Hong Kong, China
February 2, 2018
We came to Hong Kong along with a mid-winter cold front and a big chance of rain. Daytime temperature hovered just a few degrees over zero, certainly not beach weather by any stretch. But for Ki, it was beach season nonetheless. Insulated with woolen scarf, leather gloves, and the sentimental warmth of the jacket given by Mom many birthdays ago, I set out with beach-bum-for-all-seasons Ki to the island’s scenic coastline.
We were briefly derailed by the wrong bus at Causeway Bay. No worries as it was not difficult to find a fellow Filipino in Hong Kong. A passenger, presumably a nanny, led us on foot, ward in tow, to the stop for Bus 63 to Stanley. Salamat kabayan! I had read somewhere this was the oldest bus route in the city, indicative of Stanley’s long history despite its remote location from the CBD of Hong Kong Island.
Much of the half-hour bus ride was a tour in itself. The winding route, picturesque from the upper level of the double decker, traced the mountainside overlooking concrete and natural jungles encroaching on each other’s space. It was clearly an expat community as evidenced by Caucasian and Indian schoolchildren boarding the bus along the way. We got off probably a stop too soon at Stanley Plaza, mistaking it for Stanley Market, our planned destination. This was our second misstep, but such was the unpredictability of travel. We made our way down the spanking new development draping the steep slope.
A surprising treat awaited our heritage-loving hearts at the waterfront: vestiges of colonial Hong Kong in all this post-colonial modernity. With clothing chain H&M logo emblazoned on its façade, Murray House belied its age and history at first glance. The three-level stone building, in fact, was constructed in 1844 as an officers’ barracks at the Central District. Dismantled block by block in 1982, it was relocated to Stanley in 2001 and repurposed into a shopping and dining center.
Yet another heritage structure that found a new home at Stanley was nearby Blake Pier jutting out to sea. Similarly built at the Central District in the early 1900s, the intricately-designed pier pavilion that received both cargoes and colonists succumbed to Hong Kong’s land reclamation boom in the mid-60s and relocated twice over the decades, finally to Stanley in 2006. Gawking at the original iron trusses and roof made the visit worth missing our original destination.
No wind chill factor could keep us from marching on the boardwalk of Stanley Promenade lined by restaurants and shops overlooking Stanley Bay. This was not a food trip, however; the view on both sides was such eye candy we feasted with our eyes. Opposite Blake Pier and likewise jutting out to sea was a complex of rock formations low enough to climb on for that obligatory selfie and panoramic shots of Stanley Waterfront.
The end of Stanley Main Street was marked by a sewage pumping station. A dead end for me, but Ki pressed on to find a portion of Stanley Market. Without peak season tourist crowds, the colorful displays of Chinese antiques and assorted chinoiseries looked forlorn. Some stalls were open with no one manning them. Merchandise unattended by their vendors looked like museum pieces instead. Apparently, the market operated on trust and honesty.
I strode past a row of brick houses joined together, eight in total, paying it no mind. They were relocation residences called Pat Kan Uk, I belatedly learned, of Hakka Chinese families displaced by colonial development in the 1930s. Finally, there was a structure for local people, not colonists and expats, right under my nose and I totally missed it. Ignorance was not bliss, but mindful tourist Ki took notice and snapped photos of it. Thankfully, I photobombed one.
I was distracted by the beach, what we came for anyway, a few paces ahead. It turned out to be a little patch of sand and boulders, both the color of copper, shaded by trees. So unremarkable it was it did not get a proper name, just referred to as Stanley Back Beach. Its proximity to the sewage station didn’t help matters, I supposed. The main beach was on the other side of this peninsula.
A short bus ride, again with a little help from a kind Filipino, took us to Repulse Bay. Our visit was prefaced by a trio of tableaux of its famous habitué, Shanghai-born novelist Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing in pinyin) in the grounds of now-defunct Repulse Bay Hotel. The commemorative plaque explained the three representations of Ms. Chang’s life: bullets and portrait for war and her youth, books and pens for her literary career, luggage and jacket for her short but prolific stay in Hong Kong. It was enough to inspire me to read her novel, Love in a Fallen City, a historical fiction set in this fallen hotel.
No source could account for the rather negative name. The only thing I found repulsive was the tearing down of the old, stately hotel that Chang described in detail to replace it with a soulless residential condominium. Gone was the elegance of colonial times, replaced by practical capitalism. At least 16 billionaires owned residences in Repulse Bay and nearby Deep Water Bay, collectively known as the world’s wealthiest neighborhood and the most expensive piece of real estate.
And there was the beach. Touted as the most beautiful in Hong Kong, to which I could only agree, crescent-shaped Repulse Bay Beach had the breadth and length, dotted by rows of trees, that was nothing short of majestic. Gentle waters on one side, grandiose towers rising on the other – both added character to the already impressive beach. Opulent residents, former and current, had certainly struck gold. Even the sand was golden.
I wondered how it was like during colonial times when the beach was exclusive to the elite. In the roaring 20s, British merrymakers looked out from the hotel veranda to this sparkling stretch of sand and dazzling lights of fishing boats at sea. But that was many forgotten summers ago. Truth was we could not be here unless we were servers. In this winter, we practically claimed large swathes of the beach to ourselves. We had a wee piece of that luxurious paradise, only less romanticized.
This time we walked the long way over to Deep Water Bay by pounding the paved Seaview Promenade tracing the coastline. We could make out Ocean Park across the bay. Our afternoon DIY tour, mostly on foot, was not a walk in the (amusement) park, but we felt lucky we beheld with a measure of intimacy, not with crowds, these three bays: Stanley, Repulse, and Deep Water.
The beach in frigid weather inspired a more pensive, laid-back mood. It was a place for the soul, not so much the body, to get some sun and air. What was wintry cold anyway? It didn’t bother the couple of swimmers we saw emerging from Deep Water Bay. It, too, shouldn’t bother us, warmly wrapped tourists.