market, with some more of those green licensed food vendor booths open for business.

Another market street - this time with some other notable characteristic elements. For example, the large glowing signs hanging off the sides of buildings, the road-works barriers (lower right), or the traditional bamboo scaffolding (left). But perhaps most interestingly, we have a few fruit+vege (top right) and butcher (lower left) shops. These typically have low-hanging lights to make their produce look more attractive. In particular, the butcher shops (left) have distinctive red lampshades which they use to give the meat more of a reddish hue to look fresher.

The famous overbridge, where old ladies huddle to practice the old tradition of bashing pieces of paper with the names of enemies of foe with shoes (e.g. the pointy end of stilettos) as a way of getting revenge. The name of this tradition can be literally translated as "Bashing Petty People". 

Tung Lo Wan (Causeway Bay)
Tung Lo Wan is well known as being one of the most expensive places on earth to open shop (apparently the rents are astronomically high), and as a result are purely the domain of high end fashion stores and/or sophisticated Japanese restaurants. As a result, it also tends to be a big "people magnet".

Trams run along a very narrow lane down the middle of the road. It's often possible to touch the adjacent trams as they pass by in the opposite direction. Here we can see some of the cables that are used to power them. The new Hysan Place shopping centre is seen on the right.

Heaps of people and their umbrellas queuing outside Hysan Place - one of the big shopping centres in Tung Lo Wan - while waiting for a bus.

The sheer number of people present in this area beggars belief at times...
They are just like... everywhere. And clustered in very dense clusters that just seem to stretch on and on. While clustered under a sea of umbrellas. With traffic whizzing by at high speed on either side. In the rain. And loud large-scale screens blasting advertising from various corners all around you.

Getting off at the fancy bridge seen below turned out to be quite a challenge. There were heaps of people on the tram who were also getting off or alternatively staying put, but all clustered in the aisle and on the second floor (apparently, the only way to go from back to front (you can only enter from the back, and leave from the front) of these trams is to go through the second floor. Finally, once you were outside, you're left marooned on this little central island in the middle of the road below the bridge, with high speed heavy traffic whizzing past on either side constantly. And once again, have I mentioned the sheer number of people swarming around everywhere?
Fancy bridge complex for crossing the road - View from central island platform after getting off tram.

Eek! More traffic and people swarming around. How to get off this thing?!

People. People. People. And many high end brands (*ahem* not Nikon *ahem* :P)

At this point, it was mid afternoon. Jetlag was setting in again, as well as aching heels (a combination of an entire year's walking in one day + footware which turned out to be less than ideal conspired to make walking/standing a recurring misery for the next few days...). A retreat back to the hotel (via the subway) was in order. Although the plan was originally to try and visit Times Square that day, a later double-check of the maps (inside the subway) revealed that that was actually quite some distance away, and this plan was abandoned until we could fit it in on our last day.

My memory about the subway journey back to the hotel now is a bit fuzzy. All I can remember is that the station walls seemed to be using the light-blue tiles scheme, that we took the second line across the harbour (i.e. other than the red central line), and that once again, the station was also brimming with fast moving people. And lots of 'em (even by Hong Kong standards).

After taking a nap back in the hotel room, it was time to head out for dinner. A family friend took us out to Din Tai Fung, specifically the Silvercord branch in Tsim Sha Tsui. Din Tai Fung is a famous restaurant chain with restaurants in many different cities around the world (including Shanghai, Tokyo, New York, and Singapore), and which had been awarded a Michelin star.

Silvercord Centre is a multi-storey shopping mall, with a square "around the edges" design. That is, shops are arranged in a ring around the central atrium where you can look straight up and down. The escalators are arranged such that the up escalators are on the left (from the main street entrance via Canton Road) and the down are on the oppose side. In the corners around this atrium are some large cylindrical pillars, with shiny/mirror plating, and on the outward-facing side of each floor, there were flower beds filled with sunflowers. On the ground floor, there is a vibrant food court with many different types of interesting food on offer.

Din Tai Fung was quite busy that night (apparently that is its normal state though), with people queuing up halfway around the ring floor (whereas an adjacent bar stood nearly empty, just around the corner), who spent at least 30 minutes while a robotic voice periodically called out table numbers ("cee yut... cee yut... dee sup sei... dee sup sei..."). While most were locals, there were also American tourists there as well.

Once inside though, the service was quick and attentive. Ordered food appeared very quickly and was very tasty. Particular favourites for me included the egg fried rice at the end (it was really tasty, with generous chunks of fried egg, and a very interesting type of rice that was medium length, beady, and moist/springy), their dumplings (xiaolongbao and spinnach - both were quite fine and well balanced), bean sprouts, drunken chicken, pork chop, and korfu (wow... sweet tofu!). There were probably a few other nice dishes as well, though it's getting a bit hard to remember now - there were just heaps of tasty little morsels all over the table! It was also quite neat watching the army of chefs working away behind the glass kitchen in a very orderly fashion.


After dinner, we slowly walked back to the hotel, enjoying the Christmas decorations and general flashy lights of the shops.

The Sun Arcade's Christmas decorations in its foyer

Large glowing neon signs down a side street, where many small restaurants are located

Along the way back to the hotel, we passed by iSquare. The previous night, there'd been quite a crowd gathered there gawking at a Christmas tree which was glowing with a brilliant radiant white light. At the time, jetlagged and feeling kindof suspicious about the hoards of Indian men standing outside Chunghing Mansion (CHK - famous for being the place where many Indians lived and set up shop) who were loudly soliciting business and other stuff while hollering around the footpath there, so decided to not try and take shots of the scene at the time. As it turns out, I wouldn't have any chance at capturing this until the day before I left, and even then, the tree was no longer as radiant as it had been that first night. Bugger.

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