No one he knows, a friend once told me, has been to Hong Kong and not liked it. Having spent most of my second year in Hong Kong – a region bearing a multifaceted role as a key Pacific Rim economy, a repository for Chinese culture, and an experiment in governance, I too fell in love with this small, peculiar and yet incredibly dynamic city.
But when you’ve gone up to the Peak, taken the Star Ferry, seen the Big Buddha, survived the rollercoaster ride at Ocean Park, bargained your way through the Ladies’ Market, and spent your Thursday night at LKF (Hong Kong’s central clubbing district), I have found that it’s the little things that make Hong Kong unique.
For the shopaholic: Home to approximately 71 major shopping centers, it is unsurprising that the consumerist culture dominates in Hong Kong. However, the uniqueness of shopping in Hong Kong, as opposed to anywhere else in the world (though I must add that Taiwan ranks equally high on my list) can be found in its small-scale low-prestige and extremely packed mini-malls. Whether you shop for clothes, bags or accessories, you’re guaranteed a lower price (some shop owners are willing to bargain a little as well), good quality (most of the time, anyway), and it’s the hub for becoming local designers. The only down side, perhaps, is the strict “no try-ons” policy. So after a day at Sogo, make your way into La Foret in Causeway Bay or Argyle Center in Mong Kok, if only for the ‘cultural’ experience.
Treasure hunt: If you’re after more meaningful gifts, try walking through the backstreets of LKF into Hollywood Road. Though the antique stores and galleries at its most refined intervals may be miles off your price range, the area rewards meticulous snoopers. If you’re lucky you might get hold of priceless Communist memorabilia, such as the original Little Red Book printed in the 1960s for a bargain price, and come away with an interesting conversation with the shop-keeper.
Become a connoisseur: One of the obsessions that blossomed during my stay in the Orient was tea-tasting. Stepping into a Chinese teahouse the activity becomes almost addictive, and your tea guru will surely not let you get away with trying just one. Take a seat and marvel at the various tools and techniques that go into brewing just one tiny cup of tea. To gain a bit of background and enjoy the surroundings visit the tea house at the Museum of Tea Ware in Hong Kong Park, but if you’re looking at trying a number of things at once, find the Yue Hwa Chinese arts and crafts department store in Jordan, and bring a taste of China back home with you. My personal favourites include Oolong with Orange Peel and Narcissus, which goes great with a plate of dim sum.
Remedy your soul: If you’re an early-bird, you’ll find how health-conscious locals are; already around six in the morning Hong Kongers can be seen congregated and doing their morning Tai Chi. Praised for its link to health and longevity, as well as being a form of soft exercise, this traditional martial art has an important role in Chinese culture. The Hong Kong Tourism Board offers visitors a rare chance to learn Tai Chi at the waterfront of Victoria Harbour, which is particularly amazing of a sunny morning. A charming couple leads the workshop in English three times a week, teaching the basic positions for Tai Chi Chuan, presenting a faster, combat form of Tai Chi after each session. The exercise has a soothing and calming effect – provided you get a lot of sleep the night before.
Take a hike: Though Hong Kong is heavily populated, the city need not be as oppressive as it seems to be. If you’re craving to get back to nature, take the MTR (subway) to the North-West corner of the map into Tsuen Wan to reach the Maclehose trail. The trail covers a distance of 100km over the New Territories, Hong Kong’s most varied countryside area. The course spans a number of possible routes, all of which are kept to a very decent standard, featuring picnic areas and rest stops along the way. 957 meters high at its peak, the area offers numerous photo opportunities whether you’re going for sunsets or star trails. Most importantly, camping is safe (outside typhoon season at least).
To soak up the scenery at sea level, stay clear from the heavily publicized Victoria Harbour cruises; hiring a sampan (read: a wooden boat taxi) from Hong Kong’s secluded Sei Kung area will set a quiter and more romantic and traditional mood while cruising along the mountainous coastline, especially at dusk.
“Nmo sik-gong yatee guangdongwah”*: The best thing about travelling is picking up a language. Cantonese is easy to impress with due to its difficult, yet melodic 9-tone dynamic (beating Mandarin by 5 tones). Although you may get by in the SAR speaking English, locals are appreciative and sympathetic if you greet them with a ‘Lei hou’ (hello) and ‘Mm goi sai’ (thank you), which you pick up in no time.
(* Translation- I know how to speak a little bit of Cantonese)
Ride a minibus, hire a sampan: The MTR will take you just about anywhere and thus it’s easy to neglect the other alternative means of transport available in the city. However, the minibuses are worth a try, particularly considering what locals have to say about them. Their routes are changeable, they stop on request, and are on the whole unpredictable.
Hong Kong minibus drivers have gained a reputation of being reckless drivers, and many buses have had meters installed to prevent speeding. But they do anyway; and the sound of 16 people gasping as the meter starts beeping is a amusing experience, assuming it does not end tragically. If you’re a first-timer, try going with someone who speaks Cantonese. Just in case.
A weekend away made easy: One of the greatest things about Hong Kong is how well-connected it is, and how this adds to the leisure activities open to Hong Kong’s average Joe. An MTR ride to Lok Wu allows leads to a day escape spa. Try Xiwaitaoyuen in Shenzhen- a 1.5hr massage with essential oils of your choice, two showers and a sauna session will cost you 198 RMB (£18)! However, if you like to go to extremes, take a ferry ride to Macau to experience the real thrill of bungee jumping- Macau Tower currently holds the record of the world’s highest drop.
Lastly, to those who take joy in experimenting with local cuisine, I have four words for you: ‘chicken feet’ and ‘bird’s nest’ (otherwise known as ‘bird spit’).