What images do you conjure when thinking about Hong Kong? Most likely a densely packed city with skyscapers and retail therapy as far as the eye can see, perhaps the night market. Yes?
All accurate. But what most non-HKers (including myself, until I moved here) don’t realize is that only about 25% of HK is actually developed land. Much of it is preserved, resulting in a scenic backdrop of greenery that even after being here over a month, still catches me a bit by surprise. On the main HK Island, much of this undeveloped land lies to the south. However, even in the heavily urban areas of what most consider the ‘city’, greenery is often integrated to great visual effect. A few blocks from our flat in developed Wan Chai, and even in the heavily commercial area near the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade on Kowloon, enormous, gorgeous trees seemingly sprout from nowhere. Amidst the endless antique storefronts in Sheung Wan, sprawling tree roots spill over cement walls. There seems to be an overall desire to mesh nature with modernity and a quite visible ‘green’ movement here. Not to be ignorant, this integration does obviously pose certain challenges to the trees. And the near-ubiquitous excess of air conditioning (meat locker-style) to help residents and tourists cope with the throbbing summer heat doesn’t quite coincide with this environmental awareness, but that’s another discussion for another time.
Approximately 40% of HK comprises parks and nature reserves, which is quite astonishing for a modern city. I for one deeply appreciate it already, even though I’ve only had time to visit one that we actually stumbled upon – Hong Kong Park on the main island. And it’s a beauty.
Last weekend, Mark and I were hankering for a movie – partly because we haven’t had time to catch one in months, partly because it meant about 2 hours of cool bliss. We decided to check out the theater in Pacific Place, one of seemingly endless luxury shopping mall options (also another story for another time). Mark decided he can’t make it through the rest of the brutal summer here without a few pairs of shorts, so we figured we could also squeeze in a tiny bit of shopping.
I caught a glimpse of a sign inside the mall, though – for Hong Kong Park. Seemed odd to see that in a mall, but as we’ve learned, HK is a mix master – luxury shops intermingled with hotels, restaurants, outdoor markets, cafes, cha chaan tengs (traditional teahouses), temples, parks. With a few hours to kill before our flick, we changed our trajectory for the afternoon, headed up a few flights of escalators and entered the park.
With skyscrapers now artfully on the periphery, we immediately stepped into the park’s Central Garden and a pretty promenade lined with trees. Anchoring one end of the promenade is a fountain that people can walk through and stand (relatively dry) on the inside, peering out through cascading water. Needless to say, photographing that and playful visitors, young and old, occupied me for quite some time.
Opened in 1991 and covering about 8 hectares, Hong Kong Park is a thoughtfully designed, contemporary, and diverse space that will undoubtedly capture your attention for hours. There is a dominant water motif extending beyond the fountains we already encountered, with a large lake full of goldfish and various streams and ponds, even a waterfall. Turtles abound here, and we were absorbed for at least 20 minutes just watching a turtle mating dance, where one pint-sized red-eared slider hotly pursued (as much as a turtle can) a larger potential mate, cornering her and wildly fluttering his front claws (who knew?) around the sides of her face.
The lush setting draws butterflies and dragonflies. Ampitheater-like Olympic Square seating almost 900 people resides here, as does 30-metre tall Vantage Point, a panoramic-view lookout tower (you may want to save the climb for a cooler day if you can, though). A few military buildings have been preserved and are now used to house a marriage registry, teaware museum, visual arts centre, and more. A tai chi garden and a small but touching memorial to heroes who died while helping during the 2002-2004 SARS epidemic can also be found. Even a 12-court squash centre, multi-purpose sports centre, and a few restaurants are integrated.
Forsgate Conservatory showcases various plant houses (‘display’ for cultivated gems such as orchids, ‘dry’ for succulents, and somewhat to my amusement given the normal summer weather here, ‘humid’ for greenery normally found in the Americas, South Africa, and southeast Asia).
The real surprise to me at Hong Kong Park is the 3000 square-metre, 30-metre high, rainforest-like Edward Youde Aviary, named after the late HK governor. It is covered by a giant stainless-steel mesh enclosure and is navigated within by an elevated walkway, allowing visitors to bird-watch from the treetops. The bird species on view are from Malesian rainforests found in the Philippines and Indonesia, which are currently undergoing large-scale destruction. While I am not generally supportive of creatures in captivity, one views these threatened songsters with a poignant sense that enclosures like this may be their only hope for survival, at least for now. Not surprisingly, serious nature photographers are frequently found in the aviary, long telephoto lenses in tow.
Unfortunately, our exploration of the aviary was soon punctuated by the loud bursts of a tour group that elected to ignore the signs requesting quiet. The weekend here unsurprisingly buzzes with visitors, requiring some patience or a solid strategy for avoidance or bypassing the more boisterous ones. As with other popular spots, if you can make it to Hong Kong Park on a weekday, you will likely be rewarded by a more peaceful experience.
Mere steps from the centrally located Admiralty MTR station, Hong Kong Park is an easily accessible oasis, especially to residents and visitors on the main island. Some critique the artificial components of the park (e.g. the lake and faux rock formations), but to be honest, the park is such a pleasure, it really doesn’t bother me. Once the suffocating summer weather begins to subside, this will be an even more pleasant spot to escape from the chaos of the city. Although even in the summer, the fountains, plentiful shade-providing trees, and vendors selling Pocari Sweat (not as gross as it sounds, it’s a popular local equivalent of Gatorade), help ease the pain. And if like Mark and me, you occasionally crave a return to modern conveniences like air conditioning, an iced latte, and perhaps a self-indulgent 3D blockbuster, Pacific Place is right around the corner.
I will definitely be returning, hopefully frequently.
MTR: Admiralty station