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A rainy first night in Hong Kong

How much does weather matter when you travel? To what extent does it add or take away from your experience? I thought about this as I stood on Hong Kong’s Avenue of Stars promenade as the lights of the island’s skyscrapers twinkled in the distance, their colourful reflections shimmering on the water of Victoria Harbour. It was my first night in Hong Kong and the rain had been relentless for a little while but staying indoors wasn’t an option. My small umbrella was doing its best but frankly wasn’t up to the job as I clumsily switched hands between the brolly and my phone while attempting to get the perfect photograph across the harbour. The rain wasn’t ideal but it certainly added something to experience and in a sense made it more enduring. Sometimes when things don’t go as planned they tend to be the memories that stick and make you smile on reflection.

Of course rain isn’t uncommon in Hong Kong. I wasn’t expecting sun-drenched Californian skies although the hazy weather around this unique part of the South China Sea added a mystique during my arrival. The plane seemed to take an eternity to descend through the clouds as we approached the runway at Chep Lak Kok Airport. I was desperate for a glimpse of this exotic city and after an age of white nothing outside we finally broke through and the former British colony became a haunting, beautiful reality. Beyond the runway lonely boats bobbed gently in the sea as the smoky green hills behind rose into the low clouds.

Boat in Hong Kong harbour

Despite this being nothing like the gaudy, futuristic city of flashing neon that I’d seen in various guidebooks and pop culture, it didn’t matter. It was captivatingly unassuming, a scene of industrial serenity. Profoundly different from life back home. On the train from the airport I felt a sense of intrigue as enormous concrete tower blocks relentlessly sped by. I thought about the hundreds and thousands of complex and unique lives playing out their daily spectacle in these brutally ethereal structures.

Hong Kong has a lamentable fixation with shopping malls and West Kowloon Station (my stop) was regrettably located in one of them. After coming to one of several dead-ends in a feckless search for a street exit I had to accept that I was hopelessly lost. Occasionally it’s nice to get lost. Perhaps in a bustling medina or a pretty Italian hilltop village. You can embrace it, time slows down and it’ll figure itself out the end. This was different though. It was warm inside the mall and after half an hour of bouncing back the other way at the end of various corridors I felt like a sweaty, jet-lagged Pac-Man. I finally consulted a shop floor plan after my patience with Google Maps ran out and managed to negotiate my way out via Austin Station with my millennial pride severely dented.

Rainy streets Hong Kong

I stayed at The Imperial Hotel on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui which I thought was a little oddly named given the recent history of Hong Kong although judging by the drab beige interior of my hotel room it was clear that this place had existed long before the 1997 handover. By the time I had unpacked and relaxed the late afternoon light had started to fade and gentle rain was falling outside. From my view on the 14th floor I could see that the hum of activity below on Nathan road had bloomed umbrellas of all colours, the Saturday shoppers presumably used to this regular occurrence while the tourists ran for cover.

Bruce Lee sculptureI wasn’t too discouraged though, the skyline of Hong Kong Island wasn’t going anywhere regardless of the weather and that was what I was here for. The hotel was only a ten minute walk from the harbour front although reaching it meant navigating another of Hong Kong’s irritancies, the practice of throwing a large heaving uncrossable road agonisingly close to your destination. Trooping down into the subway I felt a slight sense of Groundhog Day as I walked through unfamiliar corridors not knowing exactly where I’d end up, the only saving grace being that I was out of the rain briefly. I finally emerged near a statue of Bruce Lee in a fighting stance. I’ve never seen any of his films but the effigy of one of Hong Kong’s biggest icons was impressive and looked even better for having the harbour and the Central skyline in the distance behind it.

The rain started coming down harder just as I reached the spot I had visualised in my mind for months, the sparkling cityscape of Hong Kong Island stretched out and its colours glistened on the water. Distant lights in the hills behind the skyscrapers twinkled as ferries and pleasure boats zipped by in front of me. I turned around and saw a guy sat outside a Starbucks Café sipping a coffee with his feet up on an empty chair in front of him. He was sheltered from the rain and had near enough the same view I had. I had a strong urge to go and do the same thing but it was my first night and the traveller in me said otherwise.

Hong Kong skyline

The rest of the promenade was still surprisingly busy although maybe it was because there aren’t many other natural shelters. Hong Kong averages 137 days of rain per year so you would think there would be more protection from the elements, especially in a part of the world that experiences a typhoon season each year. These usually hit the city particularly hard late in the summer. In August 2017 Typhoon Hato landed in Hong Kong and the estimated economic cost was around HK$4 billion. It caused flooding, damage to property and at least 121 cases of injury were reported due to the passage of the storm as well as more than 450 flights cancelled or delayed at Hong Kong International Airport.

I’d chosen one of those of those rainy days to experience Hong Kong for the first time but thankfully there were no storms or typhoons. In fact the rain even stopped briefly for the spectacular 8pm laser show, A Symphony of Lights. But I wouldn’t have cared if it had carried on. It added to the atmosphere, gave the skyline a beautiful haze and improved my hand-eye co-ordination when trying to operate a phone and an umbrella at once. If you expect perfection you’ll never be satisfied.

Much more by this author on his very excellent blog.

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