In 1997, the first Standard Charter Hong Kong Marathon attracted 1,000 runners. As love for the sport grows universally, the annual event in Hong Kong has gained popularity and attracted about 70,000 runners (pre-pandemic) from around the globe, defying the humid conditions to run in the subtropical heat. Despite the dominance of East African runners in the race, local participants have increased in both numbers and results in recent years. In fact, the sport has become so popular in Hong Kong that more and more running related shows are broadcasted on television, and more and more sports equipment shops have popped up in busy commercial neighbourhoods in recent years. Runners are everywhere: on sidewalks and waterfront promenades, or in parks and on trails in the countryside.
Some run for health benefits, while some run just to loosen up their minds after a long day of stress. For people who have had enough time sitting in air conditioned offices, doing an evening run is a decent alternative for going to the gym. For a city as dense as Hong Kong, it might be surprising to find that pleasant running routes are never far away. For residents on the Island side, many choose Bowen Road in Wan Chai, or Lugard Road at Victoria Peak, while on the Kowloon side, West Kowloon Art Park or Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade are the obvious choices. In recent years, the government put efforts to transform the once out of limits harbourfront areas on the north shore of Hong Kong Island into public promenades. These promenades have become instant hits for local runners. Harbourfront scenery is particularly pleasant between Central Piers and the Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai when the urban skyline lit up after dusk. With such amazing backdrop, there should be no excuse for anyone not to put on their running shoes and headphones, take in the lovely views and seaside breezes, and burn some calories.
On 28th February, 2021, joggers, dog walkers, photographers, and fishing enthusiasts in Shek Tong Tsui were shocked to see their beloved Western District Public Cargo Working Area (西區公眾貨物裝卸區) had been closed off to the public. Several times voted as one of the most favourite public spaces in the city, the government freight pier was more commonly known as the Instagram Pier, thanks to its high popularity on the social media throughout the past decade. Extended westwards into the Victoria Harbour, the pier was famous for its unrivaled sunset views, along with its rustic cranes and construction materials for selfie backdrops, and handsome reflections of sunset skies in water puddles after rain, an effect that prompted netizens to name the pier “Mirror of the Sky” (天空之鏡). The magnificent open space has become an Internet sensation since 2010, but not until 2015, when the MTR extended to Sai Wan (西環), that a much larger influx of outsiders and oversea visitors, especially the younger generation, had arrived at the pier to chill out under the western sun.
For the local community, the pier had served as their collective backyard since the 1990’s. They would hang out at the loading and unloading area, to jog, fish and walk the dog. It was the sense of freedom and spatial openness (a rarity in Downtown Hong Kong) that made the pier such a unique public space for the community. In November 2014, the Marine Department put up warning notices at the pier to dissuade the public from entering the pier. The notices had make little impact on altering the common perception that the pier was a leisure space available for all. Since then, the authorities had made a few proposal to erect railings and partially converted the pier into a “proper” park. The government’s intent had met with fierce objections from the community. While the government’s main aim was to reduce liability (if any accident happen) and establish a higher degree of control, what the community and visitors truly appreciate about the pier was the vast open space and unobstructed views, the freedom to use the space in any way one could think of, and the lack of unwanted street furniture, eyesore decorations, and flimsy exercise equipment that might not last for a few months.
Between 2010 and 2021, the Instagram Pier has left its unique mark in the story of Shek Tong Tsui. Not only was it the most visited attraction in the neighborhood, it was also the perfect spot in town where one could idly spend an afternoon to simply do nothing without interference from another human being (not even a park caretaker). It was also one of the most interesting spots in Hong Kong for people watching: strangers mingling with strangers, couple taking wedding shots, students sitting in a circle having their first sip of beer, girls learning skateboard with her boyfriend, man practicing guitar by the sea, unleashed dogs chasing one another, photo enthusiasts lying on the floor just to make the perfect shot of reflection out of a water puddle, women in fancy dresses climbing up and down the shipping pallets, scaffolding bamboo and construction materials to make all sorts of weird posts for selfies… Of course, such freedom would lead to issues with safety, hygiene and garbage to deal with. For the authorities, a public space should be finished with pavers, bounded with handrails and walls, equipped with park benches and flower beds, and spaces clearly defined for specific functions. For many, on the other hand, the Instagram Pier had represented almost the opposite: a stress-free and causal open space with little regulations and no specific facilities, just good views and emptiness. Recently, the pier has another layer of political consideration: a possible springboard for exploring the next potential land reclamation, connecting the west of Hong Kong Island to the distant Lantau Island via bridges and artificial islands. Even if the land reclamation doesn’t go ahead and the pier gets renovated and reopened as a public promenade in the future, we can pretty much assume that the space would be properly paved and fully equipped with railings. The floor would be flattened, leaving little chances for water puddles. For photography enthusiasts, the “Mirror of the Sky” at Sai Wan has officially become a story of the past.
While the Instagram Pier was closed down indefinitely in 2021, the adjacent Central and Western District Promenade has opened in the same year to the public. The ambience reflects quite a different story from the Instagram Pier, from rustic and cool environment preferred by the youth, to kid-friendly and orderly catered for the kids and elderly.
A day after the attack on Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, Regimental Sergeant Major Enos Charles Ford at Hong Kong’s Fort Davis was woken up by the Japanese raid of Kai Tak across the harbour at 08:00, 8th of December 1941. Ford and his fellow gunners returned fire but the Japanese aircraft were out of range. The raid of Kai Tak officially pulled the curtain for the short but intense Battle of Hong Kong. At 269m tall, Mount Davis at the westernmost point of Hong Kong Island had been a major defensive facility for the city since the 1910’s. Five guns were mounted at different locations on the mount, and two were later relocated to Stanley. Jubilee Battery near the shore was later added to guard the coast below. During WWII, a force of about 50 gunners was stationed at the fort. Thanks to the diary of Regimental Sergeant Major Enos Charles Ford, a brief account of what had happened at one of the most bombarded spot in Hong Kong during WWII survived to the present. From 8th of December to the 24th, Fort Davis engaged in fierce battles with the Japanese and was under intense bombardment by both warships and aircraft. The gunners fought hard from the fort until Christmas Eve, when they were sent to Wanchai to fight as infantry in the last desperate attempt to fend off the enemy. The colony of Hong Kong surrendered on the Christmas Day of 1941, and the damaged Fort Davis fell in the Japanese hands two days later. After the war, the fort was used for a variety of military purposes until 1970’s, when the site was abandoned and gradually crumbled into ruins. Ever since, the ruins have become a hot spot for war games and ghost tours, certainly not a place for the faint hearted.
Below Mount Davis, the Jubilee Battery complex was converted into Victoria Detention Centre in 1961, before emptying out after the Chinese takeover in 1997. The abandoned Jubilee Battery was finally offered a second life in 2013, when University of Chicago becomes the new occupier of the site. The revitalization plan was met with a poetic response by the late Canadian architect Bing Thom (now Revery Architecture): a winding architecture perched over the hillside of Jubilee Battery overlooking Sulphur Channel and the western approach of the Victoria Harbour. Named as Francis and Rose Yuen Campus of the University of Chicago, the sleek architecture curves around a 75 year old flame tree, and floats above ground on slim pillars to minimize impact on the delicate coastal landscape and the heritage structures. Since inception in 2018, the Yuen Campus has become a popular place for watching the sunset. Its heritage interpretation centre offers visitors insights of the history of Mount Davis, and military history of the former colony.
After checking out the Yuen Campus, it is worthwhile to do a short hike to check out the military ruins on Mount Davis behind the school.
I first learnt about the swimming sheds from my father, who used to explore the waters of Sai Wan (西環) at the westernmost area of Hong Kong Island in his childhood. Back in 1950’s and 1960’s, sea swimming was not necessary a half day journey to a beach far away from the city. Hongkongers could instead hop to one of the ten or dozen of swimming sheds along Victoria Harbour after work for a quick dip in the sea. This swimming culture originates in 1911, when the first swimming shed was built at Tsat Tsz Mui (七姊妹) in North Point. It became a hit and soon expanded to seven sheds in the area. Taking the tram to the swimming sheds was the most popular pastime back then. A newspaper in 1929 estimated that each day there were about 5000 swimmers visiting the swimming sheds. These sheds were constructed of bamboo and timber, housing changing rooms, lockers and showers facilities, and a series of decks on stilts to enter the water. At its peak, some big establishments even had eateries, boat rentals, and arena for roller-skates. Back then, limited transportation options kept many Hongkongers away from more faraway beaches, while the water of Victoria Harbour was still relatively clean.
As beach facilities and public swimming pools became more accessible to common people, the degraded water quality of the Harbour, and most important of all, land reclamation and waterfront redevelopment projects have basically nailed the coffin for all swimming sheds in 1970’s. In 1988, Chung Sing Swimming Shed (鐘聲泳棚) reopened at the western end of Kennedy Town, where lush green Mount Davis slopes down to the sea. This remnant from the past, with about 20 members, has become the last operating swimming shed in Hong Kong. The membership of the swimming shed is far from its heyday decades ago. But the relatively secluded Chung Sing Swimming Shed, which commonly known as Sai Wan Swimming Shed (西環泳棚) nowadays, has been offered a second life. Photos of the lovely sunset over tranquil water at Sai Wan Swimming Shed has become an Instagram sensation in the recent decade.
Before the pandemic, Hong Kong was a highly popular tourist destination in Asia, ranked among the top cities in the world for the number of international visitors. Just like many tourist cities around the globe, tourism in Hong Kong has suffered enormously during the pandemic. The numbers of foreign visitors have plummeted, and the once crowded sights across the city have been largely tourist free. Despite the loss of tourist activities, this situation is prompting the return of Hongkongers to places they would normally avoid before the pandemic. Apart from popular museums, beaches, amusement parks, and shopping centres, waterfront promenades along Victoria Harbour, especially in Tsim Sha Tsui at the tip of Kowloon Peninsula, has always been packed with tourists before the Covid. Just like our childhood years, today we can once again wander freely on the Avenue of Stars or linger in the shadow of the Tsim Sha Tsui Clock Tower without bumping into aggressive tourist groups. At night, the undulating reflections of neon lights, LED billboards, and glittering building facades in the water provides the perfect foreground for the skyline of Central, backed upon the silhouette of Victoria Peak. For decades, this postcard perfect Harbour panorama has served as the impeccable visual representation of Hong Kong’s prosperity and vibrancy, illuminating the legend of a city that never sleeps. Beyond the charming skyline on both sides of the water, the busy Victoria Harbour has much more to offer than just its visual glamour.
In Feng Shui, the traditional Chinese practice that harnesses the energy of surrounding environment, the element “water” is often associated with wealth and fortune. For Hong Kong, this water element can be definitely identified as the Victoria Harbour. From founding of the trading port, to the establishment of Far East’s finance and servicing hub, Victoria Harbour, the 41.88 km2 stretch of sea between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula, has always played a vital role. The Harbour is indeed where the story of Hong Kong begins. Known for its deep and sheltered water, the natural landform of the Harbour was one of the main reasons why Hong Kong was chosen by the British in 1841. Since the mid-19th century, the British put a great deal of effort to establish Hong Kong as their subtropical metropolis in the Far East and commercial gateway into China. The Harbour and its waterfront developments have been at the centre stage of Hong Kong’s evolution every since. To sustain population and economic growth, major land reclamation projects have never ceased to transform the urban extent of the city ever since 1840’s. More office towers, residential complexes, hotels, shopping centres, government buildings, museums, convention centre, stadiums, cruise terminals, promenades, piers, etc. would be erected after each reclamation scheme, redrawing the urban coastline at least once in every generation.
For many neighborhoods in the city, Victoria Harbour is always just a few blocks away. Exploring the everchanging waterfront areas is an interesting way to understand the past, present and future of Hong Kong. Our next series of posts will do exactly that.
Sleepy town of Selcuk welcomes one of Turkey’s biggest concentrations of tourists. Home to the mighty Ephesus, as well as the ruined Basilica of St John (where some believed was the final resting place of St John the Apostle) and House of the Virgin Mary (a stone house where some said was the final home of the Virgin Mary), Selcuk has its unique power to attract visitors from around the world while maintaining the tranquility as a small town in the Aegean Region. After visiting Ephesus, we strolled around the town for a short while and completed the day by enjoying a glass of wine and a moment of perfect sunset on the rooftop of Homeros Pension.
Away from the Classical ruins, Selcuk is still dotted with historical buildings from the Middle Ages.
Alpaslan Mesciti is a 14th century building. Today, the building continues to serve as a mosque.
The Turkish way to chill out: to smoke Turkish tobacco with a water pipe or nargile in the front porch of their home or shop and watch the world goes by. The tradition started 500 years ago in the Ottoman Empire. Its popularity declined as cigarettes entered the Turkish market after World War II. In recent two decades, water pipes have made a solid comeback for the younger generations.
Other than smoking nargiles, some locals we met chose to play music to celebrate the last hour of sunlight.
Many of the elder generation preferred to socialize at the outdoor area of a cafe.
Near Homeros Pension, the beautiful sunset made everything to appear under a tint of orange.
Walking under the last bit of sunlight on the hill was a sublime experience.
For our short stay in Selcuk, we picked Homeros Pension, a family run guesthouse full of character.
The common areas of Homeros Pension are richly decorated.
Local handicrafts fit perfectly well with the interior.
Apart from local handicrafts, we could also find gifts left by previous travelers, such as these koalas from an Australian traveler.
The delicious food at Homeros was prepared by the experienced hands of the elderly staff.
The rooftop patio was a fantastic spot to enjoy the sunset. We were invited by the friendly staff to have a glass of wine during sunset.
With the clean air and relatively low buildings, we had no trouble watching the sun setting below the far horizon.
Watching the marvelous sunset and mingling with the other guests at the guesthouse on the rooftop patio was the perfect way to end our day.
Our last train journey in Sri Lanka is one of the most popular railway routes for tourists: the Coastal Line from Galle to Colombo. In a little less than two hours, our train moved from seaside resort towns near Galle to the old fort and metropolitan area of Colombo. Constructed in late 19th century, the Coastal Line is the second oldest railway line in Sri Lanka. For much of the journey the train was winding along the southwest coastline of island. The coastal scenery reminded us of the train scene in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, in which the protagonist Chihiro Ogino boards on a train that runs across water on submerged tracks. The moving reflections in the water, the tranquil scenery at the far horizon, the evolving lights from late afternoon to early evening, and the melancholy yet romantic train cabin come together to become one of the most remarkable animation scenes ever made. The train journey to Colombo might not be as romantic as Miyazaki’s scene, and the train was fully packed with standing tourists and locals and could get a bit noisy sometimes, but the late afternoon scenery of the Indian Ocean would live long in our memories.
Galle Station was first established in 1894, and has undergone an upgrade in the 20th century with a modernist concrete building.
The wooden timetable at Galle Station should be an antique that has been around for decades.
The Coastal Line runs between Matara and Colombo Fort via Galle.
Taking a train in Sri Lanka is always a delightful activity and a great way to interact with the friendly locals.
Leaving Galle signified our Sri Lankan journey was coming to an end. After dinner in Colombo, we would go immediately to the airport near Negombo for our midnight flight.
For the entire journey I was sitting at the opened door between two passenger train cars.
As the snack vendor left the train, it was time for departure.
For the first half of the journey, the train ran along a waterfront road.
Sitting or standing by the doorway on a Sri Lankan train is a pleasant way to enjoy the scenery. Despite the low speed of the train, certain level of caution should be taken when standing at the opened door.
After the halfway point, the train ran right along the coastline.
Our train passed by a number of coastal resort towns.
These seaside resort towns serve mainly the city dwellers from distant Colombo.
We also passed by a number of impoverished communities by the sea.
The train passed right in front of the houses of the seaside communities.
The southwestern coast of Sri Lanka was badly hit by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Many lives were lost and some communities have never fully recovered.
The Coastal Line was severely hit by the 2004 tsunami. Known as the 2004 Sri Lanka tsunami-rail disaster, a Matara Express train was running from Colombo to Galle before getting hit by the tsunami at the village of Peraliya. After two rounds of waves, the village of Peraliya was completely destroyed, and about 2000 people died (including passengers of 8 train cars and villagers who climbed onto the train top to escape the waves). Out of about 1700 train passengers, only 150 people survived. The incident is the single worst rail disaster with the largest death toll the world has ever seen.
The Indian Ocean offered us the perfect setting to view the sunset.
We were getting closer to Colombo as the sun was about to set below the Indian Ocean.
After 1 hour and 45 minutes, our train was finally approaching downtown Colombo. We were ready for the final act in Sri Lanka before flying home.