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Monday, December 1, 2014

Ocean Park

21 years ago, during Christmas of 1993, I spent a week in the then-British Crown Colony of Hong Kong 香港. It was a great trip for the most part, as I took in many of the major sights - riding the Peak Tram up to Victoria Peak for the views (daytime, twilight and nighttime); having a dim sum lunch on one of the floating restaurants in Aberdeen; relaxing with a beer at a seaside pub in Stanley; walking among the Filipina domestic workers enjoying their Sunday morning off in Central; riding the Star Ferry between Kowloon 九龍 (where I stayed) and Hong Kong Island; making a trip by boat to Cheung Chau 長洲 and taking a walk around dumbbell-shaped island; looking at the Christmas decorations lighting up Central from Kowloon; walking along Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui 尖沙咀 and checking out the Temple Street Night Market; and even making a day trip to a couple of temples in the New Territories. It was a fantastic experience, and I vowed that I would someday return to Hong Kong, after the handover to China in 1997, to see how much the territory had changed since I was last there.

That opportunity came at Thanksgiving this year, in the form of a visit to our friends Steven and Shih-Ling, and their three charming daughters, Ellie, Mia and Vivienne. The family graciously put us up (and put up with us!) for four nights over the holiday, as we arrived late on Wednesday night and departed late on Sunday morning. Our visit began in earnest on Thanksgiving Day with an outing to Ocean Park, for years Hong Kong's best (and for all I know, only) amusement park, until Hong Kong Disneyland opened in 2005 to provide some competition. Despite intense lobbying from the likes of my wife, Steven and his daughters in favor of seeing the latter, my daughter held firm to her desire to see the marine animals of Ocean Park, so with Ellie coming along (Mia decided that Disneyland was the better option and elected to stay home, while Vivienne had to go to preschool), Steven dropped us off soon at the park soon after it opened at ten a.m. 

This was my second visit to Ocean Park, though I only have scattered memories of what is was like back in 1993. One thing I do remember is that the weather was better the first time I went. Another difference was that twenty-one years ago, there were hardly any visitors from China (anywhere in Hong Kong, for that matter), whereas this time the park was full of middle-aged Chinese bused in from the mainland in large tour groups. I have no idea of what they made of Ocean Park, as the place was designed with families and young couples in mind.

Ocean Park is huge, and to experience it all would require several visits. We started off by seeing the aquarium,  then having lunch afterward in the restaurant upstairs, sitting next to the main tank where the girls amused themselves by naming the various fish, rays and sharks that swam by during our meal.

One thing I do recall from my first visit was the collection of bizarre-looking goldfish, victims of the Chinese fascination with ornamental fish:

Ocean Park also features land animals, including several lethargic pandas, as well as a play area with several carnival-like games. When Amber and Ellie got tired of these, we hopped inside a cable car and rode it over the hill to the other side of the amusement park. Unfortunately, the rain was coming down steadily at that time, which made it hard to appreciate the view over the water that I remembered so well from my previous visit.

The other half of Ocean Park holds many of the standard amusement park rides, which Pamela and I couldn't really partake of, owing to both the weather and the fact that we were in the company of two elementary school-age girls. This section of the park was also more crowded, with most of the Chinese tour groups congregating here (and with a few attempting to cut in line at some of the attractions - it isn't too hard to inderstand the resentment felt by many Hong Kongers at the behaviour of some of their less-"civilized" 文明 cousins from the mainland). 

The purchase of plastic rain ponchos helped ease the discomfort caused by the falling rain, which in any case soon stopped coming down, allowing the four of us to get wet(ter) on a fun log ride, while the girls watched as my wife and I took a spin on a roller coaster (and I could only hope the appearance of rust was for cosmetic purposes only). 

For Amber, the highlight of Ocean Park was the dolphin show. When I was her age, seeing the dolphins and killer whales perform at Sea World in San Diego was always a highlight of family summer vacations. In this day and age, however, of Ric O'Barry and The Cove, it's become difficult to enjoy, let alone justify, these kinds of performances, knowing that the dolphins may have been one of the "lucky" few to have been spared the slaughter in Taiji 太地. But seeing the look of enjoyment on my daughter's face made me decide she didn't need to be educated just yet about some of the less-savory aspects of theme parks and the way their animals are treated. Avid reader and animal-lover that she is, Amber will no doubt eventually come to her own discoveries and conclusions. For now, it's enough that she enjoys those things that make a young girl's life a happy one.

As it was getting late in the afternoon and we had a Thanksgiving dinner to get to, we took a short train ride back to the other side of Ocean Park. After a spin on a carousel and a walk through Old Hong Kong (apart from the Hong Kong Museum of History in Kowloon, probably the only place in the Special Administrative Region that still evokes memories of life in Hong Kong before the 1970's), we got in a taxi and promptly got stuck in the first of several rush-hour traffic jams we would encounter on our trip. Still, the four of us made it back to a traditional turkey dinner with most of the trimmings (and a few others, like grilled fish and spring rolls) courtesy of Shih-Ling. The girls entertained the adults with an impromptu lion dance performance, which made me glad I wasn't one of the upstairs or downstairs neighbors, before the guests left and the rest of us retired for the evening.

And on this particular Thanksgiving, I have much to give thanks for and very little to ask for.

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