Hong Kong surprised me, which shouldn’t really come as a surprise, because I hadn’t read much about it before arriving.
Spoiler Alert: I’m in love. Here comes the backstory. Skip to the photos and I won’t blame you.
I had a few vague expectations. My hairdresser relayed her time growing up in Hong Kong, shoulder to cramped shoulder. No cooking, she said. No room for it. The people, they eat out. An evening of looking at my parents’ travel slides rounded out my slacker’s preparation. Hong Kong in the mid-1980s appeared to me orderly and green, with both harbour junk boats and my father’s fashion choices standing out. Growing up in Vancouver, HSBC (The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation) buildings were common, although the connection alluded me until this visit. It’s funny what you can glaze over in your hometown.
Perhaps my Hong Kong prep can be traced a bit further into my past. In grade school, there were a few years that we wore red in February, but it wasn’t for Valentine’s Day. Our curriculum included learning one Cantonese phrase – ‘Kung Hei Fat Choy’ and exchanging red and gold envelopes for the Chinese New Year. This culminated in a class meal in the neighbourhood that may have included some Cantonese food, but I probably just ate as many sweet and sour fried chicken balls as I could wrench off the lazy susan.
Yeah yeah, I thought, a week in Hong Kong. There’ll be eating, shopping, lots of people and lots of apartments. It’ll probably be expensive.
If my lack of research and enthusiasm sounds a bit ghastly, let me explain. I wasn’t a ship without a course, and it wasn’t that I wasn’t excited. I had a prime directive, and that was to let the SAR (Special Administrative Region) of Hong Kong simply be an enjoyable backdrop to pursuing serious laughs and girl time with Christine, who was joining me for two weeks. I also knew I could get away with slacking off – she’s a legendary trip planner.
I’m very happy to report that she ended up having a serious competitor for my attention – Christine and I were both swept up in the diversity and depth of activities and fun to be had here. We spent a week, and both agree – we could have spent another, quite happily.
Here are a few things that surprised me about Hong Kong.
Wide Open Spaces (Sometimes With Views To Match):
To regurgitate guide book trivia, 70% of Hong Kong is hilly or mountainous. Much of what the city planning folks can’t carefully geo-engineer and develop is instead enthusiastically signposted for hiking and park space. Quick walk looping around Victoria Peak like a contour line? You got it. Fifty kilometre hiking routes above the city masses? Take your pick, there’s a few. This blew my un-informed mind.
Two of our days were spent on the trails. We walked up to Victoria Peak from Pok Fu Lam Reservoir, an easy walk or urban hike, call it what you will. We kicked it up a notch, or tried to, in the fitness parks along the way and failed miserably. Casual Hong Kong chin-ups? Sadly, not for us. More sweat was spent while winding our way up and down the hill trails leading to Big Buddha, on Lantau Island.
The percentage of clear, crisp views of the valleys below would be, by our estimates, considerably less than 70%. It’s hard to escape the haze.
Secret Passage Eating Adventures:
Although it is likely you’ll be leaving your apartment building to score your next meal in Hong Kong, what I didn’t realize is that you may be simply entering a different apartment building to find it.
Using a combination of Lonely Planet, Trip Advisor and Open Rice, we found our way into restaurants tucked away high up in the apartment blocks, or ‘mansions’ of Kowloon. Unit 6A might be a tailor, 6B might be a private residence, 6C a lawyer, and 6D your next dinner score. Some restaurants with this set up employ touts out on the sidewalk to attract customers, as they can’t have street signs.
Macau: Glam Casino Wear Not (Necessarily) Required
The limited knowledge boarding my flight from Manila to Hong Kong was well eclipsed by my complete ignorance of what Macau would offer. Will they even let us into this glitzy Asian Las Vegas, I pondered, if we don’t have appropriate attire?
Macau for us was all egg tarts and architecture, cobbled plazas and cricket fighting history, quiet alley neighbourhoods and great curry. We didn’t squeeze in casino time, but we were sufficiently smitten to consider spending the night socializing in them so that we’d have more time here.
There’s beaches in Hong Kong, some of them are quite pleasant, they at times have nets up to prevent shark attacks, meaning that there are also sharks in Hong Kong. In the winter, you will be hard pressed to get a tan. End.
The New Territories:
The part of me that wants to plant my feet in the middle of a big, dirty, industrial factory city far flung in the middle of China, just to see it (not on current itinerary) is the part of me that also wanted to get some sense of public housing estates in Hong Kong (considerably more accessible). The New Territories, really anywhere outside of the original colonial Hong Kong area, are filled with public housing projects, supplying shelter to half of Hong Kong’s population of 7 million.
So we plopped ourselves on the metro, which I can only describe in positive superlatives, and then onto a nifty little bus with doilies on the seats, bound north of our home base and towards the border with China.
And folks, in an hour you can pass well out of glossy cosmopolitan Kowloon and into a peculiar juxtaposition of endless tall apartment clusters, and small fishing towns. Who knew? Probably lots of people. I may be one of the last to know this.
We had just gotten our order at the Mido Cafe, a long-running cha chaan tang, or Hong Kong-style cafe. I had taken a bite out of my first-ever Hong Kong French Toast, having worked this moment up to a big thing in my mind. ‘It’s pretty good, you know, kind of as you’d expect I guess’ I told Christine. She tried it a few minutes later and corrected me.
‘When you told me what it tasted like, you should have just said: Oil.’
Hong Kong French Toast. Always buttery. Always oily. Sometimes with a peanut butter surprise in the middle. Never, in my mind, replacing the cinnamon-y, maple syrup-y brioche variation in Canada, strewn with stewed berries, that I can’t think about without shedding tears.
Besides French Toast, Tears Also Shed For Lack Of Backpack Space:
The only thing I enjoyed more about the day of our visit to Hong Kong’s History Museum was its gift shop. Better end here, this post will only deteriorate once I start talking about something like museum gift shops.