Make Way For Dragons

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If you spend more than 10 minutes in Hong Kong, you realize space is a precious commodity.  The streets are crowded, the roads are crowded, the markets are crowded. Towering apartment blocks line the Hong Kong skyline, housing a majority of city residents in flats considered small by any standard.

Dragon gates, Repulse Bay, Hong Kong

Dragon gates, Repulse Bay, Hong Kong

A cursory glance across the skyline draws attention to gaping holes carved through the center of many buildings. Why would a city allow such a glaring waste of space when very square inch of real estate is precious?  The answer?  Dragons. Dragons and feng shui. Dismissed by Western skeptics as weirdly new-age, the art of feng shui is serious business in Hong Kong.  Feng shui, translated as “wind and water” stems from the ancient art of geomancy, or connecting to the energy of the earth.

Hong Kong skyline.  Can you find the "dragon holes?"

Hong Kong skyline. Can you find the “dragon holes?”

One school of feng shui concentrates on building placement in an environment in relation to the mountains, sea and sky.  Another school examines the influence of shape within the built and natural environment.  Most feng shui practitioners combine approaches when examining the design and placement of buildings/objects to ensure they are created in an auspicious and harmonious way. Hong Kong has naturally good feng shui.  It faces the water and is protected by mountains behind and across from it. Legend holds that dragons live in the mountains and hold positive and powerful energy. This energy blows through Hong Kong daily as the dragons make their way from the mountains to the sea to drink and bathe. As Hong Kong expands, builders and architects create massive structures that potentially  “block” the dragons’ passage from the hills to the sea, creating bad feng shui and blocking the natural air flow through the city.  Thus, architects plan housing and office complexes with “gates” or “windows” allowing dragons to pass through the city unimpeded on  their way to the sea.

Bank of China, I M Pei

Bank of China, I M Pei

Before you dismiss feng shui as superstitious nonsense you should know that engineers, architects, property developers and real estate agents take feng shui courses before completing their training and certification. Prominent architectural and building firms consult feng shui experts at every step of a project when building in Hong Kong.  Fosters + Partners incorporated feng shui principles when planning the iconic HSBC Hong Kong building.  Foster stated “If a building has good feng shui, it’s probably also a good place to be.”  Bank of China architect, I. M. Pei chose to ignore these principles at his peril.  Criticized for its harsh, knife-edged angles and screw shaped top, it supposedly “cut” into the good fortune of nearby neighbors. Coincidently (or not), the nearby Lippo Center tenant went bankrupt and the first governor of Hong Kong refused to live or work in nearby Government House citing the bad feng shui.  Supposedly, the two rods that stand atop Foster’s HSBC building are a classic feng shui technique of deflecting negative energy back to its source.  The rods point in the direction of the Bank of China building.

Things to Know

Disney consulted feng shui experts when designing Hong Kong Disney.  The consultation resulted in shifting the main entrance angle by 12 degrees to ensure maximum prosperity.  Disney also modified the main pathway from the train station to the gate to prevent the “chi” or positive energy from slipping out of the gate and into the sea. You can read more about Disney and feng shui here.

If you’re interested in learning more about feng shui in Hong Kong, you can contact the Hong Kong Tourist Bureau for information on their Feng Shui tour.  Walk Hong Kong also offers a Temple and Feng Shui Walking Tour.

If you prefer a strictly architectural tour of the beautiful Hong Kong skyline, you can contact e-architects or the Hong Kong Tourist Bureau . 

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Shiny, Happy Singapore

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Long known as a city of skyscrapers, safety and high-end shopping malls, Singapore rolls out the red carpet for visitors.  Gleaming, spectacular, gravity-defying buildings frame the skyline along the harbor.  Crowds of label-loving shoppers stalk the malls in air-conditioned comfort. Families safely enjoy Singapore’s many offerings day, night (and in the middle of the night).

Singapore especially rewards those who are willing to see and seek things beyond the malls and luxury hotels.

Old Parliament Building,

Old Parliament Building

Statue of Sir Stamford Raffles,

Statue of Sir Stamford Raffles

Raffles Hotel courtyard

Raffles Hotel courtyard

Singapore has an interesting history, one I knew very little about. I had a vague knowledge of British involvement saw vestiges of the city’s colonial past while walking through the Pedang and Colonial Core…the cricket club, St. Andrew’s Cathedral and the iconic Raffles Hotel

Five foot way, Chinatown

Five- foot way, Chinatown

Shophouse windows, Tanjong Pagar Conservation Area

Shophouse windows, Tanjong Pagar Conservation Area

Traditional shophouses

Traditional shophouses

I expected to see the blending of Chinese and colonial history as I walked from  Colonial Core into Chinatown. The architecture of colonialism gave way to winding streets lined with shops selling the wares of today in the beautifully restored shophouses of yesterday.  What I didn’t expect was the striking blend of different cultures and religions, all living harmoniously side-by-side in every area of the city.

Sultan Mosque, Little Arabia

Sultan Mosque, Little Arabia

Celebration at the Hindu temple

Celebration at the Hindu temple, Little India

Sri Mariamman Temple,

Sri Mariamman Temple, Chinatown

St. Andrew's Cathedral

St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Colonial Core

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, Chinatown

Singapore has, within its relatively small footprint (49km by 25km), mosques, temples, churches and shrines sitting side by side in every quarter of the city. Streets signs and shops post notices in four different languages. Singapore was clearly a city of  surprising cultural tolerance and diverse population, but how did that come to be? I was missing something and my ignorance was showing.  I went back to the National Museum of Singapore, where I should have started my trip…after all, you can’t understand a place unless you understand its history.

Things To Know

It’s hot in Singapore (at least in May).  Wear appropriate, lightweight clothing and prepare yourself for the arctic level of air conditioning present in the malls by tucking a sweater into your bag. Check the weather before you go.  Singaporeans are smart dressers, so leave those jorts and baseball hats at home.  Entrance to mosques and temples require suitable dress (shoulders and knees covered). If you are not suitably dressed to enter, you will be offered a “gown” at the door. 🙂

Walking along Singapore’s beautiful parks is a wonderful opportunity to see the tropical flowers and green spaces of the city. The heat, however, makes it advisable to take occasional advantage of the endless, air-conditioned connections through malls and buildings when going from point A to point B.   I also advise using a sun umbrella.  Really.

Singapore has great public transportation options.  The MRT (subway system) is incredibly clean, efficient and safe.  Everyone queues for the train by waiting in the marked-off green area until the train arrives.  Passengers disembark through the red/exit lanes. MRT maps current routes on the train by flashing upcoming stops so it’s easy to know where you are and when to get off.  I loved everything about their subway system, can you tell?  If you plan on using the SMRT and public buses throughout your stay, consider a purchasing a tourist pass , which allows almost unlimited travel (check for caveats).  Taxis are an excellent, although more expensive option depending on the size of your traveling party. The taxis are clean and the drivers are a wealth of local information.  

Yes, Singapore is safe.  Very safe, as long as you don’t do anything silly.  The Mister and I walked home from a movie at 1am and rejoiced at being able to do so.  There are rumors about Singaporean “rules” and subsequent harsh punishments for those who break them.  To dispel some of those rules….yes, you can chew gum.  No, you can’t spit it  onto the streets or stick it on a bus seat.  Smoking areas are restricted, as they are everywhere.  Defacing public property will bring a harsh fine.  Drugs are illegal and traffickers and users face harsh fines.  The only fine I risked in Singapore was a jaywalking fine.  It was stupid and deserved a fine if caught.  The near death experience was enough to convince me not to jaywalk twice.  Also, please do not stand on the toilets or pee in the elevator.  I don’t know if there are fines for either offense, but…really?


   

A Tale of Two Cities: Singapore and Hong Kong, First Impressions

I feel like a terrible traveler today.  Plan A, B and C went to hell as the sky filled with thunder, lightening and torrential rain. My Plan D is sitting in a dim sum tea house, drinking tea and trying to “figure out”  this city  I want desperately to love.

From the untrained and inexperienced eye of a Westerner, Singapore and Hong Kong should be similar on some accounts.  Both cities have long, complex histories heavily influenced by extended time under British control.  Both cities are culturally diverse and harmoniously host people of  different nationalities and religions. Both cities are world-class financial and commerce hubs and have endless opportunities for good eating and shopping.  It seems natural to compare the two, yes?  Yet Singapore and Hong Kong are so very, very different.

Singapore skyline!

My initial impression of Singapore was it was all shiny-new, efficient, clean and green.  The airport itself was a study in good design with its free movie theater, 3 story slide, butterfly garden and rooftop pool and hot tub.  The ride from the airport to the hotel took you along palm-tree and garden-lined roads and bridges and deposited you at your hotel in full view of some of the most spectacular modern architecture in the world.  It was hot and steamy with a slight breeze (also hot).  Everyone was friendly, welcoming and willing to engage in lengthy conversations about anything/everything.

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My first impression of Hong Kong was…different.  The airport was practical and efficient and the vibe  intense.  Everyone seemed intent on getting from point A to B in the most expeditious manner.  Efficiency was the name of the game.  The taxi ride to the hotel took us through a series of tunnels and overpasses framed by towering, glowing apartment blocks and glitzy office buildings.  We arrived at our hotel in time to see the nightly laser show sweeping Hong Kong’s waterfront skyline.  I didn’t realize how much of Hong Kong is tucked into the high hills above the harbor until the sun rose the next morning.  The lush, green hills and soaring skyscrapers make Hong Kong a study in contrast.

dim sum yum

The rain stopped and I’m off to The Peak for a little hiking and picture-taking.  It’s amazing what an afternoon in a steamy tea house can do for the soul.  The lovely ladies sitting next to me told me “dim sum” means “touch the heart.” After my afternoon sitting in a steamy tea house, stuffing my face with dim sum and tea, I can already feel Hong Kong working its magic on mine.   Let me know if you have any great travel tips for Hong Kong.  I don’t want to miss anything…