God Bless the Man who Invented Nature
Regular followers of your favourite blogger will know that I am a soft touch when it comes to visiting parks and gardens. Some of the designs that people come up with are truly wonderful,. Combine this with what nature can do and the effects can be remarkable.
So it will come as little surprise that a recent visit to Hong Kong saw me wending my way on yet another visit to Central to soak up my regular infusion of nature at its best.
Hong Kong has more than its fair share of parks and open spaces – which often surprises first time visitors; but one of the best is Hong Kong Park (香港公园) which was, until 1979, the British Victoria Barracks. Covering 80,000 square metres – about eight hectares – it was built at a cost of $398 million and opened in May 1991 by Sir David Wilson, the Governor of Hong Kong at the time.
It’s only a five minute hike away from the Central MTR station (take the Charter Garden exit) and just below the Peak Tram terminus. Throughout the park, water is a dominant feature and you’ll find no shortage of waterfalls, streams, ponds and cliffs made of artificial rocks. What it lacks, however, is a single lawn… but don’t let that put you off.
When they built the park, they didn’t simply flatten all the old garrison buildings built between 1842 and 1910, thank goodness. Today the buildings still include the former residence of the Commander-in-Chief of the British Armed Forces, known as Flagstaff House, Rawlinson House which is a marriage registry, Wavell House – an Education Centre, and Cassels – formerly the barracks for married British officers, but which today accommodates the Hong Kong Visual Arts Centre.
Flagstaff House itself was built in 1846, but since 1984 has housed the Museum of Teaware. It’s certainly the grandest of the buildings, and even if you don’t find a museum devoted to tea that interesting, it’s probably still worth a visit, especially as there is no entrance fee!
A photograph from 1897 shows that the building, with its wide verandas and numerous columns, has changed very little over the past century…
To be perfectly honest, the tea museum isn’t that exciting – not a patch on similar museums in mainland China. It has a so-so collection of porcelain and tea related antiques, it explains the tea manufacturing processes and also regularly hosts tea tasting sessions in the K.S. Lo Gallery.
It also puts on various exhibitions such as a “Teaware by Hong Kong Potters 2013” show which runs through till 2014.
I rather liked this wood carving which represents ‘good health through fortune wealth and longevity’. In the centre is the Chinese character for tea which represents good health by drinking tea regularly. Bats can be found at the corners, since the word for bat in Chinese sounds like the word for fortune (the Chinese are into homophones big time!); while you can see deers (which sound like the word for wealth) in the left and right lower bottom corners. At the top and bottom are cranes – the symbol for longevity.
The tea pot designs in the special exhibition have some fun elements… such as this one of a bird sticking its head through the pot with what looks like a crab apple in its beak.
Or how about this one representing rubber ducks in a bath, all on the lid of the tea pot, with a tap forming the spout.
Incidentally, if you are into birds in a big way, then you could consider joining the regular bird watching fraternity who meet here every Wednesday morning from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. – again, free of charge.
I mentioned the theme of water throughout the park; and at its centre is an artificial lake and a waterfall, which were built on the site of a tennis court of the former garrison.
Actually it’s not just one waterfall, but a number of waterfalls and rockpools which are home to a colony of turtles that spend their days lounging around on the rocks. The park is also home to a colony of Tai Chi followers whom you will see if you can get up early enough and make it to the park just after dawn (not something I am good at – hence no pictures!)
A bit further on there is what is known as Olympic Square, which, the blurb claims, is reminiscent of an ancient Greek amphitheatre. Hmmm – well, it seats 880 people and is used for concerts, plays, promotional events, sports, and various other entertainments.
Much as the grounds themselves are lovely to walk around, for me the icing on the cake is the presence of two major facilities, namely the Conservatory and the Aviary.
The 1,400 square metre conservatory is apparently one of the largest in Southeast Asia and is well worth a wander through. It's divided into three sections: the Display Plant House, the Dry Plant House and the Humid Plant House; and as you’d expect a range of climatic conditions are simulated so that visitors can experience everything from a tropical rain forest to an arid desert... with a little imagination thrown in!
There’s a semi-permanent orchid exhibition which is marked temporary, but has been there for as long as I can remember. Who can fail to love these Orchidaceae Phalaenopsis Hybridae, I ask myself!
Or for cactus lovers, there is a wonderful display of Echinocactus Grusonii – or Golden Barrel for normal people!
And possibly because it’s China National Day coming up, someone has thoughtfully arranged these Gymnocalycium Friedrichii with the colours of the national flag.
If the conservatory is a crowd puller, then even more so is the aviary – named after Sir Edward Youde, who served as Governor of Hong Kong for four years in the 1980s. The aviary features more than 80 species of birds in a tropical ‘rainforest’ that you can wander through. But before you enter, you pass a number of cages for some of the less sociable birds, or those who need special privileges … such as this White Crested Hornbill.
As you enter the EY Aviary, you prance over a designer-walkthrough facility that takes you up to the tree canopy along elevated walkways, with birds flying around the complex with gay abandon. The stainless steel construction is itself a work of art; but throw in the birds fluttering around you and it’s fabulous. There are a number of these white birds flitting all over the place (I have no idea what they are called – can anyone help?).
My favourite in this hotch potch collection is the Bule-throated Barbet which gorges itself on melon and oranges.
But even this plain looking vulture look-alike is rather cute – again I have no idea what it is!
OK, so the Hong Kong Park is quite spectacular, so we can assume that The Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens should be even better, no? errr…. Unfortunately, no.
The HKZBG (香港動植物公園) boasts that it is bigger than HK Park, occupying an area of 5.6 hectares … Hold on, I thought the latter was 8 hectares??? Oh well. Whatever.
It was founded in 1871 as a Botanic Garden and renamed in 1975 “to reflect the increased commitments to zoological exhibits”. Construction works, we are told, started in 1860 and the first stage was opened to the public in 1864. … Hold on, I thought it opened in 1871? As above… ditto.
Anyway, it is still one of the oldest zoological and botanical centres in the world by anyone’s calculations.
The Garden is divided into two parts by Albany Road, but linked by a subway. The eastern part of the Garden is known as the Old Garden where you’ll find a Children's Playground, Aviaries, Green House and a Fountain Terrace Garden. The New Garden in the west is mainly the home of mammals and reptiles.
But though there are more than 1,000 species in the Garden – mostly indigenous to tropical and sub-tropical regions – it simply isn’t a patch on the Park. Yes, you can feast your eyes on members of the major plant groups such as Conifer, Fig, Palm, Gum Trees, Magnolia, Camellia, Azalea, Philodendron and other native flora. The Dawn Red-wood, the local Ailanthus, Crapnell's Camellia, Grantham's Camellia and Yellow Camellia, we are told, provide rarity.
The Norfolk Island Pine, Travellers-tree, Royal Palm, Asoka Tree, Forest Grey Gum and the Elephant Apple provide distinctive features in form, leaf-shape, bark and fruit. And the Garden is frequently filled with the fragrance of Roses, Mock Lime, Orange-jessamine, Kwai-fah, Chinese Privet and the White Jade Orchid Tree.
But after the Park, it ranks a definite second place, in my book… which I suppose serves me right for going to the Park first. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson by now!
Even the bronze statue of King George VI, erected in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of British colonial rule over Hong Kong is scarcely given a second look. But almost all the collections look tired and badly in need of a good dollop of renovation. The information provided about the poor animals is minimal. The aviaries are difficult to look into due to the type of wire mesh used. And looking at the plants one gets a feeling of déjà vu after wandering through the Park.
Most of the animals are half asleep, and they have little space in which to run around. The birds' exhibit is made up of only a few cages and some of the other exhibits such as the reptiles are closed.
OK, maybe I’m sounding like a spoiled brat now. But I have to admit that my favourite sight in the HKZBG was the no smoking signs!
The keeping of wild animal exhibits date back to 1876, when they were kept in small numbers in very primitive structures. But following the major expansion in the mid-1970s, emphasis were directed to the latest techniques in captive breeding and conservation programmes. About 400 birds, 70 mammals and 50 reptiles are now being housed in about 40 enclosures.
Providing a splash of colour – if you can force your eyes through the thick cage fencing – are the American Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber ruber) which are here in abundance.
Even more red are the Scarlet Ibis (Eudocimus Ruber) – well I suppose they would be given their name, wouldn’t they.
There is a handful of mammals, though the official blurb tell us that the size of the Garden precludes the keeping of very large Mammal species such giraffes. (I think I would call that an understatement!) And prepare to weep … Two Chinese Alligators passed away recently just four months apart from one another.
I quite enjoyed the lonely Siamang (Hulobates Syndactylus) jumping around his cage – though at the same time felt sorry for him. What a life having to stare back at the rubber-neckers staring at you all day long! Apparently Siamengs advertise their territorial rights with loud calls audible for at least a kilometre, though this old guy had obviously given up claiming his cage as his very own. Can’t say I blame him.
So the lesson to be learned form all of this is that if you intend to visit the two places on the same holiday, go visit the Zoological gardens first. That way you won’t be able to compare the two and be forever disappointed as you look for something positive to say about it.
But at the end of the day, both establishments are free entry and how many places these days can boast that? Time for your favourite blogger to start showing a bit of gratitude to the powers that be in HK, methinks.
OK, I am duly chastised and thoroughly ashamed of myself. (But I’d still give the HKZBG a miss!)