ART, POOFS AND WHITNEY HOUSTON
25.10.2010 - 02.11.2010 20 °C
The individual who sold me China was here twenty years ago. He'd told me plenty of times that China was a definite must see destination. He'd been to the far North West province of Xinjiang via Pakistan and all over the South. At the moment he's installed in a mental hospital having what's known as a psychotic episode. It was from within the walls of that institution that I quizzed him through a haze of cigarette smoke on the topic of the best way to get about China.
“Go to Yangshoo, Toni. Dont miss Yangshoo. You fly to Hong Kong and then get yourself to Yangshoo. Don't miss Hong Kong. That's your starting point.” Minimal info to say the least. But that's my usual modus operandi. I never carry a Lonely Planet. I consult fellow travellers and usually the abnormal buggers. I like to land and go with the flow. I rarely sight see and I can't stand tourist traps. I visit countries to check out things like how the people entertain themselves, development infrastructure, the local sense of humour, what kind of look they have in their eye, the local crime rate, etc. But overall I travel to see the local art scene, the slums, the nature, the religious outlook. From these viewpoints you can gain a hell of a lot of info about a race of folk. I can easily live without seeing the Great Wall therefore.
I was also rather intrigued by this weird phobia people seem to have about the Chinese. There's rather a lot of bad press in the world regarding China's exploits and how many people have you heard banging on that China are after some sort of sinister world domination? And then there's the issue of Tibet! The amount of people who looked at me like I was Beelzebub himself just because I said I was going got China was kind of ridiculous. Not P.C. behaviour on my part because the Dalai Lama is so sweet and needs his country back apparently. Although I sympathise with these kind of matters I'm also a bit pissed off about Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq amongst a hoard of other unfair atrocities inflicted on the world at large that are far less fashionable. Apart from signing emailed petitions which have no effect on criminal dictators or political powers whatsoever, I don't know what I can do to change the world. There's far more to China than the Tibet problem anyway and I'd quite like to see for myself what's afoot. But try telling the Tibet wallahs. They were the same people who never went anywhere anyhow because of their carbon footprint, dress in hemp and lived on tofu and alfalfa in a state of bewildered paranoia. Let them lot rule the world and see where it gets us all.
Hong Kong was wicked according to all the people I knew who'd been there. Expensive but wicked. I'd got the info on a cheap hostel from a serial dorm dweller from Denmark that I came across in Bucharest. The Garden Hostel in Kowloon is cheap and cheerful according to him. I got onto Hostel Bookers and there it was. Now I'm almost sure I read that they had a common garden area overlooking Kowloon where you could chill in an oriental ambience and chew the cud with fellow voyagers. Pictures of rooms looked clean and airy. So it was all systems go. Incredibly cheap flight purchased courtesy of Kingfisher travel, gorgeous and cheap hostel booked and I was all set to go to China.
TONE'S TOP TIP. You can get a visa through CBG travel down Macclesfield street in Chinatown, London. For the small fee of fifteen quid they do all the queuing and titting about for you and it's worth every penny. If you're getting a double entry, note that the form asks you how long each stay will be for. I mistakenly put 60 days so effectively now have a four month visa unless I want to be bored shitless arseing about with Chinese bureaucracy getting an extension...£16.
The thing is I usually travel as a Lonesome Wayfarer. My preferred style of destination perusal is not everyone's cup of tea. But this trip I was being accompanied by a gay Eye Tie called Ludo who has a morbid and very irrational in my opinion fear of travelling alone. He likes food, musicals and cruising gay websites and thinks travelling means lying on a beach somewhere. So we have very little in common. But I have a lot of mates from all walks of life and he was simply one of them. I had forewarned him that I go it alone usually because I like to meet a wide variety of people and found that being with a companion strangely curtails your chances of that happening. Hinting, therefore, that I need my own space. Plus, I've done the duo thing before and it always goes tits up eventually. The same face and banter does my nut in, usually after the one month period. However I thought, somewhat benevolently, that this could be his chance to learn how to travel alone and dispel all those irrational fears. We needn't be together 247 and surely he'd be out on the gay scene looking for some trouser meat to tenderise. We could meet up of an evening for a chat and perhaps laugh over the days events whilst comparing notes. And if it all did go sadly wrong I'd simply dispatch him to a beach.
So after an interminable voyage over two nights and a long stopover in Mumbai, we arrived in Hong Kong. Incredibly simple to get to the Garden Hostel from the airport. On the booking confirmation to a dear and precious customer the details were very clear The correct bus delivers you right to the door of the Chung King Mansions in Tsim Tsa Tsui. Now I'd heard tell of the Chung King Mansions. In fact years ago I'd seen a documentary about this place and what a filthy rat hole it was. Rife also with criminals, opium fiends and prostitutes living amongst untold amounts of laundry all over the shop. As we trundled into Kowloon on the bus this souvenir from the BBC passed with a moment of horror through my mind as I imagined a cockroach infested hovel with a lingering foul pong as our destination. But I was too busy gawping out the bus window at Hong Kong to worry too much about this. I loved the city immediately. It had a good feeling about it. Laid back and not chock a block traffic and people like I'd been led to believe. The aesthetics were great. Laundry was hanging everywhere on balconies. Billboards and strangely anorexic high rises that were not too imposing. All the little side roads reeked with photogenic potential. I couldn't wait to get amongst those Chinese symbols with my camera. Plus its coastal so you got the feel of a sea breeze and all that goes with a bit of shoreline. Perfect.
Anyhow, cut to the chase. We arrived at the infamous Chung King Mansions. It looked like it's father was a high rise block built by Hackney Borough council in the early sixties and its mother was a rabbit warren. We plunged into its depths. The ground floor was a maze full of little wholesale shops interpopulated with Indians and money changers. There were two lifts which stopped at alternating floors and a network of stairs connected the levels. We got off at something like the thirteenth floor and the Garden Hostel was on there on a list with sundry others. We spoke to a couple of African lads on the desk. It appeared that the Garden Hostel was one of a conglomerate of hostels owned probably by some dollar fingering, gold ringed, Snake head type of gangster tycoon holed up in a real mansion somewhere on the gorgeous coastline. Certainly not here. The Africans kindly explained that the Garden Hostel was closed for a refurb but not to worry. We would be relocated within the complex gizzards of this building. We were taken, Ludo visibly nervous, to the sixth floor and we entered a dark corridor with a doorway every few steps. This was our lodge. Devoid of air, character or space never mind a ruddy garden of its title, we were shown a room. The double bed had been axed to size to fit round a deviation in the wall meaning a quarter of it was a foot shorter in length, . There was about enough spare room to put your bag down. The window opened onto an small gap and then a brick wall. There was a shower and a bog designed for pygmies.
“I'm not stopping here.” The Queen pronounced.
“Where else you gonna stay maaaaan?” drawled the African. “There's an electronics goods convention and the place is booked up to the eyeballs. And the prices all trebled since the convention started.”
“We'll take the room,” I said. I was in no mood for histrionics.
“This is supposed to be deluxe,” pointed out Ludo.
“This is supposed to have a communal garden full of intriguing types,”I rallied back. “Maybe there's a roof with a view?” Hopeful expression.
“Roof closed cos of suicides,” the African informed us sagely.
“I'm not fucking surprised if they had to stay here”, retorted the Poof with a flick of his fringe.
Then along came Moses. The African kid with the sweetest smile and softest eyes gave us our towels and the WIFI code. He had to work in this airless alleyway all the day probably for a pittance off the Snake Head Gangster owner. We had no problems in compare to this uncomplaining sweetie. .If you want somewhere else,” I said to the drama queen, “you go and look for it and I'll wait here.” That was the final word on the matter. We dumped our bags and went out.
Most budget visitors to Hong Kong are going to be installed in either Chung King Mansions or the Mirador Mansions next door. We moved to the latter two days later. Therein we got twin beds, space and air as the Mirador has a balcony system going on and no complicated intestinal organs like the Chung King. If you ever go in Kowloon, best choose the Mirador. But forget anything like luxury unless you're budget is a ton plus a day. This is Hong Kong and why are you holed up in a room all day anyway. Get out and about. There's loads to do.
First exploration is around the Nathan Road environs which proves to be shops selling luxury goods and totally shit food. I'll try pretty much anything but it all looked so disgusting. It was three days before I found a decent place to eat. I mostly had to make do with Maccers until that point. Unless you are into obscene proportions of expensive consumerism, I'd piss off out this area sharpish anyway. Nothing is that cheap.
The Kowloon park is wonderful. Especially first thing in the morning. Oldsters doing Tai Chi and fan dancing plus a pond full of flamingoes and an aviary are the main events. The open air swimming pool can be availed if you want a dip in the heat. Down to the river and the view is great. Hong Kong Island in all its sky scraper glory looms across the bay. The Avenue of Stars is a kitsch stroll along the river where you can see a statue of Bruce Lee and Hollywood Boulevard stylie stuff. Plus the odd scene of old style fishing alongside the tourist boats. Every night at 8pm there is a light show which is in The Guiness Book of Records. It is accompanied by some tacky music and lasers as all the main high rise skyscrapers perform their bit. It's better than being sprayed in the face with shit from a fertilizer machine I suppose.
But I have to say that its an incredibly clean city. Signs are everywhere verging on the almost Fascist with details of what you've not to do round these parts. That includes littering, loitering, spitting, shitting, lying down in parks and smoking to name but a few. In Kowloon Park, the public convenience is spotless. A sign in there announces it's cleaned seven times a day. The exterior sports an arty farty mosaic and I made a point of using it whenever possible. There are squads of cleaners all over the place; out in the New Territories too. That means its not just for the benefit of the visiting Ferrangi. I've since heard that they breed and then train special cattle to lick the city pavements clean at 4am every morning. But this is probably one of those travellers urban myths.
I'm in Hong Kong mainly because I know they have an international art scene. Ludo knows nish about art and claims he wants to learn. As he's a Queen with a capital Q I'm amazed he's not discovered the world of art before because any art gallery is premium cruising territory. So this therefore is his first foray into the wonderful world of art. I was secretly hoping at this juncture that he's meet one of his number and cop off so I could be left to trawl the galleries in peace. He'd been glued to me practically every moment so far plus we'd been sharing a double bed that had been slenderised for room fitting purposes.
The Hong Kong Museum of Art is in Kowloon. Its a quid to get in and a decent enough place to while away a couple of hours. Good bookshop. Here you can see all the traditional Chinese art which comprises fairly predictably of Karst mountain landscapes, rivers and bamboo. You can learn about the symbolism in Chinese art. The omnipresent bamboo is a sign of old age and modesty. Cranes mean longevity for example. (Not the cranes operating all over the shop on the reclaimed shoreline, the flying type.) Lots of attractive calligraphy for those who like all that. I like it but I'm no art expert. Just a peripheral plebiscite observing of it all.
Don't bother asking the people at the information desk about anything else arty and available locally as they have not one clue and no map either. The History Museum is also in Kowloon and has stuff relating to China's traditions and geographical formation. Loads of installations and sound effects too. Surprisingly really interesting. There is the Heritage Museum in the New Territories which I found out usually has fantastic photography exhibitions. I discovered Wong Kan Tai here. He's a street photographer or a Flaneur as this exhibition called him. Great inspiration for budding photographers and a cool insight into all aspects of Chinese culture. The buildings interior is an artwork in itself. There's a working temple nearby albeit undergoing renovation should you be interested in that. In fact make a day of it in the New Territories as there is plenty of nature up there and the area has a really different vibe to Kowloon. Easy enough to get there on the metro.
For the real art scene you go across the river on the Star Ferries. You need to head towards the district called Soho in Central. Just head for Hollywood Road. There you will find many small commercial galleries with all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff on show and sale. Seems to be a common theme of fusion between traditional Asian art and western wackiness. My favourite discovery was a Korean bloke called Lee Sanghyun. He'd got the fusion thing going on nicely. He had really grainy black and white photographs of landscapes as his background and then photoshopped brightly coloured modern day images into the mix. Everything was there from the Beatles to 007. He'd got these brightly coloured darling little doll like figures floating about on lotus blossoms in traditional costumes but with spaceman meets a Telly Tubby headgear. This going on in an ornamental garden. I loved it. Ludo said it was shit.
“I could do that,” he snorted with derision. It really annoys me when people who never produced any work of art in their life go into an art gallery and come out with this statement. I told him that whereupon he had a proper poofy hissy fit and went and sulked outside. Art, perchance, is not for everyone. Thank God just around the corner we found a portrait exhibition featuring the work of a very young artist who'd painted Tibetan people. The detail was fantastic. They were lifesize and spookily realistic. Ludo loved it. He was completely enthralled. The expressions on the portraits would have made you cry. We were both drawn in to level of speechless proportions. So it all ended happily.
Exploring this area is a way to meet bright young things who speak decent English and can give you some useful tips about local events and art in China. I've since found out that the Asian Art Archive is in The Hollywood Building on Hollywood Road. For serious enthusiasts this place should be the place to go.
Soho is the ex pat enclave and so all manner of eateries are available as well as bars thronging with boozed up whities. It has a colonial feel, far more so than Kowloon. You don't necessarily need to be an art lover to trawl this area. Its a great place for photographing Hong Kong as you get a cool mix of modern high tech high rise and the old styles. Plus loads of nature intermingled due to the parks and the presence of numerous Banyan Trees. There is a flea market which has some oldish stuff but is actually selling a lot of overpriced tourist tat that you can find in China for a quarter of the price. A place for browsing but watch out with the snapping as they charge you for photos. The Man Mo temple is crawling with the Long Lens Brigade rather than Monks exuding spirituality and non materialist views.
One of the best things to do on the Island is to take the local skinny trams along the coastline and back. I went to Hong Kongcrete on my tour as I had no clue where I was going at the time. I like a cheap and cheerful mystery tour on the local transport. But I'll be going to Repulse Bay next time I'm in Hong Kong as it sounds like an interesting spot with a beach and poncey homesteads. Probably find the repulsive Snake Head Gangster owner of our conglomerate guest house group there bouncing a Thai tart about on each knee. Six days is not really enough time to do everything in Hong Kong especially when you have to look for a cheap room during a convention, adjust to the time difference after a long haul flight plus hunt for real fodder. It starts to make a big hole in your budget after a week but it is worth it.
During this time Ludo had begun to get on my nerves. The art gallery hissy fit was the first fissure in the flan. But he seemed to have no clue or notion of what to do, where to go or how to get there. The metro mystified him completely and if left to his own devices he simply went shopping or to eat en suite to the lodging. Thus arriving back with not much interesting to report except how much he'd spent and every detail about the food which he usually found detestable. So he followed me around the whole time as I was the one on the net looking up local destinations whilst he was drooling over Gay Romeo instead. Now Hong Kong is crawling with Queens. And yet Ludo never went out and got amongst it. I was beginning to wonder if he really was a poof. But the most aggravating thing he perpetrated was the whistling. Whistling Whitney Houston songs through his teeth. This grated on my central nervous system like you can't believe. Anyway, I tried to think of it, at this stage in the game, as a lesson in practising tolerance. This was dead hard as he'd also developed the habit of twirling his hair round his index finger in conjunction with chewing gum noisily like a disinterested girl in an American teen flick. I was beginning to lay bets with myself how long it would take me to snap. Push nearly came to shove one PMT fuelled day but luckily we were in the vicinity of the Peak Tram.
The Peak Tram is a hotspot touristy destination and consequently thirty times more expensive than the local tram that trundles along the coastline. As its name suggests it goes up to a viewpoint called The Victoria Peak. I wondered if they had a special competition to come up with such an original name for this tram. As I normally eschew anything like that I dispatched the chewing, twirling, whistling and fucking annoying Ludo up to investigate. I had to prise him off my person with a crow bar but eventually off he pootled. Bliss ensued for three hours. It was over too quickly. He reported back that the tram was rammed with the Long Lens Brigade and he that practically puked with the claustrophobia. He said that the view was spectacular, had no photo to prove this point but he did have a brand new pair of Crocs. Apparently there was a shopping mall up at the Peak, Thank fuck I didn't go there. You can walk there however if you fancy an uphill yomp with a view and a shop at the end if it.
Well that's about it for Hong Kong. Got to get off to China. See the update of this blog if you're interested for news of Shenzhen, Guilin, Yangshou and a queen called Ludo. For aesthetics see the photo gallery.