Category Archives: New Territories

June 4

June 4, as you might know, is the commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, during which the Chinese government killed at least hundreds, and likely thousands, of its own citizens who had been peacefully calling for a variety of reforms. (The number remains unknown, and estimates range from the low hundreds up to the several thousands.)

The “June 4 incident” is a big deal in Hong Kong, the only city in China in which one can actually talk about it. If you search “Tiananmen Square” with Baidu, China’s most popular search engine, you will get no results that mention the massacre, nor any image results that show Tank Man. The government censors it diligently. Cross into Hong Kong, though, and will turn up everything. Continue reading



Filed under Hong Kong Island, New Territories, photos

MTR, part 4 (and final)

Okay, I’m done. A final few observations on the MTR that escaped mention in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.


“Please mind the gap”? I think some Brits have been here.

The MTR is a good deal, especially for short trips (less so for longer ones). Like many other systems, the cost is based on distance. Since you have to use your Octopus card at entry and exit, the fare for your trip is deducted upon exit. This differs from a flat-fare system like Chicago’s, where you pay your fare upon entry and can then get out wherever you want without paying again. In that case, short trips subsidize the cost of longer ones. Let’s compare.

The 8-mile trip on the Chicago L from Uptown to the South Loop costs US$2.25. A comparable 8-mile trip on the MTR (from, say, Central to Kowloon Bay), costs HK$12.50, which is US$1.60. Nice.

When the distance gets longer, though, the flat-fare system is much better (obviously). You can take the CTA from O’Hare to downtown (about 15 miles) for only US$2.25. Heck, you can take the CTA from O’Hare to 95th street for the same fare, and that must be 30 miles. In Hong Kong, by contrast, the Airport Express from HKD to Central (about 21 miles) is HK$100. That’s US$12.90 (almost six times more expensive).

But the MTR is great for doing errands or sight-seeing, because it costs only a buck or two for short jaunts. Plus, the frequency of the trains means that you’re never wasting much time waiting on the platform.

Then there are the signs you just never expect to see.


Brought to you by Deputy Downer. Seriously, how’s a guy supposed to move some kumquats and a roast suckling pig across town? Walk?

Now if you’d like to watch a mildly hilarious but fascinating documentary on the MTR, you’ve come to the right place. In 1986, the MTR released this half-hour film, Iron Underground, about the history of the MTR, culminating in the opening of the Island Line. There’s lots of great historical footage of Hong Kong in here. Inexplicably, the soundtrack of the first part is Beethoven’s Egmont Overture; of the second part, the German electronic music group Tangerine Dream.

So give it a look. You won’t be able to stop.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

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The MTR, Part 3

We are nearing the end of the line on my MTR ramblings. (Perhaps you missed Part 1 or Part 2?)

Hong Kong, like much of Asia, is very much into cutesy-pie cartoonish images (Hello Kitty, e.g.), so it's quite surprising that the Octopus card has, instead of a big-eyed cartoon octopus, a boring multicolored lemniscate.

Hong Kong, like much of Asia, is very much into cutesy-pie cartoonish images (Hello Kitty, e.g.), so I’m surprised that the Octopus card has a boring multicolored lemniscate instead of a big-eyed cartoon octopus.

The MTR is super easy to ride. For one thing, you use the Octopus card (akin to London’s Oyster Card). It’s a touch-and-go stored value card, which means you can leave it in your wallet and just touch your wallet to the turnstile as you enter and leave. You can also use your Octopus card on things like the Star Ferry, the Peak Tram, and at all kinds of stores (like 7-11). I use my OctoCard (no one calls it that, not even me) to pay my entrance fee at the CityU gym, and you can use it to pay overdue fines at the library. It is, in a word, awesomegreat.

Octopus card as the payment option at a vending machine and for newspapers. Genius.

You can use your Octopus card to buy a nice lemon tea or a newspaper. Or both. Genius.
(Images via Wikimedia and Calvin C.)

Funny side story about getting our Octopus cards. Right after breakfast on our first full day here, we went down into the Kowloon Tong station to get our cards. We go up to the kiosk with HK$300 in cash (a new card has $100 of credit on it, plus a $50 deposit), and Cate slides over the $300 and says “Two Octopus cards, please.” And the station attendant says “One-hundred fifty.” And Cate says “Yes, but I’d like two, please.” He says “One at a time.” So Cate looks at me askance and slides him $200. He gives her an Octopus card and $50 change. She hands me the Octopus card, then slides the $50 back to him along with our third $100 bill. He calmly takes it without a word and hands her another Octopus card. We still don’t know why he couldn’t hand us two cards at once.

MTR stations are clean, well-lit, and well-signed. They’re also very safe—none of the not-after-dark sketchiness of some (or all) of the stations in other systems of the world. Here’s Central.

central station

As seen on a Saturday morning. It’s rarely this empty.

If you can read a map, you can ride the MTR. And inside almost all of the trains are these handy lighted signs that show which station you’re at, which is next, and at transfer (British English “interchange”) stations also flash the lights of the line you can change to. Plus everything is announced over clear and functioning speakers (hear that, CTA?) in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. This offers an excellent way to learn how to pronounce some Cantonese.


Departing Admiralty, the sign shows the direction we’re heading, as well as lighting up all of the future stops. This map, incidentally, is a miracle of design. It renders most (not all) of a large, sprawling network into one long rectangle that is still intelligible. Our home station, Kowloon Tong, is at the upper right corner.

The MTR was also cleverly designed with cross-platform transfers. What this means is that a given platform does not necessarily offer access to the same line in different directions, but it does mean that you can transfer lines without having to go up or down stairs.

Look at that map. If you’re traveling on the red (Tsuen Wan) line from Admiralty and want to go to Kowloon Tong (on the green Kwun Tong line), you can transfer at Mong Kok by simply walking across the platform—that is, on that platform, both the red and green line trains are headed north. Same goes for traveling in the opposite direction—you change from the green to the red at Mong Kok, because both trains at that platform are traveling south. So at Mong Kok, the green/red interchange platforms are stacked up vertically, with the northbound trains together and the southbound trains together.

But, if you want to go from, say, Kowloon Tong (green line) to Sham Shui Po (red line) to buy some cut-rate printer toner, you transfer at Prince Edward, not just because it’s closer but because the trains are stacked differently. Here, the southbound green line train and the northbound red line train are on the same platform, and vice versa on the other platform. So this means that somewhere between Prince Edward and Mong Kok, there’s a switcheroo. Fascinating.

It is also profitable. Very profitable.

The MTR is a private corporation. (Prior to 2001, the MTR was wholly owned by the Hong Kong government.) It’s listed on the Hang Seng  Index (MTRC), so buy some shares if you want to. It’s one of the few profitable public transit systems in the world not only from the money that fares brings in, but also because it is heavily involved in land development. The MTR develops lands near its stations into housing estates and shopping malls, which it can then (of course) advertise in the MTR to the millions of people who ride it each day.

The stations themselves are also prime real estate. Every MTR station has shops in it, and we’re not talking just newsstands (though there are those too). We’re talking high-end stuff: food, clothing, cosmetics, banking, etc.

Here are a few in Central:


I always see this sign as reading "Catullus" at first glance.

I always see this sign as reading “Catullus” at first glance. Delicious cakes, odi et amo.

* – * – * – * – *

Next up: it’s so inexpensive! Also, an old-timey documentary!

kowloon tong-sign

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The MTR, Part 2

Did you enjoy Part 1? Would you like to hear more about the MTR?

Well, it gets excellent cell phone service, even way, way underground, so a lot of people spend their time watching streaming movies. Behold:


They also play games on their phones, games that are so engrossing that they continue playing them with unbroken concentration even when, say, walking through the station like they own the place and thus don’t need to pay any attention to anyone else. Ahem. Continue reading


Filed under Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, New Territories, photos

There they just call it “food.”

Wandering through the Cantonese opera exhibit at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum this afternoon, we came across a display of traditional Chinese musical instruments.

Check out this vitrine. It has various kinds of lutes and other stringed instruments, and also… a saxophone. Swingin’!


Anyway, remember that episode of Friends where Ross is in love with a Chinese-American woman who’s moving to China, and he’s wondering whether to go with her or not, and Joey tells him “Forget about Rachel. Go to China, eat Chinese food,” and then Chandler says “Of course, there they just call it ‘food'”?

Well, behold what drummers would call a “China cymbal.”


And the label in the case:


Here, they just call them “cymbals.”

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The MTR, Part 1

It is time to talk about the MTR.

This way to the trains.

This way.

Continue reading


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A walled city

Yesterday we took a little jaunt into the New Territories, which sounds far but was only two stops on the MTR (albeit one stop each on two different lines). First we stopped at the excellent Che Kung Temple. Photos were prohibited, but I did take one of the entrance stalls where you can buy incense, flowers, and other offerings.


Yes, Cate did make friends with that dog.

Continue reading


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Chinese New Year!

Chinese New Year—or the Spring Festival (春節), as it’s sometimes called—just ended here, and we had a great time taking in some of the sights and sounds. It’s a big deal here (obviously), and quite different from Solar New Year in the US: more days, more family, more decorations, less booze. The celebration of the lunar New Year is a bit different in different parts of Asia. Here in Hong Kong it’s “only” four days.

Of course there are decorations. Here’s the entrance foyer of our building. Continue reading

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Out in space

Ever since we arrived in Hong Kong, we’ve been saying that we should do some hiking. Hiking in Hong Kong, you might ask? In one of the most densely populated cities in the world? Why yes, indeed. There’s lots of great hiking in HK because so much of the land here is undeveloped—it is a city of mountains, after all.

That means that the parts of HK that are built-up are really densely populated. In mid-2010, for example, the Kwun Tong area of Kowloon had a population density of 54,530 people per square kilometeraccording to the HK government. (That’s 141,000 people per square mile. For the sake of comparison, the population density of Manhattan, the densest of the NYC boroughs, was just under 70,000/sq. mile according to the 2010 census.)

The New Territories, on the other hand, are almost fourteen times less densely populated than that. So there’s lots of beautiful open space for trekking.

One of the best, and best-known, trails is the MacLehose Trail. It covers 100km across the New Territories, broken up into 10 stages.

That's a long walk.

That’s a long walk.
(Map from the HK Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department.)

Cate and I recently hiked Stage 1, which loops for 10 km around the High Island Reservoir. (The reservoir is on the right side of the map above. Stage 1 starts on the northwestern side of it and loop around counterclockwise, ending almost due east of where it began.)

The reservoir is gigantic, and affords all kinds of gorgeous views. Getting to the trailhead is a bit of a project, as it involves a trip on the MTR, a minibus to Sai Kung, then a normal (i.e., double-decker) bus to the start of the trail. While waiting for the final bus, we got a sense of just how far we were from home when we saw this ad on the side of a bus, advising people what to do when encountering the feral cattle of Sai Kung. And yes, we did see one. Fortunately we had seen this PSA and thus knew what to do (namely, enjoy their presence).


We thought we were lucky to have with us a detailed guidebook about the MacLehose Trail, which included all kinds of photographic details meant to help reader find their way. Here, for instance, is the photo that shows how to get to the Stage 1 trailhead from the bus drop-off point.
MacLehose Trailhead Wrong

Would you like to hear something hilarious? This photo is totally accurate, except that the starting point is actually ninety degrees in the opposite direction.

MacLehose Trailhead Right

The original photo is 100% correct, assuming that the full caption is supposed to be “Here’s the starting point; now go the other way.”

Fortunately we didn’t go too far before encountering a posted map that made clear we’d gone the wrong way.

After retracing our steps, we were good to go.


The views are almost immediately spectacular. After about 10 minutes going the correct way, we found this. This is one of those fancy panoramic shots, so click on it to see it in its full glory. The water really is that color.


Since it’s a reservoir, there are occasional weird water-management thingies, like this recently landed spacecraft.


But the sights are mostly just gorgeous.


After stopping for a snack, some Rootin’ Tootin’ Four Seas Biscuit Sticks…


Hands in the air! You’re under arrest for impersonating a Nilla Wafer.

… we continued on.



The end of Stage 1 is near this interesting sculpture, a memorial to those who died during the construction of the reservoir. That’s the open Pacific Ocean in the background.


The sun was starting to set as we finished up. It’s still early February, so by 4:30 it was starting to get dark and chilly.


Sunset over the High Island Reservoir. It really is as isolated as it looks. When we were finished, we were lucky to share a cab back to Sai Kung with some HK natives who had the good sense to call for one. (And who had the ability to explain where we were.) Otherwise, we would have had to walk three hours back to where we started.

But we had just another kilometer to go, not only to officially finish Stage 1…


… but also to enjoy Long Ke beach down there on the left.


Three hundred stone stairs later, we were there. As you can see, we were practically alone.



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