Sonya Visits China: Cha-Ching, Feng Shui and Man Mo

By Sonja Stark
Senior Travel Writer

Hong Kong

Sony and a friend in Tiananmen Square
Sony and a friend in Tiananmen Square

As the former British colony near China draws closer an isolated monolith of steel and glass morphs into a dozen white skyscrapers.

A Cantonese-like Sim City with ultramodern architecture and sleek highway underpasses reminds me of a setting for a Neil Stephenson novel.

The sun saturates the sides of the shimmering buildings and the morning haze lifts slowly. There are no sampans or junks around and I’m hoping to document the Hoklo and Tanka – ‘boat people’ who live on junks.

Instead, cargo ships and creaky fishing boats are up before the fish are even awake.

The largest building in Victoria Harbor, the International Finance Center, looms over a backdrop of lush mountain tops, hills and valleys.

I breathe a sigh of relief. Finally, a port where I can drink the water, throw paper in a toilet and wear a sweater by day. Finally, a port where I won’t get hassled for street change or leave angry with governments that don’t help the poor.

Finally, a port that understands English and has HSBC ATMs. Hong Kong is the eighth stop on my trip around the world with Semester at Sea. Followed by Rio, San Francisco and Sydney, I’m told that it’s the fourth most scenic port in the world.

Tomorrow will bring a trip to Beijing, the Great Wall of China, Peking University, Tiananmen Square and the Summer Palace. That’s a whole lot of traveling to cover in a 5 days.

Material Excess

This is the ‘cha-ching’ capital of the world. Material excess is everywhere. Between the Stanley, Jade and Temple Street markets, this shoppers’ ghetto is lethal to those who can do little else but look. We dock alongside the commercially deceptive pier of Kowloon, a peninsula of mainland China only ten minutes from Hong Kong by ferry.

Our only exit off the gangway detours through a busy shopping mall called Harbour City. There are hundreds of high-end, duty-free shops like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Miu Miu and Yves Saint Laurent. A few compulsive student shoppers stray too long at the Hugo Boss counter and they’re lost to overpriced merchandise.

Hong Kong skyline
Hong Kong skyline

Peak Tower

I’m off to work for my wages on the City Orientation bus tour. The bus is packed full of tired students. It only took a day for the M/V Explorer to arrive here from Vietnam and many are still exhausted from the Mekong Delta.

Our first stop is Peak Tower and Victoria Peak Garden. Our bus scales a steep grade and from this vantage point its hard to imagine six million tightly packed people below.

In true Hong Kong style the main viewing deck is on the roof of a large shopping mall. There’s even a Madame Tussaud’s and Ripley’s Believe it or Not exhibit.

The students are more interested in the vistas and hiking routes, though. Several young Chinese journalists gather to interview them for their school newspaper. They speak excellent English. They smile widely. They giggle infectiously. Short of an hour of being here, we’ve already made friends with the locals in Hong Kong and they’re delightful.


On our return trip down the mountain we ride a cable-hauled funicular railway with super steep gradients. I crush myself up against Bill to steady my vista shots. Bill is my favorite adult passenger aboard the M/V. With a Canadian accent and a heart of gold, his willingness to carry my tripod has spawned a growing friendship.

At the bottom of Garden Road, our walk continues past feng-shui designed architecture, churches, and temples. Feng-shui has been practiced for 3000 years in China and is suppose to bring harmony, balance and good fortune to those who practice it. Banks, modern malls, restaurants, museums and theatres are designed with five elements in mind – wood, fire, earth, metal and water.

The headquarters of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, HSBC, my very own, is an expansive and on the list of world-class excellent buildings. I rush up to the ATM counter and withdraw an extra $50 for the herbal medicine shops to come.

Sony mugs at the Man Mo Temple
Sony mugs at the Man Mo Temple

Man Mo Temple

The SAS group is in a indescribably good mood as we’re invited into Man Mo Temple to determine our futures. For $2 a wizen-haired Buddhist (not everyone is bald) offers up fortune sticks in a bamboo cylinder to shake and make a wish to.

It’s my turn and I’m naively optimistic about my question. Simply put, “Will I ever fall in love and live happily ever after?” As I kneel and pray, huge bell-shaped coils of incense filled the area with smoke. The number 11 stick pops to the surface and I take it over to the Buddhist monk to read. He shudders at the number.

“Oh, not good Miss, not good. Bad omen, bad omen”.

“Oh no! Do I really want to know the answer to my question?” I think to myself.

He begins to read my prophecy and the terrible fate that awaits my future. Financial bankruptcy, relationship hardships and immeasurable health problems, etc, etc, etc. Okay, that’s enough, I conclude.

I take the paper printout and my receipt and toss it all into the garbage. I never believed in superstitions anyway! With my ‘indescribably good mood’ turned sour, I bail on the Sampan ride and hide away in Hong Kong Park for the rest of the night.

HK Park Inspiration

Hong Kong Park is eight acres of recreational bliss built around flowing water and feng-shui gardens amid an urban landscape. There is an aviary, a sports center, several plant houses and a restaurant.

A guard tower on the Great Wall
A guard tower on the Great Wall

I loop around the conservatory, the largest in South East Asia and find some alone time on a foot message path. I’m one of the only tourists taking advantage of the relaxation and meditation found in the tai chi gardens and fountain spots. It’s dark by the time I get here but the lights on the park paths show me the way.

Most of the ponds, waterfalls, streams and cliffs are built out of artificial rocks, but at night who can’t tell the difference? Here’s where I gain the momentum needed to trek through Cloth Alley, Lan Kwai Fong, Soho and all of Kowloon until 3 am.

The Great Wall, Beijing, China

Early the next morning, my SAS group flies to Mainland China for four days of sightseeing and cultural interaction with Peking University students.

This time a favorite student passenger by the name of Angela Ferrara, a.k.a Grip Girl, offers to pick up where Bill left off carrying my gear. Without her tireless endurance, my trip through Beijing would have surely been miserable and my visuals would have suffered.

First up, the Great Wall of China. We pop off the bus and everyone stares awestruck by the world’s most famous historical wonder. This part of the fortification was constructed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and it’s the best-preserved of all 2,587 – 4,000 miles. The entire length is disputable. The students share smiles taking snapshots of themselves displaying posters that thank their parents. Grip Girl and I begin the ascent.

The view from the top
The view from the top

The Badaling section of the wall has hundreds of padlocks hanging on string that, we’re told, represent some of the 1.2 million people who died building it.

The climbing is easy in the beginning but the steps soon become narrower and the angle gets steeper after the first watchtower. Grip Girl’s asthma starts to bother her. I motivate her along using a soldier cadence heard growing up with a Vietnam Vet Stepfather.

“Let’s go soldier; stay strong; you can do it! She who doesn’t reach the Great Wall is not a true woman!” I yell. Mao Zedong actually said that but I altered the gender slightly.

Grip Girl is on all fours, hugging the crumbling stone steps, gasping for dear life.

“Go on without me Sony. You’re better off without me!” she bellows.

I’m so infused by the cool temperatures and the beautiful surroundings I push onward. Students who are not bogged down with heavy equipment like me are already descending. It takes two hours to reach the top but when I do, the sweat and angst is worth it.

The famous photo
The famous photo

The endless Wall, built over a period of almost 2000 years, stretches along the western border like a winding snake. All the way up, the Wall’s hand bar supported my climb – now it breaks my fall as I lean all my equipment and body weight against it and slide down. My feet are flying so fast that if I were to fall I’d go careening over, head first, heels last.

At the bottom a camel chewing his cud gives students a ride for a buck. Where was my camel when I needed it?

Tiananmen Square

Many of the SAS students were only four or five years old when the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred, but it only makes sense to ask where the infamous photo of a young male student standing up against Communist PLA tanks was taken.

Our Chinese tour guide feigns a response. She says she doesn’t know, but I’m sure that after 16 years it’s still a sensitive topic and not talked about. Still, the square feels less controlled than most government areas. I’m allowed to take photos of everything from a distance and there’s a thriving black market hawking copies of Mao’s Little Red Book.

Angela Ferrara, a.k.a Grip Girl
Angela Ferrara, a.k.a Grip Girl

Grip Girl and I circle the perimeter. It’s mighty cold and we can see our breath. Most people are decked out with fur hats, gloves and mittens but little Chinese babies are running around with slits in their pants.

At first I thought it was cruel to let them wear ripped clothing but then I was told that toddlers don’t wear diapers at all, not even cloth ones. Instead, they always wear open-crotch pants.

Parents toilet train as early as one month and incredibly, most babies are toilet-trained by six months. Usually at twelve to fourteen months, they know how to squat down in their open-crotch pants and go whenever they feel the urge. This makes me watch where I step the remainder of the day.

A puppeteer in Myanmar – photo by Sony Stark

Flattery will get you nowhere, unless a 21-year-old Peking student misidentifies you as a 23-year-old American college kid. I’m fifteen years her senior and I’m seduced into following her into her art gallery with hundreds of cloth hanging scrolls.

The designs are beautiful and I pick out a design based on happiness (xi) and prosperity (lu). Other popular symbols include longevity (shou), blessings (fu) and wealth (cai).

Forbidden City

Crossing the busy Tiananmen Square into the Purple Forbidden City (Palace Museum) is like going back in time. This once-forbidden area is where imperial edicts were issued and armies presented their bounties.

In April 2005 the gates were opened to the public for the first time in 600 years. Grip Girl and I are mesmerized. It’s heavily influenced by astronomy and cosmic patterns and it shows in the buildings of the world’s largest palace complex.

After dodging tourists taking digi’s of Mao’s giant photo, hanging from Meridian Gate, we enter a Confucian lair of virtues. Humanity, duty, wisdom, reliability and ceremonial propriety are the ethics instilled during the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

There are deep moats, five halls, seventeen palaces and a total of 9,999.5 rooms. Ten thousand rooms is a number reserved for the heavens but this is as close to purity and protection as the here-after. Again, nobody bats an eye while I lug a heavy Betacam up and over bridges and through prayer rooms. This may be a Communist country but I’m having less problems filming here than in any other.

Summer Palace

The Summer Palace
The Summer Palace

The Summer Palace (Garden of Nurtured Harmony) is the largest and best-preserved imperial garden in China. It’s still bitter cold outside as Grip Girl and I walk the world’s longest and best-preserved corridor.

We stop to admire a long-bearded Chinese man painting calligraphy on the stone walkway. He breaths an intense look of concentration as he hand paints the symbols for longevity and benevolence.

Chinese rely heavily on auspicious sayings and propitious phrases to ensure a happy and productive future. At the end of the Long Gallery there’s a marble boat anchored off the river’s edge.

But how does a boat made of stone float on water? It’s surely impressive with four dragon heads protruding off the sides of the boat. We’re told that when it rains, water pours out of the dragon’s mouths. But, what keeps it buoyant? I never did find out…

Back to Hong Kong

The Stone Boat in China
The Stone Boat

No sooner had we got there then we had to board a flight back to Hong Kong. Even though we spent ample time at Peking University, a Jade Factory, the Chaoyang Theater and the Ming Tombs, I can’t say that I know Beijing any more than when I first arrived. The historical grounds were impressive but I missed feeling the vibe of the city.

There was no time in a busy itinerary to take in the nightlife or the street markets. To fully immerse yourself in a culture, you really have to dine where the locals go, listen to music tucked away in back-alley corners and learn some of the language before you visit. I’m aiming to cover the the 2008 Summer Olympics so maybe then…

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