I awake in the dark. Where am I? Momentary befuddlement is replaced by a kaleidoscope of recollections. The journey. The excitement of arrival. The dizzying intoxication of new sounds, sights and smells. Marvelling at the dazzling beauty of Hong Kong, her skyscrapers illuminated like stars in the firmament. The captivating juxtaposition of East and West. Feeling almost overwhelmed by the sheer mass of humanity, the thousands-strong crowds of people intent upon business or shopping. Before finally surrendering to an exhausted sleep.
I draw back the curtains. Yes! I really am here. The lights of Victoria Harbour sparkle like coloured jewels against black velvet. I’m reminded of childhood Christmases, of multi-coloured fairy-lights on the Christmas tree and the same bubbling sense of anticipation about the day ahead. I curl up in a chair by the window and feast my eyes on the scene before me. There is no traffic, no noise, no one else around. For the moment this magnificent vista is mine alone.
Dawn breaks. Mountains appear as smudges of grey which develop, like a Polaroid, into looming masses of dark vegetation. The inky sea fades from black to grey, grey to blue. The brightening sky reveals a host of iconic buildings. The softly curving roof of the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre contrasts with the fierce spike of Central Plaza. The squat HSBC headquarters, once the most expensive building in the world, is now overshadowed by the zigzagging Bank of China Tower. Most impressive of all is the regal Two International Finance Centre which towers over its neighbours, reinforcing its air of majesty with its crown of claws.
I leave my hotel and head down to the waterfront, admiring the splendid skyline on the distant shore. It is winter here but to me, recent escapee from a cold and dismal London, it feels like balmy spring. The sunlight sparkles on the blue sea and the air is so warm I have no need of my jacket. I watch the ships sailing through the harbour: tiny fishing boats, barges laden with containers full of goods, several yachts, a classic junk, even a gigantic cruise ship – bigger than I could ever have imagined!
This area is normally heaving with tourists but so early on a Sunday morning I have the luxury of solitude. It is the Lantern Festival, the last celebration of Chinese New Year, and the promenade is decorated with huge, colourful lanterns in the form of the Chinese zodiac (rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, roster, dog and pig). This is the Year of the Dragon so the largest lantern of all is, of course, a dragon and there are dragon themed decorations, posters and even cuddly toys on display throughout the city.
I find myself at the deserted Star Ferry terminal and board the ferry to Central. I am the sole passenger and the six minute crossing, with its unparalleled panoramic view of Hong Kong island, is one of the most magical and memorable experiences of my life. All too soon I have to disembark, and I discover today is the Hong Kong marathon. Friendly volunteers are preparing for the arrival of the runners and their supporters, and they greet me with smiles and cheery hellos.
The city begins to stir. Three ladies are practising Tai Chi together in a pristine public park. A family with two adorable little girls passes by, clearly on their way to church. An elderly man, well wrapped up in a coat and scarf, enjoys the sunshine while smoking a cigarette. The traffic builds as cars and taxis are diverted around the race route. Shops open. Cafés fill with customers. Everywhere there is hustle and bustle. I set out to explore, feeling immensely privileged and grateful for my unforgettable, private introduction to this vibrant and cosmopolitan city.
About the Author: After a nomadic childhood Caroline Hawkins moved to London to study at UCL, graduating in 2000 with a B.Sc. in History and Philosophy of Science. Her many interests include art, writing and travel.