Wednesday 22 February 2017

A Walk on the Kowloon Side: History Tour of Hong Kong

I was hosted on this tour by the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

If there's something we travel writers like, it's the word "new". If something is new there's a good chance it hasn't been written about much, and that turned out to be the case with Asiascene's new Stories of the Place tour.

Rather than being a walking tour, it's a bus tour with a fair amount of leisurely walking within the sights it visits. It loosely links together four historic places on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour, all attractions that could easily be overlooked by the traveller.

The first, and most interesting to me, was Kowloon Walled City Park. I knew nothing about Kowloon Walled City before researching this trip, but it turned out to one of those weird quirks of history which I find absolutely fascinating.

Basically, the site started as an Imperial Chinese fort, which was retained by China in 1898 after it leased the New Territories north of Kowloon to Britain. This left a little island of Chinese sovereignty within a sea of British colonial rule.

As the decades rolled on, the Chinese emperor was deposed, there was civil war, the Second World War, and various other shocks such as the Cultural Revolution. This drew China's attention away from Kowloon Walled City, and it found itself unable to exercise its rule there.

At the same time, the British authorities were loathe to interfere within its walls. So the walled city became a strange, lawless enclave, being built ever higher (and more dodgily) as time went on and it filled with refugees from the mainland.

By the 1980s, just before it was cleared out and levelled by agreement between the UK and China, it housed 30,000 people and looked as this model on the site suggests:

Once this strange shanty city was demolished, archaeologists were able to undertake digs to locate fragments of the site's military past, and I saw evidence of this through the park:

Intriguing. There were more recent memories on display in buildings throughout the park, including a series of audiovisual recordings of former residents discussing their lives in Kowloon Walled City.

Our second stop was at another serene set of greenery, the Nan Lian Garden. This land belonged to an adjacent Buddhist nunnery which bought it over eighty years ago. They'd always planned to develop a traditional garden here, but China's troubles again meant the space became home to refugees from diverse conflicts.

In the fairly recent past the land was cleared of its structures and finally the garden could be developed, in the style of China's Tang Dynasty. A very beautiful and peaceful place it is too; as is the attached Chi Lin Nunnery which we walked through to after the garden:

The final stop of the tour was the Tin Hau Temple. This Taoist temple is dedicated to the god of the sea, a very relevant deity to a people living near a shore from which they fished and set forth on trading ships.

It's a small but spiritual place, full of the aroma of incense and the bright colours of its decor:

This historic structure, the smallest and oldest of the sights on the tour, provided an appropriately humble finale to a tour reaching back into Kowloon's relatively recent and eventful past.

The Stories of the Place tour takes place on Tuesdays and Thursdays, fee HK$490 (about A$80) per person. Find more information and make bookings at this link.

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