The beach at Pui O

Although Hong Kong has quite a lot of beaches, I think it’s fair to say they usually don’t feature on the majority of visitors’ itineraries. A visit to The Peak? Yes! Shopping in Tsim Sha Tsui? Yes! A day at the beach? No!

However, when the temperature reaches thirty and above (as it did this week-end), where best to cool off but at one of Hong Kong’s beaches?

Digging for clams - Pui O Beach

Digging for clams - Pui O Beach

The busiest bathing beaches are on Hong Kong island: Shek O, Repulse Bay, and Deepwater Bay. But more than a million people live on that island – producing a lot of waste – and I refuse to swim at any of those beaches.

In my view, the best beaches are those furthest away from the conurbations, such as those at Sai Kung, on Lantau, and on the other outlying islands. Getting to them is more difficult, but it’s worth the effort: they are less crowded – and if you or your child accidentally swallows some seawater, you don’t need to worry.

One of my favourites is the beach at Pui O, on Lantau. It’s long and, unusually, made up of different-coloured sands, from white to dark grey, giving it a ‘marble cake’ appearance in places. But don’t let this put you off – it’s completely natural.

It’s also well equipped with lifeguards and shark nets, and it’s busy (not crowded) at weekends with bathers screaming playfully in the surf, groups of young children digging for clams, and teams of older youths playing football on pitches scratched out in the sand; this is a family-friendly beach.

Ooh La La - Pui O Beach

Ooh La La - Pui O Beach

When the heat becomes too much, take a respite in Ooh La La, a popular bar-cum-restaurant overlooking the beach, where you can recover with a good Mediterranean-style lunch and a couple of cold beers.

But if you’re not that hungry, further along the beach you’ll find a fast food kiosk. You’ll also find public facilities including showers, changing rooms and toilets.

HOW TO GET THERE:

  • Take the MTR to Tung Chung.
  • From the Tung Chung bus station, take the 3M or A35 bus. Get off at Pui O Village.
  • Cross the road. Walk down Chi Ma Wan Road. Take a right turn at the small shops.
  • Follow the concrete path across the fields all the way to the beach.

The searching spotlight of public scrutiny

I have an embarrassing confession to make: many years ago, I worked as a local government officer in the UK.

Terrible, I know. My only defence is that I was young and inexperienced – I didn’t know what I was doing. But when I realised how it was destroying my creativity, humanity and reputation, I immediately gave notice and left. Ever since, m’lud, I’ve tried to be an honest and useful member of the community.

However, during that shameful period, I gained some profound insights into how the civil service works – or rather, how it doesn’t work. And at that time, I believed the tendency for pompous, arrogant, indecisive, lazy and self-serving individuals to rise to the top of the service was a uniquely British phenomenom.

So, it wasn’t with just a little schadenfreude that I followed the public furore over our beloved Chief Executive’s recent political appointments: a debacle resulting in his rather humiliating climbdown from his paternalistic and patron-ising position at the top of his ivory tower.

I’m also enjoying how the public’s attention has since been turned – courtesy of the South China Morning Post – onto the refusal by most (not all) NGOs to make public the salaries of their CEOs and other senior managers. I remember well how much senior managers hated the searching spotlight of public scrutiny, and I remember watching them squirm while they tried to defend the indefens-ible. The same is happening today, in Hong Kong. Delicious. 

For what its worth, here’s my view:

Government money is public money, and before any company or organisation receives government funding, it should agree to make public the salaries and other benefits given to its senior managers – this includes CEOs and directors.

If any company or organisation refused to accept this condition, it should not receive government funding.

After all, the public has the right to know how its money is being spent. If it’s being used to benefit society in general, that’s good; but the government must ensure public money is not wasted, or used to create a privileged tier of overpaid fat cats. Our beloved Chief Executive (if his business friends and supporters allow it) should promote and encourage transparency and accountability.

What do you think?

Medical check-ups don’t have to be stressful

Being on the wrong side of fifty, I decided a few months ago that a full-body medical check-up was not only sensible, but also long overdue.

After researching the Hong Kong market, it seemed the cost of the compre-hensive check-up I wanted would be somewhere in the region of HK$9,000 – a bit expensive, I thought, but you can’t put a price on peace of mind, can you? So, last week, I went ahead and spent the money … in Thailand.

You see, I also found out the Phuket International Hospital offers an ‘executive body check’ for about a quarter of the Hong Kong price, with (I was told) a service and value for money that was unbeatable. I just had to check it out.

I sorted out a five-day, low-season, Wednesday-to-Sunday package near Bangtao Beach (well, it would have been silly to spend just one day there, wouldn’t it?) with my check-up on the Friday.

Bangtao Beach rush hour

Bangtao Beach rush hour

Now, I’m sure some of you think five days is indul-gent, but I assure you the two days either side of my body check were not all fun – sometimes it was sheer bloody hell: Should I spend the morning by the pool or on the beach? Which restaurant should I go to for lunch? And which one for dinner? I hope you believe me when I say I was under stress. And I’m certain it affected my blood pressure.  😉

In contrast, the body check was heaven: the doctors and nurses were friendly, polite and professional; the hospital itself was modern, airy and clean; and the tests and examinations were carried out efficiently using state-of-the-art machines and equipment. At the end of the three-hour check-up, the doctor went through all the results with me, clearly explaining everything in words of less than three syllables so I could understand. Completely satisfied, I left not only with a record booklet of my results, but also with a broad smile and the peace of mind I had been searching for.

And the all-in cost of my five-day mini-break? Less than HK$9,000.

Can you guess where I’m going to have my follow-up next year?

Save the RAF hangar!

The sun’s shining and I’m in the middle of a peaceful, green haven in Diamond Hill; a secluded island encircled by Lung Cheung Road and Choi Hung Road. I can hear the birds singing, yet, to my surprise, I cannot hear the traffic.

Towering above me is the former RAF hangar that’s been standing here for more than sixty years. But, Mother Nature is beginning to reclaim the ground on which it stands, and the structure is looking a little worse for wear: it has no roof and the steelwork is rusty.

Its present state doesn’t surprise me: the Antiquities and Monuments Office value this survivor from World War II as a ‘Grade III’ building – its lowest grading – so it’s received little attention. And the building has stood in all weathers, without its roof, and without maintenance, for many years.

This green island, once the site of Tai Hom Village (an illegal squatters’ camp), is controlled by the Lands Department. After clearing and demolishing the village, they fenced the area off and excluded the public. Slowly, it reverted to natural grassy parkland with a varied mix of old trees.

All day, every day, thousands of commuters walk past the old hangar, but the fence ensures they can’t go near it. If they look, they will see it – but they don’t look. They just walk by. This old building, which played its part in Hong Kong’s wartime history, used both by the Japanese and the RAF, has been left to decay; ignored and forgotten. And it may not be long before it disappears for ever.

According to reports, this secluded parkland is to become a depot for the new MTR Shatin-Central rail link … and the former RAF hangar must go.

The government could save it. They could dismantle and relocate it. They could give it a new use, a new lease of life … but they probably won’t. They’ll probably send in the bulldozers without warning, and without fanfare.

Why won’t they save it?

Because it’s not pretty and, although it’s deemed to have some merit, it appar-ently doesn’t have special merit – who decided that? – and because very few will protest, and very few will care.

However, there is a small band of enthusiasts trying to save this historical building. If you’re interested in helping them, send your name and email address to – rafhangar@gmail.com

But don’t delay – there’s not much time left!

Hong Kong ranks fifth worst in the world

Call me a cynic, I don’t care, but as soon as I hear anyone claim that market forces, when left alone, will alleviate poverty and oppression, I begin to suspect their motives.

I become suspicious because ‘the market’ is an abstract entity with no feelings or conscience. The market doesn’t care if the workforce is old, young, sick or healthy; it doesn’t worry about low wages; it doesn’t even care if wages are paid or not; and, it certainly doesn’t care about working conditions.

It’s all about productivity and profit: keep costs low, and output and profit high.

But, there’s a difference between ‘laissez-faire’ and ‘do-not-care’. The market’s lack of humanity is recognised the world over, and in all civilised countries, to varying degrees, markets are regulated in an attempt to prevent abuse, corruption and inhumanity; if you like, it’s the ‘humanisation’ of the abstract concept. And humanising laws and regulations are introduced by enlightened and caring governments – not by ‘the market’.

So, it was sad to read in today’s newspaper that Hong Kong, as regards weekly working hours, ranks as the fifth worst in the world, just above Peru, South Korea, Thailand and Pakistan. According to the article, 40.9% of workers in Hong Kong work more than 48 hours per week.

I’m also disappointed the government still seems to be influenced by the 2006 Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce view that introducing a minimum wage and regulating working hours would affect Hong Kong’s position as “the most international business and financial centre in the Asian half of the world”.

However, I can see the beginnings of a movement for change: this week, I also read the employer members of the Labour Advisory Board – following a trip to Britain last month – are now “more ready to accept a universal minimum wage law”. Provided it’s not set too high, I presume.

Better late than never!  🙂

Taking the tram

(or, Riding the ‘ding-ding’)

Question: What’s old, cheap, and gives you an experience you’ll never forget?

Of course, the correct answer is – a ride on one of Hong Kong’s double-decker trams!

While I accept that Hong Kong’s MTR is probably the best people-moving system in the world, when I go ‘Hong-Kong-side’ the tram is my favourite mode of transport.

Nothing’s perfect, though, and the trams do have some small faults: they’re old (many were built in the 1980s); they’re slower than the buses and the MTR; they have no air conditioning; and they’re so small that some – how can I put this?  – larger people have problems boarding and alighting.

But, despite these slight imperfections, I love riding the tram. It forces me to slow down and relax, and lets me savour the sights, sounds and smells of real, unvarnished life in Hong Kong – something a cocooned ride on the MTR cannot do.

Sitting on the upper deck, I become a voyeur (not that kind!) to the everyday routines, problems and lives of the shoppers, tradesmen and pedestrians at ground level, taking my mind off my own mundane thoughts and worries.

And I particularly enjoy the unique tram sounds: the distinctive whine from the motor as the tram accelerates; the dat dat … dat dat of the wheels on the rails; and, best of all, the familiar ‘ding-ding’ from the bell as it approaches a crowded area. The locals actually refer to the tram as ‘the ding-ding’.

Yes, they may be old and slow, but they are an irreplaceable part of the city’s heritage, and a visit to Hong Kong would not be complete without a ride on one of these trams.

In fact, I think it should be mandatory!  😉

If you want to learn more, go to Hongkong Tramways

The most peaceful place in Hong Kong?

Hong Kong is a city that never sleeps. It’s hectic, congested and noisy.

Yet, within it, exist many calm and quiet places; and today I want to tell you about one of them, a chapel – but don’t worry, I’m not a religious man, and I’m not pushing religion here.

Sacred Heart Chapel

Sacred Heart Chapel

If you have a spare morning or afternoon, go to Central and head for the area called Central Mid-Levels. You can walk, but it’s all uphill; using the Central Mid-Levels escalators is much easier. The junction of Caine Road and Elgin Street is your goal.

Across the road (Caine Road) from that junction is a nondescript building and a pair of glass doors. The sign outside reads: Sacred Heart Canossian College of Commerce. The chapel – the Sacred Heart Chapel – is through those doors.

Inside is a reception area. Here, I would ask permission to look around the chapel; it’s open to the public, so there shouldn’t be a problem.

Hidden (unintentionally, I presume) inside a square created by other buildings, the chapel cannot be seen from the streets outside; you wouldn’t know it was there.

The chapel, a white stone building with columns and balustrades, has been beautifully maintained; an immaculate architectural gem. Inside, however, is where you will experience the peace and quiet so rarely found in Hong Kong.

Inside the chapel

Inside the chapel

When I stumbled across this magical place (I was updating my photo collection of churches), I couldn’t resist sitting down. For fifteen minutes, I did nothing but soak up the silence, the tranquillity, the stillness. Finally, I took some photos and left. I didn’t experience a religious or spiritual epiphany – or anything resembling one – but my internal batteries had definitely been recharged.

Can anyone tell me – is there a more peaceful place in Hong Kong?

I doubt it.