This has been a week of unrelenting trauma, and there are six more days to go. I am unwittingly helping the Hong Kong Tourism Board’s latest campaign to cram millions of additional visitors onto our shores, regardless of the city’s capacity to accommodate more bodies in its midst. In particular, they are targeting families.
(In addition, they are trying to lure professionals aged 25-45 – those 46 and above apparently being undesirable, which sounds about right. And Mainlanders keen on ‘quality and honest tours’ (as opposed to those who prefer being ripped off and assaulted). And travellers who find the idea of our ‘Wine and Dine Festival’ appealing, if any. Ditto something called a ‘Formula E Championship’. These special ‘events’ are secretly designed to repel potential visitors, surely?)
It’s all part of the Great Hong Kong Tourism Hub-Zone Strategy of the 2010s. Take all the buildings, neighbourhoods, culture and activities that give the city its characteristics and ambience, unique in the world – and eradicate them. In their place, put the same plastic, designer-label, Disney-fied, fake, tacky, sterile crap you get everywhere else in cities-that-look-like-airport-departure-halls. Then scrabble around trying to find people brainless enough to want to come here.
So, as I say, I am contributing to this noble effort. I have guests: a family. My brother’s.
As (allegedly) a world ‘leader’ in his creative field, he has been on a lecture tour Down Under, and is holding a workshop here on his way back home. He has his wife and two tweeny youngsters with him, because if he left them behind they would be wasting time on stuff like bringing in a second income and attending school.
A typical day… We start with the Botanical Gardens (monkeys – can’t go wrong). A swing past the Peak Tram to confirm the Tourism Board’s worst fears about plummeting numbers of Mainland visitors; yes, it is nearly all Westerners lining up. The HK Park aviary is of course brilliant. Lunch at Pacific Place proves impossible, as the sort of kid-friendly food-hall outlets have vanished because the landlord has focused on luxury blah-blah retailers whose Mainland money-laundering clientele has sadly dried up. So off to CanTeen in Queensway. I have eggplant, pork and rice. HK$38. Simple. Yummy. But one of the things I have noticed with family/kids is that ‘simple’ is not good enough if ‘horrendous problem’ is at all possible.
Snag: there’s ‘not much’ on the menu. That’s because my brother’s family voluntarily impose upon themselves a rule that they must not eat meat. Seafood is OK (in reluctant deference to nutritional science), so they go with Portuguese baked fish – the gooey coconut/egg thing. The kids pick at the rice but can’t handle the vivid yellow sauce and accompaniments. (Raised to fear meat, they also seem to distrust vegetables. So far, I have seen them eat only refined starches like breakfast cereals, bread, toast and crackers, with a bit of cheese thrown in.)
The big excitement is to ride on a tram – part of authentic Hong Kong that the bureaucrats and tourism/property sector have not wiped out. But as always, ‘simple’ is not an option. Despite a visit to the facilities at Queensway, a restroom emergency is declared. So we bail out at Victoria Park, where the squat toilets cause some initial amusement. But then things take a sinister and nightmarish turn. The little girl, who has not been herself, has… worms.
I am advised that I am not helping by displaying my extreme horror so visibly. The well-travelled kids have had this before; we just need the right remedy. The first place we find in Tin Hau does not look promising, offering mainly milk powder and shampoo. But behind the counter, they have everything, including expert advice on intestinal parasites. (You can look up ‘pinworm’ if you like. I wouldn’t.) Thank you, Mr Cool Dude-with-beard at the Yan Tak Pharmacy, Electric Road.
We stroll on, enjoying the fruit stalls, the toy shops, the niche pudding outlets and all the other fun stuff Hong Kong has outside its malls. To help get my mind off distasteful childhood ailments, I drag everyone into the wet market to observe eels being chopped up into blood-gushing, still-wriggling segments (alongside the chicken-decapitations, pig innards, and all the rest). The kids put on a brave face, while their mother looks on slightly enviously (she is both a closet-carnivore and mildly sadistic). My brother judges the place ‘a little bit abattoir-ish’, as if it is supposed to be something else.
Eventually, we are back home. As part of his workshop materials, he has painstakingly accumulated a couple of dozen empty drinks cans. In our absence, my dedicated helper has – of course – disposed of them (in fact, passed them on as usual to the neighbourhood elderly indigent recycler). So we have 48 hours to drink many, many beers, again. The kids get their joyless, nutrition-free dinner: frozen pizza with virtually no topping save for cheese, and frozen oven-ready fries. What were the worms living on?
I declare the three-day weekend open, with dread.
*Lest anyone makes a report to the child welfare agency, the kids do deign to consume some fresh fruit, which probably explains their lack of scurvy, etc.