Hong Kong, horse racing, Study Abroad, travel

Happy Valley Racecourse, Hong Kong Island.


A Horse Race in China.

I believe that China has the most ardent gambling fans of any nation.

Americans like to gamble, but not like the Chinese — to them, it’s a basic, essential part of life, like fine food to the French, or dancing to the Spanish.  I suppose it stems from seeing life as a gamble — you have to take your chances, competing for a job when everyone else has exactly the same skills and mindset.  And in the industrial zones of China, your life is being gambled away for you, as you attempt to survive the job-site, the drinking water, and the air you breathe.

In Hong Kong, like everywhere in China outside of Macau, every form of gambling is outlawed — with one exception.



The exception is the horse race. There are two racetracks in Hong Kong — both famous, world-class, and impressive.

My friends from Lingnan University decided to meet at the Happy Valley Racecourse, in the center of heavily-developed Hong Kong Island.  Happy Valley is home to the biggest single jackpot in the world for any horse racing event – 400,000,000.00 dollars.

L0055568 Racecourse, Happy Valley, Hong Kong. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Racecourse, Happy Valley, Hong Kong. Photograph by John Thomson, 1868/1871. Viewed from the hill. The village of Wong Nei Cheong can just be seen at the far end of the racecourse. 1868 By: J. ThomsonPublished: 1868/1871. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Racecourse, Happy Valley, 1868, credit John Thomson, Wellcome Library, London.

Originally, the land was swamp and rice paddies, appropriated by the British back in the 1800’s.  The city grew around it, and the track is now surrounded by skyscrapers.


The owner of one building, a particularly enthusiastic fan of racing, built himself a penthouse with a special viewing balcony.


The Tram. Looking a bit like J.K.Rowling’s Knight Bus

The trip there from the New Territories was an entertaining saga if its own — getting lost repeatedly, while trying various unique modes of transportation, including a 110-year-old tram.  Getting home took even longer,  and only people familiar with the absolutely indescribable impossibility of keeping any group of Asian college students on track and moving, can understand. (Because enjoying being together in the group is the goal and the reward, rather than actually getting anywhere in particular!)

The racetrack is an amazing sight in its own right:  7 stories of free seating, and 3 more decks for those who want to pay for the privilege of getting VIP seating. The stadium was also very Hong-Kongish in that it was full of food stalls that were randomly placed around the track, and simply full of people everywhere, tens of thousands. I don’t know the seating capacity, but it must have been in the hundred thousand range. In typical Asian fashion, it was crowded, full of animated conversations, clouds of cigarette smoke, and cell phone “Selfies” being taken.


Having finally found the track, getting up to the seventh story to find our friends was a challenge in its own right — the elevators we found took us into the kitchens for some reason, and others were just for use during fires (which didn’t make sense to me, since in America elevators are what you don’t take when there’s a fire). So we took the stairs — also challenging — they were crowded with people, but none of them were actually going up and down.  The glitzy decor of the rest of the stadium wasn’t there, and the stairs were full of cigarette butts, old gum, torn-up betting slips, and countless people sitting quite comfortably on the steps smoking cigarettes, despite the signs saying: NO SMOKING. They clearly weren’t bothered by that. The looks they gave us seemed like they were daring us, “Go ahead, tell us to stop.”

When we arrived at the 7th tier, it hit me, that we were having a distinctly Hong Kong experience. Yes, there were about 10,000 reserved VIP seats, but really, as far as your neighbors at this track, all bets were off (pun not intended) — you could sit on the crowded benches literally rubbing elbows with a CEO on one side, and his shoe-shiner on the other.  It put everyone on an equal level.


Horse running Mulbridge LOCBetting was also interesting, as it was a very complex process. We had three Korean women in our group, who seemed to have mastered it with their system — they placed a bet on every single horse!  They were betting in several categories (win, place, show) and despite the initial cost, they won by default every single time, sometimes winning enough that’d they’d break even or even make a bit of money.


The Lingnan U Betting Club

The most vivid memory from Happy Valley is something that screams “CHINA” to me. When we got to the final round of races, we all decided to place bets. I had been carefully studying the directory, and placed my bet on a favored horse to win. Everyone else was going to do the same, when a shirtless, mostly toothless old-looking man approached them. (This isn’t an uncommon sight in China, another difference between here and there). This man whispered in the ear of the Chinese-speakers and then stood behind them as they placed their bets. I thought he was just some oddball and then proceeded to watch the race.

Well, apparently he was a wizard. My horse lost by a hair, or a nose, to the horse that was the underdog — who was the one the old mysterious man had told my friends to bet on. He was right. They split the winnings (several thousand HKD) between them and had a great time rubbing it in my face.

They turned to thank the old man, and he had vanished. The time he disappeared was the only time that there was no crowd in our part of the stadium, so it seemed like he honestly vaporized into the night air. I don’t know why, but that disappearing old shirtless man is probably the most distinctive image I have of China, of all of the images I have saved mentally. It just seemed so incredibly Chinese to me, maybe because that does not happen anywhere else!

I didn’t need any time to realize that this was a distinctive experience — it struck me as suddenly as the little old man vanished. As we left, I was disgruntled over my lost bet, and my friends were ecstatic that they won (even though divided up, it came to very little money).  We walked out of the stadium through a literal downpour of papers from the betting tables. Showers of papers riding the humid air currents and slowly falling to earth closed the scene.

Of all the things I saw, felt, smelled, ate or heard, during my time in Hong Kong, this day was China.


Hong Kong, travel

Macau Photos


Macau. Here you see the Colonial Portuguese influence melded with modern Chinese casinos. A truly unique place.


Some handsome American tourist photobombed me.


Typical Street Scene. Crowded, it makes Mong Kok (the most densely packed neighborhood on earth) seem tame.


A large loaf of bread in a local bakery. Everything in excess is Macau's unofficial motto. Shows the Portuguese influence.

A large loaf of bread in a local bakery. Everything in excess is Macau’s unofficial motto. Shows the Portuguese influence.


Ruined temple…

Hong Kong


549051_722245691134331_1552063638_nI didn’t travel on the mainland during my time in Hong Kong, for various reasons, but primarily the expense. In some ways, I’m glad, because it allowed me to understand my city, Hong Kong, more intimately. I think I know aspects of it better than most of the other exchange students, or even some residents.

I did take a short day trip to nearby Macau. Hong Kong and Macau are the two  “Special Administrative Regions” in China. Together they are sister “city states”, self- governed, with their own currency, their own police, and their own embassies (OK, technically “consulates,” even though they are older and bigger than the ones in Beijing). Macau is also the gambling capital of the entire world, with a revenue that is annually six times bigger than Las Vegas’s and growing. In fact, the owner of Sands casinos (one of the biggest in the world) is relocating their headquarters from Vegas to Macau.


But Macau is more than the gambling Mecca of a gambling-crazed China. It was a Portuguese colony for close to four hundred years, versus Hong Kong’s mere century and a half of British colonization, and the character of each city is much different from the other. Macau is going through huge changes, at lightning speed, but still feels Old World in a way that Hong Kong doesn’t.


DSC02347-001Much of Macau still appears and is as old as many Latin American cities, or even parts of Portuguese cities. There are the brightly colored houses found throughout the Latin world, the names are in Portuguese, and mosaic tiles are used for the old city square paving. Catholic churches from past centuries are all over the island. I recall my Mexican friend walking around saying: “I need to look at the Chinese faces because I keep thinking I am back home”. Truly there is nowhere else on earth quite like it. And in the typical dense fashion of a Chinese city, a few blocks from all this architectural beauty you’ll find yourself in a land of towering concrete skyscrapers and glassy casinos, mostly Western, though two of the largest casinos are local.

Despite the Portuguese charm, the city feels seedy, as if it truly is a den of vice. Hong Kong was long regarded as a tame city (despite its own triads, pirates, and smugglers), while Macau historically was famous for being the place to find prostitutes, gangsters, pirates, and various other ruffians. Shanghai in the 1920s stole that image from Macau, and it has now shifted further west to Bangkok. The vibe you get is as complicated as Macau’s history and identity, as you feel the Asian sensation of calm chaos, yet you imagine yourself being dragged into an alley by a gang of hooded figures, and you also feel like you’re somewhere you are somehow familiar with. Totally unique experience.

Macao ruin (1)

During my visit, we did a bit of everything, ranging from museums to venturing into the Casino Lisboa, the second biggest in town, and marveling at the thirty million dollar (you read that right) gold-plated, ivory-accented, jade-filled Ming Vases in the entrance, the diamond chandeliers, the golden dragon statues, the bright lights, the flashy cars and bars, the beautifully carved mammoth tusk. And yet, like Macau, this opulent palace is all based on bad habits and foolish choices, and felt tainted.

We went to the upper level restaurant overlooking the gambling floor. The carpets were bright orange, like a hippie’s rug for his van in the ‘60’s.  The lighting was off, the tables looked worn out, the men in purple suits looked like they could’ve been found as extras in a ’70s low budget crime movie, and the music being played was coming from the most decrepit bar band I’ve ever seen.  It sounded just as bad as it looked. Even the showgirls looked like they were on their last tour before being retired;  the entertainment certainly wasn’t on par with the legendary Las Vegas shows. However, unlike Vegas, which is billed as a place to bring the kids for some wild magic acts and amazing performances, Macau has only one concern and that is gambling. The money generated in one month at Macau is more than the GDP of some of the countries in South Asia. Per capita, after Qatar and Luxembourg, Macanese are the richest people on earth.  You’d never be able to tell by looking at the denizens of the casino.

The strange, conflicted image seemed very much like the rest of Macau, a city that was unsure of what it was, or what it is. You could walk along the wall from the 1500’s and admire the beautiful stonework while looking out over a city that resembled a dystopian future city from an ‘80’s movie, with its dingy houses along the polluted Pearl River.  Hazy air rolls in from four London-sized cities just across the river from Macau. When you saw Macau’s flag flying, it looked tired, as if it knew that in thirty years time, it will be replaced by the flag of China as they take over total control.

As we took the high speed ferry back to Hong Kong that night, I wasn’t sure of how I felt about Macau. It was just too confusing, the emotions and vibes the city produced puzzled me. You’d see someone serving up fusion foods of Portuguese and Cantonese food (some of the best food I’ve had) while standing in the doorway of a French owned bank, next to housing slated for demotion. There is nowhere like it, and Macau is definitely worth going to see, but unlike Hong Kong, it isn’t any place to live.