March 2006

Diary of a Gweipo
Falling for hysteric glamour in Hong Kong
travelgirl sent journalist Amanda Castleman to explore Hong Kong and measure the pulse of this powerhouse of finance and fashion. Here's a glimpse into her travel diary.


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reviewed this issue, mentioning my article, just behind Donald Trump's.

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Hong Kong sticks to my skin. Clouds veil the neon core of this glamorous, gritty metropolis. But the Fragrant Island, frankly, confuses me. Capitalist guilt and it-girl greed fuse my brain. Should I nab some Louis Vuitton Epi bargains? Barter for a black-market movie? Saddle my bureau with yet another inlaid jewel box, ethically purchased from a co-operative of oppressed artists?

Torn, I do the only thing conceivable: dance until dawn in a scarlet wig and pink aviator glasses.

Flights of fancy and moth farts
As a young marine, my father visited Hong Kong during the 1960's Suzie Wong era of sailors and bar strumpets. “Be awake for the landing,” he raved. “It's the world's most spectacular airport approach.”

As the plane circles, I'm puzzled. Mist blurs the hills. Roads and tenements spread below. The sight is pretty, but not staggering; hardly enough to make a former military man gush. Later I discover the dramatic Kai Tak Airport closed in 1998. Its flights skimmed so low over the harbor and skyscrapers that flashing neon signs were illegal, so pilots wouldn't become distracted and crash.

Now, 20-meter flat screens spew commercials over the streets. Skyscrapers girdle the circuit-board center. Trains and trams and ferries unleash battalions of business people. Hong Kong hums with deals and deadlines amid the hot smog.

As Jan Morris, the grande dame of travel writers, once noted: “It is a place you feel. Founded by Europeans, developed by Asians, governed by Chinese, designed and run by entrepreneurs, architects, economists, and adventurers from the four corners of the world, in its streets and waterways you may sense the turning of the Earth itself.”

Earth is a strangely fluid concept in Hong Kong. Whenever space grows too tight, dirt trucks arrive from the New Territories, which cuddle up to mainland China. Such “reclamation” has already reduced the bay to nearly half its original size. Yet Victoria, the vanishing harbor, is still a frantic mosaic of sampans, ferries, pleasure crafts, fishing boats and ocean-going freighters, steaming for the Pearl River Delta or the South China Sea.

I survey the terrain from the Island Shangri-La in Central, Hong Kong's answer to Manhattan. My room is atop a skyscraper: Some 50 floors insulate me from the hoi polloi in the mall below. The window – a wall of glass, really – reflects the chandelier, one of 769 Austrian and Venetian baubled lamps in this luxurious hotel. Despite the butler call-button, the coffee packets are Nescafe. I choke some down, mindful that our feet are all of clay.

Hoping to elude jet-lag, I descend to the pool. Except I exit at the wrong floor. Conference attendees are switching sessions, all besuited and perky. My terrycloth bathrobe causes quite a stir. Suddenly, I am taller, paler and blonder than ever before – a stranger, a spectacle . Fighting the naked-at-school-nightmare sensation, I wait for the next elevator nonchalantly. Or try to, at least.

Happily, my detour takes me past the world's largest indoor mural, the “Great Motherland of China,” 16 stories of shimmering silk. The pool is no less spectacular. I paddle below the I.M. Pei-designed Bank of China tower, which is featured on the HK$20 bill, despite its menacing feng shui. Among other complaints, the daggerlike design allegedly severs the good chi of Government House, long the colonial seat of power.

Spooked by the bad mojo, Tung Chee-hwa, the first Chief Executive after the handover, refused to live or work in the nineteenth-century residence as tradition dictated. Imagine the equivalent back home: a woman ascends to the Oval Office – at long last! –- only to declare, “the White House has a bad vibe. That Washington Monument is quite phallic – fine for Bill and the boys – but I'd rather relocate to that darling pendant-shaped Pentagon.”

Though skeptical of such ethnoscience, I must admit that I'm struggling with some strange energy and spatial unease here. And on very obvious level feng shui – literally “wind and water” – has already dampened my enthusiasm.

Yesterday, it was 86 degrees with 96% humidity. Today we're down to 84%, but my long hair still refuses to dry, even in this climate-controlled Rapunzel tower. As I brush the damp tangles, I read Where, Hong Kong, a slick and silly magazine: “the lights are out; your bed is clean and crisp, and it's so quiet you could hear a moth fart.” The article goes on to detail portable aromatherapy pots for avid travelers. If China's calling the shots – as Newsweek and others maintain – we're in for a surreal century.

Tonight, dinner takes place on the hotel's top floor, home to Petrus, a French restaurant so exquisite and expensive that Time Out warns, “if you have to ask how much something is, you can't afford it.” Through airplane-dried eyes, I admire asparagus with black truffle shavings, twin black marble columns and the low, padded ottomans for ladies' handbags. I want to savor every second. Even more, I just want to sleep.

The Shangri-La is so serene. No light pierces the double drapes. Not one moth flutters, let alone farts. I slip into delirious jet-lag dreams.

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"If China's calling the
shots – as
Newsweek and
others maintain – we're in
for a surreal century".





The I.M. Pei-designed
Bank of China tower

January 2007

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