Also on our afternoon agenda was the Hong Kong Museum of History, free on Wednesdays, when we went. Its sprawling "Story of Hong Kong" exhibition offered marvelous nature dioramas and simulated street scenes from colonial days.
In the museum lobby was a poignant addition: an exhibit on the city's history of fighting and defeating plagues, designed "to strengthen our confidence in overcoming SARS."
A heart-shaped box was stuffed with woven paper hearts, made by visitors from leaflets and inscribed with loving messages for victims and health workers.
Night found us on the Star Ferry en route to Hong Kong Island, the city's Manhattan, to take in double-header Chinese operas performed by a visiting company from Hubei province.
We most enjoyed "Catching Sanlang Alive," in which a rejected, murdered woman retrieves her lover and drags him to the spirit world. Besides the singsong music and stylized gestures we associate with the genre, this opera was, oddly, full of slapstick comedy — a cross between Jerry Lewis and Cirque du Soleil, with English subtitles. All this fun for $25 per person. (I booked my opera tickets through the URBTIX ticketing office, 011-852-2734-9011.)
On our third day, after committing the trip's biggest budget blunder ($52 for two for the hotel's Western-style breakfast buffet), we boarded a bus for a five-hour spin around Hong Kong Island with PC Tours' Fung.
Like so many commercial tours, this one was heavy on shopping stops: the touristy Stanley Village Market on the island's south side (which was far from bustling) and a jewelry factory in the city, unredeemed by even a token crafts demonstration. ("I can shop at Macy's back home," one tourgoer groaned.)
But the sublime city view from 1,805-foot-high Victoria Peak (reachable by bus or tram) and a boat tour ($6 extra) of Aberdeen's photogenic sampan village and garish Jumbo floating restaurant were worthwhile, as were Fung's insights.
One of his tips: See the sampan village soon. In 1991 it was home to 150,000 souls, but it has one-tenth that many today and may disappear by 2007, he said. Many factors have taken their toll on the live-aboards, who once made their living selling eggs. In 1997, keeping poultry on board was outlawed; earlier, residents' children moved to land for mandatory schooling, Fung explained. And the government isn't renewing boat licenses when they expire.
At the other extreme, beleaguered or not, Hong Kong's wealthy roar on, Fung said, snapping up 2% of the world's production of Rolls-Royces.
After the tour, we took a one-hour ride on the Duk Ling, the restored Chinese junk that bobs across many a photo of this city's renowned skyline. The Hong Kong Tourism Board offers free rides to visitors on Thursdays and, through this month, on Mondays. (The catch: The trips typically book up a week in advance. To assure a seat, you can fax your passport to a friend or colleague in Hong Kong, who then must pick up the tickets in person from the tourism office there. See "Ultra-urban idyll" for details.)
Disappointingly, the flat-bottomed boat runs by motor, not under sail. But the voyage was relaxing and afforded a chance to meet other tourists — most of them, on our outing at least, Australians, Germans and Dutch.
"People are scared," said Kathryn Foster, a travel agent who works near Allentown, Pa., and was spending four days in Hong Kong. Her clients, worried about SARS, won't be coming any time soon, she said.
I found three other Americans, all with ties to the region, among the two dozen boat riders: Tom Shui, who lives near San Jose, vacationing with his Taiwanese girlfriend, Maggie Chen; and a New York couple, one of whom was born in Hong Kong.
For our final night, Wesla and I headed for Yung Kee Restaurant, a classic Cantonese place known for roast goose and what are popularly known as thousand-year eggs, the latter placed on your table unbidden. (They're not really 1,000 years old, we're told, but rather preserved in a mix of ash, lime and salt for about 100 days.) The whites were gelatinous, brown and tasteless; the dark-olive yolk was a bit like cheese. We also shared fried prawns with crab roe, water spinach, a roasted-duck rice bowl and mango pudding — all wonderful — for $42.
Our favorite experience that night was free. We headed up the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator, half a mile of elevated walkways and escalators that take commuters down the hillside to Central Market in the morning and back up at night.
Running daringly close to high-rise businesses and apartments, it's a voyeur's buffet, affording riders a peek into people's lives. We saw tailors at work, fruit sellers and more.