Dispatch, Azamara Quest: Hong Kong

Arnie Weissmann and the Azamara QuestTravel Weekly’s editor in chief, Arnie Weissmann, is sailing on the Azamara Quest from Hong Kong to Osaka, Japan, this week, and reporting back on the experience, with a focus on the Quest’s ports of call. His first dispatch follows: 

I’m aboard the Azamara Quest this week. I’m interested in sampling their destination-focused cruises, and I was attracted to this particular itinerary in East Asia because I’ve only previously been to one of the ports of call: Its embarkation point, Hong Kong.

The service aboard the Quest is, as one would expect, very good, but what I particularly like is that the staff manages to blend high standards with a bit of irreverence, which is difficult to pull off.

Waving from the Azamara QuestEveryone from the captain on down has refused to shake my hand. They have instead adopted the fist bump as the official greeting. I have no doubt this is their first line of defense against norovirus, but I like the spirit in which it is done.

(I saw only one exception to this rule. I was on the bridge to watch the departure through Hong Kong Harbor, and as the local pilot left the bridge, the captain, Carl Smith, shook his proffered hand. As soon as the pilot was out of sight, the captain reached for Purell.)

Hands were also involved in another example of the captain’s sense of humor. Smith somehow acquired a giant wooden cut-out hand affixed to the end of a metal pole. He stands on the wings off the bridge and has another member of the crew wave it to locals who have gathered to watch the ship depart. I’m told that if the port experience was particularly bad, he’s been known use towels to mask some of the fingers.

I’ve been to Hong Kong many times before, and have seen most of its tourist attractions. But there are certain places I enjoy revisiting. The city does not stand still, and going over what one believes is familiar ground provides a good gauge for how much things have actually changed.

Chungking MansionsDuring my first visit to Hong Kong, in 1984, I had intended to visit the colony (it was still ruled by Great Britain) for only a few days before spending a few months traveling through China. But my timing was bad. It turned out that I had arrived just prior to the 35th anniversary of communist rule on the mainland, and they didn’t particularly want foreign guests joining the celebration. The China Travel Service had temporarily stopped issuing visas, so I found myself with three weeks to explore Hong Kong before I crossed the frontier into China.

I was at the tail end of an 18-month backpacking trip around the world. All along Asia’s hippie trail, I had heard stories about Chungking Mansions on Kowloon’s Nathan Road in Hong Kong. It housed scores of cheap hostels, I was told.

The ironically named Mansions are just around the corner from the storied flagship Peninsula Hotel. I couldn’t complain about the neighborhood, but Chungking Mansions was a classic firetrap, a 15-story warren of hundreds of commercial suites, many of which had been converted to guesthouses or small Indian restaurants. The former adopted names to inspire warm memories in travelers (for Germans, there was the “Alpenblick,” or “Alps view”); the restaurants’ names would invariably begin with the name of a city in India or Pakistan followed by the words “Club and Mess.”

Tai Chi in Kowloon Park, Hong KongThe guesthouse I checked into at the time was a large rectangular room subdivided by panels of drywall that didn’t quite reach the ceiling. My compartment held a twin bed with four inches of space on either side. It wasn’t the Peninsula, but I wasn’t planning on staying in the room very much. And the price -- $15 a night – along with the location, couldn’t be beat.

On my current visit to Hong Kong, I started out early and wandered through Kowloon Park and watched people practicing tai chi. I went into an herbal medicine shop and bought a large diagram of an ear that had various body parts and organs superimposed on the image (it was a guide for acupuncturists). I picked up a Chairman Mao bobble-head in a department store, and munched on haw flakes.
But I was really just killing time until the club and messes at Chungking Mansions opened for lunch.

It has been interesting to watch the evolution of the Chungking Mansions Club and Mess. When I first ate at one, it was the restaurant equivalent of my room: A single folding table and cheap plastic chairs filled the space. A small portable television sat on the cashier’s counter, playing a black-and-white Bollywood movie. But the food was surprisingly good.

Through the years, the Chungking Mansions Club and Mess culture has moved upscale, relatively speaking. There are fewer of them, and the survivors have gotten larger. A few have retained the word “Club,” but this is the first year I saw that none still claimed to be a “Mess.”

And I discovered that Chungking Mansions itself had undergone reforms as well, most of them security-related. The trinket vendors whose displays spilled well into the corridors are gone.

Video monitors proclaim that the sprinkler systems are tested regularly. The tiny elevators still have long lines of people waiting to get in, but have weight sensors and won’t move if they’re overcapacity.

Chungking Mansions signChungking Mansions comprises several adjoining towers, each served by its own pair of lifts. Ones on the left stop only at even number floors, ones on the right at odd.

Signs in Chinese and English are mounted on nearby walls, promoting the names of guesthouses and restaurants. (Disney Parks and Resorts may be surprised to learn that there’s a “Disney Deluxe Guesthouse” on the 13th floor of elevator shaft F.)

My first choice – a club that said it specialized in “pure” food for Jainists – was closed.

So I went down a few floors to the Bombay Club. A 3-foot statue of the turbaned and bowing Air India mascot greeted me at the door.

I walked by a narrow kitchen and into, well, a real restaurant, with a wood-paneled, fully-stocked bar; cloth chair covers with bows on the back; a large, mounted flat-screen TV that streamed a medley of Bollywood videos; a thick menu; a manager who stood around looking self-important; and a waiter in a pressed, button-down shirt who would eventually, as he handed me the bill, make clear that the gratuity was not included.

The Bombay ClubI noticed the cover of the menu had substituted “restaurant” for “club.”

It was on the early side of the lunch hour, and only a Chinese family was seated when I entered. I was hungry, and the extensive menu lured me into over-ordering; it tasted good enough that I overate.

The waiter, seeing the portfolio that held my acupuncture ear chart, asked if I were a doctor. He then made a series of other guesses which included a ship’s captain and banker. He seemed profoundly disappointed to learn I was a journalist. (He must have been thinking about the not-included gratuity.)

Chungking Mansions F TowerAfter I had finished and left the restaurant, the elevator back down to the ground floor wouldn’t stop – it was always at capacity by the time it reached my floor, and passed me by. So I found the stairwell, and also found that the Chungking Mansions of my memory is still very much alive. Broken windows, frightening bundles of electric wiring in open vents and filthy exposed pipes provided the scenery as I descended.

Given the waiter’s assumptions about my employment, I guess we’re all capable of cleaning up, on the exterior at least, as time goes by. No one would have mistaken me for a ship’s captain on my first visit to Chungking Mansions. Not even one who gives fist bumps.

But my desire to return to it decade after decade suggests that, below the surface, there’s something inside me that may not have changed very much since the first time I walked into Chungking Mansions.

Or, perhaps, wishes it hadn’t.

Photos by Arnie Weissmann 

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