The Fragrant Metropolis

Think of Hong Kong and what do you see? Crowded streets cut like chasms through forests of Lego-block apartments; avalanches of neon along Nathan Road; ancient Chinese traditions shoulder to shoulder with the highest of the high-tech; and perfect blue buildings beside the milky, jade-coloured waters of Victoria Harbour.

These, and a million other images form the usual perception of Hong Kong. But the city also has gentler, greener side. It is a secret alter ego of lush bamboo forests, secret gardens, tiny verdant parks and sudden bursts of foliage concealed amid the frenetic urban crush.

To the city’s six million residents, crowded into tiny apartments stacked into the sky, parks are places of refuge: communal back yards where they can relax, breath and commune with the natural world. It’s just that lack of space means their gardens have to exist in a smaller, more perpendicular context. Hong Kong’s gardens and green spaces form horizontal oases within the vertical wilderness of glass and steel.

Hong Kong takes its name from a Cantonese phrase meaning “Fragrant Harbour.” For centuries before the arrival of Europeans, the shores of the harbour were covered by vast forests of sandalwood, whose perfumed wood was used in the manufacture of incense.

The forests are long gone, replaced by sprawling ghettos of apartment blocks, offices, snaking roads and traceries of pylons. These days the fragrance of Hong Kong is that of industry, smog, the whiff of money, the smell of success. Yet you still can still catch the scent of old Hong Kong. It’s in the bouquet of ginseng and cloves along Bonham Strand where the old herbalists shops still stand; it’s in the fragrance of magnolia from tiny garden hemmed by skyscrapers; and it’s in the sweet aroma of joss-sticks wafting from the doors of tiny, scarlet temples whose interiors glow with the sheen of oil and gold.

There’s something ineffably exotic about touching down in Asia, with its velvety night air, smoky haze and light everywhere. As my Cathay Pacific flight executes a slow adagio turn in the night sky, Hong Kong glows beneath the wing like hot embers in the darkness. I had set out that morning from small-town New Zealand. Now, here I was touching down on the outer edge of China.

Next morning I ride the spotless Mass Transit Railway to Admiralty Station. Stepping from the underground station I follow gleaming marble steps and aerial walkways to the Botanic Gardens and step inside while the rest of the city goes to work. The gardens occupy an area of 5.4 hectares, surrounded on three sides by skyscrapers. A forest-clad hillside rises vertiginously behind. Stands of bamboo, fragrant climbers, native Chinese trees and walls of orchids frame views of the surrounding city and smother the noise of traffic into a barely audible murmur.

The massive glass walls of the buildings reflect the morning sunlight down into the park’s shady recesses. Water tinkles from fountains and carp float dreamily in lily-covered ponds. People practice tai chi in a paved amphitheatre. Three burly men move in perfect unison through a set of kung fu movements.

Later, deep in the bedlam of Wing Lok Street, where shops sell song-birds in exquisite cages of polished bamboo, I meet Peter Lim, out for a stroll with his two caged birds. One, an Indian Myna, is worth twelve thousand Hong Kong Dollars (roughly NZ$2500).

“A champion singing bird,” he tells me with pride as he poses for a photo. The other bird is a silvereye, just like the New Zealand waxeye. The advent of the SARS virus has meant that caged birds, assumed to be carriers of the disease, are now less popular in Hong Kong. But still, wherever I go in the city, I see caged song-birds in windows and doorways, and sidewalk stalls selling crickets with which to feed them.

One hot afternoon I take the Kowloon-Canton Railway out to the New Territories town of Sha Tin to visit the Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas. Once a sleepy fishing village, Sha Tin has been submerged by apartment blocks and shopping centres. But the temple, located on a forest-clad hillside overlooking the town, is an sanctuary of quietude and contemplation. There are actually 12,800 Buddhas there, varying in size from tiny brass effigies to giant statues. Each statue represents a bodhi, or follower of Buddha, who has achieved enlightenment.

No two of the statues are alike and I spend several pleasant hours walking the temple’s shady pathways looking for familiar faces – I spot Willie Nelson, Ben Harper and Elvis – amid the thousands of golden phizogs. In the main courtyard I sit on a wooden bench sipping green tea while clouds of scented incense smoke swirl around the terracotta rooftops and bonsai trees. Nearby, a pagoda houses the body of Yuet Kai, the monk who founded the monastery in the 1950s. After he died in 1965 his body was encased in gold leaf and it now sits in the lotus position inside a glass case, staring eternally out across the Sha Tin Valley.

Returning to the city at dusk I take a detour to the Kowloon Walled City Park. This peaceful park full of old trees, ramshackle walls and formal Chinese gardens was once a notoriously dangerous part of Hong Kong. It’s labyrinthine streets and passages were the haunts of smugglers, Triad gangs, prostitutes, racketeers, opium smokers and assorted thugs who would do anything to anyone for money.

The Walled City was demolished in 1984 and the land re-modelled in the Jiangnan garden style of the early Qing Dynasty. Strolling around the darkening park, where the riff-raff of Kowloon once prowled, I pass a song-writer composing beside a stream, couples canoodling in leafy glades and old men playing that most opaque of Chinese games: mah-jongg

On my last morning in Hong Kong I walk down to the waterfront where a collection of junks (flat-bottomed Chinese fishing boats) are moored amid the sleek yachts and motor-boats if the city’s elite. From the stern of each junk sprouts a tiny garden of ferns, flowering creepers and potted shrubs. It reminds me just how important gardens are to the residents of Hong Kong, whether they live in a penthouse apartment or a humble junk afloat on the oily waters of Causeway Bay.

That afternoon, as a sleek train glides me silently towards the airport and my flight home, I catch glimpses of tiny window box gardens amid draperies of laundry drying in the dirty air. Clumps of shrubbery cling precariously to the grubby walls of tenements beneath tree-branch TV aerials and tangled vines of electric wires. In this larger than life, concrete and asphalt environment it is the minuscule green pockets which seem to give the city it’s real energy. And it is in the natural world that you find the heart, lungs and soul of this fragrant metropolis.

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