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Defending the harbor

Started: 2013-01-04 01:43:14

Submitted: 2013-01-04 11:25:26

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator beats jet-lag and worries about the appropriate level of history to discuss with a preschooler

My second night in Hong Kong was much better than my first. I slept for eleven hours, and felt almost human when I awoke. I headed down to the Starbucks and Marketplace grocery store, right next to each other across the street from our hotel, and saw that both stores were closed. I remembered it was Sunday, and I hadn't double-checked they were open at all on Sunday morning (it was, after all, my first Sunday in the city). I called Kiesa from my mobile phone, and walked around the block to see if there was anything else obvious nearby (there wasn't), and by the time I made my way around the block Starbucks had opened -- they didn't open until 08:00 on Sundays and public holidays. (The "public holidays" thing proved to be important, since Christmas Day and Boxing Day were both public holidays. Offices were closed but shops and museums were generally open late, and there were large but generally-manageable crowds of people about, giving the city a festive atmosphere.) I went to Starbucks and got coffee for me, hot chocolate for Kiesa, and baked goods to go around, and then came back to the grocery store for orange juice and plasticware for breakfast in our room.

Barge dredging the harbor from our hotel window
Barge dredging the harbor from our hotel window

After breakfast, we headed out toward the Fireboat Sir Alexander Grantham, perched next to the water in a park in Quarry Bay. The boat served as the main fire-fighting boat in Victoria Harbour for half a century until it was retired about a decade ago, cleaned up and put on display. Calvin was fascinated by the idea of the fire boat (after all, it's a boat that fights fires) but wasn't quite sure what to make of the actual boat; he seemed worried about the edge of decks (even though they were well-protected against any possibility of falling), and he was resistant to my attempts to take pictures of him on the boat, especially in the position of manning the water cannons. Under the boat was an exhibition gallery in which we could see artifacts from the boat's history, including short videos available in two languages using Chinese characters (which I took to be Mandarin and Cantonese).

Jaeger and Calvin on the deck of the fireboat Sir Alexander Grantham
Jaeger and Calvin on the deck of the fireboat Sir Alexander Grantham
Kiesa and Calvin study the water cannons on the deck of the fireboat Sir Alexander Grantham
Kiesa and Calvin study the water cannons on the deck of the fireboat Sir Alexander Grantham

We left the fireboat and found a gigantic playground in the shadow of dozens of twenty-story apartment buildings. The park was packed with mostly Chinese children (though I think I spotted an Indian-looking family or two), presumably enjoying their Sunday morning in their neighborhood park. We let Calvin play while I tried to locate a suitable lunch. Google Maps found a vegetarian restaurant in the vicinity, and I managed to find the place, but the GPS registration (or the map itself) was not quite as accurate as I'd like; it indicated I'd passed the restaurant before I actually reached it. At least the address was given in English; all of the streets in Hong Kong had English names but Google Maps didn't always have English versions of the address. The street numbers were almost always given in Arabic numerals but I had some trouble picking out the rest of the address (with the exception of the district Central, which seemed to use 中, the Chinese character for "middle" or "center", (in Mandarin, zhōng), which happened to be one of the handful of characters I could recognize). (I wasn't always thrilled by the detail given to the skywalks and sidewalks, and don't get me started on the failure of the Google Maps app for Android to behave in any sort of reasonable manner when it doesn't have a bulletproof Internet connection -- especially when I was trying to overlay one of "My Maps" on the map.)

Kiesa and Calvin look out over Victoria Harbour from Quarry Bay
Kiesa and Calvin look out over Victoria Harbour from Quarry Bay
Calvin plays in the shadow of a residential tower in Quarry Bay
Calvin plays in the shadow of a residential tower in Quarry Bay

The small Chinese vegetarian restaurant had enough of an English menu that I could order some noodle and some fried tofu. The wait staff (all middle-aged Chinese women) fawned over Calvin, but he was a little uncomfortable with the attention. (I fear he may develop a complex with Asian women after all the extra attention he's getting as a little white boy in a foreign country.)

After lunch, we continued walking east to the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defense. After buying our tickets, we took an elevator up a massive modern tower that took us from street level up to the level of the historic fort, built by the British at the end of the 19th century to protect the eastern access to Victoria Harbour. Calvin asked what exactly it was all about, and we told him it was where soldiers protected the harbor against bad people (not wanting to get into the nuances of the British imposing their own imperial order on this corner of China in the 19th century, and glossing over the distinctions about who exactly the "bad people" might be). Calvin thought this was fascinating and latched on the idea that he wanted to be a soldier so he, too, could protect the harbor against bad people, leaving Kiesa and I to wonder whether we'd whitewashed the historic site a bit too much. There were various historic pieces of artillery on display, and as I looked around Calvin was worried that they weren't safe, as I tried to assure him that they were.

Kiesa, Calvin, and Jaeger with Victoria Harbour
Kiesa, Calvin, and Jaeger with Victoria Harbour

Calvin got bored quickly in the main body of the museum, built into the fortifications themselves, but with a modern tent-like roof strung over top to protect against the weather. (It was a bright sunny day, and looking at the forecast back home I was glad we'd come to Hong Kong, rather than suffer through six inches of snow with zero-degree-Fahrenheit temperatures.) The museum traced the history of harbor defenses in Hong Kong, starting with the late imperial period but focusing on the British history, since they actually built the fort. The last gallery focused on the Hong Kong garrison of the PLA, and I felt a brief moment of cognitive sheer as I remembered that Hong Kong really was under the sovereignty of the People's Republic of China, and that the People's Liberation Army was ultimately responsible for protecting Hong Kong against external threats.

Disappearing gun at the Hong Kong Coastal Defense Museum
Disappearing gun at the Hong Kong Coastal Defense Museum

I walked around the fortifications and tried to visualize the fort as an active military installation, not somewhat overgrown as a museum. The fort was invaded when the Japanese invaded during WWII, and some of the buildings on the way down had been left as ruins from the fighting.

Tree growing out of WWII ruins
Tree growing out of WWII ruins

We left the museum in the middle of the afternoon and contemplated what to do next. I was interested in seeing some sort of Christian religious service in St. John's Cathedral, a historic Anglican cathedral built in the 19th century. (Christianity was an important part of the British life in the colony, and I like to claim that I'm interested in all local religious traditions, not just eastern ones.) There were services throughout the week, especially on Sunday and for Christmas, and the best one looked like the "Festival of Lessons and Carols" on Sunday evening. We dropped by the hotel to change into nicer clothing and headed back to take MTR to Central. We stopped by a Pacific Coffee Company outlet in Central for a late-afternoon snack of hot drinks and baked goods before heading to the church.

We arrived a little late for a good seat but found two adjacent seats on the left side of the church, with a large pillar blocking our view of the front. (We were tempted by the presence of video monitors hanging from the pillars, but they did not turn on to give us a view of the front.) The service was interesting, with a mixture of English, Mandarin, Cantonese, and one or more languages from the Philippines, giving a sample of the languages spoken by the people in the church (and the various languages services are offered in). Calvin sat on our laps for the program and eventually laid down across our laps; after writhing uncomfortably for a few minutes he fell asleep, and stayed asleep as we took him home.

I was far more awake in the evening than the previous day, but I still turned in for an early night after taking some notes on what to do the following day.

For a parallel account of our second day in Hong Kong, see The Second Day. For more photos from Sunday see Photos on 2012-12-23.
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