By Joey Salgado
Hong Kong is for young people. The frenetic chase for trains, the shopping, the late night coffee-food-bar crawling, that’s best left to the young. As for me, a senior citizen with hypertension, a bum leg, and moody foot calluses, lying on a hotel bed by 9 pm is the highlight of the day.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved my recent trip to Hong Kong, cold weather, rain showers, aching feet and all. When I last visited ten years ago, I had more energy but less time on my hands. I spent half the day for sight-seeing and the rest of the day and night answering work-related texts or thinking about work. On our last night, while my eldest son and my brother were out exploring the magic of Mong Kok, I was downing a bottle of wine and nibbling on hotel-priced dim sum in my pajamas while checking my e-mail.
This time around I have more time but less energy. I also have more prescription meds and dietary restrictions. And did I mention foot calluses?
The kids booked a hotel on Nathan Road. According to an online guidebook, Nathan Road is Hong Kong’s oldest and one of its busiest (I heard sports cars going vrooom at 3am from my seventh floor room). The hotel’s facade is trendy business-gray, glass and concrete, with luxury watch stores at the ground floor. The lobby is sleek and functional, the staff warm, helpful, and efficient. Once you get to your rooms, you are greeted by the cozy comfort of a hotel that was trendy before the handover, with a fresh coat of paint. Past and present, in one hotel.
A few steps away is the iconic Chungking Mansions. This is what the South China Morning Post says about the place: “Chungking Mansions launched as a beacon of prosperity in jet-set era Hong Kong. The building’s fame slid into notoriety soon after…Many Hong Kong people avoid it, given its reputed sleazy underbelly, or know it only as a multi-storey souk offering exotic flavours and a cheap bead for an hour or more.
“An Indian trader remarked that after staying at Chungking Mansions for a month, the only thing he couldn’t find within its walls was ‘peace of mind.’”
Cineastes or the artistically pretentious will casually name drop Wong Kar Wai’s “Chungking Express,” considered a classic of modern cinema. The British Film Institute, in a fawning write up, called the director a “Poet of Time.” This is what Wong Kar Wai says about the place in an interview with The Guardian: “I've been curious about this building since I was very young…When we researched the building we found there were over 200 hostels there, very shabby, and over 5,000 tourists every day. The police department considered it to be overused with electricity so it's very dangerous, it could catch fire easily. The building contains a vast diversity of people from different parts of the world, so it's like a compressed Hong Kong.”
The film, according to the building’s treasurer, saved Chungking Mansions financially and halted its descent into further disrepute. But for the unpretentious and those simply looking for the best exchange rates, it’s where you go for the money changers. An eagle-eyed lobby guard stands in front of the elevators. There are CCTV cameras everywhere. Uniformed policemen are posted at the lobby. Some reputations just don’t go away easily.
I never got to sample authentic Cantonese food. I did nibble on burgers, salads, and a sorry piece of grilled chicken. In one of the malls we visited, we found this wonderful Chinese restaurant serving Taiwanese food. The idea of eating Taiwanese dishes in the shadow of recent war exercises near the island somehow appealed to me. Not out of place in a Wong Kar Wai movie. The food was delish.
The MTR is still the best way to move around. But it entails a lot of walking, not to mention dodging half-walking half-running commuters with eyes fixed on their mobile phones.
Good thing the train to Disneyland required short walks at the stations. Yes, I visited the happiest place this side of earth. In a flash of foresight my daughter decided to get me a wheelchair “just in case,” which meant 30 minutes after we entered the gates.
The view is different from a wheelchair. You mostly stare at people’s asses, praying to be spared their flatulence. Being wheelchair-bound at Disneyland has its perks. At the Lion King show, I was shown to a spot on the floor, beside an elderly Chinese woman who started talking to me the moment I was wheeled in. I assumed she was asking if I have seen the Lion King before. I was tempted to tell her, “Simba. Father. Dies.” Then I would pretend to choke my neck followed by a sad face. But the lights went off and the show began.
Twice I was left in a cool, shaded corner while the kids went on rides. At the river ride, a Chinese mother parked her stroller beside me. It came with a toddler. Then off she went, leaving me with this toddler who alternated between chewing his fingers and staring at me, like he was showing me a magic trick. He did that for almost 15 minutes. Then his mother appeared from out of nowhere and wheeled the boy magician away before I can say abracadabra.
I did wave and say hello to an elderly gentleman on a wheelchair after we passed each other for the second time. My kids said he looked surprised and waved back. It’s a brotherhood, you know. All we need are club patches and leather jackets.
At the Corner Cafe, we met two manangs who were so happy to see fellow Pinoys eating overpriced burgers, fries and a Coke. They were dressed in costumes that reminded me of the anime Princess Sara, aprons and all, which is not part of the Disney franchise. They smiled at guests and laughed with their co-workers. Here, they are not called wait staff but cast members. “Okay kayo?” they would ask each time they passed by our table.
On our last day we stumbled on the Jollibee branch on Peking Road. Here the manangs were all business. They didn’t return our smiles. They punched our orders and gave us the usual spiel about adding buko pie or whatever food item they were pushing. I guess they’ve grown tired of tourist-type kababayans homesick for chickenjoy after only three days in Hong Kong when they’ve been there for 30 years or more. While eating chickenjoy and rice, we overhear snatches of conversation in Pilipino. Problems with kids, the situation back home, the high rent. I think they need a change of scenery. Disneyland is a happier place for manangs.
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