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The Other Side of Hong Kong

December 2nd, 2008 · 2 Comments · Hong Kong

For the first two months here, I stayed north of Victoria Peak, on Hong Kong Island.

That is, I was where all the people are. Shoulder to shoulder, it seems sometimes, in the mass of humanity that inhabits the coastal strip on the north shore.

Not until Monday, Dec. 1, did I venture to the south side of the island … and found a Hong Kong as different from the one I live in as Central Park is from the skyscrapers of New York all around it.


This is the Hong Kong of elbow room, breathing space … and even some greenery and wildlife. (That was a hawk I saw soaring high above me. I’m sure of it.)

A Hong Kong almost impossible to imagine, from the busy side of the island, that is.

And it is, literally, only minutes — and one trip through a mountain-piercing tunnel — away.

I had the day off, so I alloweed myself to be talked into visiting the pastoral side of the island. The area south of the ridge of hills that form the backbone of the 30-square-mile island.

(By way of comparison, Catalina Island, off the coast of Southern California, is 75 square miles.)

The hills are so abrupt, however, that they form a very effective barrier to easy north-south travel. Your choices are to sail around … or to drive around the edges … or, eventually to drive over the top.

The fast answer came in 1982, with the completion of the Aberdeen Tunnel — which just drives right through the line of hills, about 1.2 miles in length. Starting in Happy Valley, just south of the horse race track — and emerging in what seems almost like a different planet.

Not to get too worked up about Hong Kong Island’s south side, because perhaps I had been living in the cramped conditions of the north side too long, but it reminded me a little of the Amalfi Coast, in Italy.

A winding road, going back and forth above the coast, with stunning bays and inlets down below, and homes and even communities built into the ridges leading down to (yes) actual white-sand beaches.

The first town you come to is Aberdeen … then Deepwater Bay, as you gradually travel east and south, then Repulse Bay and, finally, to Stanley, located on a peninsula that juts into the Pacific farther than anywhere on the island.

We got out at Stanley and walked around. It was pleasant and airy, and not crowded. It is a bit touristy by the famous market (it reminded me of Avalon, there), but not overpoweringly so. Not like, say, Lamma Island, to the west of Hong Kong, which seems designed to quickly separate visitors from their money.

We walked a bit out of town, even, to the Military Cemetery by the high school. It was in the Stanley area that one of the English brigades made a stand in December of 1941, during their brief resistance to the Japanese invasion of the colony. They Empire troops finally surrendered, and all the English (and European) population went into Japanese camps, famous throughout the war for their ill-treatment of soldiers and civilians both.

The cemetery, like all English military cemeteries, is tidy and neat and well-kept, and rather sad. It has several types of graves. A batch of tombs that date back to the 19th century … and then graves from 1941 through 1945 that take in World War II.

A fair number of the graves are for soliders, sailors and airmen from the British Empire who died during fighting in Hong Kong or nearby. A few are airmen shot down nearby and executed and reburied here after the war. The headstones for these guys are neat and tidy. They may not have complete information (name, age, etc.), but they are uniform.

The sad stones are the rough-hewn ones, clearly made with primitive tools and hand-painted with a black pigment. Nearly all of these stand at the head of the graves of civilians who died during internment. A woman of 45, a man of 56. Died in ’42 or ’43. Probably just starved to death or died from some easily cured disease that their weakened conditions couldn’t withstand. The ones who died just before the end of the war, in August 1945 … I wondered if they knew how close they were to escaping the inhumane treatment of their Japanese tormentors. They had the worst of it; they lived through four years of internment; had they hung on another month, maybe they would have gotten enough medicine or food to live another 20, 30, 40 years.

It’s quiet up there, with a great view of the west side of the Stanley Bay. And it’s a bit sad.

Near the cemetery is a school with an actual, full-length, grass-covered soccer field. With a running track around it.

That represents an enormous amount of space on this island. If it were on the north side of the island, it probably would enclose a dozen skyscrapers and house several thousand people.

What’s more, instead of thousands of people trying to use it, if it actually were open land (as would be the case at Victoria Park, on the north side of the island), the field had exactly 22 kids on it — playing regulation soccer.

We stopped for a couple of tiny burgers and some fries on the promenade, watching the sun go down — and noticing Venus and Jupiter next to the new moon. Someone suggested the two planets and the crescent moon, which was upside down, looked like a “sad face” — the opposite of a smiley face. And they did.

We then headed back, on the No. 6 double-decker bus. We were reintroduced to Hong Kong claustrophobia as about 120 people crammed onto the vehicle. Luckily, we had seats.

We entered the Aberdeen Tunnel again … and five minutes later we were back in the madness that is the Hong Kong most of us recognize — and 99 percent of us live in.

It’s strange. To be so close to greenery and a bit of space and a pace of life so much slower. To be so close, just a mile on the other side of the tunnel … but if you don’t make the trip, you may as well be 100 miles way.


2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ian // Dec 2, 2008 at 6:16 AM

    What, no Hong Kong Disneyland yet? It’s small, no rides, packed, expensive! It’s perfect!

  • 2 Nick Vlahos // Dec 2, 2008 at 9:21 PM

    I felt the same way about Stanley as you did. Neat little area. The market doesn’t seem like too much of a ripoff, either.

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