Bright sunlight sparkled on the water amidst the bobbing solar panels scattered about the ocean. The Shenzhen skyline faded in the distance as my friend, Carol, and I rode a crowded double-decker bus early in the morning across the bridge to the palm tree-lined coast of Hong Kong (HK). Sounds of Cantonese had washed over like a wave beginning at the border and enveloping us on the bus. Used to Putonghua (Mandarin), I found the sing-song, lilting and other times guttural, language fascinating to listen to. It sounds like a bit like Vietnamese or Thai mixed in with familiar mainland sounds. Carol (you can read about her new life in Hong Kong here) quizzed me on the four or five sentences in Canto that she’d been trying to teach me, like “thank you” (唔該駛 m̀hgòisái), which would prove super useful over the next few days I would be staying here in the “Pearl of the Orient.”
Hong Kong felt warm and tropical as we rode into the New Territories. The briny smell of the ocean wore off further inland as dense green foliage gave way to the metropolis. Recovery efforts from the recent big typhoon were still ongoing as workers shuffled about collecting broken branches and other debris along the sides of the road.
The politeness of Hong Kong’ers was a shock to my system having just dealt with the overly aggressive pushing and constant shouting of mainland tourists at the border. Carol had warned me, but actually hearing people repeatedly say “excuse me” and “thank you” really felt like I had entered a different culture. As Carol and I hopped off at a stop to wait for our next double-decker bus, a random elderly woman told us to line up. The buses had their own queues!
Hong Kong started off as a faraway blimp in mainland China’s radar – the land and its people being so removed from the imperial circle to be of any major consequence. As time passed, the coastal fishing villages grew in strategic importance to become a trading post for the mainland. The short version is that Europeans were allowed on the peninsula to trade silver for Chinese tea, silk and porcelain. At first terribly one-sided, the British found a way to make more lucrative gains from the Chinese when they began selling opium, “foreign mud,” from their colonies in India. Opium became a huge hit. Faced with a drug crisis, the Chinese tried to stamp out the opium trade, giving the Brits the pretext they needed to invade the area. In 1841, the Union flag was raised on Hong Kong Island with the Treaty of Nanking ceding the island to the British crown “in perpetuity” and ending the First Opium War. The Second Opium War ended in 1860 with the Brits taking control of the Kowloon Peninsula. In 1998 a 99-year lease was granted for the New Territories.
Over the years, HK has been a safe haven for refugees fleeing China during times of turmoil. During WWII it suffered under Japanese rule, falling from a population of 1.6 million to 610,000. This increased again to over 2 million, not long after, with more refugees from the Communist victory in China in 1949. The UN trade embargo on China during the Korean War and China’s isolation over the net three decades saw HK reinvent itself as one of the world’s most dynamic ports and manufacturing and financial-service centers.
Today, Hong Kong 香港 is one of two SARs, Special Administrative Regions, of China – the other being Macau. In 1984 Britain agreed to relinquish HK on the condition that it would retain its free-market economy along with social and legal systems for the next 50 years. In 1996, the ceremony was finally held with the Union flag lowering and the CCP flag raised, for better or for worse. HK currently has the right to autonomous control over everything except matters of international diplomacy and defense until 2047. Public unease simmers under the surface. Most people will probably recall 2014’s Umbrella Revolution in which residents protested the Chinese govt’s pre-screening of political candidates running for the head Chief Executive of HK. This is still is ongoing to a lesser extent today as we were given pro-democracy pamphlets while wandering around HK.
At the moment, Hong Kong is the 4th most densely populated region in the world. – following Macau, Monaco and Singapore. As such, the area has quite a few social problems. For instance, there is a huge income disparity. HK boasts one of the highest per capita incomes in the world with the richest earning something like 44 percent higher than what the poorest family makes despite government attempts to alleviate poverty. Hong Kong property is also the most expensive in the world. The city additionally has a large housing crisis. All the land in HK is owned by the government and leased to developers through auctions. Space is super expensive. The monthly rent for a low-quality subsidized apartment smaller than a parking space is over $500. Public housing has over a five-year wait list. To make ends meet in this pricey city, tens of thousands of people live minimally in suffocatingly small “cage homes,” made of wire mesh, or the minuscule “coffin cubicles,” a 15 sq ft room made of a bed sealed-in by wooden planks with no standing room. The “budget hotel” i.e. $40+ a night in Mongkok I stayed in was claustrophobic and roach-infested, not as small as a cage home, but akin to a grimy closet. I would highly recommend saving up to stay somewhere nice when visiting HK.
Hong Kong is divided into 4 areas; Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, New Territories and the Outlying islands. During my stay, I mainly stuck around Kowloon and Hong Kong island. I’ve been wanting to visit Hong Kong for a long time. I’m lucky in that I was able to visit so long since we’re given a week off in China for National Week! However, so did all the other mainlanders who flooded into HK…I still had a blast despite the daunting crowds. These are some the places I visited:
HK is super touristy, which makes for convenient and easy traveling. One of its best transportation features is the use of an Octopus card. Unlike the UK’s Oyster Card, the Octopus card can be used interchangeably to pay not only for fares on the MTR (metro/subway) and buses, but also to buy things in grocery stores, shopping malls, and meals at some restaurants. It’s like a reloadable debit card! Any help desk at a metro station can issue one for 150 hkd ($21). You can reload them at any convenience store (there are so many 7/11’s!), and you can return the card for your money back!
Most young Hong Kong people are trilingual, so as long as you speak either English, Mandarin or Cantonese, you’re set!
Another note, all the bathrooms in HK are western style! They even come with toilet paper and soap!! Such a nice break after having to get used to carrying tissues and GermX everywhere.
Hong Kong Museum of History
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is, as a guest, to visit a city’s museum. Even if you don’t agree with the narrative, it’s respectful to know and understand how a city’s people define themselves and present their own story. HK’s history museum is free to the public on Wednesdays, which is the day I went. I did have to dodge a few classes on a field trip.
The layout starts out with the prehistoric era and Neolithic artifacts, through various dynasties in Chinese history and ending with Hong Kong’s “return” to China. I thought the displays were gorgeous. There was even a full-sized junk! The museum also had quite a few short movie exhibits that were well detailed. When I went, there was a temporary exhibit in the main lobby about the history of HK’s firefighters.
Tsim Sha Tshui Free walking tour
At Carol’s recommendation, I signed up for one of Hong Kong’s free walking tours, the only free walking tour recommended by TripAdvisor. The tour is done by a volunteer on a tip basis. I’m glad I signed up! I met some interesting people – there were only five of us: a New Zealand businessman, a British Indian dude teaching English in Shanghai, a vacationing Californian, our funny guide Matthew and me.
We met at the old colonial clock tower under Matthew’s green umbrella, walked about the pier and through the area as Matthew talked about history and offered us personal anecdotes. We walked into the super luxurious Peninsula Hotel and gawked as diners gave us the side eye and drank their afternoon tea.
Hong Kong milk tea is much stronger than the mainland’s. Locals prefer a mixture of five different types of tea soaked together to pull out a deep, bitter flavor. What stole my heart though were these fluffy egg waffles of my dreams from a bubble waffle stand: inside the warm waffle was a gooey mixture of peanut butter, coconut jam and condensed milk. Heaven.
Victoria Harbour and Sailing on a Traditional Junk
Hong Kong contains the largest number of skyscrapers in the world! Most of them can be found surrounding Victoria Harbour. The Harbor itself is a beautiful and a peaceful area to hang out. To me, it felt more laid-back than Shanghai’s Bund.
For about $25, or 196 hkd, I booked an evening cruise aboard a red-sailed junk. I chose to sit on the top story of the ship, away from some extremely rude people I overheard behind me in line complaining about how they shouldn’t have to show their e-ticket. “What is this, Rome??” Ugh. Turns out I made a good decision as I had my own roomy rattan lounge seat that was longer than my legs. I had a grand time sipping my free chilled cocktail, enjoying the breeze, watching as the sky turned from amber to fiery orange and the lights of the city turned on and reflected off the water as we sailed.
Symphony of Lights at Victoria Harbour
Named the “World’s Largest Permanent Light and Sound Show” by the Guinness World Records, the Symphony of Lights, or the Hong Kong Pulse 3D Light Show, utilizes 3D projection, mapping, music, sound and light every night at 8pm for half an hour. It was impressive. I watched it from the Kowloon side and marveled at the lasers shooting out of the ICBC Tower.
Temple Street Night Market and a Movie Shoot!
I wandered quite a bit through side streets and back alleys. I passed by the Tin Hau Temple dedicated to fisherman. Outside the temple gates were long lines of street vendors and hawkers. There were a disturbing amount of old ladies selling sex toys. I kept walking and eventually made my way to the Temple Street Night Market. It was crowded. There were people in plastic chairs eating at makeshift restaurants. Sellers with various trinkets and souvenirs lined the street on either side.
As I walked around, avoiding vendors and customers alike, loud pops were heard and people running. A line of attractive policemen rushed past. Confused, I followed some elderly bystanders and asked a girl what was going on. “There’s a shooting!” “Someone got shot?!!” I gasped. “No!” She replied. “A movie shooting!” Sure enough, there were people with megaphones yelling at passersby to move, and I saw a camera hooked up to a big doohickey. Fascinated, I stayed for a bit, watching a few of the retakes. I recalled that Hong Kong does have a huge film industry. I knew the policemen were a little too attractive to be real! With each take, a bunch of long haired probably bad guys would run in facemasks through the stalls after a bout of fake gunshots. Smoke filled the air and lines of policemen rushed through the stalls after them.
In the area of where I stayed are a bunch of malls and specialty markets. There’s a goldfish market that had stores upon stores of pets for sale – fish, turtles, puppies, kittens, rabbits, chinchillas, hamsters, etc. It was basically pet store street. Ladies Market had a lot of the same souvenir stuff as the Temple Night Market. There’s also the Flower Market and the Bird Market among others.
Tim Ho Wan
Tim Ho Wan’s dimsum is a right of passage for outsiders looking to try Hong Kong’s famous dishes. It’s the first ever budget dimsum place to score a coveted Michelin star! It’s now one of the cheapest Michelin starred restaurants in the world. There are three branches, but I chose the closest one to me in Mongkok. It was delicious, and the perfect place to brunch with my cousin that I hadn’t seen in over two decades.
Garden of Stars
Sadly, the Avenue of Stars by the pier was closed due to renovation when I was here. The Garden of Stars was still pretty interesting, albeit small. A tribute to the Hong Kong movie industry, and similar to Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, I happily found and put my hands into Jackie Chan’s concrete hand impressions here and posed with Bruce Lee’s statue. Cinephiles would recognize other names such as Chow Yun Fat, Donnie Yet and Michelle Yeoh (the rich mother from this summer block buster’s Crazy Rich Asians) among the “garden” of hand prints.
The Highest Bar in the World, Ozone
To celebrate Carol’s and her coworker Liv’s 23rd birthdays, we headed up to the tallest skyscraper in Hong Kong, the ICC Tower.
Into the Hong Kong Ritz Carlton we went, up two elevators to reach the 118th floor. We were met with a pretty swanky sight. The views were absolutely amazing.
Above Ozone was an open ceiling that showed the night sky and the occasional airplane flying over. Living up to its setting, everything was super expensive. Just to sit down at a table you had to spend at least 1,400 hkd ($170ish). No way were we going to shell out just for a table! We snuck a quick picture at one and spent the rest of the night standing.
They did have amazing amaretto sours; however at $30 a drink, you ‘d expect them to be damn good. All in all, it’s a cool place to say I’ve been to.
I’ll be talking about visiting Hong Kong Island and Lantau Island in Part 2!