Hong Kong, the cosmopolitan city of southeast Asia, is well known for the motto “east meets west.” In my house, it is just known as the motherland. I have visited Hong Kong about every other year since I was a toddler. Every trip was always just another routine family vacation that involved being homesick and away from friends for a long while. Finally, as an adult this past trip in August, I truly set out to appreciate and digest the beauty, charm and culture of the city. With a camera in tow, I traveled around various districts all scattered across town and at last, absorbed myself into the city, no longer lost in translation.
Hong Kong, meaning “fragrant harbour,” has a harmonious juxtaposition of natural elements and skyscrapers. The land is hilly all over, similar to Austin, Texas, but with added mountainous terrain, along with deep harbours and bays. Surrounding the landscape is an expansive city skyline crowded with buildings that populate over seven million inhabitants—making Hong Kong one of the most densely populated areas in the world. The official languages are Cantonese (a Chinese dialect) and English, with the English language heavily coexisting in the Hong Kong culture. Hong Kong was under British rule from 1841 until 1997, and it still embraces the British way of life, ranging from the education system to government ruling to street signs and driving on the left side of the road.
The city is divided into three large regions: New Territory, Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island; within those exist eighteen smaller districts. Traveling between these districts is commonplace for the people. Just like New York City, owning a private vehicle is a rarity and luxury good since public transportation provides more convenience and is more cost-efficient. Each day, the majority of people travel via the Mass Transit Railway (MTR), double-decker buses, minibuses, taxis and even ferries across the harbour. In an area called SoHo (South of Hollywood Road), in the downtown Central district resides the Mid-Levels Escalator, the longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world. The escalator is a popular attraction and offers a unique experience ascending through SoHo. With this extensive public transportation network, getting around in Hong Kong on a daily basis without a car is not a stressful matter like it would be here in Texas.
The denseness and expanding urbanization of Hong Kong has caused increased pollution over the decades. As a result, becoming a greener city has been an essential goal. Plastic bags now come with a fee at almost all grocery stores around town, and the general population has been accustomed to carrying around reusable shopping bags at all times. Even taxis idling in the streets for a long period of time can be fined. Hong Kong is responsibly becoming very stringent about reducing the carbon footprint and preventing further environmental damage to the finite resources on earth.
Hong Kong has developed into a global financial center, with their stock exchange ranked the seventh largest in market value in the world. Many expatriates work in the downtown Central area, with professions that deal with banking and finance, international trade and restaurant/bar work. I vividly remember going to lunch at a western breakfast diner called The Flying Pan in SoHo two summers ago, and I found out that the lady who ran the place actually used to live in Austin! “What a small world,” I thought. The local population of Hong Kong mostly works in the service sector–running a range of restaurants, shops and offices. Hours are long and strenuous, and you will discover the true meaning of hard work after visiting the city. The 9-5 work routine doesn’t exist in Hong Kong, and having those hours would seem like paradise over there. In exchange for the frantic work week and lifestyle though, you can be a part of one of the world’s most exciting and energetic cities that never goes to sleep.
Hong Kong has developed into a highly consumer-based society, with shopping as not just a social activity, but also a lifestyle as well. The majority of the visitor attractions involve some form of shopping, especially the well-known outdoor Ladies Market, Stanley Market and Garden Street. In these areas, you can find all sorts of handbags, accessories, jewelry, souvenirs, clothing and unusual, quirky novelties for a bargain. The best part about shopping at outdoor markets is that you can aggressively bargain down to a great deal, in addition to paying no sales tax. For example, while shopping in Ladies Market, I haggled with a lady on a handbag to discount it from $120HKD to $50HKD! To clarify, the exchange rate of HKD to USD is approximately set at 7.8:1 currently. Stanley Market is tailored for tourists, selling all sorts of Hong Kong souvenir memorabilia to take home with you. It also features a nice promenade of restaurants along the beachside to complement the shopping experience.
On the other end of the shopping spectrum, you will find upscale, indoor mega- malls, such as International Finance Center (IFC) and Times Square. Both centers provide a plethora of multi-level luxury shopping, including renowned brands such as Juicy Couture, Valentino and Armani Exchange. These shops are pleasant to simply stroll through on a day off, or actually shop at for those who can afford the imported goods. As a note of caution, people are always packed in like sardines on every street. Hong Kong is notoriously known for being crowded, so you have to get used to not having a bubble of personal space surrounding you.
On almost every street corner, you will find cozy cafes offering a variety of food. Stating that Hong Kong is a foodie’s paradise is an overwhelming understatement. One of my favorite activities when I visit each time is eating all around town and trying new dishes. I’ve always been a bit wary of the outdoor food stalls, but I definitely was willing to try an exotic mango dessert drink with glutinous rice balls at a popular dessert restaurant. The cuisine in Hong Kong ranges from traditional dim sum and “dai pai dong” outdoor eateries in the local districts to global delicacies downtown, that ranges from Egyptian to Russian food. Raised in Texas, I was ecstatic to see a quaint, magenta-colored, Mexican eatery in the Central district, playfully named Taco Loco. There, I enjoyed some tacos with a refreshing mango margarita one evening.
Eating is such a large part of the lifestyle that people normally eat on an average of five times a day! Breakfast, of course, is the introductory meal, followed by lunch, late afternoon teatime and dinner. “Siu yeh,” which is the final meal of the day, is characterized as a late night snack. It is not only the wide variety of food that makes eating such an enjoyable activity, but also the unrivaled convenience of eateries and restaurants in such close proximity to one another. A good majority of the locals eat out on a daily basis. If you know the right places around town, eating out can be just as cost-efficient and satisfying as home-cooked meals, if not cheaper. If you don’t want to cause a big dent in your wallet, then steer clear of the downtown region, and linger where the locals do.
The traditional dim sum experience is a must for tourists. It is a la carte dining, in which you select various small dishes such as BBQ pork buns, pork dumplings, shrimp bonnets and lotus leaf rice. It is always complemented with a soothing pot of tea. The dim sum experience is a pleasant contrast to the usually fast-paced and crowded dining that paves the streets all across town. It is also a great way for families to gather and enjoy each other’s company, with everyone sharing all the dishes in the center of the table. “Dai pai dongs” are casual outdoor food stalls characterized by a shoddy, run-down appearance, but with low-priced and delicious local food, such as congee, noodle and rice dishes. It is not uncommon for a stranger to take an empty seat next to you when seating begins to run short. It is part of the customs of the humbler hole-in-the-wall eateries around town.
Scattered across town are small bakeries. Local favorites include the pineapple bun, cocktail bun, egg tart and wife cake. In Hong Kong, people are accustomed to shopping daily (sometimes even twice a day) for fresh produce, meats and breads. People there may see our weekly and monthly grocery shopping habits as strange; but without a private vehicle, plus the wide availability of fresh food markets around town, it makes sense in Hong Kong to grocery shop each day.
A popular attraction in Hong Kong is the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car experience. The cable car takes you from Tung Chung Terminal to the Ngong Ping Plateau, where the 112 foot-tall bronzed outdoor Tian Tan Buddha resides. The cable car ride is a 25-minute aerial experience, where you can sit back and admire the landscape surrounding, including the South China Sea, Hong Kong International Airport and the mountainous terrain and valleys. Another aerial attraction is Victoria Peak. This must-visit experience takes you up the mountain at a frighteningly exciting angle on a tram, all the way up to where you stop at Madame Tussauds’ Wax Museum. Once you arrive at the top of Victoria Peak, you can also enjoy a panoramic view of central Hong Kong, Victoria Harbour and the Kowloon area from the viewing terrace.
Another day trip that is popular with young families is Disneyland and Ocean Park. Disneyland is the smallest of all the Magic Kingdoms around the world, but still encompasses the magical essence of the Disney fantasy. Ocean Park is not only an aquatic theme park, but also an observatory. You can ride the rollercoasters and see a panda habitat or jellyfish aquarium. For the adults, Macau is a popular place for a mini vacation—only an hour’s speedboat ride away from Hong Kong. It is like a Las Vegas destination, an adult’s playground, with a whole strip of high-end casinos including the Wynn, MGM Grand, Venetian, and Sands.
If you’re looking for a good night out on the town, head off to one of two Hong Kong Jockey Clubs to place some bets. You’ll have an invigorating experience, with a lively atmosphere, beer tents and all sorts of enthusiastic people. Even if you are not a gambler, you can visit the course for the social aspect. Another popular night spot is Lan Kwai Fong (also known as LKF) in Central. It is lined with restaurants, bars and nightclubs—almost identical to the historic and infamous Sixth Street in downtown Austin. The area still possesses the aura of Colonial Britain, with cobble-stoned lanes and British-named streets. LKF awakens around 9pm and the partying carries on well through the night. Wan Chai is also a late night hangout with numerous bars, and it is also a popular tourist attraction and after-work destination. Don’t expect cheap drink specials in these areas though—the prices are comparable to New York in most establishments. For those without a private vehicle, returning home after a long night of nightlife can prove a bit of a challenge. Public transportation becomes scarce after hours to discourage the night owls from their shenanigans. The only option is simply to take a cab. However, crime is not a major concern, as Hong Kong is one of the safest cities in the world. With people constantly out and about, you can’t imagine ever being cornered alone in a dark alley.
For the first time, I met the end of my month-long visit to Hong Kong with a melancholy state of mind. I wasn’t quite ready for my newfound adventure to end. Taking this trip as an adult, I had an opportunity to steer my own journey. I saw things with a different eye than that of a sullen teen deprived of friends for the summer. I willingly tasted the unusual and found myself wanting more. While I did not bypass the usual tourist stops, I also danced head first into the every day life of the Hong Kong native. I discovered the majesty of the land and was embraced by the warmth of the people.
Texas will always be my beloved home state, but Hong Kong has become my second refuge. In fact, I have already begun the count down, ticking off the days on my calendar, until I can once again return to the motherland.
Photos by Jennifer Chan