Movin' On Up In Hong Kong

World's longest escalator opens doors to city's varied neighborhoods and shops

Here is a journey that is short and certainly easy on the feet. It's a ride up the world's longest escalator - actually a series of linked escalators, nearly two dozen in all - that run from near the water's edge halfway up Victoria Peak.

It takes about 20 minutes to traverse the full 2,625 feet. But you can spend the full afternoon slowly working your way up. At any segment the rider can easily get on or off, which means plenty of opportunities to explore the side streets, shop in the antique stores, or simply sit in an outdoor cafe and watch the world go by.

Hong Kong Island is built on the side of a mountain. Only a block or two next to the harbor front is flat, and most of that is reclaimed land. Very soon, one is already climbing granite stairways, appropriately named "ladder streets," that work their way up the slope, often at a steep angle.

Like the Peak Tram 100 years ago, the escalator has a strictly utilitarian purpose. It is to move people to and from the "mid-levels," the residential area half-way up the mountainside that is favored by senior managers, stockbrokers, and other people who are well-paid but have not yet reached the pinnacle of social prestige: a residence on the peak itself.

But while the Peak Tram has been almost entirely taken over by tourists, there is still a neighborhood feeling along the escalator pathway. Most of the 33,000 people who ride it annually are locals - workers, elderly ladies with parasols, and Filipina maids carrying groceries from the supermarket. One passes by small grocery stores, herbal medicine shops, video stores, and print shops.

From 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. the escalator runs downhill. At that time it becomes the "money route," hustling financial advisers and brokers to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, which is in easy walking distance of the bottom terminus. For the rest of the day until midnight, the stairs move uphill.

The Hong Kong Tourist Association doesn't go out of its way to publicize the escalator, which is surprising. After all, an escalator is more emblematic of modern Hong Kong than, say, a rickshaw or a sailing junk.

Nevertheless, it begins above a vegetable market at the corner of Queen Victoria Street and busy Connaugar Road, one of Hong Kong's main drags. The famous street cars, or trams, rumble along near the entrance.

Upon boarding, the first thing one notices is that there is no turnstile and no ticket takers. Unusual for Hong Kong, this mode of transportation is free. Since anyone can easily get on or off at any of two-dozen places along the way, it was considered impractical to collect fares.

The trip begins in a gentle rise along several moving walkways called "travelators." They carry you high above busy Queen's Road East (easy to pop down to shop in the luxurious Lane Crawford Department Store) and past Wellington and Stanley Streets. Perhaps the first place to get off is Hollywood Road - not an avenue with film marquees, despite its name. This is the heart of Hong Kong's busy antique and Oriental-carpet trade.

On one side looms the gray and red brick facade of the Central Police Station, built in 1919 and notable as one of the few buildings in the colony that date back to the first part of the 20th century. If there is time, one can stroll farther west along Hollywood Road visiting the Mo Man Temple and the Cat Street antique bazaar.

"Look left" for cars reads the warning sign as the moving stairway reaches Staunton Street. You have to get off and cross the intersection before picking up another segment. But it is worth tarrying. Entrepreneurs have taken advantage of the escalator to turn this street, once made up mostly of nondescript printing or wood-working shops, into chi-chi little restaurants with international flavor.

On one side is the Nepal Restaurant with its exotic fare. On the other, Le Fauchon, a French restaurant. Just opening opposite the Buddhist temple is a tiny hole-in-the-wall carry-out offering a strange combination of Australian, Greek, and Finnish cuisine.

Paula Dindo has watched the world pass by from her interior-decorator shop at the corner of Staunton Street, and decries the gentrification going around her. "They sort of destroyed the feeling of the place," she says. Once known for relatively inexpensive houses, the area is giving way to newer high-rise buildings with "microscopic" apartments and macro rents.

The escalator moves to the next level past the Lee Fung China stop with its attractive sets of Chinese dinner dishes in the window. Some of the other china shops on Elgin Street stock gaudy ceramic busts of Mao Zedong, now selling at high prices. I kept a sharp eye out for a small Hong Kong curiosity: "Rednaxela St.," actually Alexander Street, but supposedly written backwards by a not very English-literate Chinese and never corrected. The last time I rode the route, the sign was there. Now there is only the bare, rectangular outline where the street sign used to be. Perhaps it had become an embarrassment.

High up the mountain, virtually hidden among the high-rise apartment buildings, is the charming green and white Jamia Mosque, located, approximately enough, on Mosque Street. It probably would have stayed mostly hidden, save from the faithful, without the escalator.

The Jamia Mosque traces its ancestry to 1890 when the first establishment was erected to serve Muslims on Hong Kong Island, most of them from British possessions in India and brought in to serve as policemen. "This mosque was built by HMH Essak Elias of Bombay, August 1915," says the plaque at the entrance, which is full of shoes from the worshippers inside.

Listen as Arabic music wafts out the open doors. The pungent odor of curry comes from a dilapidated structure nearby, which for years has housed Muslims squatters. Regrettable for them, it is slated to be torn down for a modern new Islamic culture center.

The trip is almost at an end. From Mosque Street, the slope rises steeper and steeper. One passes over the busy residential streets of Caine road and Robinson Road, and finally reaches the terminus on Conduit Road and the end of the journey. There is nothing out of the ordinary, no hawkers, no balloons, just the massive faade of an apartment building.

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