Hong Kong: Don't Believe the Guidebook

Vicki Rosenzweig


'Hong Kong' Artist Unknown


In Hong Kong our guidebooks were useful for facts, but kept getting the tone of things wrong. I guess none of the authors think quite the way we do. The oddest part was the Lonely Planet Guide's claim that there is no free entertainment in Hong Kong. I wanted to grab the author and take him to Hong Kong Park: even if people-watching doesn't appeal to you, the free entertainment includes a wonderful walk-through aviary, where I used up large quantities of film, and an exhibit of old pottery and signature seals. There are wonderful fountains, with water flowing down tiled steps, ponds full of turtles, lots of greenery and flowers, and half-tame birds. It's full of people on the weekends -- Hong Kong is a crowded city -- but a delightful oasis on weekdays. It is completely artificial. Everything from the ponds to the palm trees was put in from scratch in 1990, and you can see the skyscrapers all around, but in an odd way that just adds to the charm.

There's no attempt to pretend you're not in the middle of a city: but the city is Hong Kong, where they keep tucking bits of green in next to the glass and steel, and would rather build one skyscraper on an otherwise green hill than cover it with lots of low buildings.

On our last day in Hong Kong, we decided to take half an hour to visit Tiger Balm Gardens before wandering off on our separate agendas: I was going to go back up the Peak and see what the view was like during the day, and Lise wanted to check out one more transit system. The guidebooks warned us that the place was run down, and not to expect much besides a giggle from the images of Taoist hells. Run down it was, as Coney Island is run down, and at least as delightful. Built by Aw Boon Haw with some of the millions he made marketing Tiger Balm as a cure for all manner of problems, the Gardens are a wonderland of poured concrete -- odd curved shapes, staircases leading to odd views, unexpected rooms, and animal statues everywhere. You go up an odd staircase, and find a tangle of stairs, a cool shaded cave containing a Buddha, an artificial rock you can sit on. Around one corner are turtles; around the next, a huge blue ox; then there is a tiger of sorts, a biped with a tiger's head and a yellow-and-black-striped blazer. There are gorgeous dragons on one wall, a green hill as backdrop to the whole thing, and the family still lives in the house next door. Here and there are moral lessons, if you want them, but they're easily ignored, or admired purely for the artwork. Even the old Ford truck in one of the Taoist hells fits in nicely, despite what our guidebook thought. Yes, the whole place could use a fresh coat of paint, and it might be nice if someone evicted the old woman selling doilies and other random souvenirs, but I suspect she's just as official as the useful vendor selling bottled water, film, and postcards. The whole thing works, and it's a delightful place to spend an afternoon: I felt sorry for the tour groups, herded around together, without the chance to really explore the nooks and crannies.


Vicki Rosenzweig is a native New Yorker who spends her time reading, writing, walking around, and looking at the world, which is a more complicated place than many people realize.