In Hong Kong, I am proud to be a pedestrian. Or, as Cantonese puts it so succinctly and beautifully, a haang yan, a walking person. Hong Kong can be a terrific place to be a walker. The little lanes and alleys of Central and Sheung Wan district, with their sudden twists and drops down stone stairways, are like treasure hunts. You never know what you’ll find–a tiny smoky red temple to the goddess Tin Hau, or a clanky, inky-smelling shop printing business cards that has been in business since before the Japanese invasion. Or a secret shortcut between two main roads that nobody seems to know about except some elderly lady and her seven cats.
The upmarket areas of Hong Kong, as well, have a unique postmodern allure for the walking person. I’ve already written a little love letter to the HK Midlevels Escalator. Also, there’s a great series of books, called HK Lab, by some architects and academics at Hong Kong University, that describe (using a bit too much Foucault and cultural studies lingo for my taste) the singular experience of moving through urban space on electric sidewalks and elevated walkways, through mazes of shopping malls.
In Hong Kong you can get around downtown without touching the ground, something a pedestrian can’t do in most world cities. I remember the first time I successfully made it from the Landmark Building to Pacific Place, using directions not found on any map. The trip requires a familiarity with the glassed-in walkways that connect downtown buildings, and knowing how to snake through the ridiculous fake vest-pocket “park” around the Cheung Kong building. (Where the “boulders” are made from molded, sculpted concrete).
Learning to stride confidently around Hong Kong is as much a part of learning the language of this city as perfecting your tones in Cantonese. And it’s just as difficult for a beginner. Just like Cantonese has very few “maps”–good study materials, a single, standardized pinyin–to guide the neophyte, Hong Kong has no map or guide to its labyrinth of skyways, escalators, and shortcuts through alleys and shopping malls.
To master the art of being a Hong Kong pedestrian, you need a great sense of direction, first. Then you have to find some good friends and samaritan strangers to teach you the secret ways. Hong Kong’s map, you see, is an oral tradition, passed along from person to person like an epic narrative poem.
But wait, you say, aren’t there helpful signs to be found everywhere, posted by the government’s public works department, to guide you on your Odyssey?
Ha! You’ve fallen for the trap. Actually, the signage in Hong Kong is put up to distract and confuse tourists and even locals, to force them to get lost and to travel from point A to B in ridiculously circuitous routes. The cynical among us believe the misinformation is designed to encourage you to pass more shops and spend money, and then get more tired so you must make frequent stops for ngaaih cha, milk tea, in Daai Ga Lohk
The even more cynical (Hi Hemlock!) think that Hong Kong’s signage (and the annoying metal fences put up along streets to “guide” walkers) is a form of haang yan torture designed by our highway-loving, pedestrian-hating Hong Kong city planners.
I’m somewhere in the middle of this debate. I just think the public works officials are mostly clueless. How else to explain the little pointy-arrow signs around Soho that will send you off in two opposite directions to the Man Mo Temple?
Like I said, mouth-to-mouth information is the only way to get the haang of Hong Kong. So, in that spirit, I will share with you my latest discovery, by way of my friend Leslie, who commutes from Tsimshatsui to Shatin every day by means of the Kowloon-Canton Railway.
(Warning to non-Hong Kongers: Very specific and possibly boring local information follows!)
Ever since they built the new East Tsimshatsui connection between the MTR and KCR at TST, I’ve been trying to figure out which is the better, faster interchange transfer to get north to Shatin from Central. Do you take the MTR to Kowloon Tong and change to the KCR there? Or do you get off the MTR at TST and change there?
Until yesterday, I always opted for the Kowloon Tong interchange. Yeah, you have to change train lines once on the MTR, but the walk between the underground and the KCR at Kowloon Tong is very short and convenient. Whereas the slog at East Tsimshatsui between the MTR and KCR stations involves a miles long hike down a seemingly endless corridor, then a slow people mover that only goes in one direction. By the time you’ve made the interchange, you could be halfway to Kowloon Tong on the MTR already.
But the other day, Leslie set me straight. “The TST connection really is faster.”
“You have to NOT follow the signs. If you walk where the signs tell you to, it takes twice as long.”
I tried this out yesterday and she’s right. And, as a responsible Hong Kong pedestrian, I will now pass on the Leslie Method.
When you take the MTR out of Central, get into the last car. Upon alighting in TST, by all means do NOT get out at Exit G, even though Exit G proudly proclaims itself to be the exit of connection to the KCR. Instead, go to the end of the platform and get out at Exit F (which, just to be annoying, also proclaims that it is the “KCR” exit.)
Go left and follow the narrow corridor directly to the KCR station. You’ll know you’re on the right track because there’s no people mover. And fewer people, so you can walk briskly. It’s about four to five minutes faster than the “official” route.
(Okay, you ngoi sehng yan (outside city people) can come back now.)
Walking in Hong Kong is a bit like learning Cantonese. You have to take it yat bouh, yat bouh–one step at a time. But the first time you make it all the way from the Mandarin Oriental to Lan Kwai Fong in a monsoon downpour without having to whip out your umbrella, you will feel the ecstasy. You have arrived. Now, you are really a Hong Kong haang yan.