A January 2004 trip
to Hong Kong by Mr. Wonka
Quote: Five nights in this vibrant Asian metropolis flew by like an MTR train at rush hour. Stalking through street markets, stumbling upon a fireworks and light show on Victoria Harbor, and catching a ferry to Lantau -- all of this and seeing the best (cheesiest) lounge band in the East.
In just five days' time, we managed to dart around the area faster than nauseated moviegoers running out of a Cuba Gooding Jr. film. We pored over Hong Kong Island, taking a trip up Victoria Peak, mastering the refreshingly efficient transit system, and hunting for the best deals in a number of packed, utterly fantastical street markets. Via trips across the bay aboard the famous Star Ferry, we immersed ourselves in the frenetic Kowloon lifestyle, traveling deep into the maze of tight street markets that extended almost up to the mainland China border. I found such incredible deals out here, with hardly any other tourists around. Add to all of this a trip to the island of Lantau to visit the Po Lin Monastery, and catching a Monday night fireworks and light show on Victoria Harbor, and boy howdy! My days were long, but my experience was strong!
Surprisingly enough, the one thing I didn’t get around to this time was checking out the bar/lounge scene. Really, by the end of one overwhelming day after another, I was ready to relax. I don’t feel like I missed out—one of the few overly expensive activities in Hong Kong is drinking in bars. I’ll save that experience for the next visit.
Make sure you hightail it to the Kowloon side of Victoria Harbor at least one night so you can sit and look back in awe at the Crayola box of crayons that paints the city skyline after the sun goes down. I love you, New York, but I’ll never think of the NYC skyline in the same way after taking in Hong Kong’s bold, futuristic layout.
I wasn’t missing out by skipping the museums in Hong Kong, unlike in a city like Berlin or Oslo. Instead, decide what area or island you want to explore for the day, and leisurely make your way over there. I promise you’ll encounter all kinds of madness, like a man whose job was to hunch over a tank of fish of varying size and variety, and quickly pick them up and sort them into a series of other tanks. I also saw a man sporting The Worst Toupee Ever. Now, could you see this kind of thing in a museum?
A fast, clean, CHEAP subway system that makes NYC’s trains look like Steamboat Mickey’s locomotive. Trams, at HK a ride, were my favorite method of transportation. Enter in the rear of the tram, and make sure you have exact change for paying upon departure. Try to grab a seat on the top deck, in the very front cluster of seats. With the window pulled down and the city sprawling out all around you, this is probably the best way to take a tour of the city, besides on foot.
How could I forget the taxis? They’re so cheap! Being used to NYC taxi meters moving like stopwatches, we thought the meter was broken on our first ride because it didn’t flip for the longest time. Late night, taxis are definitely the way to go.
This classy little joint is located towards the eastern end of HK Island, which was great because it allowed us to retreat each night to an area generally bereft of tourists. It’s also close to the MTR, not to mention a local bakery that serves up the tastiest sweet rolls, coconut rolls, etc., for a mere HK$2. As the smiling bellboys open the front doors of the Newton and nervously usher you in, don’t be fooled into thinking your wallet is about to take a hit because of the main lobby’s grand appearance. Marble floors, mandarin orange trees, and a delicately hung chandelier create a feeling of elegance, yet the prices here are fantastic. I booked my stay through a package deal, but still, the price of HK$688 for two, including breakfast, is very reasonable.
Our 10th-floor room looked out on Victoria Harbor, which was invigorating to wake up to each morning. We got a kick out of the panel lighting control by one of the beds, which allows you to set the mood at the touch of a button. Our favorite lighting choice was "art," which would solely illuminate the incredibly deep piece of work that hung on the main wall across from the beds (when I say "incredibly deep," I mean "incredibly generic"). The bathroom was way high-tech—a mirror internally heated to prevent fogging, and a clothesline could be stretched from one end of the shower to another for drying clothes. Don’t forget to throw used towels in the tub if you want them replaced.
Speaking of replacing your towels, the maid service here rocks! We had a package of Japanese grape gummies with only one remaining in the box, and all the trash around it was thrown out, but the one gummy was left. We also left an opened book face down on the bed, and returned to find that the maid had picked it up, made the beds, and then placed it back on the same page. Are you kidding!?
Most memorable of all was the night we spent in the Sangria Lounge, located on the second floor. Bandleader Billy led a ragtag trio through rousing covers of "Stand by Me" and other American classics, including a version of "Hotel California" that somehow ended up with a reggae vibe to it. What a hilariously cheesy, perfect band for the Sangria Lounge. Billy, you’re a star!
How could I forget the rooftop pool with awesome views of the city (closed for renovations on our visit), or the sauna? Or the confusing breakfast ordeal, or the cute, helpful front-desk girl. . .I could go on and on. Just book it!
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on February 23, 2004
218 Electric Road
Dishes ranged in price from HK$20 to $120, with vegetables, chicken, beef, seafood, and tofu all featured on the menu. I tried to go with the chickpea curry (HK$38), but our gracious waiter said that dish is only offered at night. Instead I opted for the braised bean curd with vegetables, with an order of freshly made bread and a red bean with coconut milk drink for HK$15. My adventurous companion ordered Logan’s Juice, but our waiter thought she might not like it, so he brought back a small glass for her to try first—it was okay, but she decided to instead go with another drink with a coconut milk base. These cool beverages were absolute treats, though I didn’t do myself any favors by accidentally biting down on a piece of ice with my tooth that needed a root canal.
There isn’t anything especially noteworthy about the décor here--the food and service are the main attractions. I will say that the bathroom has to be the smallest one I’ve ever been in. I felt like Han Solo trapped in the trash compactor on the Death Star.
Both of our dishes were cooked to perfection, with just the right amount of spice. I gobbled mine up like Lard Ass at the pie-eating contest in Stand by Me. We thought about ordering some dessert, but really, our coconut milk drinks were plenty big and plenty sweet, so we just finished those up and skipped it. For their attentive service and cheap/tasty eats, Good Luck Thai Café is a spot worth checking out. And hey, if the whole ex-pat pub scene is your game, the center of it all is literally right down the street.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on February 24, 2004
Good Luck Thai Cafe
13 Wing Wah Lane
My stomach already turning from hunger, we felt a little violated as we walked down Lockhart Road and were faced with strip club after bar after restaurant catering to the tourist. There’s about as much culture here as there is along I-75 in Ohio. We walked into Chili Club, but after seeing no locals and all tourists, turned right back around. Finally, with hunger taking its toll, we settled on Lotus Thai across the street.
Lotus looked reasonable enough. It was deserted compared to its counterparts along Lockhart, and took a minimal approach to décor—plain yellow tablecloths, fake lotus flowers on each table, and Indochina colonial figures scattered about on the walls. In business since 1990, Lotus could improve its lighting with some candles and dimmer ceiling bulbs. Maybe it was because we were one of only three or four tables, but our waitress hovered over us like a vulture watching a lost hiker in the desert.
The menus look like hardcover cookbooks, with colorful photos sprinkled throughout to add pizzazz to the dishes. For an appetizer, we ordered mee krob (HK$55), three flavors with crispy vermicelli. I went with the kaeng mussa-mun (HK$62), Thai curry and peanuts, as my main dish, while my companion chose the spicy chicken and basil with fried noodles. We also each ordered a beer, though red or white Cuvee St. Piere wine is also available.
That’s when things started moving downhill. With our appetizer nowhere in sight, the spicy chicken and basil came out, but it wasn’t spicy. In fact, it was rather bland. Then my curry arrived, an aromatic pot of steaming vegetables and tofu, but no rice. Apparently, this cost extra. After being assured our appetizer was on its way, we both finished our main dishes. My curry was excellent; her noodles and basil were lackluster.
By now, we’d written off the appetizer, but lo and behold, with our appetite more than appeased, a heaping plate of crispy vermicelli was laid on the table. Very tasty noodles, but we were already stuffed from the entrées.
We paid the bill, left a good tip by Hong Kong standards, but there was just a really weird vibe the last 10 minutes we were in Lotus. We were ready to go, and in her haste, my companion accidentally spilled her water. Oh no! The end of the world! She repeatedly apologized, but our hovering waitress was not pleased. Whatever.
Member Rating 1 out of 5 on February 25, 2004
43-07 Lockhart Road
A smiling, friendly host beckoned us to sit at one of the circular tables near a wall of mirrors. A tea set was promptly brought out, along with a menu filled with an insanely large variety of dishes for a vegetarian joint. I toyed with the idea of sampling some "shark fin" soup since I’m not keen on seafood, but just couldn’t make myself do it. After taking what seemed like an hour to decide, we finally made our oh-so-important choices. For an appetizer, we went with the mushroom and eggplant in spicy sauce (HK$48), and for entrees chose bean curd with vermicelli in curry (HK$50) and braised bean curd with gyrophora and sloke mushrooms (HK$60).
The pastels that colored the interiors really jived with the cheerful, entirely helpful service we received throughout our meal. Our waiter spoke excellent English and made some informed recommendations after we let him know what kind of food we normally enjoy.
Our appetizer was amazing—perfectly cooked with a kicking level of spice. I doubt that even Elzar could cook this dish so well, even with four arms and a rack of spice weasels at his disposal. My girl’s curry arrived in a huge, steaming pot, while my dish was drizzled in a delicate sauce that matched the mushrooms and bean curd rather well. I relished the opportunity to try these new types of fungi, as both are pretty expensive back in NYC.
Lunch at Joyful Vegetarian was just what we needed. There’s also a bakery in the front offering a decent selection of pastries, rolls, and cookies, but we were way too full to think about sweets. Refreshed, we focused on getting to the markets in Mong Kok.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on February 26, 2004
530 Nathan Road
Smiles seemed to be permanently etched on everyone’s faces as they strolled through this well-laid-out park on a breezy Saturday afternoon. I moved aside as a newly married couple hurried by, and watched as children gazed, rapt with attention, at turtles struggling to find a sunbathing spot on small logs that peeked out of a large, artificial pond. On beautiful days like this, it's not unreasonable to think one could spend an entire afternoon strolling these impeccably kept grounds. And with unabated views of the towers that dominate the downtown Hong Kong skyline, this makes an outstanding location to whip out the camera and test your photography skills.
As you brush past the many water fountains and ponds, admiring the astonishing cleanliness of your surroundings, make sure you head over to the western part of the park, where you’ll find the conservatory and Edward Youde Aviary. I didn’t check out the conservatory, though a walk-through did seem worthwhile, and was crushed when I found out that the aviary was temporarily closed due to the scare surrounding avian influenza. That’s a shame, because the aviary is gorgeous, at least from the outside looking in. A surprisingly inconspicuous mesh netting made of steel engulfs the area and the 150 or so Southeast Asian birds inside. The birds didn’t seem to notice any sickness going around, as we could hear them chirping and see them flying from tree to tree.
Not far from the aviary and bordering the tai chi park is a 30-meter-high lookout tower. Though the warning sign near the bottom claims that the 105-step trek up the winding staircase "requires strenuous activity," go ahead and work that ass—by no means is this climb difficult, and once you get to the top, you’ll be glad you burned some extra calories. From up here, you’ll get incredible views of the Bank of China building, the forwardly designed Lippo Centre, and all their surrounding counterparts. Load up the film—this is another key spot for snapping photos.
This was one of the most impressive parks I’ve ever visited. Though it doesn’t take up a huge chunk of land (less than half a square mile), well-thought-out planning and landscaping makes the most of what there is. Since you’ll likely be taking a ride up to Victoria Peak, tack on an extra hour or two to your excursion to allow time for a little wandering through this gem.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on February 21, 2004
Hong Kong Park
Cotton Tree Drive
Central Hong Kong
As we made our way through Hong Kong Park towards the western end, we suddenly stumbled upon an influx of white people—yes, there it is, the tram station for trips to the top of the peak. Don’t sweat the long queue you’re likely to encounter here—it moves relatively quickly, and of course, the goods up top live up to the hype. Prepare to cough up the modest round-trip fee of HK$30 for your tram ride, with the option to pay a little more for admission to Ripley’s Believe It or Not and other gross tourist stuff located at the top. Skip it and save that money for some candy from Aji Ichiban.
As you grab a seat inside the red tram, adorned with dangling red bulbs tacked on around the ceiling, you’ll likely be amongst a near-equal mix of tourists and locals. This tram has been running since 1888, and holds 95 people max, with room for 25 to stand. That may be the case, but you will NOT get me on this tram with 95 people crammed in it. Inching up the side of the mountain is somewhat harrowing, as you’ll hit a 27-degree incline. Don’t worry, though—the tram staff know you’re very anxious to see Ripley’s, and uphold the highest of safety standards.
After making your way past the inevitable souvenir shops and stands, you’ll finally emerge onto the main viewing deck, where you can play Joe Tourist all you want and fill up rolls of film with eye-popping views. There are coin-operated binoculars here too, like the ones Clark and Rusty Griswold used in Paris. After you’ve seen enough, there are plenty of other diversions to prolong your time at the Peak, such as a shopping mall, restaurants, bars, and Madame Tussaud’s, which boasts what has to be the most unpopular wax likeness ever—George W. Bush. "Look, Mom! Isn’t this hilarious? I got my picture with Dubya!" "Son, put that picture away—and never show it again."
Even though we didn’t get the pure, undulating views of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon on our visit, it was still an excursion well worth taking. Now if only I can find me a pair of khaki shorts that don’t quite hit my knees, I’ll be all set.
***My photos were taken at too high a resolution, and I couldn't shrink them for the site. I've included two shots here of buildings you'll see from up top. I've learned my lesson, Mr. Miyagi.***
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on February 23, 2004
128 Peak Road.
+852 2807 6543
The temple is dedicated to two gods: Mo, the god of war, and Man, the god of literature and civil servants. This struck me as a rather odd coupling of gods, but if Rob Base says it takes two to make a thing go right, and that it takes two to make it outta sight, well, then I suppose they were paired for a good reason.
Walking thru the front doors of the temple is a somewhat disorienting, confusing experience. As you try to pause and take a look at the large paper-burning oven outside, you’ll realize that the traffic coming in and out is too heavy for lollygagging in the doorway, so it’s either in or out. Once you do step in, the thick, stagnant smoke from burning paper and incense offered as alms make it bit difficult to breath. People are individually worshipping in all corners of the temple—some are rapidly bowing and nodding their head, while others were genuflecting and slowly praying. There is no dress code here, either. People are free to wander in from the street in whatever they’re wearing.
The statues of Man and Mo are near the back of the temple, and incense and paper to burn can be had inside the temple if you’re interested. Many people were sporting surgical masks over their mouths because of all the smoke, but even with one on, I have no idea how the people working inside can stand, much less survive, all that prolonged exposure.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on February 25, 2004
Man Mo Temple
Hollywood Road & Ladder Street
Ha-ha-ha. . .Brecht’s Circle. Right. Sorry. We only had one drink here apiece, so I must be stalling. There isn’t much to say about the only bar we checked out. We couldn’t find anywhere to eat before stopping by here, and had to actually settle for french fries and Oreo shakes at McDonald’s. Yes, I am ashamed of myself for giving the McDonald’s corporation some of my money, but we had to get some food. This was an especially creepy McDonald’s, too—there was one older female employee in an oversized shirt and pants who looked bloodthirsty, and the girl behind the cash register had plain-as-day bite marks near her wrist and lower arm. Did I mention she was insanely skinny?
Where was I? Oh yes, Brecht’s Circle. We wanted to check it out after reading about its controversial history in Time Out Hong Kong, and left feeling rather indifferent about it. The bartender was amused to serve some tourists instead of the locals that seem to frequent the joint, and got a kick out of it when I couldn’t find the projection screen that was billed in the guidebook (it was right above my head).
Brecht’s is relatively small, with around six tables, and validates its hip status by rocking those chill downtempo beats. We had a bowl of nuts and wasabi peas to snack on, and the kitchen is open until 1am during the week, 2am on the weekends, if you’re looking for more substantial eats. Large beers of Hoegarden Erdinger will run you HK$55, and try to catch the two-for-one Happy Hour specials.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on February 29, 2004
123 Leighton Road
+852 2577 9636
#2 - Wellcome rules the Hong Kong grocery store world like the Detroit Red Wings have dominated the NHL since the mid-‘90s. There isn’t a flashier (if a grocery store can really be flashy), more interesting grocery to browse anywhere in the island. No matter where you’re staying, there’s sure to be one nearby. We liked the large outpost near Queen Victoria Park the best, though there was one in Wan Chai that had some lovely lucky cat pillows for something like HK$15. This is a great place for stocking up for your hotel/hostel—noodles, tapioca and coconut drinks, alcohol, snacks. . .even disposable underwear!
#3 - Make sure you sample all the different modes of public transit in Hong Kong/Kowloon. Take a ride on the efficient subway system (and don’t forget to stand to the right on escalators in the station), catch a bus that runs on the easy-to-understand routes, and take an exhilarating, scenic ride in a tram for only HK$2. Next to a trip across the bay on the famous Star Ferry, the tram comes with Mr. Wonka’s highest seal of approval. And now, to reaffirm that last statement in the dorkiest way possible—trust me, my word is bond, yo!
#4 - There are local bakeries everywhere–these are the best spots to grab your breakfast. There was this little spot up the street from the Newton Hotel that baked the freshest rolls every morning, all priced at between HK$2 and $5. Coconut rolls, sweet rolls, hazelnut rolls—one wing of Homer Simpson’s dream sweets factory, basically. The nice thing, though, was that I didn’t feel all nasty and gluttonous after eating these—the rolls were actually pretty light. We found that this was a pretty sufficient breakfast when combined with a cappuccino or something like that (god, that sounds so square).
#5 - Try to schedule an entire weekend for your trip. The first full day we had to walk around the city was Saturday, and it was an incredibly jolting, positive experience. The side streets were filled with stands selling fresh produce, seafood, and various knick-knacks. I was hoping it would be like this every day, but apparently these markets in central Hong Kong only run on Saturday, at least during our visit in late January/early February. Sitting clear in my memory is a bizarre fish that had fallen out of its bucket at one of the stands, and was hopelessly flopping like the fish at the end of the Faith No More "Epic" video. Besides the market, on Sunday afternoons, local women gather on the piers surrounding the Star Ferry entrance to talk, play cards, and otherwise get away from the men. I really enjoyed seeing this unique, seemingly recurring tradition.
#6 - Allow two full afternoons for exploring street markets. Check out the entries in my journal for specifics on the multitude of markets that are sprinkled throughout Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. The bargains are just incredible, and the selection runs the gamut from produce to Thai silk to designer watches and handbags. I’m sure a lot of this stuff came right out the back door of a factory—I’m equally sure a lot of it is imitation. Either way, that’s not for you to worry about. It’s so much fun to walk through these markets and check out everything. I never thought the markets I found in Berlin could be topped, but this scene in Hong Kong was just insane. I’d come back to Hong Kong just to revisit these locales again.
#7 - Don’t believe the hype—Hong Kong isn’t as expensive as advertised. You can start keeping costs down by visiting during the winter, which isn’t very cold at all. We arrived during the last week in January to perfect temperatures, and didn’t hit any rain. You don’t want to come during the balmy summer months anyway—I can imagine it getting quite uncomfortable. Our package trip for 5 nights’ hotel, taxes, airport transfers, and airfare came out to just $650 from go-today.com. Besides that, grocery stores, restaurants, public transit, shopping, just about everything was incredibly cheap. The only thing that was overly expensive was alcoholic drinks in bars, with prices that rivaled even those in NYC. Don’t get me wrong, you can spend as much money as you want here, but that can be said about any major city.
#8 - Carry around an easy-to-read, laminated map with you. My thoughtful mom hooked me up with a great map before my trip that we took with us everywhere we went. I’m not one to stand on the corner and squint at maps, looking like a bewildered tourist, but it’s easy to get turned around in these topsy-turvy streets, and having a map made it easy to keep our bearings. Try to find one that has landmarks and streets clearly indicated—Streetwise is the brand I used. It’s also advisable to keep your guidebook with you for quick address reference and restaurant/bar suggestions.
#9 - Leave at least one day for exploring outside of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. We would have liked to check out the Portuguese colony of Macau, but with only a few full days, we just didn’t have enough time. We took a ferry to Lantau, riding the #21 bus up to Po Lin Monastery and Big Buddha. This is a beautiful island, and it broke my heart knowing corporate conglomerate Disney is building a theme park out there (thankfully, far away from the monastery). You can also take short excursions to Cheung Chau, Lamma, Peng Chau, Po Toi, and Tap Mun Chau.
#10 - Do your research before you go, and watch some movies filmed in Hong Kong when you get back. It really helped to have a loosely prioritized list of sights, areas, and markets we wanted to check out, especially since we had less than a week to visit. We also picked up on everyday customs, learned a few basic phrases in Chinese, and generally prepared ourselves as much as we could. This probably seems like common sense to most, but I have friends who barely read up on foreign destinations before they visit. It was nice, too, to see the streets of Hong Kong in films like Chungking Express and Fallen Angels after just being there a few days earlier.
Make Mong Kok your first stop in Kowloon, and once you’re ready to check out the markets, go ahead and start at the Ladies Market. With stalls lining both sides of the already narrow street, we were immediately swept up into the action, unprepared for the sensory overload that seemed to increase the deeper you ventured in. Bags, toys, clothing, clocks, wristbands, towels, shoes—the merchandise offered here was like a "what’s what" of products available in the 21st century.
The Ladies Market ends at Argyle Street, but just a few short blocks up begins the Goldfish Market. On our first visit up here, we didn’t understand why this market held that name. We didn’t see any goldfish—but then, the Ladies Market didn’t cater to women, so we chalked it up as having symbolic meaning. We found more of the same bargains and interesting knick-knacks along Fa Yuen Street, and afterwards headed for the Flower Market. It was on my second visit, however, that I discovered the street next to Fa Yuen; this is where you’ll find store after store peddling all kinds of exotic fish. You could put together a pretty hip-looking aquarium if you bought your residents here.
Feeling a little worn down from all the activity in the markets and the accompanying humidity, we soldiered on up Sai Yee Street and walked through the Flower Market. Together, the flowers freshened the air like a thousand cans of Wizard, and it would have smelled even better if it hadn’t been located across the street from Mong Kok Stadium and a sewer emanating the worst stench ever.
You’ll hear birds chirping as you walk past the Flower Market, and right around the way you’ll hit the Bird Market. We didn’t spend too much time going from stall to stall. We just relaxed on some steps, guzzling water and listening to old men jabbering back and forth with the soothing sound of the birds in the background. This is actually in a pretty neat little area, and it’s surely worth a visit.
Back down in Yau Ma Tei are the other major markets of Kowloon. The much-ballyhooed Temple Street Night Market isn’t all it’s cracked up to be as far as what’s being sold, but maybe we were just spoiled by Mong Kok earlier in the day. You’ll see a lot of dollar store-type stuff here—batteries, flashlights, hats—but there are also a few booths stocked with rarities, such as a Chairman Mao–era wristwatch. Still, with all the paper lanterns lit up and a small park breaking up the area, this market is quite charming.
One other thing about the Temple Street Night Market that you won’t read in a guidebook: this street/area might as well be the site of the Porn Market too. Nowhere else in the city will you find this many porn stores all clustered together in one area. So if you’re hunting for some rare issue of "Asian Girls Gone Wild" from 1998 (you get the idea), this is the place to go.
You’ll find the Jade Market close by too. We didn’t go through it the first day, but I did take a quick look on my second visit. One thing’s for sure—there is a lot of jade here. Going south on Reclamation Street, you’ll also hit a lively produce market, and we discovered yet another street market in the area as well—it was a lot like the ones in Mong Kok.
Don’t forget that there are stores lining these streets too, behind the stalls. It’s easy to miss them, but we found a lot of great deals on sneakers and clothes at a few of these places. What else can I say? Working these street markets was completely amazing. You can’t say you’ve visited Hong Kong until you’ve gone over to Kowloon to see what I mean.
Brooklyn, New York