Crows which sweep you off your feet past shiny state-of-the-art buildings and neon lights. Smells which make your stomach churn with nausea and excitement. Noise which knows no respite. Days that blend into nights and then mornings with no lull in their cadence. This is the Hong Kong that tourists know and love: busy, all-consuming, addictive, unrelenting.
The former British territory which comprises Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsula, the Northern Territories and Lantau Island, was returned to the Chinese mainland in 1997 after 156 years of British rule. It is shopaholic’s paradise and a more than tempting playground for the aspiring socialites of our time.
However, there is more to the glitz and glamour of Hong Kong, which far surpasses its reputation as a stopover destination for those seeking to replenish their wardrobe or top up the alcohol levels in their bloodstream.
Hong Kong is a land apart in the Asian continent. It is neither Chinese nor British. Its collective identity lies in the population’s unwavering pride in being different and more importantly, true to themselves.
By reputation it’s an expat enclave. However, Hong Kong attracts a myriad of people of varying age groups, religious backgrounds, lifestyles and purposes of visit. Although the country may in the future become more of an extension of the Chinese mainland, for now it is blessed with a uniquely multicultural identity which attracts settlers and tourists from all over the globe.
This ultra-cosmopolitan environment also entices businesses and businessmen keen to increase their profit margins and fill their bank accounts in the vastly lucrative market and commercial goldmine that is Hong Kong. The country is also a place of choice for many business meetings, conferences and workshops, due to its renowned superhuman efficiency and unusual ability to combine work and pleasure to perfection.
For your average tourist, there is an endless array of activities which cater to all ages, lifestyles and travel itineraries. Just getting around can be memorable. Although the pollution on a bad day makes the sea air slightly less fresh, a ride across the harbour in the Star Ferry is not to be missed. Neither is the trip to the Peak (the highest point in Hong Kong, with stunning views across the city) on the famous tram which is more like a theme park ride as it climbs the steep slope, and which is in itself is a small piece of history.
The trams which head into Causeway Bay for just over a couple of dollars are equally unmissable –if you like to get a real sense of your destination, there is truly no better way to get up, close and personal with the locals. For the faint-hearted, there are air-conditioned buses, as well as the underground train (MTR) and overground KCR (on Kowloon Side). For those who are claustrophobic, taxis are your best option, although skipping Hong Kong altogether might be a better idea if you don’t want to share it with its 7 million inhabitants.
If shopping is your thing, there is an overwhelming choice of malls, markets and entire roads dedicated to items of every description. Favorites include Jardine’s Crescent, Stanley Market, the Lanes in Central, Granville Road and the Night Market. Jardine’s Crescent (near Times Square in Causeway Bay), the Central Lanes and Granville Road in Tsim Sha Tsui are best for clothes, shoes and other fashion items. Stanley Market is ideal if you are looking for souvenirs or trinkets, and is also not far from Repulse Bay, the most popular beach in Hong Kong.
The Night Market is more for the experience than the actual shopping, unless you are after lighters, pens or knock-off watches. You can also get your palm read at the end of the Night Market, or listen to Chinese Street Opera. Shanghai Tang on Pedder Street, Central, is the up-market shop for tourists, with luxurious silk cheong-sams, carved wooden furniture and decorative items.
Aside from the daily bustle of shopping, Hong Kong is also a town which never sleeps. As such, it is home to a vibrant night life where things usually start to get interesting late in the evening. Lan Kwai Fong and Wan Chai are the two main bar-hopping and clubbing destinations.
Also known as the Red Light District of Hong Kong, Wan Chai is the seedier location of the two, home to many ‘massage parlours’ and girly clubs. There are tamer options in Wan Chai, but Lan Kwai is perhaps the better of the two areas if you are after a more sophisticated evening. Entry into bars –many of which have dance floors, and all of which are open very late– is usually free, and club entry is not too expensive.
In general, people tend to head out around 11 or midnight, and stay out until the early hours. The tendency seems to be to go for a hearty Chinese breakfast after a night of energetic dancing, with local fast-food joints such as Cafe de Coral open 24/7.
On the subject of food, Hong Kong is one of the gourmet capitals of the world with a huge selection of fine dining and international cuisines. It is really spoilt for choice, but favourites include the Fringe Restaurant which boasts delicious nouvelle cuisine with a French influence, and Jimmy’s Kitchen, one of Hong Kong’s oldest Western restaurants, which serves unpretentious but reliable European food.
For the Cantonese, eating out is a weekly if not more frequent occurrence, and a truly vital part of their family life and social existence with Dim Sum a key component of this routine. Dim Sum literally means ‘touch the heart’, but refers to a light snack or morsel which is enjoyed with Chinese Tea.
If time permits, a trip to the Big Buddha on Lantau Island (bronze, 34 metres high and 250 tons) can be built into a whole-day outing including walks around the countryside and nearby Po Lin monastery. Other excursions which require a little more time are Macau —the former Portuguese colony now famous for its casinos, and the nearby Guangzhou on the mainland. Hong Kong Park, with its wide variety of exotic animals, is a great place for kids and animal-lovers alike.
Children also enjoy the recent (and greatly contested) addition of Disneyland on Lantau Island, as well as Ocean Park (theme rides) and Waterworld. Seasonal cultural festivities such as Chinese New Year on February 18th this year, Dragon Boat Racing in May, and the Lantern Festival in March are a great source of entertainment for families.
Excluding July and August when the torturous humidity becomes unbearable, Hong Kong is a tourist destination which has something on offer all year round. With its fascinating wealth of culture, the exciting pace of its daily and nightly activities and the unmatched hospitality of the Cantonese people, there are few places on earth which can compete with such an incredible city.