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Saturday, December 6, 2014

Man Mo Temple and Kowloon

Enough of amusement parks and laid-back outlying islands - the Saturday of our four-day Thanksgiving break was the time to plunge into Hong Kong's busy streets and see the former British Crown Colony/current Chinese Special Administrative Region up close and personal. And what better way to start than by visiting Man Mo Temple 文武廟, perhaps the most well-known in Hong Kong. So off we set on foot from our friends' place up in the Mid-Levels to the temple on Hollywood Road. Fortunately for my walking-averse spouse, escalators were in place to assist in the uphill trek from Queens Road Central. Even that effort worked up an appetite, so we stopped for lunch at a place called Waafung 華豐, located on a busy (and evocative) side street.

Suitably fortified, we resumed the journey to Man Mo Temple, erected in 1847. It's dedicated to two gods, one civil (Man) and the other martial (Mo). Man Cheung 文昌 was a statesman in China in the 3rd century B.C. He's now worshiped as the god of literature and is symbolized by a writing brush. Mo is Kwan Tai 關帝, a soldier from the 2nd century B.C. who, in addition to being the god of war, also looks out for pawnshops, the police, restaurants...and gangsters. He's represented with a sword. In addition to the statues of the two gods holding pride of place at the main altar, two sedan chairs dating from the 19th century are displayed behind glass panels. They're used to carry the gods during festivals. Temples in Hong Kong tend to employ a lot more red in their color schemes compared to those in Taiwan; they're also a lot smokier from all the incense coils.

Where all those millions live

One of the fun things to do when visiting Hong Kong is to avail yourself of many of the convenient public transport options. On this afternoon we sat in the upper deck of a street tram as it made its way along Des Voeux Road, then hopped on the iconic Star Ferry 天星小輪 for the short ride across the harbor from Hong Kong Island to Tsim Sha Tsui 尖沙咀 in Kowloon 九龍.

The Tsim Sha Tsui East Promenade on the Kowloon side has been expanded since my last visit in 1993 (assuming it even existed back then; memories can get hazy after 21 years). There's now an Avenue of the Stars, a tribute to Hong Kong's film industry, though other than Bruce Lee, Chow Yun-fat and John Woo, I didn't recognize any of the names on the plaques. The views across the water to the other side, however, were still as fascinating as ever, even on an afternoon when it constantly threatened to rain on us.

From the promenade we walked along Kowloon's famed Nathan Road 彌敦道. Just as in Central, Admiralty, Causeway Bay et al, the area was packed with pedestrians, but Pamela soon noted a key difference in the crowds: on Hong Kong Island, many of the people on the street are locals and expat businesspeople, walking with a sense of purpose as they go from A to B. In Tsim Sha Tsui, virtually everybody is a tourist attempting to take it all in or someone trying to make a living from catering to visitors. Nathan Road reminded me in some ways of Shanghai's 上海 Nanjing East Road 南京东路 pedestrian street in that people constantly approach you trying to sell a product or service. Only in Kowloon they're overwhelmingly people from the Indian subcontinent, wanting to sell you an imitation bag or watch or wishing to interest you in a tailor-made suit.

One place in Kowloon that definitely wasn't there in '93 is the Hong Kong Museum of History 香港歷史博物館, one of the best in all of Hong Kong. My wife, not being particularly interested in local history, chose this time to do some window shopping and to meet us afterward in the onsite cafe, while Amber and I went inside to see the displays. My daughter was most interested in the Hong Kong of 400,000 years ago (!), and the flora and fauna that used to live there, but the museum does a great job of laying out Hong Kong's growth from small fishing village to modern-day economic powerhouse. The Opium War, the British governance, the Japanese invasion and the post-war years are arranged in chronological order, and the exhibits are generally presented with an eye to accuracy and detail, a refreshing change from the self-serving justifications often found here in China (guess which one of the "two systems" I think is better?). For me, I got a kick out of seeing some of the toys that used to be manufactured in the old British colony, as I'm old enough to remember when "Made in Hong Kong" was commonly seen on a lot of things that kids played with. Visiting the history museum was also a timely way to avoid the rain that had started to fall in the late afternoon.

After meeting up again with Pamela, the three of us returned to Nathan Road in search of somewhere to have dinner. After some indecision on the part of my wife, we decided upon that most Cantonese of dining establishments, the Outback steakhouse. After dinner, we made a detour on our way back to the waterfront to have a look at the Christmas decorations outside that most venerable of Hong Kong hotels, the Peninsula. I would've loved to have gone inside for a drink, but my Taiwan-born and raised spouse did not seem to share the same fascination that I have with romantic imperial era-institutions like the Peninsula, the Raffles in Singapore and, yes, even the Fairmont Peace Hotel here in Shanghai (footnote: I stayed at the Kowloon Hotel, located behind the Peninsula, when I visited 21 years ago. Thanks to the strong yen at that time, I could afford to stay there rather than at Chungking Mansions, Tsim Sha Tsui's notorious backpacker stop).

Besides, we had a show to get to. The Symphony of Lights is a nightly performance of laser lights projected from the rooftops of the skyscrapers lining the waterfront on the Hong Kong Island side of the harbor (it certainly wasn't happening back in 1993). Unfortunately, we made a mistake with the time, thinking it started at 9:00 pm, when in fact it had begun an hour earlier and was over with by 8:20. My wife was disappointed, but on the bright side (no pun intended), we avoided the crowds that we had been warned about earlier by Shih-Ling, and the lights from Central and Admiralty were just as beautiful this time as when I remembered from before. It was nice to see that some things in Hong Kong hadn't changed one bit as we rode the Star Ferry back across the harbor.

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