HONG KONG – A Vibrant Centre Of Excitement In Asia And The World

Hong Kong
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Hong Kong 1972

Hong Kong which means Fragrant Waters in Cantonese, is not necessarily always Fragrant, but it is still a very special place.

I first visited Hong Kong in 1972, when it was a vastly different City to what it is today, but despite the massive changes, it remains such an interesting and exciting City to visit.

I have been fortunate enough to visit Hong Kong very many times and it is without doubt one of my very favourite places to visit, it is always drawing you back.

The plane landed at Kai Tak Airport, which was on the Kowloon side of the harbour, with its only runway extending way out into the harbour on reclaimed land.

The flight path into the airport took you over Kowloon with a sweeping, steep and terrifying dive into the landing threshold. There was a chequer board placed on the side of the hill overlooking the runway to help guide the pilots into the landing.

Hong Kong

Kowloon was a relatively low rise city at that time due to the aircraft flight path – not so today.

Kai Tak Airport

Kai Tak was one of the few airports in the world where a pilot was required to sit in the cockpit with another pilot, to experience the landing before making one himself. 

I can vividly remember looking out of the window close to touchdown, when you could literally see people in their apartments watching TV, I am deadly serious. No complaints about aircraft noise however in Hong Kong in 1972.

Hong Kong

Shortly before the airport perimeter, there was a road flyover and I am reliably informed that the aircraft wheels of a 747, would seemingly miss the top of the Double Decker Bus by inches if the two crossings coincided, makes a great story anyway.  

Cathay Pacific Pilots were the best and during the very worst bad weather – Typhoons, they were always the last the fly out and the first to fly back in.

Remarkably, probably because it required intense concentration, Kai Tak had an excellent safety record.

Cathay is the ancient word for China and Cathay Pacific opened Hong Kong and the entire Asian continent to the world of aviation, following WW2.

Founded 1946

It was founded in 1946 by Australian Sydney de Kanstow and American Roy Farrell. Both had both been pilots in WW2 for Air Traffic Command, part of the US Air Force, which was linked to the Flying Tigers, flying supplies over the Hump, The Himalayas, to help supply goods to China and Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist Army in their fight against the Japanese invasion,  where literally millions of Chinese civilians were slaughtered. Had it not been for these incredible and very courageous Pilots, then the Japanese may well have occupied the entire country.  

The India – China Ferry as it was known, was a very difficult and very dangerous flight with hundreds of aircraft and pilots lost, having to fly usually overloaded, extremely high in rapidly changing weather and freezing temperatures, which really tested these brave airmen. These guys were true heroes.

Hong Kong in those days was a wild frontier and had some truly fascinating characters, who worked hard and played even harder.

Two of those characters that come to mind are, James “ Earthquake McGoon “ McGovern, a former American  WW2 fighter pilot who also flew missions over “ The Hump “ and who unfortunately was one of two Americans killed in the first Indo China war, when the plane that he was flying crash landed in Laos,  delivering supplies to a French outpost at Dien Bien Phu. He was supposedly working with the CIA, who were silently assisting the French in the fight to maintain their colonial empire in SE Asia. He was a very big man both in stature and in personality and his antics and lifestyle were apparently the stuff of legends  – sounds like a great guy to me.

The second was a Polish / Canadian, Morris “ Two Gun “ Cohen, who earned his unforgettable nickname for always carrying two guns and who was a former Aide de Camp to the famous Chinese leader Sun Yat Sen. Affectionately known as Ma Kun, the adored one, he was also a Major General in the Chinese Nationalist Army. Both these characters spent a considerable amount of time in Hong Kong and were a very popular part of the ex pat community of the Colony.

I just love those two names and would have been delighted to be able to meet and have a beer with them both. For some reason, I have always had a strong attraction to hell raisers, which certainly describes these two guys.

Cathay Pacific

Cathay Pacific was founded utilising an ex US Air Force DC3, C-47, affectionately called “ Betsy “  and they even commenced flying Cargo from Australia to China at that time.

John Swire & Sons purchased Cathay in 1948 to complement their already extensive operations & holdings in Hong Kong and China, but since the handover in 1997 they have entered into a partnership with the Chinese Government, which surely considering the circumstances was a wise move.

Swire, very much part of the British establishment, first became involved in China in the early 19th Century and made some enormous profits in the Opium trade, then benefited even further when the British were ceded ownership of Hong Kong Island by the Qin Dynasty in 1842.  Kowloon was then ceded some 15 years later after the  2nd  opium war and the New Territories was part of a 99 year lease completed in 1898, which expired in 1997. 

1997 Hong Kong

Coming up to 1997, the British Government decided that it could not continue to manage Hong Kong & Kowloon without the New Territories, where all of the Colony’s power and water came from and so handed back the entire Colony when the lease on the New territories expired.

Swire implemented a scheme many years ago where it engaged a number of young students on scholarships to further their studies at Oxford and Cambridge prior to being posted to one of the Swire companies spread throughout Asia.

I met a number of these graduates who were working with Cathay Pacific and they were all very impressive and outstanding individuals.

There has been an excellent series of novels by author James Clavell, firstly Taipan which recounts the era of the founding of Hong Kong and Noble House, which is set in the 1960’s.

All of those novels are in my opinion definitely based on the Swire family and their group of companies, with the head office in Noble House being located in Ice House Lane in Central on the Island.

The Swire headquarters are also based in Ice House Lane, now that’s too much of a coincidence I think.

Hong Kong in 1970 was such a contrast of cultures, with the upper class and conservative British ex pats in their pin striped suits on the Island, to the local Chinese labourers and workers in their traditional “ coolie “ attire, busily plying their trade seemingly 24 hours a day.

Hong Kong 1970
Hong Kong in 1970 with some Advertising signs

The expats all worked a 5 ½ day week and frequented many British styled bars on the Island, such as the Jockey and the Bull & Bear which all served English beers and Fosters of course.

It seemed very strange, but everyone thought that Aussies all drank Fosters and yet the only times that I ever saw it or drank it, was outside of Australia.  

I had the great pleasure of working with Cathay for 12 years, they were a great company who were very well managed ( Scottish Accountants ), but who also had a bit of a cavalier / cowboy attitude when it came to marketing and promotion, which made them great fun to be involved with. They have gone on from being a small airline in Hong Kong, to one of the great airlines in the world.

I have worked with 4 major international airlines , but Cathay Pacific were definitely the best and the most enjoyable.

Despite the British being referred to by the local Chinese as Gweilo’s, Foreign Devils,  Swire had a great deal of admiration and respect for the Chinese, especially their Chinese employees and recognised their capabilities throughout their array of companies involving them enthusiastically in all levels of management.

Swire companies were involved in Shipping, the Wharves, Sugar, Insurance and even the Coca – Cola franchise. One of their companies was called – The Hong Kong & Kowloon Wharf and Godown Company. In the early colonial days, all factories were located in the basements and as the Chinese had much difficulty in pronouncing the word factory, all factory’s then became referred to by the locals as – Godown’s. I just love that name , it seems to epitomise Hong Kong. 

First Impressions

How could I forget on my first visit, when the aircraft was still 50 feet off the ground, that distinctly Hong Kong aroma filtered into the cabin – fragrant waters, I don’t think so.

Hong Kong Harbor
Hong King from the Peak in 1970 with the low rise Kowloon in the distance

The smell reminded me of my visits to Adelaide’s East End Markets as a child and that pungent odour of rotting vegetables crushed again and again by the passing trucks.

Strangely however 20 minutes or so after arrival you did not seem to notice the smell again until your next arrival in the city.

Hong Kong was such an exhilarating and exciting city in those days, the hustle and bustle, the endless bright lights and advertising signs, the hundreds of red taxis, Buses of all shapes & sizes and Duty Free Shops as far as the eye could see. Hong Kong was the Neon capital of the world.

Restaurants, food stalls, hawkers, beggars, this town had it all, even a notorious red light area called Wan Chai, where every bar had a Suzie Wong and where every bar overcharged for drinks and usually short changed customers in varying states of sobriety. Actually it was quite timid in comparison to some of the other notorious nightlife  hotspots of Asia.

There were seemingly hundreds of rickshaws with their emaciated looking pullers who despite their appearance seemed to have superhuman strength, as well as motorbikes & scooters of all types, mostly ridden without helmets  and often with 3 or even 4 passengers precariously balanced somehow aboard.

Hong Kong
Rickshaw Pullers

Kowloon and the Tsim Sha Tsui area was for the tourists and the locals and their shops and the Island was the Business Centre, where thousands of ex- pats lived and worked  ” very ship shape and Bristol fashion with an  Asian heart “

There were hundreds of Australians amongst those ex pats, including a lot of the Cathay Pacific pilots who had come from the RAAF.

British Colony

It was of course a British Colony in those days, with a large naval base called Admiralty near Central on the Island and a huge array of naval ships always at anchor in the Harbour , including American Aircraft Carriers from the 7th fleet, as the Vietnam War was in full swing.

Interestingly whilst on a visit to the American War Museum in Saigon, I foolishly asked the guide why they called it the American War. He gave me a curious smile and replied  “ well you may have had a Vietnam war,  but we had an American War “. I paused and said to him as politely as I could  “ very good point “.

The Vietnam War was at it’s peak in 1972 and Hong Kong was by far the first preference for all of the American servicemen on their R&R  breaks. The Suzie Wong’s from Wan Chai did very very well. 

Even the Police Force was run and operated British military style.

Touring In The 1970s

China was very much a land of mystique and had been under communist rule for just over 20 years in 1972. One of the great highlights for any tourist travelling to Hong Kong was a visit to the Chinese Border in the New Territories so that you could walk up the hill and look with wonder and intrigue  into China. Seems all a bit silly now, as all you could see was some cows and paddocks, plus the odd soldier for show , but thousands of tourists did that and thought that it was a real highlight of their trip, including me.

There was and still are numerous other excellent Tourist opportunities that are well worth undertaking. 

A visit to Hong King is not complete without a Hong Kong Island tour which includes a visit to Repulse Bay and the famous Hotel which the Japanese occupied during WW2, Aberdeen Harbour, the Stanley Markets and Victoria Peak. I have some sort of spiritual attraction to the Peak, go there every time I visit Hong Kong and could spend hours just looking at the stunning view. With the enormous amount of development, the view has changed dramatically over the years, from the tall ships in 1840, the early development at the beginning of the 20th Century, the Japanese occupation and the huge Naval & Military build up during the Vietnam War.

Hong Kong
The wreck of the QE 1 in Hong Kong Harbour

Even today, the harbour is always crowded with ships waiting for their opportunity to dock and unload.

I also discovered on one visit  whilst at the Peak, you can actually undertake a walk around the Peak, the Peak Circle Walk that actually allows you to walk entirely around the island providing breathtaking views of every part of it. It is some 3.5km long and as you are so high ( 400m ), it only takes a hour, I thoroughly recommend it. I have done it several times now.

And what a thrill it is to travel up to the Peak on the tram ( funicular railway ). I never miss an opportunity to ride the tram, it’s always just so much fun. Also interesting to see so many local residents who live in apartments on the mid levels use it as their daily public transport. To me one of the great tourist activities available is a ride on the tram to Victoria Peak and then doing the Peak Circle walk.

A quick lunch at the Peak Restaurant finishes off a truly wonderful day.

Stanley was the site of the largest Japanese internment camp in SE Asia during WW2, where some 2800 people, mainly British and also including children were held.

What may people don’t realise is that at exactly the same time as the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, they also attacked Hong Kong, Manila, Guam, Wake island and Midway island. Due to the International date Line however, it was 08 December 1941 in Hong Kong. 

There were also a large variety of Harbour Cruises available, in all varying types of vessels, including renovated Chinese Junks and which included both Lunch and Dinner options. They afforded wonderful views of both Kowloon and the Island, especially at night.

You might also have gone to Ocean Park at Aberdeen, which opened in 1977 and was I think Asia’s first theme park. It was owned by the Hong Kong Jockey Club and was an excellent venue, although it’s popularity waned somewhat following the opening of Disneyland Hong Kong on Lantau island in 2005. Both are still well worth a visit.

The Hong Kong Jockey Club is a famous and much loved institution in Hong Kong. It still operates it’s original venue in Happy Valley, but in the 1980’s I think built a second racecourse complex at Sha Tin in the New Territories The Jockey Club has been outstandingly successful, helped substantially by the local Chinese love of gambling.

The Hong Kong Cricket Club is also now located in Happy Valley after selling their original home which was in Central next to the Bank of China Building. I can only imagine how much the club would have received for that vast property.     

Don’t forget the chance to visit Macau, which is only one hour away on a fast jetfoil, with it’s Portuguese heritage and of course Casino’s.

Hong Kong
The Old Macau Steamliner

Today Macau is truly a mini Las Vegas and is unrecognisable from my first visit and now has it’s own version of the strip. A visit today to Macau is highly recommended including an overnight stay in one of it’ many 5 star hotels / casino’s. 

Golf is very popular in both Hong Kong and Macau with many top class courses available to tourists. You can do Macau as a day trip if you wish and will not be disappointed.

Hong Kong
Overnight – The modern Jetfoil  –  1 hour

In Hong Kong you have the famous Royal Hong Kong Golf Club at Fan Ling  ( although the Royal moniker has officially now been dropped ) which has hosted many Tournaments, as well as the stunning Clearwater Bay perched on the top of the cliffs with wonderful views overlooking the South China Sea.

There is also a great course at Discovery Bay on Lantau and even a 9 hole course at Deepwater Bay on Hong Kong Island, which is part of the Hong Kong Golf Club.

Macau is also blessed with two outstanding courses, the Macau Golf & Country Club, which is located at the Grand Coloane Beach Resort, formerly the Westin and Caesars Macau which was formerly the Orient Golf Club.

Both are very welcoming to visitors and well worth playing.. 

There is also the large number of world class golf courses just over the New Territories border at Shenzhen with 12 courses alone at the Mission Hills Golf Club with most of the worlds greatest golf course designers involved. Mission Hills has become a real Mecca attracting golf loving visitors from all over the world. 

The other huge highlight in Hong Kong was the duty free shopping and the endless number of shops, especially around the Nathan Road / Mody Street area, where you could and they did buy almost anything.

Electrical goods, cameras, especially the then new Video Cameras,  watches, jewellery and an endless variety of  “ useless crap “ which was snapped up at a furious pace. Tailors, mainly Indian were also at a premium with both men and women often returning home with a new wardrobe.

Personally I learnt quite quickly that any clothes that I ever had made, either didn’t fit properly despite several fittings or seemed to go out of shape very quickly. So I therefore resisted the temptation for “ tailor ”  made clothes fairly quickly, despite the offer of endless free beers whilst in the shop. On one occasion, I even supplied the tailor with some shirts that I already owned for him to copy and they couldn’t even get that right – more fool me.

This was all great fun until the tourists got to the airport and found their baggage grossly overweight and they got hit with huge excess baggage charges for goods most of which they barely used when they got home.

Duty Free Mecca

Hong Kong today is no longer the Duty Free mecca that it once was, but today is a far more modern and sophisticated city, but still has retained that aura of excitement that it had all those years ago.

Hong Kong
Hong Kong Today with the two towers either side of the Harbour

The other trap were the unscrupulous traders, who always seemed to smile while still finding a way to part you from your hard earned money, especially on the exchange rate with travellers cheques – remember them.

You also quickly learned not to tell anyone that you were going, because if you did, you had an endless number of friends, some who you hardly knew, giving you orders for items for you to bring back for them, who then became very offended when you politely declined.

I spent 12 wonderful years working with Cathay Pacific and visited Hong Kong very many times, so I quickly stopped taking any shopping orders, just all too hard and time consuming.  

The other shopping trap was when buying a product such as a video recorder, it had to have all the bells and whistles such as ( jokingly ) making coffee and pancakes, that when you got home you found that you never really needed or used. So people also quickly learned with a Video Recorder for example , just get one that records and plays.

Wan Chai
Wan Chai at night – The Neon capital of the world

Hong Kong in 1972 was the world headquarters for people watching ( a wonderful vocation that I greatly enjoy ). On almost every trip you seemed to bump into someone that you knew, now what’s the chances of that and there were so many wonderful locations to undertake the activity. The lobbies of major international hotels were always a great place to start and my favourite was the Lobby of the Peninsula Hotel, which in those days was on the waterfront in Kowloon and was truly a home for the rich and famous. A lovely coffee and cake and doing some upmarket people watching, what a great pastime.

In 1972, life in Hong Kong was far more basic, no subway trains, no cross harbor tunnels, with the only transport between the Island and Kowloon, the Star Ferry and streets always overcrowded with taxis and buses.

I just loved the Star Ferry and could have spent all day just going back and forth. I have to confess however to lashing out and spending the extra 10 cents to travel First Class ( such a snob ).

Kowloon

Kowloon is a great area to walk around, apart from navigating the very busy footpaths, but Hong Kong Island is not so easy with it’s complex of motorways and flyovers. You will find yourself constantly having to negotiate pedestrian bridges to cross these roads, which kind of takes the fun out of it. Going for a jog anywhere in Hong Kong is virtually impossible.

Apart from developing into a leading International Financial centre, Hong Kong was also the gourmet capital of the world, with every possible style of food available.

Apart from all of the various styles of Chinese food, Cantonese, Pekingese, Shanghaiese, Szechuan etc, the city was a culinary wonderland for every possible food style. Gaylord’s Indian Restaurant on Chatham Road was always a favourite and is still operating today, but in a new venue.

I had a great introduction to Chinese food and using chopsticks, when I was hosted to a lunch one day with a number of Chinese executives from Cathay Pacific. I had never used chopsticks before and discovered that if I didn’t learn very fast, I wouldn’t get to eat as my hosts weren’t going to wait for me to master them. Fortunately one of my hosts gave me a very quick lesson and I was away and have been quite adept ever since. 

Chinese chefs are very inventive and are continually refining dishes to enhance and improve them, which allows diners to experience some absolute taste sensations. They are very adept at stealing recipe ideas from other cuisine styles.

Many of the restaurants that I loved and enjoyed such as the American Peking in Lockhart Road are no longer operating, but some other establishments like the Spring Deer in Mody Street and the Shang Palace have survived the long passage of time.

How many Aussie tourist’s visited Hong Kong and did not go to the Jumbo Kingdom Floating Restaurant in Aberdeen Harbour ? Although it was somewhat of a tourist gimmick, it was also actually a very good restaurant.

Hong Kong Jumbo Floating Restaurant
Jumbo Floating Restaurant

I sometimes wonder, just how many spring rolls have they actually served in the last 50 years ?

Yum Cha is a hugely popular past time in Hong Kong and is taken in the morning and afternoon, but never in the evening. It literally means drinking tea, and the tea is taken with a never ending variety of small delicacies and snacks.

It is absolutely delicious and has now spread around the world. Our family enjoys it very much and very often.

Chinese Restaurants

All of the major hotels operate very good quality Chinese restaurants and although they are a little more expensive, they are always very good and safe if you are a bit squeamish. 

The kitchens in Hong Kong’s Chinese restaurants operate 24/7 and constantly maintain a large cauldron of Chicken stock, continually topping it up. A good stock is the measure of a great Chinese chef and restaurant.As such they all serve food to please the very timid, like Sweet & Sour Pork, but also dishes for the very adventurous and have a variety of dishes that can really test those looking to experience some exciting new opportunities and if you like it spicy, you can’t go past Szechuan.

Our family have often laughed over some of the strangest dishes that appear on some menus, not for the faint hearted. Dishes like – Stinky Tofu, Sheeps Penis, Tuna eyeball, Chicken Testicles, I think most Aussies would elect to pass and go hungry.  

But don’t forget that Hong Kong also has many wonderful Western style restaurants. The two standouts for both the expats and tourists in the 1970’s were Jimmy’s Kitchen and Gaddis, the 5 star restaurant in the basement of the Peninsula Hotel. Again, like the Jumbo at Aberdeen, most Aussies would have at some time visited Jimmy’s Kitchen. There were of course many others, The Peak Restaurant on the Island, which was also run by the Peninsula, produced great food with great views.

One of my favourite food destinations was and still is the Lei Yue Mun seafood market which is located on the Eastern end of the island. It is a fishing village where you buy your seafood from the market and then take it to one of many restaurants located opposite where they will cook it in whatever style you wish. There is an endless variety of Seafood available and most of it is live, so be warned you either need to have some idea of what you’re doing or be accompanied by a local. It is not for those with a fussy diet. I was fortunate, having been there several times usually accompanied by a good friend, Hotelier Ronald Tse who was a true gourmet. I did venture there once without him, but followed what I remembered him doing and it worked out OK.

Hong Kong Seafood Market
Lei Yue Mun seafood market

Again be warned, get the Hotel to give you a card with the details and directions in Chinese, otherwise you will have a difficult time with the Cab Driver. Also you need to be careful not to over order.

Lei Yue Mun, has truly been one of the best food experiences of my life. I’m salivating just thinking about it.   

One of the great pieces of theatre in a Chinese Restaurant in Hong Kong is watching a Noodle maker in full flight, with flour going everywhere and the chef slapping and banging the noodles on the table as he turns one piece of dough into seemingly hundreds of strands, magnificent. 

Hong Kong Hotels

The number of Hotels available in Hong Kong has exploded since 1972, with so many new hotels, especially 5 star being built.

Back in the 70’s, there were some very popular 3 star hotels that captured the bulk of the Australian market. Hotels such as the Grand Hotel on Carnavon Road, the Ambassador on Nathan Road  and the Empress Hotel on Chatham Road  were all extremely popular.

None of these hotels now exist, but there are still a huge variety of less expensive hotels available for the price conscious.

I have stayed in literally dozens of hotels in Hong Kong , but my favourite is The Regent on the waterfront on Kowloon, which for some years was rebranded as the Intercontinental. It is however currently undergoing a massive renovation and will then reopen in 2022 again as the Regent Hong Kong. 

Hong Kong today is still very much a huge International Finance Centre, is now part of China again and is barely recognisable from 1972.

Kai Tak Airport closed in 1998 and was replaced by Chep Lap Kok on Lantau Island, which is accessible by Road, Rail and Ferry, with the fastest method being by rail, but still taking nearly an hour, just to get to the Kowloon Underground  Station.  This airport change has had a huge impact on Hong Kong.

The restriction on building height in Kowloon was lifted, as it was no longer on flight path and numerous high rise buildings have since sprung up , including the 484m high International Commerce Center in Kowloon which rises 108 floors above ground and the 416m high Two Financial Center on Hong Kong Island which is 88 floors above ground.

The hundreds of duty free shops around Nathan Rd / Mody St have disappeared and been replaced by high rise Office / Apartment / Hotel Towers.

The Duty Free Shops are now largely contained in the Ocean Terminal and do not offer the same interest and attraction to tourists that they once did.

I can still recall the very impressive sight of seeing both The Queen Elizabeth 2 and the Queen Mary both berthed on either side of the Ocean terminal, the cameras were in melt down.

Hong Kong was and always will be one of the truly great cities of the world, without doubt my favourite city to visit.

Covid 19 has grounded us all, but we can look forward to life eventually getting back to normal, albeit not as soon as we would like.

I am looking forward to my next visit and have fun dreaming up my first Chinese restaurant visit, Hot and Sour Soup, Prawn Rice Rolls, Drunken Prawns, Peking Duck and Combination Noodles. This list seems to constantly change in my mind, there are just such a variety of options.

Yes, Hong Kong is calling again and I will be ready to renew my love affair with this wonderful city, as soon as the opportunity arises.

HONG KONG – A Vibrant Centre Of Excitement In Asia And The World

One Response

  1. A fantastic read Malcolm, the old Hong Kong definitely had its charm, it was the first overseas country I ever travelled to as a boy from Australia and I have a fondness for its aesthetics, style and rich history as it has played a role in my own families history.

    Change is inevitable and the HK that exists now has evolved along with the newer generation of people that inhabit it.

    I fear none of us shall ever return in a long time due to the cultural unrest, covid and the issues surrounding China’s inevitable influence.

    Like you mentioned it was an exciting, thriving adventurous place in its day, but now like the neon signs that were once on every corner and the bustling atmosphere of a developing asian city are now all in the past and only exist on the pages of history books.

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