Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 24, 2022
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Business as Usual

Two and a half years after the handover, Hong Kong remains the great gateway to China

Locked in silent concentration, we followed our instructors, Pandora and William Lee's intricate movements of tai chi. "Step firmly, right. Thrust palm, left," demonstrated Pandora. For a moment, I forgot that I was in one of the world's largest and most dynamic cities, just minutes from the world's busiest harbour.

In this frantic economic enclave of 6.8 million people crammed into a compact 1000-square kilometres, the slow, graceful movements of tai chi were a settling ritual. After one day of exploring the concrete jungle of Hong Kong, the palpable rush of China's formidable Special Administrative Region -- or SAR as the colony is now known -- was exhilarating yet overwhelming. No wonder, I thought, that when it comes to healing the body and soothing the mind, people in Asia place their trust in centuries-old holistic ideologies to provide balance to the stresses of modern life.

As we stepped from one position into the next, Pandora extolled the dualistic philosophy of exercising the Yin ( the passive, female cosmic force) and Yang (the active, male cosmic force) to improve our balance, muscle tone and subsequently breathing and digestion. Demonstrating how to swiftly kick, lunge and sweep our arms while holding taut fans, William explained how the ancient martial art of tai chi started as shadow-boxing for self-defence. "It is more than exercise," he said. "The moving energy and meditation bring harmony to body and mind. Good for control."

Control, indeed. As we rose from our final deep stretch, I felt a surge of strength. Walking past emerald bonsais, flowering passion fruit trees and streams flowing with golden poi -- celebrated goldfish -- I commented on my sense of well-being. "That's the natural effect of tai chi," said Winnie Richardson, my ex-patriot friend, who's one of the city's most sought-after guides. She had suggested this free morning class and as we made our way through the congested streets of the Central business district, I queried her for the latest news on Hong Kong's socio-economic climate.

After the takeover
I was curious, of course, to learn of how China's takeover in 1997 had affected Hong Kong. It had been under British rule for 150 years since the Opium War of 1842. During the transition period, Hong Kong's citizens became concerned that the Chinese government might interfere with their cherished free market and free press. The fear was that there would be an exodus of Chinese to Western democracies and an ensuing financial depression. The Chinese government guaranteed 50 years of relative political autonomy, except in matters of foreign policy and defence. "We are guided by the concept of one country, two systems," Winnie explained, "under which Hong Kong is allowed to maintain its capitalist economy within a communist China."

The economy, according to Winnie, seems to be reviving from the market's 'Asian flu'. But everything here is expensive. Even with seven million citizens living in subsidized housing, most families need two incomes to survive. Long working hours lead to high levels of stress, and with such a strong cultural onus on creating a sense of equilibrium, it often falls upon the doctors to restore that missing balance. Citizens visit doctors for acupressure treatments, reflexology and acupuncture to relieve headaches and body pain. They believe in traditional solutions to undo the overriding effects of smog and of endless hours standing in shops or sitting at computers. Winnie explains that Hong Kong's mantra for wellness is, "eat something good inside, reflect it on the outside. People eat mandarin orange peel for sore throats, dried plums for bronchitis and dry sea horse for rheumatism and arthritis. They also visit Chinese herbal doctors, who charge $23 a visit to prescribe custom teas for all manner of aches and pains."

We arrived for a meal at the Luk Yu Tea House. The old eatery, with brass spittoons resting against the frames of its mahogany booths, hasn't changed in 60 years. Waitresses carry steaming baskets of delectable dumplings stuffed with prawns, minced beef, seafood and vegetables, piled on trays slung over their shoulders. The place was packed with businessmen, doctors and stockbrokers, often glued to their cell phones. "They say they come for the best medicinal teas and dim sum in Hong Kong," notes Winnie, "but it's known that the patrons -- and even the waiters -- have grown rich here drinking tea while gleaning stock tips." So with ears alert (to no avail) we planned the rest of my long weekend in the City of Life.

Hong Kong comprises of three distinct areas. Hong Kong Island (situated on one of the world's largest deep-water harbours), the Kowloon Peninsula (extending from mainland China) and the New Territories (the area between Kowloon and the border of southeast China), plus 260 outlying islands in the South China Sea. Bridges and tunnels connect Hong Kong Island to Kowloon, but the most scenic route is via the century-old Star Ferry.

First-time visitors who only have one day (and an irresistible urge to shop) should see two essential vistas: on Kowloon, walk from behind the Regent Hotel along the harbourside promenade -- for a full view of Hong Kong Island's spectacular skyline -- to the Star Ferry. Then sail across Victoria Harbour to Hong Kong Island (45 cents for the eight-minute crossing), and walk the short route to the Peak Tram. Ride the 1888 funicular railway up the steep 373-metre-high Victoria Peak for a magnificent aerial view of Hong Kong and Kowloon ($5.50, round trip). On fairly clear days, it's worth dining at CafÄ Deco or The Peak Café's outdoor terrace for great views of the harbour.


Walking Tours
Hong Kong begs to be explored on foot. Adjacent to the Star Ferry Pier on Hong Kong Island is Central, the business, financial and political heart of the city. Here, amid modern monoliths such as the angular, glassy Bank of China Tower and the 78-storey Central Plaza, there exist few remnants of Victorian colonialism. The Legislative Council Building in Statue Square formerly housed the Supreme Court. In Hong Kong Park, Flagstaff House, circa 1846, is the city's oldest colonial building and original home of the commander of Hong Kong's British Forces. It now houses the exquisite Museum of Tea Ware.

Western, west of Central's designer boutiques and malls, is a step back into narrow residential and market streets of old Hong Kong. The district is teeming with shops selling Chinese herbal medicine, incense, varieties of fish and dried seafood. Hollywood Road is the "Antique Mile" of ceramic and curio shops. Follow the musky scent to the Man Mo Temple, Hong Kong's oldest temple, built in circa 1847. The burning incense dangling from the ceiling of this Taoist haven provides offerings of health, wealth and happiness. From here take the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator (the world's longest outdoor escalator) up the steep incline of streets to the fairly affluent and trendy hubs of Lai Kwai Fong and SoHo (South of Hollywood), areas popular for their bars and nightclubs.

East of Central, admiralty shops lead to Wanchai, Hong Kong's notorious centre for debauchery during the '50s and a playground for American GIs during the '60s. It's still a lively spot for nightlife but nowadays it's a far cry from the seedy urban depiction in Richard Mason's novel The World of Suzie Wong. Causeway Bay attracts gamblers to the Happy Valley Race Track and Stanley Market is a wonderful hive of shops for bargain clothes and costume jewellery. Don't be turned off by Repulse Bay's name. It's actually an upscale residential area-cum-beach resort that boasts shrines and statues depicting figures from Chinese mythology.

Living for Fishing
Hong Kong's original character was as a fishing port and it still has a fairly large, though rapidly shrinking, fishing community. For a mind-opening look at the fishing community in vivid contrast to the towering, shore-side high-rises, take a sampan cruise from Aberdeen Harbour where fishermen and their families have been living on boats for generations. Surprisingly, many of the humble trawlers have radar and TV antennae, washing machines and generators. The boat people are locally known as Tanka or "egg family" because they pay taxes with eggs from the chickens they keep on their boats. They inhabit other fishing towns as well and provide 70 percent of the region's fresh fish and seafood.

If you've brought the kids with you on vacation, they'll enjoy Ocean Park (tel: 011-853-13-2873-8888) on the south side of Hong Kong Island for its two giant pandas, the Oceanarium and the Middle Kingdom, an outdoor museum that recreates life in ancient China. During the evening, it's worth eating on the Jumbo Floating Restaurant for the experience rather than the food.

Hong Kong's traditional and modern cultures collide in colourful profusion on the streets of Kowloon or "nine dragons." The name refers to the hills that frame the area sandwiched between Victoria Harbour and the New Territories. The Clock Tower beside the Star Ferry concourse marks the start of Tsim Sha Tsui's waterfront promenade, a rich cluster of hotels (most renown are The Peninsula and The Regent) and cultural venues, including the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Space Museum and Museum of Art. For an unforgettably magical evening, linger over drinks and snacks in the Regent's Lobby Bar, which overlooks the lights of Aberdeen Harbour. Nathan Road, the Golden Mile shopping mecca, is also worth a visit, if only to witness the dizzying aerial array of signs and advertisements.

Mongkok, which until recently was considered the world's most densely populated urban area, brims with visions of traditional Chinese life. Wander through Jade Market, Temple Street Night Market, the Ladies Market, Goldfish Market, with thousands of bubbling aquariums and bags of goldfish tacked around door frames, Flower Market and Bird Garden, which is crammed with cage-makers and bird stalls full of melodious songbirds.

A crowd of seniors, with pet birds in tow, play mah-jong in front of Tin Hau Temple. Meanwhile, the seniors at the Wong Sai Tin Temple appear less casual and more devout. In this old gem of traditional Chinese architecture with red pillars, gold ceilings and ornate lattice-work, they practice China's three main religions, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, side by side. In comparison, the atmosphere seems more serene in the new Chai Lin Nunnery. This "living museum" of monastic architecture from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) was recreated with ancient carpentry techniques, arched roofs, pretty lily ponds and rock gardens.

The New Territories is a development area created to house Hong Kong's growing population. The area is clustered with towers dubbed pigeonholes for their compact 120-square-metre apartments. Much of the region, though, remains rural farmland and tranquil fishing villages.

If you are looking to explore well-preserved historic sites, the Hong Kong Transit Authority (HKTA) offers a fascinating trip into the past with their "Land Between Tour." It visits the 1000-year-old walled village of the Kam Tin clan, the 18th-century Hakka village where women wear fringed hats, and ancient Taoist and Buddhist temples. The HKTA also offers guided tours of Hong Kong's wild side, seeing as much of Lantau Island, away from the airport, is a protected reserve. The "Dragon's Back" is a popular 6.5 kilometre coastal route for bikers and hikers en route to the Po Lin Monastery, built in 1917. Come and see the 26-metre-high Big Buddha, which overlooks a wooded valley down to the South China Sea.

For the birds
Mai Po Marsh is my favourite green area of Hong Kong. This World Wildlife-protected wetland, where estuarine tidal waters feed an ecosystem of mangrove marshes, is a bird-lover's paradise. The area, which spans the Northwest Territories at Deep Bay on the edge of China, has global significance for rare and endangered species of birds. In November and April, the range of rare birds and population of 7000 shorebirds in Mai Po is spectacular.

The cool drizzle and rising tide was a godsend to the avid ornithologists who'd trekked along a floating pontoon bridge to the viewing hut in heavy rain. Their hearts raced at four waddling spoonbill sandpipers and a parade of 14 black-faced spoonbills (the entire world's population is less than 1000) and they gasped at the sighting of a rare great knot, who had probably just completed a long-haul flight from the Arctic, preening on a post. And their ecstasy was infectious when they spotted two Nordmann greenshanks, as these migrant birds from eastern Russia are among the world's rarest. As the tide began rolling in, thousands of shore birds took flight as if by divine command, an awe inspiring sight.

For all its transitions, Hong Kong has never been more exciting. Yes, it's business as usual for the SAR. The shopping's not as cheap for watches, cameras and designer goods as it used to be, yet it is for tourists today what it has been for traders throughout the centuries: the gateway to China and the rest of southeast Asia.


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