Dim Sum Dialogues: Ngong Ping

The world’s largest outdoor seated bronze buddha.

It sounds more like an obscure sports statistic than a record for a religious statue – and it left me to wonder – where does the largest indoor standing silver buddha reside? My skepticism about the buddha at Ngong Ping was barely trumped by my interest in finally visiting a historically and culturally significant monument in Hong Kong – fantasizing that it must have been built at least a few hundred years ago by devoted buddhists that used sacred, ancient methods of construction.

And yet again, my assumptions failed me.

The buddha was built in 1993. Nineteen Ninety-Three. The same year Intel shipped the first Pentium chips. The same year that the first corrected images from the Hubble telescope were taken. Hardly the timeworn, historical relic that I had pictured. I suddenly felt bitter and betrayed, like someone was trying to pull a fast one on a poor foreigner. But it seemed to sum up the story of Hong Kong; a new shining structure built upon a connection to Chinese heritage, in the hope of attracting foreign dollars.

The obvious tourist-trap nature of it made me reluctant to make the 45-minute trek out to Lantau Island from the center of town – fearing that I would only go home disappointed. The only attractive factor seemed to be the Ngong Ping 360º – a 5.7km long cable car ride (also owned by the MTR corporation) that whisks MTR passengers from the Tung Chung stop to the village of Ngong Ping in new cable cars with (wait for it) glass bottom floors.

So when a friend came to town, I tucked away my anti-tourist snobbery and splurged on the $160 HKD “Crystal Cabin” ticket for the 360º – a $60 step up from a regular cabin ticket, but worth every cent. It’s a fun and disorienting feeling to hover across water, trees, and mountains – something that initially takes several minutes to adjust to. The path of the cable car provides panoramic views over the Hong Kong International Airport and several outlying islands – assuming that the weather is clear, which isn’t a safe bet on most days in the territory.

When the cable car ride was over, I suddenly found myself in a modern Chinese “village”, which is simply a strip mall disguised with traditional Chinese architecture and light music playing over a carefully hidden ambient sound system. The words that entered my head as I walked through the development was “China-in-a-box”. A packaged, polished, and easily digestible version of the China that is ironically nowhere to be found on the streets Hong Kong. An orderly collection of Chinese memorabilia, ready to be sold shipped back to the country of your origin.

I was ready to turn around and go straight home as soon as I saw the painfully familiar glowing green letters that practically spells tourist trap: S-T-A-R-B-U-C-K-S. Everything I had feared was true, and the icing on the cake was the whipped cream on the carmel frappachinos of tourists lounging at green patio tables. The only thing that stopped me from turning around was the beautiful, faint sound of someone plucking a guzheng.

It was a sound that I had heard only in recordings before, and had hoped to witness in person since my arrival in Hong Kong. A sound that when I followed it, led me to the doors of a (wait for it) traditional wooden tea-house. The type of tea-house that I had dreamed of discovering weeks earlier, sans a wise old man with a long grey beard. There were scheduled tea-samplings and lessons for how to brew Chinese tea properly, antique tea sets and a diverse selection of leaves. In an instant, my prejudice against Ngong Ping was turned upside down. Maybe it was a fabricated, lustrous version of a China that can’t be found on the streets of Hong Kong – but it had just satisfied my expectations as a foreigner with one fell swoop.

The rest of the day was spent visiting the buddha, a buddhist temple, and wandering through several nature trails that surround the village. I let go of my bitterness as I read the displays that documented the construction of the buddha. I had to concede that it was still an impressive attraction and feat, even if it wasn’t crafted out of thin air by hundreds of devout buddhist hands, and even if it did cost an estimated $68 million USD to build.

On the ride back in the Crystal Cabin, I looked down at my feet gliding above the densely forested mountains. The sound of the guzheng still rang in my ears, and I was thankful that I had spent the day as a dreaded tourist.

So if you’re planning on visiting Hong Kong, I’d recommend putting Ngong Ping on your agenda. But please, skip the Tazo® in favor of some local pu-erh or oolong…