City of Treasures

I had to close my eyes to absorb the depth of history that surrounded me in the lobby of Hong Kong’s iconic Peninsula hotel as I stood in line for afternoon tea. Built in 1928 for European rail travelers as luxury lodging in the middle of a quiet backwater of the Kowloon peninsula, this now 300-room hotel has famously hosted the who’s who of the 20th century. While countless American tourists have stayed here on Asian sightseeing adventures, the roster also included foreign dignitaries, royalty and Hollywood celebrities such as Clark Gable. (Back in 1953 when Gable was filming Soldier of Fortune, he famously gave the hotel his recipe for a screwdriver cocktail after a then-17-year-old Johnny Chung — still employed at the hotel today — was confused by the request and brought Gable the tool instead of the drink.)

Unwelcome occupants of the lobby over the years include the Kempetai (feared secret police of the Japanese army), who on December 25, 1941, took over the hotel as their military headquarters for nearly four years and renamed it the Toa Hotel. As soon as the Japanese were defeated, The British took back control of Hong Kong, the New Territories and Kowloon, and “The Pen” (as The Peninsula was called) was able to return civility to everyday life in the city via scones, cucumber sandwiches and white table clothes. And now it’s almost my turn to sip from one of the world’s most coveted cups of tea. I had waited 40-odd years to get here, so what’s another 30 minutes for a table?

The wait gave me time to contemplate my initial impression of this city of over 7 million. I knew I would be overwhelmed with its density (6,300 people per square kilometer) and unabashed capitalism. (Prada, for instance, which recently chose to go public in the Hong Kong Stock Market, projects sales to be in the neighborhood of more than $2.7 billion this year, selling mostly to Asian customers.) The pollution, however, was not as bad as I expected. And, being a famously vertical city with award-winning architecture, Hong Kong — with its eye candy of a skyline — far exceeded my expectations.

What I didn’t expect was that from the moment I arrived at the Hong Kong International Airport I felt like I belonged. Stepping off the plane, I was greeted by a soothing female voice on the PA system that I assume was saying “welcome to Hong Kong International Airport” in various languages. I wasn’t sure where I was going, and before I knew it, I found myself on a shuttle — unfortunately the wrong one — sandwiched on all sides by strangers, reminding me of my commuting days on San Francisco’s 30 Stockton. Uncharacteristically, I relaxed and enjoyed the confusion. In all fairness, my relaxed state could have been attributed to the prior 12-hour slice of heaven on the Cathay Pacific flight. I had departed SFO at midnight, tucked myself into a luxe business-class sleeping pod, slept 10 hours and awoke to breakfast being served. I watched two episodes of Modern Family and started my day fresh in Hong Kong the next morning.

After a bit of charades, shoulder shrugging and showing my ticket to anyone who seemed to be able to help me, I managed to get on the right shuttle and connect with my travel companions, Adryn and Becca. We made our way to customs, which was unexpectedly easy to get through. What wasn’t easy was changing money. I laughed out loud when the money-change agent scolded me, pointing me out of the line so I could figure out if I wanted Hong Kong dollars or Chinese yen. Was there a difference? I should have done my homework. Hong Kong, though taken back from the British by the People’s Republic of China in 1997, is considered a Special Administrative Region (like Macau). There’s a different currency, and English is widely spoken. Hong Kong, as I learned on my short two-day visit, exists in its own universe.

Neither Adryn, Becca nor I came to Hong Kong to shop, but we all wanted to pick up a few items to bring home. With a tight schedule ahead of us, we knew the time to hit the famous inexpensive markets of the Mong Kok district near The Peninsula would be the afternoon of our arrival. After unpacking and soaking in the views of the bay and expanse of Hong Kong Island from our rooms, we stepped out to find the Jade Market before it closed at 5 p.m.

As we browsed the crowded aisles in the large indoor Jade Market, a grandmotherish-looking vendor with passable English approached us. Wearing a black turtleneck with a stunning green jade pendant, she was lightly aggressive but mostly friendly as she showed us how to hold jade up to the light to judge it. According to her, clarity equaled the real thing, while lines or spots meant that it was probably a lesser-quality quartz. She also told us how the Chinese written character for jade meant beauty and purity and how it is associated with long life and good health. And then, remarking on our fortunate timing, she offered us “the last customer of the day” deal. Adryn took the bait while I moved on past tables spilling over with bracelets, rings, trinkets, statues and necklaces — doing my best to not show interest. With no prices listed, I had to constantly ask, “How much?” I don’t bargain, so I walked out with a tiny dolphin and tiny horse statue for each of my daughters, along with two small astrological pendants, marking their birth years. For the same ($24 U.S.) Adryn bought two beautiful bracelets and a green jade pendant on a silver chain. Again, I should have done my homework, and I should have bargained.

It was closing time at the Jade Market, and fortunately the complimentary “champagne ride” on the Victoria Harbor provided by The Pensinula during the winter months for its guests was an ideal way to spend the next two hours as we waited for the Temple Street Night Market to open. The crisp salt air mingled with the brilliance of the city lights as the ferry bounced through the gentle waves. The three of us stood on the bow, cold wind blowing through our hair, and we toasted our adventure. Revived, we descended upon the night market, noting tourists and locals alike bent over little outdoor tables balancing bowls of noodles and plates of grilled meats. We were hungry enough to pull up a seat, but we had more shopping to do.

After resisting the urge to splurge at the Jade Market, I finally broke down and, of course, had to buy some chopsticks and Homer Simpson boxer shorts. I would have bought a gorgeous orange knockoff Gucci bag for $40, but when the vendor insisted I buy another one for my daughter nodding toward Becca (who is only 10 years younger than I am), my pride stepped in and I closed my wallet.

The next morning, the three of us met after breakfast for a hike. Our guide, Stephanie, who had attended college in the Midwest but grew up and now lives in Hong Kong, offered us invaluable cultural insight. On schedule, she picked us up at 8 a.m. to hike a wooded trail of the New Territories (a 30-minute drive from the hotel to the starting point), take a peek at the ancient fortune tellers of Lung Mo Temple and drive through the bustling central financial district to have lunch in my now-favorite Vietnamese restaurant in Hong Kong, Nhu Trang.

The pain of waking up for our morning hike was eased by our excitement to explore the city. Even the drive to it was a thrill to witness from a cab window. We saw a busy Hong Kong waking up, high-rise apartments going up as fast as they were being torn down, and familiar storefronts like Starbucks, Nike and Apple. Stephanie signed us up for a hike with Splendid Tours. Like Marin, Hong Kong is known for its open space, with a surprising 70 percent of the land left undeveloped. The brochure described our adventure as a retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city. We would travel up the slopes of Tai Mo Shan, the highest mountain in Hong Kong, to an authentic tea house in a rural setting that serves tea brewed from a mountain spring. There, we could mingle with local villagers before strolling by pristine watercress fields, escorted by a personal guide toward Lung Mo Temple and the Yuen Yuen Institute, a Taoist temple built in the 1950s.

I expected to find a traditional, ornate tea house, but it turned out to be more like someone had left the back door of a large kitchen in a private home open. Using the honor system, visitors go in, get their tea and snacks, and then wash their dishes. We skipped the tea and walked down a narrow path to enjoy time in the village’s temple, which is hundreds of years old. (Every Chinese village has one, according to Stephanie.) After a 50-something man wearing flip-flops, an untucked white button-down shirt and black pants (whom I presumed lived in the village) walked out, we were alone in this small, ancient space. We took in the views — fluffy, gray clouds drifting over Hong Kong; a mega-city surrounded by forested mountains and water. Just as Becca settled down in the temple entry — a cement step separating the inside from the outside world — to post a photo on Facebook, Stephanie quickly explained that no one is supposed to touch the partition.
(Apparently, stepping or sitting on this stone could result in ghosts following you home.) Beyond the entry was a small open courtyard, and the smell of incense seemed to penetrate the stone walls. An altar, scattered with the burned red paper of prayer offerings left earlier that day, dominated the rear of the small room. As we left, I couldn’t stop wondering about what the prayers might have been for.

We made our way back down the mountain. Narrow paved cobblestone roads were separated by the basic two-story cement homes of the village. I noticed that one of buildings had an open-air restaurant on the roof with birdcages hanging above the tables and asked Stephanie if the birds were on the menu. “Nope, they are pets of the customers,” she said. “We don’t have enough room to have dogs or cats, so birds are the perfect pet; they are social and beautiful and don’t take up much room — and they are portable.” She told us how her grandfather dotes on his squawky mynah bird, much to the chagrin of her grandmother, who continually scolds him for the time he wastes with his beloved feathered friend.

As we continued down the rocky path away from the village, we noticed two men setting up their birdcages in low-hanging tree branches. One man squatted on a rock above his bird as he whistled; a blanket covered half of the cage. I could smell the smoke from the cigarette he held loosely between his fingers. Time seemed to stop as a breeze lifted the light branches. He quietly (and reverently) moved the blanket exposing more of the bird, or, from the bird’s perspective, opening up the blue sky. My weight then shifted, crunching the pebbles below my feet, and he became aware of us. Based on the look of his furrowed brow, we were not welcome. I could have watched for hours but took the hint and moved on. “These people have entirely too much time on their hands,” said Stephanie as we continued. I told her she is definitely out of the same mold as her grandmother and pointed out that in this city of progress and change it was nice to see a person simply enjoying a quiet moment in the morning with his bird.

We continued on, breathing in the fresh air. Stephanie pointed out how villages in the old days were built a few miles apart, reminding me of books I’d read about China, like Wild Swan by Jung Chang, which describes village life, peasant women with large feet, horrible mother-in-laws and the cruelty of the cultural revolution.

Our two-hour hike ended at the Taoist Lung Mo Temple halfway down the mountain. In the temple, local women and men of all ages wearing everything from basic frocks to designer suits streamed past us. It was as if we were invisible. As they walked by, I noticed most carried plastic take-out bags loaded with styrofoam containers filled with steaming pork buns, chow mein and fried rice. Despite the lunch hour, this food wasn’t meant to be eaten. Instead, it was brought as an offering for the resident goddess the Dragon Mother, placed on a large table outdoors near the entrance. The smell of the food mixed with the pungent aroma of smoldering incense overwhelmed my senses.

There were about 100 people coming in, praying, making an offering, and going about their days. Stephanie pulled us toward a woman who kneeled in front of a large altar shaking a bamboo cylinder called a Cim Bucket, filled with 100 Kau Cim — numbered sticks similar to popsicle sticks but painted red at one end. The woman carefully shook the container until one stick fell to the ground, then bowed to the altar and picked up the stick to check the number. She went to a cabinet and took out a corresponding message and got into line to have this message interpreted by one of the three fortune tellers at the temple. I learned that Taoists have been forecasting their futures for centuries using this numerical system and poem interpretation. I was fascinated by the thought that for thousands of years in this country, disputes about love, war and family have been settled by this system.

Now, back at the hotel as we stand in line, I learn that waits are common for the afternoon traditional tea at The Peninsula, as they do not take reservations. (Tea starts every day at 2 p.m. and runs until 6:30. By 4:20, the line was 10 deep.) But the wait gave us ample time for people-watching. Ahead of us, a gaggle of giggling Chinese tweens holding matching and brightly colored Miu Miu handbags stand with their porcelain-skinned mothers, wearing Chanel. “The tax-free status makes shopping a sport here,” Stephanie confirms to Adryn, Becca and me as we tally up the value in handbags around the room. The total value, I share with them, could more than cover the Kiddo school fundraising needs for the year back in Marin.

While it feels exhilarating to be in this flush economy having come from one of belt-tightening back at home, I learn extravagance is nothing new here. Stephanie dazzles us with tales of Hong Kong’s excessiveness, such as how it has the most Rolls-Royce vehicles of any city on the planet or how massive demand for personalized license plates has made them a premium item. (One man paid $1.7 million a few years ago to have his plate read only the number 9 — a number considered lucky by the Chinese.)

Another indicator of wealth, I contemplate, is the current obsession with fine wines that I observed during my trip. Apparently, Hong Kong has taken over New York and London as the world’s largest wine auction center — likely because its 40 percent import tax on wine was eliminated. (I heard that a Château Lafite-Rothschild from 1869 sold for more than $200,000 at a Sotheby’s auction last year. And in January, California Vintage, the city’s first and so far only wine bar, opened, featuring more than 88 premium wines by the glass.)

Finally, with a nod from the hostess, our time to experience The Peninsula tea had arrived. I should have been more excited about ordering tea, as I — and I suspect most of the others there  — was there for The Peninsula’s entire high tea experience, which includes using most of the silverware and tea service made for the hotel back in 1928. Despite the fact that it seemed we’d just had lunch, I couldn’t resist a warm scone with clotted butter and raspberry jam, a smoked salmon bite-size sandwich and mini fruit tart.

In addition to my Earl Grey, I also ordered a glass of the house chardonnay from a Keller Estate property called La Cruz Vineyard in the Petaluma Gap. As I enjoyed the wine and looked around the room wondering how far the other tea-goers had traveled to get here, I thought about the amazing people and diverse culture I experienced during my stay and plotted my return to this lively city by the bay.