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A many-splendoured thing

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Through the netted screen, the waters of Deep Water Bay glinted a startling cobalt blue in the harsh midday sun. Clear skies and postcard-perfect weather had finally arrived after a week of rain, and the scene appeared almost Mediterranean, as though transplanted from a rugged stretch of the Côte d’Azur.

In the row ahead sat Aunt Pixie – my father’s second cousin – and her son Jonathan. It had been eight years since we had last met, and over dim sum the previous day, I offered to take them around the south side of Hong Kong Island.

Aunt Pixie was understandably nostalgic. She had spent her formative years in the Hong Kong that novelist Han Suyin had so vividly portrayed in A Many-Splendoured Thing:

We are all here, bankers, businessmen, rich women, missionaries and squatters. Those that take off half a hill to build themselves a home and those that crowd on a mat on the sidewalk to sleep. Wanderers against our will, we are the refugees. And to me, a transient among so many transients, that is Hong Kong in April 1949: a refugee camp. Harbour of many ships, haven of people from China, squatter’s colony, fun fair, bazaar and boom town. Hong Kong, where people come and go and know themselves more impermanent than anywhere else on earth. Beautiful island of many worlds in the arms of the sea. Hong Kong. And China just beyond the hills.”

*       *       *

The double-decker bus swept past the beach, opposite the perfectly manicured grounds of the Hong Kong Golf Club, and we trundled up the headland towards Repulse Bay. Before emigrating to America this had been Aunt Pixie’s beloved neighbourhood, where she lived until the age of 12.

“There used to be a castle that stood on the hillside, overlooking the bay.” she remarked. From my father’s descriptions, I knew this to be Eucliffe, one of three mock-baronial mansions of the Eu family, who made their fortune running tin mines, rubber plantations, while selling medicines and remittance services in British Malaya. Aunt Pixie’s eyes widened, twinkling as she recounted a fond childhood memory. “One time, I even went for a birthday party at the castle!” Jonathan smiled and looked on, incredulous.

As our bus came to a stop just above the beach, Aunt Pixie lamented the loss of the legendary Repulse Bay Hotel. Royalty and celebrities alike had once graced the guest list, including literary greats George Bernard Shaw and Noel Coward. Spain’s (then) Crown Prince Juan Carlos and Crown Princess Sofia stayed here on their round-the-world honeymoon, as did William Holden when he arrived to film the Hollywood version of Han Suyin’s novel. Such was the outcry at its demolition in the early 1980s that the developers rebuilt its central portion, housing a boutique shopping mall and a replica of the hotel’s original restaurant, ‘The Verandah’.

Two weeks later I returned with camera in tow, but the magical colours I had seen were nowhere to be found. Behind Repulse Bay Beach, several tour buses unloaded an excited throng of Mainland Chinese tourists. The men were inexplicably dressed in loafers, dark trousers and tucked-in polo shirts, posing for a photo op and taking a brief stroll before, I imagined, speeding back into the city for more shopping.

My footsteps traced the boundary between sand and concrete, until I reached a path pointing around the headland to Deep Water Bay, curving beneath the foliage in a silence broken only by the occasional jogger. Beyond the rocky shoreline lay Middle Island, protecting a huddle of sailboats anchored in the bay. A solo rower skimmed effortlessly across the still waters, and my memories resurfaced of a Cub Scout outing long ago, when we boarded a small launch to this semi-private island. I paused, watching the waves lapping lazily against the rocks as the sun began its slow descent over the hillside. Times have changed since Han Suyin first penned those words, but 60 years on, Hong Kong has remained an intoxicating blend of frenzied city streets, verdant ridges and beach-studded bays, a “beautiful island of many worlds”.

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Overlooking Repulse Bay

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Reminders of a bygone era

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The Repulse Bay Hotel, reconstituted

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A quiet day at the beach

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Hong Kong’s Riviera

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Sailboats at anchor, Deep Water Bay

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Middle Island

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Flowers along the trail

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Gone boating

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Late afternoon at Deep Water Bay

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Sea traffic, large and small

22 Comments Post a comment
  1. beautiful pics

    July 5, 2013
    • Glad you like them. 🙂

      July 5, 2013
      • Thanks for sharing

        July 5, 2013
  2. Wow! What a delightful post! Just looking at the first photo on the top for a moment I thought it was really the Cote d’Azur – and then it was a sweet surprise to find out it was actually my hometown 🙂 The beaches on the Southern tip of Hong Kong Island are definitely hidden gems, this is making me feel home sick – in a nice way. Cheers, Juliet

    July 5, 2013
    • Thank you, Juliet. 🙂 Under the right lighting (and weather conditions), parts of Hong Kong could masquerade as either Thailand or somewhere in the Med. Shame I didn’t bring my camera the first time round – the colour of the water was just incredible!

      July 5, 2013
  3. How wonderful! Sounds like paradise! gives a sense of serenity! Gorgeous!

    July 6, 2013
    • It was a great day to be out by the beach. 🙂

      July 6, 2013
  4. What a beautiful nostalgic note James! I knew next to nothing about Repulse Bay when I visited HK. Your information on the hole of that hotel during our bus ride to Stanley was actually the first information ever that I got about the bay. This is just another reason for me to explore Southern HK one day.

    July 6, 2013
    • Thank you, Bama! I’ll have to take you back during the daytime, the next time you’re in town. This whole area – from Deep Water Bay to Shek O – is definitely one of my favourite parts of HK.

      July 6, 2013
  5. Just “stumbled” over your blog, and am I glad I did:-)

    July 8, 2013
    • My pleasure, Astrid. Thanks for leaving the comment. 🙂

      July 8, 2013
  6. James, do you have Google+ account?

    July 8, 2013
    • Sadly I don’t, Victor. Why do you ask? 🙂

      July 8, 2013
      • I want to follow you and Google+ is very comfortable for it. But I’ve subscribed to your RSS, don’t worry.

        July 8, 2013
  7. What a gorgeous and refreshingly ‘different’ side of Hong Kong this is James! We meant to go up to Repulse bay on our last trip but never made it. I can well relate to your aunt’s nostalgia 🙂

    July 8, 2013
    • Thank you, Madhu! That’s one of the joys of Hong Kong – the fact that it packs in so much in such a small area; and these are just two of the many beaches and beautiful bays that dot the territory. 🙂

      July 9, 2013
  8. Wow, I had no idea Hong Kong could be so peaceful. I envisioned a dizzying sprawling city where not a precious square foot was undeveloped. I have always wanted to visit Hong Kong but was afraid it would be like New York on steroids, and that put me off a little. Now that I see I could end a trip collecting myself by the shore, it has move up in priority. Thank you so much for showing a different side.

    July 9, 2013
    • You’re welcome, Stephanie. Thanks to its hilly topography, Hong Kong is sandwiched between the mountains and the sea – it doesn’t have the room to sprawl in the way that so many other cities do. I really enjoyed the way you described Hong Kong in your imagination – for some places, “New York on steroids” is not that far off! Thankfully even the busiest downtown areas are just a half-hour away from the beaches and quiet hiking trails.

      July 9, 2013
  9. JoV #

    It is amazing to find an unspoiled spot in HK at the back island. Thanks for sharing the beautiful pic. Already I can feel the serenity, a feeling I would have thought it is impossible to find in hectic HK!

    July 12, 2013
    • Actually, there are quite a few places like this in HK – you just have to know where to look! 🙂

      July 13, 2013
  10. Each time I make a stop-over in Hong Kong (on CX flights), I always get this urge to explore what’s beyond those hills but sadly, my time is never enough. This part of your city is really a complete contrast to the normal bustle in Kowloon – one reason I should visit Hong Kong as a destination, and not just as a layover.

    July 13, 2013
    • Hong Kong’s countryside is very underrated… most people tend to stay only within the city and visit tourist traps like the Peak, Disneyland and the Big Buddha. I would suggest at least a week so you can hop on the ferry to some of the outlying islands, and go hiking to the beaches in Sai Kung.

      July 13, 2013

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