It took a few days, but on the evening of Friday 4th May you could see the bright lights of Hong Kong from the bridge of the good ship MV Mell Sembawang. Congestion in the port meant we wouldn’t be coming alongside until the wee small hours of the following morning, but it did mean we would be treated to the most epic thunderstorm I have ever seen which was silently taking place over the city. Where the Mell Sembawang was circling like a plane waiting to land there was no rain, no wind and the sea was eerily still – something that seems to happen quite a lot in The Pacific, hence its name I guess.
And when I say this thunderstorm was epic, don’t think I’m exaggerating – this was a storm that could send ecliptics into a fit – strobe-like flashes were going off every second across a vast swathe of the sky. It was like an early 90s rave only far less depressing. I stayed up until way past my bedtime, but eventually I realised I couldn’t waste any more tape filming lightning for a Hammer Horror movie that I’m never going to make.
The next morning I said goodbye to Kenny, Arka, Captain Dagaman and the crew of the MV Mell Sembawang and wandered out onto the arena of scurrilous land-lubbers known as Hong Kong.
There’s no customs at the port so I just walked out, which seemed a bit odd. You know how much of a pain it is at the airport when they search your bags? Honestly, it’s more disquieting when they don’t search your bags – you start thinking well, if they aren’t checking me, who else aren’t they checking?! But I still needed an entry stamp as the lack of one can cause a real arse-ache when you want to leave.
So I decided to walk to the nearest train station. Hong Kong, like many modern cities, isn’t built with me in mind. It’s built around the needs and desires of cars. Which is probably why Ford Prefect thought cars were our dominant form of life when he first arrived on Earth. Now one thing you learn very quickly when you get to Hong Kong a) you are going to sweat like you’ve never swot before and b) being a pedestrian is the most foolhardy and frustrating experience you can imagine. After following the train line in the hope of a station for over an hour, over underpasses and under fly-overs, clambering over barriers like some crap (but infinitely more dangerous) version of The Krypton Factor, I gave up and decided to get a cab instead. But in this concrete jungle all the cabs were either full or just didn’t bother stopping, no matter how destitute I looked.
Eventually one stopped. I asked him to take me to Central Hong Kong Island. Bit of geography for you if you’ve never been to Hong Kong. Hong Kong, like Singapore, is an island. However, unlike Singapore, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region also incorporates the Kowloon Peninsular to the north. So you’ve kinda got the ‘mainland’ and the ‘island’. The port was on the ‘mainland’, I wanted to go to the ‘island’. I don’t know why I’m apostrophising those words, they’re absolutely valid.
But first I needed some Mad Moolah. Some Robert DeNiro. Some Wodger Wabbit. Some Baron Greenbacks. Some Johnny Cash. I told the driver and he took me to the nearest ATM – at the train station I was trying and failing to walk to. Ahh, this’ll do, I says. So onto Hong Kong’s rather excellent (and CHEAP!) underground system and under Victoria Harbour to Hong Kong Central. But again it was Machines 1 Human 0 as I was forced to walk about 7 parsecs out of my way in order to get to the Government Pier building. I wished for the first time since I was a child that I had been born with wheels.
Eventually I made it to Government Pier and I went up to the 7th floor where the guy behind the counter looked a bit surprised to see me. He reckoned I was supposed to be chaperoned by the ship’s agent. I pointed out to him that the last two hours of my life would have been much more pleasant if he had done. Oh well, no problem, just give me my entry stamp so I can boogie on out of here. A couple of days ago I asked my mum to buy a cheap but fully refundable flight out of Hong Kong – I’ve done this a few times on the journey as you never know if they might ask for your ‘exit strategy’. But he wasn’t interested. I even tried to force the print-out into his hands – look! I’m leaving! Let me down the metaphorical gangplank! He didn’t give it a second glance. It was just Biff Baff Boom and I was stamped in for a whopping six months. NICE. Hear that America? SIX MONTHS!! For FREE!!!! Go stick your ‘visa waver’ bollocks up ya bum.
Next things next, and I had to meet with the sterling chap who had agreed to take me under his wingdings for the next few days. On this occasion, it was a guy called Michael from America. Works for Bloomburg by day, a stand-up comedian by night. We met at the Western Market, a fine old brick building from the 1800s, a metal roof held up by cast-iron beams. Was in constant use until 1988, then defunct for a while, then lovingly brought back to life, presumably by Griff Rhys Jones. People used to sell fish here. Now people get married here. Could you imagine in 100 years time people getting married in ‘that wonderful old Asda supermarket’? No. Neither can anyone. Because everything we as humans build these days is shit. But then you know that because you live in the world.
Michael had a surprise for me – a receipt from the post office for MY NEW HAT! My delightful (and extremely patient) Mandy had bought me a new one and sent it over to Hong Kong while I was on the Mell Sembawang. So we popped over to the nearby mail depot and picked it up. SMART!
After dropping my stuff off at Michael’s gaff, we headed out, accompanied by Michael’s other CouchSurfer (cos one just ain’t enough!) for some lunch. It being my first time in China for 18 months, we thought we’d treat ourselves to some Japanese sushi. We travelled the length of north Hong Kong island on the fabulous skinny little double-decker trams that are – seriously – over 100 years old. Costing only 23 pence (30 cents) for a trip of any distance, these wooden-sided trolley-cars are the most cost effective public transport in the world (being crammed into the back of a pick-up truck in West Africa with a bunch of dead goats is not what I’d call ‘cost effective’!).
After lunch, I scooted off to the nearby library to write to some more shipping firms to beg them to allow me on their ships going to Sri Lanka. Afterwards, Michael and I met up before heading out to Wan Chai – the go-go girl capital of Hong Kong – to visit Stuart Jackets, the owner of the Queen Victoria Pub. Stuart had kindly invited me along and – let this be a warning to you all – if you invite me over to your place I have a very bad reputation for turning up.
Stuart was an absolute legend. Not only did he supply Michael and I with free booze all night, he contacted his mate in the shipping industry and on Monday I have a meeting with him at his office. Who said nothing great was ever achieved down the pub, eh?
Thanks Stuart! A banner link for The Queen Vic will be added soon!!
That night, since it was my first time back in China for so long, I had lasagne for dinner. In a British pub.
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Welcome to Hong Kong; our little island oasis. If you need anything whilst in HK, please drop me a line. Best, James