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Symphony of Lights, Hong Kong

Sowerby & Luff write…

Symphony of Lights creates “a stunning all-round vision of the coloured lights in Hong Kong, performing an unforgettable spectacle along the harbour front.”

“Has it started yet?” I asked a fellow tourist with a video camera.
“Yes, five minutes ago” she said.
“I hadn’t noticed” I said.

The light show claims to celebrate the energy, spirit and diversity of Hong Kong, but the truth is, they just flash the lights on and off on the buildings for 18 straight minutes. They even introduce each building individually, as their own lights join in the party.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome The Sun Hung Kai Centre! Put your hands together for the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts! Give it up for the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre! Show your appreciation for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Forces Building!”

Our eyes were just beginning to glaze over as the announcer finally reached the end of his list about ten minutes later.
“And last but not least, a huge round of applause for the Standard Chartered Bank Building!”
It’s fairly impressive when they use laser beams at the end of the show, but apart from that, the Symphony of Lights is a bit of a disappointment. Hong Kong itself is such a spectacular skyline after dark, that it really doesn’t need event management to enhance it.

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Balalaika Russian Theme Bar, Hong Kong

Sowerby & Luff write…

After walking around Hong Kong all day, “Beer o’clock” was a welcome arrival. We sought out a hostelry in which to spend Happy Hour and in D’Aguilar Street in SoHo, we stumbled upon the perfect place.

Balalaika is a Russian theme bar, complete with a huge bust of Lenin in the doorway, and lots of retro Soviet propaganda posters all over the wall. The centrepiece of the bar is a minus 20ºC Siberian Vodka Room, for which they supply you with a huge warm fur coat.
“You want to drink a vodka at minus 20ºC?” asked Georgina.
“That’s cold,” I said.
“That’s the idea,” she said.
“Can’t we just have a nice cool beer out here?” I suggested.
“When in Rome…” said Georgina.
“But we’re in Hong Kong,” I said. “And this is a Russian bar!”
“Oh, you’re such a wimp!” snapped Georgina, and she threw on one of the fur coats and strode into the freezer room. Never one to be outdone, I grabbed another fur coat and followed her.
“Bugger me, it’s cold in here,” Georgina said.
“Told you.” I shivered.
“Let’s just chuck down a couple of vodkas and go!”

Shaking like a jellyfish, my ears bleeding from the cold, I shuffled over to the small serving hatch, where a frost-covered glass panel slid to one side.
“Two v-v-odkas p-p-p-please” I said.
“What flavour you want?” said the barman.
“What f-f-f-flavour d-d-do you want?” I asked Georgina, who was shivering so much her face was becoming a blur.
“I d-d-d-on’t c-c-c-care!” she said. “Just get the f-f-f-f-frigging drinks!”
I turned back to the serving hatch. The barman had slammed the glass shutter closed while I was talking to Georgina. It slid open again with a clunk.
“What f-f-flavours d-d-do you h-h-have?” I shivered.
“We have more than sixty flavours of vodka” he said. “You want me to read you the list?”
“No t-t-thank you,” I said.
“Apricot vodka very nice,” he said.
“Two apricot v-v-vodkas, p-p-p-please” I said. And then I discovered that my hand was too frozen to get it into my pocket and take out my wallet. The barman had clearly seen this phenomenon before.
“Pay outside,” he said.
He placed two apricot vodka shots in the serving hatch, and as soon as I’d picked them up he slammed the shutter closed, sprinkling ice particles onto the floor. With trembling hands, we said “Nastrovia!” and chucked our vodkas back in one.

Georgina was now turning blue. “Let’s get the fuck out of here!” she said.
“Very warm in Freezer Room today,” said the barman as I paid for the drinks outside. “Only minus 14ºC.”

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Happy Valley Race Course, Hong Kong

Sowerby & Luff write…

The Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club is home to one of the most spectacular race courses in the world, and they have floodlit racing every Wednesday night.
“We simply have to go to the races,” Georgina said over breakfast the following morning.
“But, we don’t gamble,” I said.
“For the experience,” she said. “And anyway, I’m told there’s a very nice Chinese restaurant with unlimited beer during the races.”
“What time does it start?” I said.

That evening we got a cab to Happy Valley, and we were soon ensconced at a table overlooking the finish, with a delicious selection of authentic Peking dishes spread out in front of us. 
“What do you fancy in the next race?” I asked.
Georgina studied the form. “I think I’m going to choose my horses based on the colours and designs of the jockeys’ shirts,” she said. “How are you going to choose yours?”
“I might be a little more scientific than that,” I said pompously, and I flicked through the Hong Kong evening paper until I found the names of the city’s top racing tipsters.
“I’m going for Wong’s Favourite,” I said. “All the experts say it’s going to romp it.”
“I’m backing Natural Echo,” said Georgina “because his jockey’s wearing such a nice stripy red shirt.” 
“How much do you want to bet?” I said.
“20 dollars,” said Georgina, and with a flourish she slapped a 20 dollar note on the table.
“That’s only about £1.20,” I said. “Surely you could be a bit more adventurous than that. It all goes to charity, you know.”
“Oh yes, it’s not like in the UK. The Hong Kong Jockey Club is a non-profit, charitable organisation,” I said. “Look, it says here in this leaflet: In 1955, the club formally decided to devote its surplus each year to charity and community projects.”
“That’s a great idea” said Georgina.
“The Club aims to bring a better quality of life to the people of Hong Kong,” I read “and immediate relief to those most in need.”
“Maybe they give some of it to the pandas!” said Georgina. 
“So, how much are you going to bet? I asked.
“20 dollars,” she said.

As we sat down at our table, we’d been given a leaflet, warning us about the evils of gambling, which seemed an odd thing to do at a race track.
“Gambling frequently leads to relationship problems, financial difficulties, and a range of emotional disorders,” it said.
“You sure you want to risk it?” I asked Georgina.
“20 dollars,” she said.
I read the last bit of the leaflet. It said that you should “Set and stick to a budget, only gamble what you can afford to lose, and that you should never borrow to gamble.”
At that moment, I opened my wallet and discovered that I’d completely run out of Hong Kong Dollars.
“Can you lend me a few bucks, Georgina?” I asked.
“You should never borrow to gamble,” she said.
We went and placed our paltry bets at the little window in the restaurant. Then we tucked into our bean sprouts and noodles, and waited for the first race to start.

“The winner is Natural Echo!” said the commentator a few minutes later.
Georgina was magnanimous in victory.
“What happened to your horse?” she asked.
“Oh, my horse was that really fast horse that led all the way around the track and was passed in the last ten yards by Natural Fucking Echo!” I said.
“Nobody likes a bad loser,” said Georgina.
“What are you backing in the next race?” I asked.
“I’m quitting while I’m ahead,” said Georgina.
“After one race?” I squealed.
“You should set and stick to a budget,” Georgina quoted back at me.
“And what was your budget?” I asked.
“20 dollars,” smiled Georgina.
Determined not to be outdone, I scoured the newspaper, and discovered that all six tipsters were going for the same horse in the next race. I dashed over to the betting window and put twenty dollars on Lightning Speed. I’ve never backed a winning horse in my life, so the actual amount of the bet was immaterial. It was the winning that counted. More importantly, it was not being outdone by Georgina.
Georgina counted her winnings and we walked down the stairs to trackside to watch the next race. There was a whole lot more atmosphere outside in the open, and the place was packed with both tourists and serious local punters. We stood right next to the finishing post, where the floodlights gave the track an exciting, almost theatrical atmosphere.
As the second race started the noise from the massive crowd was deafening. Lightning Speed went into the lead almost immediately.
“Go on, number nine, go on my son!”
You simply would not believe how enthusiastic one man could get over a £1.20 bet.
“Go on, number nine, Go on, Lightning Speed!”

A huge roar went up as the horses flew past the winning post just yards away from us. We had absolutely no idea which one had triumphed.
“Did you see who won?” I asked a nearby Chinese punter who looked like he knew what he was doing.
“Number six,” he said.
“Bugger,” I said.

“You’re supposed to tear up your betting slip and throw the little pieces up in the air,” said Georgina. “It’s traditional.”
I rummaged around in my pocket and took out the betting slip. I held it up in the air and prepared to tear it to shreds.
“The winner of the second race is number 9, Lightning Speed,” said the announcer.
“Yeeeeee haaahhhhh!” I screamed, and threw the ticket in the air.
“You’d better go and find that,” said Georgina. “You don’t want to go home without your winnings.”
Georgina and I had only backed two horses in two races and, as if by magic, we’d both managed to get a winner in each. It really was that kind of a trip. The sights and sounds of the Hong Kong Jockey Club will stay with us both for years to come, and will definitely be one of our most vivid memories when we look back on our trip to the Far East.

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The Peak, Hong Kong

Sowerby & Luff write…

Following our Hong Kong tourist map carefully, we climbed up Lok Ku Road through the tumbledown “stone ladder” streets and markets of the “Mid-Levels”. This part of Hong Kong appears to have been built almost entirely at a steep angle, and most of the shops and stalls seem to feature exotic sea creatures awaiting execution. Here you can choose your dinner based on how fast it can swim. We snapped many photos of Georgina giving the Last Rights to various lobsters, shrimp and crabs. After much semi-vertical walking, we gave up and climbed onto the Central-Mid-Levels escalator, arriving in the SoHo district moments later.

SoHo’s crammed with shops, restaurants, bars, nightclubs and art galleries, and the most famous street is probably Hollywood Road, which is where all the antique shops are. In the window of one antique shop in Hollywood Road was the largest and most intricately carved elephant’s tusk we had ever seen.
“I thought it was illegal to sell ivory” said Georgina.
“Maybe what’s why there’s a sign in the window which reads “NO PHOTO” I said.
Georgina and I were disgusted at the amount of ivory that was on sale in Hollywood Road. You’d think that such a modern, civilized city as Hong Kong would take a more responsible view about what’s sold in its antique shops.
For a while we tried following the “Sun Yat-Sen Historical Trail” through “Sixteen points of historical interest”, but we quickly realised that most of the ancient sites on the tour have long been bulldozed and replaced by concrete skyscrapers. The architect who decided to build a multi-story residential complex alongside the Man Mo Temple should be put to death along with those lobsters.

The most spectacular view of Hong Kong is from The Peak, and it’s way too high to climb on foot, so we took the Peak Tram to the very top. The Trams originally used a steam engine to haul the cars but, thankfully, the whole thing was rebuilt 15 years ago, and it’s now got a computerized control system.
“So it’s perfectly safe?” asked Georgina, her eyes squeezed tightly shut.
“Yes,” I said. “It carries 11,000 passengers a day, and most of them travel with their eyes open.”
“I’ll be fine as long as it doesn’t stop, at a 45 degree angle, half way up the slope,” she said.
10 minutes later, the Tram stopped, at a 45 degree angle, half way up the slope.
“Can I get off now?” asked Georgina.
“When we get to the top,” I said.

It had been a while since we’d encountered any noisy road works or ear-splitting building work on our travels, so when we arrived at The Peak it was reassuring to hear the sound of pneumatic drills, electric saws and steam hammers. The normally quiet and tranquil gardens at the very top were being redeveloped, and the air was thick with dust, smoke and fumes.

My hands clamped over my ears, I approached a distinguished-looking Englishman, who looked like he could handle a camera.
“Lovely day!” I screamed at the top of my voice.
“Yes!” he shouted back.
“Would you mind taking a picture of us?” I yelled.
“I’d be delighted,” he hollered back.
I handed him the camera. I had found my photographer. The hard bit was now going to be getting Georgina to stand anywhere near the edge of the viewing platform, so that we could get the best possible picture of us in Hong Kong.
“No way,” she said. “I’m not going anywhere near that edge. That must be a thousand foot drop.”
“But there’s a handrail, and protective glass and everything” I said.
“I’m sorry, but no” she said.
“Just one,” I said.
“You can keep your eyes closed,” I said.
“I’ll give you five dollars.”
“Excuse me!” said the distinguished-looking Englishman. “Would you like me to take this photograph or not?”
Using a combination of bribery, Valerian, and distorted perspective, we finally managed to take a photograph which made it look as if downtown Hong Kong and Sowerby and Luff were in roughly the same place at the same moment in history.

On the way back to street level, Georgina discovered that the only thing more alarming than the Peak Tram going uphill at 45 degrees, was the Peak Tram going downhill, backwards, at 45 degrees. Once again, she clamped her eyes firmly shut.
“Tell me when it’s over,” she said.

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Impressions of Hong Kong

Sowerby & Luff write…

As we came in to land at Hong Kong Airport, we could immediately see the famous yellow smog of pollution which hangs permanently over the city.
“Isn’t this one of the world’s most dangerous airports?” asked Georgina.
“It used to be,” I said. “But they moved the runway to somewhere safer.”
“I hope they told this pilot where they’ve moved it to,” said Georgina.

Our luggage defied all laws of international air travel and arrived safely with us in Hong Kong, where we strolled delightedly into the fresh air outside the arrivals hall. A cool, spring-like breeze greeted us, and the temperature was a comfortable 70°F, with almost no humidity at all. There was oxygen in the air. Unlike Singapore we could actually breathe for ourselves without the use of any medical apparatus.

We jumped onto the Airport Express and after quickly passing through Tsing Li and Kowloon, arrived in the town centre twenty minutes later. We hailed a cab.
“L’hotel, Causeway Bay, please” we said to the taxi driver.
He stared at us as if we were from the Planet Zob.
He clearly didn’t understand. We showed him our hotel booking form.
“Ah, L Hotel!” he said, and he shoved the cab into gear and headed across town.
French pronunciation appears to be frowned upon in Hong Kong, so L’hotel has always been known as L Hotel. How on earth could we possibly have known that? Had we not had that piece of paper, we might have been trying to locate L’hotel for days.

“Hong Kong is one of two special administrative regions of the People’s Republic of China, the other being Macau. It lies on the eastern side of the Pearl River Delta, bordering Guangdong province in the north and facing the South China Sea in the east.”
“Do you have to read that out loud?” snapped Georgina, as we headed towards Causeway Bay.
“I’m trying to educate myself,” I said. And I stubbornly continued to read aloud from the guidebook.
“Hong Kong was a crown colony of the United Kingdom from 1842 until the transfer of its sovereignty to the People’s Republic of China in 1997. China is still responsible for the territory’s defence and foreign affairs, while Hong Kong maintains its own legal system, police force, monetary system, and immigration policy.”

“Please tell me you have finished” said Georgina.
“But, I thought Hong Kong was now a part of China,” I said. “It turns out to only partly be a part of China.”
“Does that matter?” asked Georgina.
“Well, it’s just that for weeks I’ve been referring to this part of the trip as The Podcast That Ate China. I suppose that’s not strictly true, is it?”
“I’m sure no-one will notice” smiled Georgina. “And it is a very snappy title.”

The Podcast That Ate China arrived at L Hotel in the late afternoon of Monday 26th November 2007.
“Here’s your room key, madam” said the receptionist to Georgina. “You are on the 26th floor.”
Georgina went very pale. “Do you have any rooms lower down the building?” she asked. “Like, maybe, in the basement?”
“I’m sorry, madam,” said the receptionist. “That’s the only room we have available.”

We hauled our bags over to the elevators. Nothing. We pressed the button again.
“Lifts very busy” said the man on the concierge desk.
“Thank you,” we said. “We’re not in a hurry.”

About 15 minutes later one of the lifts arrived, and we pressed the button for the 26th floor. The lift lurched skywards, leaving our stomachs behind on the ground floor. Georgina gulped.
“You’ll be fine” I said. “It could be worse. It could be the 27th floor.”
Georgina said nothing.

“Wow, you have to come and take a look at this!” I said, as I pulled back the blackout curtains in the room.
Georgina swallowed hard. “I’d rather not” she said.
“I know you don’t like heights, but you cannot stay in a hotel for a week and not look outside!” I said. “Look, solid glass. Double glazed glass. You cannot fall through it. You are safe. Perfectly safe. The bloody windows don’t even open! Shall I call reception and ask for a parachute?”
Georgina slowly edged her way around the walls towards the large panoramic window.
“Oh fuck!” she said, as she took in the dizzying view for the first time. From 26 floors up we could see the whole of central Hong Kong and across the harbour, the whole of the centre of Kowloon.
“I think I’ll have a little lie down,” said Georgina and she slumped onto the large double bed, her hands pressed firmly over her eyes.

Even having so recently visited Manhattan, we were staggered by the height and scale of the buildings in Hong Kong. The city has quite literally been built vertically, with even ordinary apartment buildings towering to 50 or 60 floors. Of course, this means that most people spend their entire lives waiting for lifts.

Night was falling fast across a city which contains four of the tallest skyscrapers on the planet, and an extraordinary light show was flickering into life. The room had an amazing view of the Bank of China Tower, which has attracted heated controversy in Hong Kong – its sharp angles said to cast “negative Feng Shui energy” into the heart of the financial district. We also overlooked the HSBC Building, which was built on the site of Hong Kong’s first ever skyscraper.

“Two International Finance Centre” is the tallest building in Hong Kong and the 7th tallest in the world, and at 88 floors it’s almost exactly the same height as the World Trade Center. They were actually half way through building this tower when 9/11 happened, which must have been a pretty traumatic time for the builders. We’d have had a terrific view of 2IFC from our hotel room, but someone had rather carelessly built a 50 story apartment block in the way.

I dragged myself away from the view, and shuffled slowly towards the bathroom in the twilight. Thud. I walked straight into a huge floor to ceiling mirror on the wall.
“Ow!” I yelped and went into the bathroom to study the bump on my nose.
“What are you doing?” called Georgina from the bed. There were a few seconds of silence, followed by another loud thud. Georgina came into the bathroom holding her forehead.
“Did you walk into the mirror too?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, and we both began to laugh.
My BBC Health and Safety training kicked in immediately.
“That mirror is an accident waiting to happen!” I announced. “We must stick something on it!”
“Stick what on it?” said Georgina.
“I don’t know,” I said, “But we will find something.”
Five minutes later, using L Hotel complimentary toothpaste as glue, we had attached six pieces of L Hotel notepaper to the mirror.
“That should do it!” I announced proudly. “We will never walk into that mirror again.”
“I wonder what the cleaners will make of it,” pondered Georgina.
“They must have seen it dozens of times before,” I assured her.

“I need a cigarette” said Georgina.
“Well, you can’t smoke in here!” I snapped. “You’ll have to go outside.”
“But that’s 26 floors down!”
“Then it’s an excellent time to give up smoking!” I said.

Georgina grabbed her duty free Marlboro and headed for the lift. 25 minutes later she came back.
“I can’t get a lift” she said. “Can’t I just have one cigarette in here?”
I pointed to the smoke alarms, and to the “No Smoking” sign which talked darkly of “severe penalties.” 
“Georgina, do you really want to spend the next 20 years in a Hong Kong jail?”
She headed back towards the lift. An hour later she came back into the room.
“Did you enjoy your cigarette?” I asked.
“I fancy another one now” she replied.
“See you in a couple of hours,” I said.