Monday, December 31, 2012

HKTrip12: Day 4 Back in Hong Kong

This eighth installment covers the fourth day back in Hong Kong. It includes ramblings about the Goldfish Street, Peak Tram, and Central District (including The Landmark) during rush hour.

The Night Before - The Tree Glows!
After a long day in Macau, we took a taxi back to the hotel from the ferry terminal - a trip that the taxi driver wasn't very pleased about for whatever reason(s). Maybe because it was just a few blocks from the terminal and we had no large items of luggage, meaning that the guy didn't manage to get as much for the trouble of heading in to the terminal as he'd expected (i.e. earning just a bit over the base charge, instead of 2x base charge + 20 on top for 2-3 items of luggage).

While passing down Nathan Road, I saw that "The Tree" was finally glowing again! So, after taking a bit of a nap, I headed out again for a light dinner/snack and to take some photos of it.
"The Tree" with lights - It was no longer glowing as bright white as it was that first night, but it was still very pretty

Walking around it, I noticed that there was a hatch on one side that was open, with a technician working inside. Obviously they were still just setting it up.

Returning from dinner, I was close to trying to take some further snaps of the tree when all of a sudden, a solid and angry looking Indian man showed up beside me, and started yelling something unintelligible. After finishing his little tirade, he turned and walked away just as suddenly as he'd showed up. WTF?!

That night, I slept well through the night for the first time in as many nights. On previous nights, I'd still end up waking up sometime in the middle of the night (starting from 2:30am, and again every hour for the next few hours). By now, the floating feelings had fortunately well and truly dissipated, though the ferry ride from hell threatened to throw a spanner into the works ;)

Kimberly Road
One of the things I'd been intending to do while in Hong Kong was to take a look at the site of the hotel I stayed at during one of my early visits (in 1996). Specifically, the Windsor Hotel, which had long since gone out of business. From memory, it sat at the top of a little slope facing the road which lead up there (it was 3 blocks up to the end of that street). Down at the bottom, there were various shops selling trinkets (watches, bead chains, etc. with glowing blue-purple fluro lighting), and most importantly, a McDonalds (Back then, that was quite a saviour to me!). However, it soon became clear that my memory had been playing a few tricks on me...

To get there, we walked down Nathan Road...
Temple/Mosque on corner of Nathan and Haiphong Roads, beside the subway station entry

This section of Nathan Road is quite busy, with high end shops on either side. While watching a TV show the other day, I learned a bit more about the history of this area, including the fact that this point is near the top of a gentle slope around this area (which slopes down into the sea).

 Christmas decorations on the windows of The One - a bunch of Christmas themed square-head chicken characters...

After passing by "The One" shopping centre, we turned into Kimberly Road. Half of this is now known as "Wedding Dresses" street (as many such boutiques have opened there), while the other half is "Korean" street (i.e. due to the large number of Korean shops there). Windsor used to be at the end of this first half, and is now houses another one of the Wedding Dress boutiques at ground level (and apartments above).

Serviced apartments on the opposite side of the road

The Slope - Looking at it now, it's really quite a pathetic/gentle slope, though as a kid, it would certainly have felt like quite a walk...

Walking down the road, I was amused to see a box of Sealord seafood. Sealord is a fishing company here in NZ that makes many tasty crumbed fish products I like to eat, and is operated by the Ngai Tahu Maori tribe as a "treaty settlement" (i.e. treaty = Treaty of Waitangi). Earlier that morning, we'd slept in and headed off to Cafe De Coral for breakfast, where we found that they were serving some breakfast deals with crumbed NZ Hoki. Nice :)

Arriving at the site of the former Windsor Hotel, it was clear that things were not quite as I remembered them. Sure, they've redone the frontage (gone are all the glass doors, replaced with an imitation stone facade) but rather, it is actually slightly done the road. The slope was also much shorter and flatter than I remembered it.

Goldfish Street
Another one of the places I'd wanted to visit (since last time, but didn't manage to get there) was the "Goldfish Street" in Mong Kok. After initially considering taking the MTR (eventually giving up after finding that it was actually closer to the "Mong Kok East" station, which actually requires taking a big loop and several line changes (or potentially walking for ages underground), it was obvious that it would just be easier/cheaper to just take a taxi.

Along the way, we passed through a forest-lined street, which soon gave way to various buildings of the City University campus. Before long, we'd arrived in Mong Kok East...
Quick shot out taxi window upon arrival - this area is quite busy/messy, with many street vending stores and people out for a bargin

Unfortunately, I only managed to take a single shot (the one above) in this area, as practically all the shops had explicit no camera signs. Sigh... despite the fact that I never intended to blast them with a flashgun (for the record, I really hate the look that comes from doing that), all the other idiots out there who're used to doing so have made it impossible for anyone else who just wants to do so. It's a pity, given that there were many cute looking fish, varieties, and pretty tanks that just aren't see here (and would be a nightmare to try and get into the country without MAF freaking out and quarantining them to death in the name of the "biosecurity" BS they're so pedantic about).

The goldfish street spanned about one segment of the street, with stores on both sides of the road (and a few others thrown in, such as a food vendor selling "smelly tofu" - it really does have a really nasty sour smell to it!). While some of the stores specialised in live fish, others in care utensils (i.e. tanks, food, pumps, and cleaning equipment), and others a mix of the above. Overall, it was a bit underwhelming, as IMO there were fewer shops and tanks of live fish swimming around than I expected.

However, the tanks that were there were impressive and eye opening.
- One store had a large tank filled with a beautiful coral landscape, with a blue tang and a few clown fish swimming around (Yay! Nemo ;), which I really wanted to take a snap or two of (maybe next time I should just have snapped it anyway... well, maybe while standing in the street XD).
- Others however would have these tanks that were absolutely teeming with fish of a certain type. There's nothing quite like a cube-o'-fish until you've seen one for yourself, especially one full of pinky Parrot fish. However, the ones full of various types of goldfish were more common (and tropical fish less so).
- In several shops, I was confronted with a sight which really cracked me up: on the floor in buckets, some shallow, some deep, and others (like those drainers for cutlery) which were nested inside larger buckets, they would have larger fish in isolation. Things like flounder-like fish, eels, betas, and so forth, all paddling around or circling aggressively inside their own little isolation chambers.
- Finally, there was this one shop that was recessed away from the street front which specialised in goldfish only. There were tanks of really large specimens, medium sized fatties, smaller fantails, and all the way down to humble comets. In particular, I really liked some of the medium sized fatties, especially those that didn't have bulging eyes (instead, their eyes were even slightly obscured by their chubby cheeks), and who were cute and plump looking - they looked so... huggable!

The most unique and iconic thing I saw during my brief visit though were the "ready packed bags of fish". Just a few of the stores (at most 3 of them) offered an interesting product where they hung out several racks of small plastic bags. Inside each bag, there would be just a single fish (each quite cheap between 15 and 30 HKD each), a bubble of water, and sometimes one or two wisps of aquarium plants to boot. The presentation allowed you to sample a wide variety of fish (betas, tropicals - e.g. the triangular ones, some small fantails, and snails?) in one place, and laid out on a grid hanging side by side.

However, most importantly from a commercial standpoint: this presentation was quite attractive and convenient, and significantly lowers the perceived transaction cost involved. This is because they'd effectively reducing the process down to simply picking a bag you like, paying for it, and taking that home to become a ready-made aquarium (after transferring over to a larger container). If I wasn't just visiting Hong Kong briefly or didn't need to worry about how to handle travelling with fish, I'd probably have ended up buying a bag or two myself. Speaking about this problem, while passing one shop, I watched as the shopkeeper proceeded to freshly scoop, bag, and tie up bags of fish for sale. I wonder what happens at the end of the day to bags of fish that haven't managed to be sold yet...

For lunch, we headed back to Jordan (in Kowloon) to have wontons for lunch. The particular street we went to had two such shops beside each other (with a funky yogurt + something shop between them). Apparently, one of these was the original store, which had been operated by a husband and wife team. However, after they divorced, the wife ended up taking the money and setting up shop next door (or so the story goes). Hah!

The busy scene just down the next stretch of road - signs, traffic, and people carrying umbrellas in the heavy rain all meld together into this bustling environment.

While walking to the nearest MTR station to head off to the Peak Tram on Hong Kong island, we passed by Yee Shun Dairy Company. They are famous for their "double skin milk" dessert, something which I tried for the first time that day, and which they had several bowls of in the display cabinet out the front.

This dessert was quite interesting: it was quite cool/refreshing, and slightly (but not overly) sweet. The top had an interesting texture (slightly like foo-juk), while underneath there was this smooth soft-milk jelly-like pudding. It's quite hard to describe, but definitely something quite different to try. They also had some rather tasty looking french toast (with thick-cut slices of bread without the crust, deep fried to golden-brown perfection, and topped off with a nice blob of butter), though I didn't manage to try it this time immediately after lunch.

Peak Tram
IMO, there are some places at each destination you visit that are "must visits". That is, you haven't really been to that destination until you've spent some time at that place during your trip. At the very worst, if you miss it on one trip due to various circumstances (such as having a full itinerary of other must do's such as meetings with various people, or perhaps just a really short trip with little excess time), then you should aim to make a return trip sooner rather than later with visiting that destination as a top priority. Examples of these places include: Te Papa and the waterfront in Wellington; Darling Harbour (esp. Harbour Bridge and Opera House) in Sydney; and probably the Sky Tower in Auckland.

As far as Hong Kong goes, this list has always included: the Peak Tram, Star Ferry, and a walk along Victoria Harbour. My last visit two years ago included several trips on the Star Ferry, and a walk around Victoria Harbour (including making a special second-effort to see the nightly light-show from 8pm to 8:15pm, after missing the first day by being in the wrong location; NOTE: IMO, it's something you'll watch once if you haven't seen it before, but it's not really worth making an effort to see again after that). However, our itinerary didn't leave any room for a trip up the Peak Tram. In my mind, this was a bit farcical, that, having finally managing to travel to Hong Kong again after a 14-16 year hiatus between visits, and seeing so many other things that I still didn't manage to make it to one of my big three destinations. IT'S JUST SO WRONG!!!

Finally, this time I made it up there (kindof). I'd originally been hoping to get to stand up there and look down on the city again, to look at the changes in the skyline from above in the very spot that a photo from taken during my last visit there in 1996 that I'd been staring at for the past decade (it was on a poster I'd made back in the day for school after returning from my trip). However, the weather just wasn't cooperating at all during our entire trip. Despite that, I was determined to head back up there again this time, even if I wouldn't get to look down on the city, since at least I'd have been up there and on taken a ride on the cable car again. That's all that really mattered.

The Terminal
The lower terminus is located on Garden Road in Central district. Buildings around it include the USA Consulate, Central Government Offices East Wing, and St John's Church.

The terminal building

Being in Central district, this terminal now has a tall high rise building above it (grey part with rounded rectangle windows), and is surrounded by other similar buildings:
An older-style office block across the road from the terminal

Supposedly there were shuttles to the terminal from one of the MTR stations in Central, but we couldn't find it. Instead, we ended up taking a taxi down there.

Since I was last here, they're completely redone the whole terminal. One big change is that they've now built a little museum showing different uniforms and artifacts of their operations in years past:
A display of the old carriages used

Boarding and Upwards Journey
Swarms of people getting on and off the tram - red squarish vehicle in the middle

The tram

The journey up passed by relatively quickly. It was quite cool watching high rise buildings (and cars parked beside them) whizzing past on the way up. Unfortunately, the weather was so bad that apart from that there was just a foggy mist looking out any further, so you couldn't really see much of the surroundings apart from quite a lot of foliage.

About 1/3 of the way up you pass by an old styled "green" carriage that is parked alongside the tracks. Halfway up, the second tram passing in the opposite direction whizzes past you. About 3/4 the way up, the slope changes to become more gentle. Along the way, you pass by a few tunnels as well.

Finally you reach the top:
View from inside at top - On the right, you can see some large spools and machinery silhouetted against some colourful lighting. These were supposedly used in the past (?) to drive the trams up and down the hill.

Looking back down, it's all just a white foggy void, where the tracks just seem to vanish into thin air
 On the right, there appears to be some sort of control station...
Note the cable running down the middle of the tracks - this is used to drag the cars up and down the hill!

Upper Terminal
The upper terminal has been rebuilt since I was last in Hong Kong. The one I remember (and like) was the old "plug" shaped one from back in the 1990's. These days, it's more like a sickle-shape on top of a box (EDIT: I thought I had a photo of this somewhere, but apparently I don't. Maybe I just saw a collage of this on TV at some point).

History of the Peak Tram - Snapshots from different times in its history

Walking off the tram, you're instantly thrust into the middle of an excessive number of tourist knick-knack stores selling heaps of cheap (and nasty) trinkets. IMO it's all a bit too much... (BTW, the toilets on this floor require walking up and down a bit, through several exit doors, and halfway outside the building, where you really start to feel the moisture out there. More on the outside environment later).

View up the middle of the terminal building. Escalators are provided to get between levels.

The terminal building is now basically yet another multi-level shopping mall, with cafes and shops everywhere. As if you didn't have enough of that on ground level already! To get out of the building however, you need to take the escalators up to the topmost level they serve. Like many other public buildings in Hong Kong, the terminal is a fancy looking glass and steel building, with some interesting design...

Cafe and stairwell beside the exit doors

Another view of just the ceiling. Note the elliptical shape.

Walking with your head in the clouds
Outside, it was nearly a complete whiteout. The mist (or rather, the low hanging clouds) which sat on top of the mountain tops blanketed everything, completely blocking out the view below, and giving everything else a mysterious appearance.

View from right outside the terminal - a display of an old tram on the left, and the traditional restaurant cottage on the right. I had intended to go and have a banana split there again, but ended up having an egg tart inside the other mall complex up here (there are two of these multi-level malls).

Fading into oblivion - main terminal on left, other shopping mall (red marble) on right

Ghost train boarding now on platform "I can't see it" - This is one of the old trams they used to use. It's bottle green, and has been mounted up here to commemorate the history of the tramway.

The main terminal building, and its sweeping shapes

Another perspective

White out - The tops of the terminal are barely visible

The restaurant cottage (center). This is beside an intersection where roads up and down the hill meet. Here on the left, a courier has just arrived and is unloading stuff.

 Into the void - looking down the side of the terminal, the mist is quite thick and heavy.

Down here, you should be able to see the city. Today, you just get this misty scenic view, which is reminiscent of many traditional Chinese paintings.

It's quite a different experience walking around up there in the clouds. Quiet. Eerie. And ensures that you and your stuff end up drenched. After walking around a bit, it was time to take a short respite indoors to dry off a bit.

Yet Another Mall and Egg Tarts
The other building turned out to be yet another mall - bigger, and a bit more spacious, but still quite jam packed with small shops, selling more of the same as everywhere else.

Passing by a bakery, I saw that they had some freshly baked egg tarts - one of my favourites! It'd been quite a while since I'd had any, since generally the ones here in NZ aren't really any good anymore. Apparently the ones here were quite authentic/traditional (instead of the puff-pastry variety we see normally). Their crust was soft and crumbly, like a fine crumbly shortbread with a bit more texture mixed in, and the filling was a nice classic solid yellow, tasty one (i.e. not some of the pale watered down or dark orange artificial-tasting rubbish that's sometimes served). Oh, and it was nice and warm, even after walking around a little bit to try and find somewhere to sit (for reference, there's literally nowhere to sit inside shopping malls in HK unless you you pay for a drink at a cafe - keep this in mind if you get tired easily).

Back out into the void
After sitting around and taking a rest for a while, it was time to head back to the terminal to avoid the worst of the rush hour traffic back out in Central. However, by this time, the fog had only gotten much worse (i.e. thicker!)

The tops of the terminal building were now barely visible - ZBuffer's anyone?

Even across the courtyard, visibility is bad

Viewing platforms stand empty - there's not much to see out there today, but then, it's less crowded this way

 Ghost train - soon departing the station...

Trip Back Down
On the trip back down, I was able to get some better shots, now with a better understanding of the conditions and targets I wanted. For the trip down, the seats still face the same way, so you're effectively being pulled down the mountain again.

Boarding the tram at the station

After trundling down for a while, we paused at one of the stops along the route which intersected with a road passing by underneath.
A sign beside the tracks at this stop - a 14 degree slope at 1200 feet eh? But this was still on the gentler part of the slope.

Signs at the front of the cab - These show where the tram is along the line. Apparently, we had just stopped at Barker Road.

When we got back into motion, it soon became obvious what had just happened. On the platform on the RHS of the tracks, there was a couple dressed in their wedding finery. Apparently they were doing a wedding photoshoot with the trams!

View down the rest of the cabin during the shallower part of the slope - note the misty foliage whizzing past outside (it was quite difficult to capture these in these challenging lighting conditions). Also note how the carriage behind slopes away behind us.

On the steeper part of the slope. No it's not just the camera angle here - the slope is really this steep, and turning around to look down actually turns out to be really hard (it feels like you're going to fly out of your seat). No wonder the seats only face one way! The other notable thing here is the courtyard on the left - heading downwards, you see people (or rather their feet) going about their daily business just whizzing past at eye level.

More terrain, this time on the RHS of the tram. Across the middle, you can see a little foot bridge across the tracks, but also a few cars parked on a side road beside this (e.g. the black Mercedes).

Another one of the covered platforms (nice curving lines here!) along the tracks where people can supposedly get on and off.

Approaching the old green tram carriages parked on the side of the tracks (and people's houses beside these) These apartments are somewhat older, but fairly typical of things people used to live in.

A view out the front at the sloping track. Looking at this, it's quite a slope...

Pulling into the station

Disembarking - It was quite a narrow platform for passengers getting off, with not that much space between the tram and the wall.

So long until next time :)

Central - During Rush Hour
After leaving the terminal, and with time to burn before dinner, we went for a walk around Central district, following one of the roads leading away from terminal towards the harbour (and around the corner).

St John's Church
Immediately across the road past the government offices, you'll see St John's Church. Apparently the previous "CEO" (a weird use of the term China forces them to use for the guy who effectively acts as the Prime Minister/Governor of Hong Kong) used to attend/visit this church a lot.

St John's church and its original gates, which are still in use today

A more complete view of St John's Church, including the bell tower (yellow bricks up high)

Dimly lit road running behind/beside the church...

High Rises and Busy Roads
Turning the corner, you start entering a glass jungle of looming sky scrapers...
Shimmering splendor - Offices of Lee Ka Sing (richest guy in HK) on left, and another office tower on the right. The illuminated office windows here look so small - like stray hot pixels on a little screen.

Looking back around the corner at the busy road (and overbridges). The lovely flowing lines here feel nice and grand.

Old High Court and Legislature building (until 1 year ago)

 More looming towers. Nearly each one has a different design.

These old stair steps lead up to St John's church

Entering Central Central
Walking along the road, Mum started to point out various office buildings she used to work in many many years ago. Two years ago we hastily passed by many of these same places in a taxi on the way to the ferry terminal, after having had a early dinner/meal at Czarina after checking out Mum's old homes on Barbington Rd.

Continuing along this road, it feels quite narrow, with the tall looming towers on either side, and traffic rushing past on the road beside the pavement.

Grand looking lobby. I like.

One of a few side streets feeding down into Central. This particular street was the subject of news coverage/debate in recent years, as the government was originally planning making some traffic management changes in conjunction with demolishing some of their old buildings (Left - green and white "East" office blocks; Right - Another one of their buildings/the carpark IIRC). The plan was eventually vetoed though.

Christmas decorations and bling at another large upmarket shopping centre. Outside, the people queued outside for a taxi look like ants.

Overbridges and pedestrians - street view of Central district. The phone booths here are operated by PCCW, one of the two large telecom companies and owned be Lee Ka Sing again.

Another side street feeding down into Central. Apparently Mum frequently used to walk to work down this street.

A busy interesection. Next door is the Melbourne Plaza IIRC.

Interesting Sights
 Manning House - Most recognisable for its green and white glass staircase.

Supplies of water-cooler bottles. Apparently businesses put out used bottles on the pavements in the mornings to be recycled, and new ones are put in the place in the evenings. 

Market Side Streets
Queen St - This little street is famous for being quite steep, with overlapping slate tiles, and various small vendors (selling jewellery, polishing and repairing shoes, etc.) setting up shop there. The steepest part though is right at the base, where the steps are quite tall, narrow, and compact.

Two side streets full of little shops selling various cheap clothes

A darkened alleyway where a shop with some great hotdogs (green and white sign) is still located.

Down a Parallel Street
As night sets in, the traffic flow grows busier, with busses whizzing past, and people scurrying off along the footpaths. Overhead, construction and redevelopment work is taking place. Those office light dots look quite pretty...

 Three (!) ding ding trams stopped at the traffic lights.

Traffic jam outside Landmark

The Landmark
Still with time to burn and while in the area, we stopped at The Landmark (Chee Day Kong Cheung). As I soon found, this was quite a nice place to visit...

Inside The Landmark - Central Atrium. On the raised area where those red lights are, there is a little fancy cafe/restaurant where we stopped for a drink and sit down. The service here was great (if expensive - drinks at a premium here). They also offered a cake and coffee deal that day. Overall, the vibe was much like the "Garden Cafe" of the old Parkroyal Hotel here in Christchurch (Note: it was later known as the "Crown Plaza" instead, but it will always be the Parkroyal to me. Sadly, it's now been demolished).

Christmas Decorations - Their tall icy white-blue Christmas tree looked beautiful beside that large wall covered in flowery patterns.

The other part of their Christmas decorations was this large snow-covered mountain scene, complete with moving ski lift and little mountain hut.

The ceiling patterns were especially captivating.

Another view from the top of the escalator (same floor as the cafe) before leaving.

Yik Sun / Yixin Restaurant
Getting There
Finally, after waiting for the worst of the commuters to pass, we headed down to the MTR and caught a train to Wan Chai for dinner. There is a direct connection into the MTR from The Landmark (no need to walk outside or look for exits).

Although most of the commuters had gone, there were still plenty of people dressed in black suits swarming around the place with the briefcases. Just as we managed to make our way down to the train platform, a packed train was just closing its doors, with a few lingering suits standing around on the platform, already queued up in front of the doorways. Just seconds after this first train had left the station, a familiar rumble and headlights appeared: a second train! Wow... so they put on additional trains at rush hour.

To get to the restaurant, you leave the MTR station and heading up to the surface, turning left once you get there. Then you keep walking, past an outdoor sporting/recreation park (with a sealed green surface, basketball hoops, high intensity lighting, and heaps of young people exercising), cross the road , and walk past a few extra shops.

A notable piece of recent history stands across the road from this restaurant: a few years ago during the H1N1 epidemic, a hotel was placed in lockdown for a week after one of the guests became ill. For a week, media huddled outside trying to catch a glimpse of what was inside, while people inside looked out longingly at the world through the windows - passing notes and so on, and a stream of medical authorities walked in and out in full hazmat suits. This event was later immortalized / became the inspirational thematic material for a TV drama series.

This was one of my favourite meals in Hong Kong, with many tasty dishes on the table that night. We were seated in the basement, which was quite dark and had quite a different atmosphere to upstairs. However, it was nice and quiet compared to upstairs, where it looked like quite a madhouse.

In particular, I especially enjoyed the roast duck (the skin was really crispy, and underneath there was just heaps of solid meat, without the usual thick + mushy layer of white chewy fat), prawn toast (deep fried to perfection - fine and light, no crusts on the bread, heaps of prawn layered daintily on top which didn't sink into the bread, and topped off with a light batter), and the beef rice (it was a lot like baked pork chop rice, except without the cheese, and with ground beef instead of pork chop). There were a few other dishes I really enjoyed, though I can't remember what exactly they were now.

For dessert, there was a tapioca and custard pudding, with lotus-seed paste at the bottom, and lightly grilled on top with a little blow torch. This was individually served, and apparently needs to be preordered at if you want to have it during your meal at this restaurant. From experience, this dessert is actually quite tricky to make - well, if you don't have the right recipe for making it that is!

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