So one time a few of weeks ago, I woke up in the morning, got on a mysterious bus to the Chongqing airport, and flew to Shenzhen—that sprawling metropolis that’s the mainland gateway to Hong Kong. It’s much cheaper to fly from any point mainland to Shenzhen (SHEN-jenn) than it is to fly into HK directly, and there are buses that shuttle passengers back and forth. And yet, four hours after touching down in Shenzhen when I finally reached the hotel in Hong Kong, I wasn’t so sure it was worth it. Because of course, when transitioning from Shenzhen, China to Hong Kong, China or Macao, China, one must go through a lengthy passport-stamping goods-declaring customs, and pause to change money since not even that is the same. Absolutely the same country, yep. (One of my brightest students, Bob, whom I’ve mentioned on here before, once told me that one of the happiest days of his childhood was the day that Hong Kong retuned to Mother China, and that is his dearest wish that he will live to see Taiwan similarly reunited. Yeah, about that….)
Anyway, Ro and I reunited at our hotel on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong and promptly got down to the important business of eating a salad and shopping at H&M. Because you see, Hong Kong to me was basically The West with Chinese Characteristics. You can eat anything and buy anything—though at prices nearly equivalent to what they’d be in the US. Four good friends (Leora, Katy C., Whitney, and Meghan J.) had also decided to come to Hong Kong that weekend, which also meant that when jet-lagged Ro needed to go to bed, I could do something different. Thus, that first day, between Dinner 1 with Ro and Dinner 2 with the girls, I may or may not have helped eat my way through a Caesar salad, a scallop tapa, corn chowder, potato wedges, an appetizer sampler platter, a margarita pizza, spaghetti carbonara, and ice cream. Mmmmm.
Our first full day in HK featured shopping and high tea at the stately British Peninsula Hotel, which featured a lovely tea tower and a lot of staring at the beautiful family next to us. More shopping, gourmet burgers, and the HK light show rounded out the day. The latter is…fine, and features ten minutes of choreographed lasers and lights projected from buildings across the bay. But it had to be an early night to prepare for the real main attraction: Hong Kong Disneyland!
I think it’s a reasonable life goal to visit every Disney park in the world. I’ve never made it to Disneyland Paris, nee Euro Disney, due to the uninterest of Trafalgar Tours, Glo and Lo, or Anne in fulfilling that desire during various past Paris trips—but I have faith that sooner or later I should be able to lock that one down without too much trouble. A trip to Tokyo may be a little less obvious. And Shanghai Disney should open around 2015! (Although, blegh, returning to China). So although I’d never heard very good things about Disneyland’s smaller Hong Kong cousin—Lonely Planet phrases it as something like, “If you must go to Disneyland, here’s how to do it. But for the love of God, don’t!”—off we went on Saturday morning in time to buy our tickets, inquire into Mickey ears with Chinese names, and line up at the rope on Main Street in time for the official park opening.
The park is small in scope—perhaps not even ¼ of the number of attractions that there are at the original Disneyland—and in size. Most of the time I felt like we were in some strange facsimile of the Disney we know and love. The details were there—the futuristic Tomorrowland theming, the Music Man soundtrack piping in on olde-tyme Main Street USA, the blend of real and fake tropical plants in Adventureland—but it still wasn’t quite the same.
All park signage and announcements are done in some combination of Cantonese (the primary language of Hong Kong), English (the secondary language of Hong Kong), and Mandarin (the language of most of China). Sometimes this combo would be particularly delightful, as in the case of the Festival of the Lion King show, in which performers reenacted scenes and songs from the film in English but which featured two Wacky Translator Monkeys who bopped around bringing Cantonese-speakers up to speed on the action. For some other experiences, you had to make a more definitive choice of language: on the Jungle Cruise there are three separate lines to differentiate boat-guide language, and at the show Stitch Encounter, every third hour featured shows in a different language. That’s a challenge no other Disney park has to contend with. The food situation was similar: we ate lunch at a big counter-service eatery in Fantasyland that featured Chinese, Malaysian, Japanese, and American food stations.
Most of the guests in the park were Chinese, probably wealthy mainlanders on vacation (and you absolutely have to be wealthy to visit HK if you’re Chinese), or other Asians, with a sampling of other foreigners like us. But even in comparison with more-Westernized HK, this felt worlds away from China. Within the first five minutes, when a cast member welcomed me in English and helped me put my ticket through the turnstile—with a smile!—I realized with a shock how long it’s been since anyone treated me like that. And yes, you could buy gross Chinese-style Chicken parts on a stick at all the snack carts, but there were also Mickey ice cream bars! Such a land of contrast.
I didn’t really feel the need to put together a full schedule for the day’s activities due to the small scale and my general familiarity, but I did write out a few notes. When the rope dropped at 10am (I know, so late!), we paused to take a picture with a group of princesses and then off we went to Space Mountain and Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters before doubling back to the Jungle Cruise (a more sensationalized version featuring pyrotechnics) and Tarzan’s Treehouse. Next was PhilharMagic and then Teacups in Fantasyland before lunch. “It’s a small world” was as lovely as ever (definitely superior to the one at Disney World, at least), as was The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. At that point, by 1 or 2pm, we had completed most of the major attractions. The rest of the afternoon featured more leisurely viewings of the shows, the parade, and a couple of ride repeats. Yes, I know this paragraph was as important to all of you readers as it was to me.
That night we (sans Roberta) made our way to Hong Kong island for Cantonese food and a night on the town (western-style bars with normal beverage selection!), and the following day (by which point my friends had left) featured dim sum and more of the sites of Hong Kong island.
Our flight randomly got pushed back a day so we used our extra time for a daytrip to lovely Macao, home to Portuguese architecture and food as well as Vegas-style casinos. We spent the morning wandering around the old town (which reminded me a lot of Las Palmas in its sort of subtropical-Iberianness) and eating delicious local dishes like African chicken and a seafood paella-like thing. To cap off the day, we hit the Venetian—a sprawling complex perhaps twice as big as the Vegas equivalent, with a somber casino floor, singing gondoliers, and rows and rows of canal shops. We headed back to HK for a final meal at TGI Fridays (yes, my choice) and all-too-soon, set off for the “real China.”
Coming from the US, I can’t see Hong Kong as being nearly as exciting a vacation destination as it was from my perspective. But if you’re looking for either China with Western Characteristics or the West with Chinese Characteristics, it’s a good start. It’ll be interesting to see how this place continues to develop in the next forty years before China officially reevaluates its position. And if I have another chance to return before the end of my time here, I’ll definitely take it.