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More to Hong Kong Than Eating and Shopping

May 20, 1990|KENNETH TURAN | Turan , a Los Angeles free-lancer , writes frequently about film and is on the board of directors of the National Yiddish Book Center. and

HONG KONG — Be prepared.

As soon as you announce a trip to Hong Kong to friends who've already been, you will find the city airily dismissed as rather a bore.

"There's nothing to do there," you'll be authoritatively told, "except eat and shop." It's as if a biblical curse had been put on the place, dooming it to be forever barren in every other area because it was so fertile in those two.

Eating and shopping are fine in their places, and while Hong Kong's fame as an epicenter of those activities is nothing if not deserved, most people would be hard-pressed to fill up 24 hours doing nothing but one or the other.

So I'm delighted to be able to report that Hong Kong has all kinds of unexpected pleasures and sites.

Not only that but the city has a model subway system, dirt-cheap, clean and neat, scandalously efficient and splendidly air-conditioned, even on the steamiest of days. Use it to investigate any or all of the following activities:

Hong Kong's biggest secret is that it is a breathtakingly beautiful city, ravishing in a way that puts San Francisco to shame.

Built straight out of rock and landfill on the thin edge of both Hong Kong island and Kowloon across the water, this is a city of astonishing vertical density, a forest of cutting-edge architecture by the likes of I. M. Pei and Norman Foster.

That alternates with concrete toothpick residential towers that are so narrow that a journalist wrote that the city's developers "could probably build 50-story dwellings on a sixpence if there was enough of the crinkly green stuff in it for them."

There are any number of ways to view all this, the most traditional being the less than 15-cent ferry ride, which will not seriously dent anyone's budget, and a tram to Victoria Peak, the city's highest point.

That ride has been a top tourist attraction for more than 100 years, but don't let that stop you. As my mother used to say, "If so many people go, there must be a reason."

The most stunning way to see the city, however, is to return on a boat from nearby Macao.

After passing open water and deserted islands for close to an hour I got my first glimpse of Hong Kong (an island that by rights should have been as empty as all the others) and its massed buildings, towering citadels glistening in the sun like Oz's Emerald City. It seemed so astonishing that I understood for the first time what it must be like to experience the most beautiful of mirages.

Because it is scheduled to revert to China in 1997, the June 4 uprising in Beijing hit Hong Kong extremely hard, and visiting the city now has the extra drawing impetus of being able to witness history being made.

Every day seems to provide a new chapter in this continuing drama. When I was there, the extensive pro-democracy demonstrations that had just ended were on everybody's lips and were almost immediately followed by a near-riot outside the Singapore Commission when that country relaxed its emigration criteria.

The Hong Kong English language paper, the wonderfully named South China Morning Post, provided excellent blow-by-blow coverage of those events, and its letters page, in which the city daily pours out its rage and uncertainty, was the first thing I turned to in the morning.

Tiger Balm Gardens: The entrepreneur behind the Chinese version of Ben-Gay spent $16 million Hong Kong dollars in 1939 on this boggling collection of garishly colored, larger-than-life statues that curve around steep, narrow paths and fill artificial caves and grottoes in Aw Boon Park.

Come face-to-face with the Dragon King, the Wedding of the Pig and the Rabbit, the Laughing Buddha and Master Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch, who was said to have survived without food or water for 24 years--and looks it.

In case all this sounds impossibly frivolous, it should be noted that each and every grouping is intended to teach a moral lesson. One astonished guidebook calls it "three hectares of grotesque statuary and appalling bad taste," but hey, what are vacations for?

Supreme Court: Sit in on any one of several trials in progress, everything from murders to stock manipulation, in a courtroom so completely British, from bewigged barristers to frowning judges, that you'll feel you've walked into an Oriental version of "Rumpole of the Bailey."

Look on in awe as the minions of the law say things such as, "There seems to be an element of arbitrariness and capriciousness which is totally unexplained." Don't worry about choosing which courtroom to go to because the guard at the building's entrance will be more than happy to steer you to what's hot and what's not.

Bird Street: The Chinese people love birds with a marked intensity, even taking care to spray them carefully from tiny atomizers on particularly steamy days.

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