By Watt Miller
Editor’s Note: We are happy to present this final story of two Johnson City natives who traveled to Southeast Asia this past January returning safe and healthy before the pandemic struck. They made the journey through four countries off the beaten path as Watt researched Asian customs and history for his next novel.
Hong Kong, the last stop for Duke Hall and me on our Grand Journey to Indochina, and the place I called home for five years. In many ways, Hong Kong today is much different from the Hong Kong when I lived there in the late ‘70s-early ‘80s.
The most profound change occurred in 1997 when Great Britain returned Hong Kong to China, ending more than 150 years of British colonial rule. During that time, the governor of Hong Kong was appointed by the Queen, there was a large contingent of British soldiers and sailors and a huge number of foreign expats. There are still a lot of expats but no governor or British forces.
I first arrived in Hong Kong in 1976 with no job prospects but was lucky enough to land a position as a correspondent with United Press International. At the time Hong Kong was UPI’s Asia headquarters. UPI had the deserved reputation of paying its staff low wages. My starting salary was $150 per week with no benefits. But it was a dream job come true. The work was exciting, Hong Kong was fascinating and I had fun.
As a “perk,” I received a $500 monthly housing allowance despite the fact Hong Kong was and remains one of the most expensive cities in the world. Luck intervened once again. I found a two-bedroom apartment on the top of a five story walk-up which my living allowance covered with no change left over.
The roof terrace afforded a clear view of Hong Kong harbor. I once watched the British luxury liner QE2 steam into the harbor as well as American and British warships. And several times I saw the Concorde supersonic jetliner land and takeoff from the Hong Kong airport.
When I was last in Hong Kong about four years ago, I went to my old address, 17 Bonham Road, and much to my surprise, the building was still standing. But there was a significant change. Soaring high-rise buildings blocked the once magnificent view of the harbor.
Another major difference in Hong Kong today is the international airport. When I lived there the airport was located on a finger of land jutting into Hong Kong harbor. It had the reputation among pilots as being one of the most difficult airports to land a plane.
Once when I was returning from a reporting trip to the Philippines I asked the Cathay Pacific flight attendant if I could move to the cockpit during landing. She checked with the pilot and he gave his okay. It was a hair-raising but exciting experience. We flew so low over high-rise buildings I felt like I could reach out and touch the roofs. How things have changed since 9/11!
Today, the futuristic airport is on Lantau Island, the largest in the chain of Hong Kong islands. It’s connected to Hong Kong Island by express train and highway.
An extensive train/subway system is something else that didn’t exist when I lived in Hong Kong. It now connects Hong Kong Island with the two other main regions, the Kowloon peninsula and the New Territories.
The transportation mainstays of the time I lived there remain: buses, the tram system and ferries, including the iconic double-decker green and white Star Ferry which connects Hong Kong Island with Kowloon.
In operation since 1888, the Star Ferry today carries 50,000 passengers a day. The one-way fare is only $2.70. Duke and I made several crossings. The view, day or night, is spectacular.
We stayed in a two-bedroom apartment on Hong Kong Island in a great location near the old Western Market. Covid-19 hadn’t begun its deadly advance but most people on the streets wore masks. As for the widespread anti-government protests of last year, we didn’t even hear a whimper of dissent. One resident told us people were staying home to avoid the coronavirus.
Although we did a lot of walking, we frequently hopped on another Hong Kong icon, the electric-powered tram. It’s known as the Ding Ding because of the bell the driver rings at every stop or to warn pedestrians or cars to get out of the way.
The Ding Ding has been operating since 1904 and is the world’s largest double-deck tram fleet still operating. The adult fare is $2.60 which you pay each time you get on. For a terrific tour of Hong Kong ride in the upper deck from one end of the island to the other. Except for the Star Ferry, it was our favorite way to get around.
To get a bird’s eye view of Hong Kong, we rode another type of tram to the top of Victoria Peak, at 1,811 feet the highest point on Hong Kong Island. In operation since 1888, the funicular Peak Tram takes about seven minutes to reach the summit.
At the top is a breathtaking view of Hong Kong harbor, Kowloon, the New Territories and several outlying islands.
Hong Kong Island is divided into several districts. Central is the main business and shopping area. Wan Chai is packed with bars, nightclubs, restaurants, food stalls and shops of every description. Wan Chai was the setting for the book and movie, The World of Suzie Wong.
Another major district is Causeway Bay. The area is jammed packed with shopping malls, department stores, boutiques and market stalls.
It’s also the location for Victoria Park, the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club and the Noonday Gun, immortalized in the Noel Coward’s song, Mad Dogs and Englishmen. The refrain goes “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun…they strike a gong, and fire off a noonday gun.” The gun is still fired at noon every day.
One day for lunch we walked to the historic Luk Yu Tea House for dim sum. The movers and shakers of Hong Kong’s Chinese business elite have been coming here for breakfast since it first opened in the 1930s.
This is where I acquired a taste for my favorite Chinese tea, pu-erh which has a deep earthy flavor. I often came here for breakfast and spent a leisurely two or three hours, sipping pu-erh, eating dim sum and reading the newspapers all the while watching the businessmen huddled with their colleagues.
One chilly overcast day, we took the ferry to Lantau Island. This use to be my getaway when the crowds and noise of Hong Kong became overwhelming. In the summers, my friends and I would go to Chueng Sha beach and spend the day in the sun and South China Sea.
Afterwards we would pile into a bus and go to the opposite side of the island to the Tai O fishing village and enjoy delicious seafood from the day’s catch along with large bottles of ice cold San Miguel Beer. Shortly before midnight we’d take the last ferry back to Hong Kong.
The day Duke and I were on Lantau it was too cold for the beach so we took the bus up in the mountains to the Po Lin Monastery. The big draw is the 111 feet tall bronze statue of Buddha, weighing some 270 tons.
Located nearby is the Po Lin Monastery. It was founded in 1906 by three monks from China and known simply as The Big Thatch Hut. Years later it was renamed Po Lin which means Precious Lotus.
The next day Duke and I boarded a Cathy Pacific jet for the nonstop flight to Chicago. After a three-hour layover, we flew to Atlanta. Duke got a connecting flight to Johnson City.
My wife and son picked me up and for the first time in five weeks I slept in my own bed.
Was this the journey of a lifetime?