Twenty Four Hours in Hong Kong

24 Oct

Hong Kong was our stopover on the return trip from Europe this time. We stayed overnight in Kowloon on September 28 and hadn’t expected to hit launch day of the citizens’ ‘Occupy Central’ street protest on Victoria Island.

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Pro-democracy activists had put forward their start date by three days and suddenly live TV news and the newspapers were full of the escalating tension between the Hong Kong authorities and peaceful protesters outside the main government buildings. Students from high school age upwards were defending themselves against tear gas with umbrellas. It felt like something from the barricades of ‘Les Miserables’.

We kept well away from demonstrations and monitored events as they unfolded. Arrests and imprisonment, tear gas, forced removal, intimidation and threats have all been used, but a month later, enduring torrential downpours and high temperatures, the protest sites have multiplied and protesters are standing firm on their demand. They insist the Chief Executive meet with them to discuss the June 2014 proposal by the Hong Kong Government, supported by Beijing, to change the arrangement for nominees to the position of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive in 2017, such that nominees to the position of Chief Executive first have to be cleared by Beijing rather than being open to all. This is seen as an erosion of hard won democratic principles and the start of the slippery slope towards full control by Beijing.

Since Stuart and I weren’t trying to conduct any business with government, or even shop for that matter, we confined ourselves to activities on and around the harbourside and had no problems getting about.

The classic combo of a cross harbour trip on the Star Ferry and a visit to the Maritime Museum were both rewarding. I loved getting a smile out of this bored ferry man.

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The Maritime Museum is well curated and has a modern, all white view cafe on the top floor run by disabled people. It’s a cool spot to escape summer’s sweltering heat and humidity.

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Reading Hong Kong and China’s maritime history from their point of view, especially the ‘Opium Wars’, was fascinating. Ships’ logs, maps, ceramics. boat models and naval technology were all on display. The logbook of the East Indiaman ‘Belvedere’, kept by Captain Chales Christie in the years 1759 to 1796, was eerily similar to ‘Provident’s’ (the ship we had recently sailed on). Not a lot has changed in record keeping at sea.

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And I am proud to say that if I’m ever caught without a compass, as long as I have a bowl of water, a piece of dry grass or a reed plus a sewing needle I will now be able to find magnetic north just as sailors once did!

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Particularly poignant was reading the tragic story of American seaman, Philo McGiffin. Twenty-five year-old Philo couldn’t get a job after graduating from a US Naval College so went to China to try his luck. Although inexperienced he was appointed Professor at Tianjin Naval College in 1885. Whilst teaching he also surveyed the Korean coast and helped supervise the construction of four warships being built for China in Britain.

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When the war between China and Japan erupted in 1894 Philo was made co-captain of the naval ship ‘Zhenyuan’. He fought and was severely wounded in the decisive Battle of the Yalu River which China lost badly.

Although he had only followed the orders of the commanding Admiral, Philo was disgraced and pressured to commit suicide. He was also being hunted by the Japanese who had a USD50,000 bounty on his head. Philo escaped to the US in 1895 where he wrote and published a detailed account of his experiences in China and the battle. Sadly, suffering from his debilitating war wounds and the prospect of a slow, painful death, he suicided in 1897.

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Tea clipper and maritime flags of the world
On a happier, albeit frivolous note, we did manage to get a table for tea in the Lobby Cafe of the Peninsula Hotel, the epitome of posh teas. Should you wish to emulate our successful strategy this is how we did it. The Peninsula does not accept reservations from non-resident guests so we couldn’t book ahead. Afternoon tea is served from 2pm.

We don’t like queueing (who does?) so when we arrived at 1:30pm we asked if we could have a beer in the cafe and advised that we would be staying on for tea. ‘No problem Sir!’ We secured a nice table, had our beer and complimentary nuts, then when the clock ticked over to 2pm ordered our tea.

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As a vegan there wasn’t lot I could eat but if your taste runs to traditional multi-tiered sweet and savoury tea cuisine the Peninsula is the gold standard and their people-watching rewarding.

Dress standard is smart attire but I got in wearing Birkenstock thongs so they seem to be a bit relaxed about their ‘no plastic shoes’ rule!

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View from our hotel.

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