Arriving in Hong Kong on the luxurious express train from Guangzhou, we checked into our hotel and hurried out on a sparkling spring day to walk the harbor promenade. Hong Kong seemed to me as just another huge urban shopping center. Although beautiful, I was skeptical that our one-week stay would afford enough opportunities to keep us entertained. But, surprisingly, the more time we spent here, the more it unveiled. After a week, we realized that perhaps there are more layers to peel back than a week could provide, that the cosmopolitan aspect of Hong Kong, although brilliant, is only one part of this majestic area.
Hong Kong occupies a geographically stunning location, with Kowloon peninsula jutting into the South China Sea from mainland China, funneling the dreams and aspirations of mainland China into a Mecca of capitalism. Two miles across Victoria Harbor sits Hong Kong Island, the harbor reflected in the glassy skyscrapers that line the shoreline. Representing a who’s who of the corporate world, the rectangular buildings are stacked side by side like a bar graph representing gross national product. Tucked tightly against the structures of commerce, muscular, ochre-splashed hills form a necessary levy of containment, as they intersect and swell towards famed Victoria Peak. Freighters, ferries, and boats of all shape and sizes thread through the harbor, some on their way to faraway ports, others, like the historic Star Ferry, to shuttle goods and people between the island and the peninsula. For a hundred years, commerce has flowed in this watery artery, and in another hundred years, it will still stream through.
From Kowloon peninsula, the panoramas of Hong Kong Island are staggering, especially in the warm balmy evenings, as if the Milky Way in all its glory has descended from the sky. A popular daily laser light show dazzles the pedestrians as it illuminates the distant buildings in a coordinated and colorful musical show. Besides the sophisticated urban scene, other fascinating islands lie clustered off Hong Kong, easily accessed by local ferry. This alternative side of Hong Kong is rewarding, as it provides glimpses into a rural and largely undeveloped side of this culturally enriched province.
Mass transit in Hong Kong is world class, with the easily identifiable red MTR signs directing you to the nearest graffiti free subway station. Touch sensitive ticket machines are easy to follow, and allow single ticket purchases or an Octopus card, which adds a dollar amount to a plastic card.
Once on board the spotless subway, computerized displays highlight your position and progress, as it whisks you towards your destination. Elevated skywalks transport people over busy roads, double-decker buses ply the streets, and escalators (including the longest escalator in the world) shuffle pedestrians silently through malls and business centers. Finally, an efficient ferryboat network combines modern ticket kiosks with the effective linking between the island and the peninsula as well as to the outlying islands.
The first couple of days we spent wandering the many neighborhoods, following suggested walking circuits provided by the tourist office. The first included a walk through the aromatic Sheung Wan district, where burlap bags overflowed with mysterious dried merchandise and shelves were stocked with traditional Chinese medicines. Bird’s nest (for soup), ginseng root, dried seafood, and shrimp paste filled the air with their unusual convergence of odors, while bags of peculiar substances sat bundled and packaged.
Further up was Jade Street, where merchants under circus tent canopies sold anything and everything made from jade, a valued mineral thought to bring good luck. This was followed by a jaunt up the unusual Goldfish Street, where mossy stained aquariums spilt from the stores and lined the street. Emitting a quirky marine organic odor, the tanks were flush with plump golden fish gasping for air. Inside many of the stores, plastic green bags hung from the walls, each containing a single prisoner fish all packaged and ready to go.
The pungent odor of religion drew us into ancient dark temples, where coils of pink incense swirled snaky wisps of smoke and shafts of white ash defied gravity before dropping unto the dull pizza pans strung underneath. Everywhere, they hung from the ceiling, some burning up to ten days, with shafts of light illuminating the motes of dust and casting moibus-like shadows from the coils unto the worn concrete floor.
Shadowy statues stood guard and accepted the offerings of the faithful, while compact boxes lined the walls like a post office. Each box contained the cremated remains of a departed soul, whose image looked upon you from the cover. Oozing with spirituality, I was struck by a strange sensation upon entering these olden sanctuaries, as if the collective spirits from the past were rising up and imparting a spiritual embrace. With good intentions, I always purchased sticks of incense from the attendant and offered up prayers to the people above who look after us.
Further up was the flower market, where the unique fresh organic smells replaced that of the incense. Down a hidden alley, we came upon the bird park, where merchants dealt the feathery friends from delicate handcrafted bamboo cages, as the sugary sounds of canaries sweetened the air. Fascinating were the forays into the multi faceted cultures present in Hong Kong.
Another walk on Hong Kong Island began at the Central MTR exit, where we worked our way up to Hollywood Road, a historic street filled with antique shops. Eventually, you’ll arrive in the SoHo restaurant district, packed with eateries of every kind imaginable. Here is the longest escalator in the world, which connects to the lower reaches of the central district. Close by is the Lan Kwai Fong district, famous for its lively happy hour bar scene. This neighborhood is also home to many of the designer stores and high-end malls.
Among these sleek and shiny modern high rises, you’ll unexpectedly stumble across cleverly devised parks designed for solitude. Calming sounds of water spill from fountains and waterfalls, while creeks emerge from verdant vegetation, all to mask the energy of the city. Still, within this modern scene, we’re shocked to see a 28-story skyscraper with primitive bamboo scaffolding encasing the entire building. How is this possible in such a high tech and modern city? For a few minutes, I step back and stare up, as I try to reconcile this unusual juxtaposition of old and new.
The outlying island of Lamma is a sparsely populated region twenty minutes from Hong Kong harbor. Disembarking at the lively fishing village of Yung Shue Wan, we loitered around a bit before trekking across the island to Mo Tat Wan. As we admired the many splendid vistas, a sequence of drums echoed in the distance and grew louder as we descended into the harbor. Arriving in Mo Tat Wan, we came upon the colorful Dragon Festival, a riotous celebration that featured games, a play, fireworks, and a harbor filled with decorated boats. Crowding down the walkway, a jumpy dragon festooned in garish yellows passed through the crowd, to the cheers of the locals who shared picnic tables, beers, and helpings of roast pig. After a delightful hour, we caught the ferry back to the Hong Kong.
Lantau Island is another escape off the coast of Hong Kong. Certainly more touristy than Lamma Island, it’s home to the Big Buddha at Ngong Ping - the largest outdoor Buddha in the world – and the newly opened Hong Kong Disneyland. Now accessible by cable car from the airport, visitors swarm the nearby temple structures of Po Lin, and as we stood for pictures beneath the big guy, I watched a steady stream of 747’s ascend against the green hillsides.
Buses get you around the island and the subway will return you back to Hong Kong. Do pay a visit to the sleepy fishing village of Pai O, a town called the ‘Venice’ of Asia, because the homes themselves are built on stilts along a tidal estuary. Here fish, with heads wrapped in paper, are tied upside down outside every shop, as they dry and fill the air with that unique fish odor.
No visit to Hong Kong would be complete without the ultra touristy century old tram ride up to Victoria Peak. The highly recommended steep ride up deposits you at a tourist center where a one-mile path encircles the peak and provides stunning views over Hong Kong.
After a week in Hong Kong, my skepticism had turned to enchantment. Hong Kong has everything going for it – cultural diversity, intriguing neighborhoods, great shopping, modern transport, tasty dining, undeveloped rural islands, perfect harbor, gorgeous scenery, and the open spaces of the new territories. Of all the things we saw on our travels, images from the incense laden temples of Hong Kong remain some of the most evocative and memorable. The dichotomy between the old and new meld effortlessly in this vibrant metropolis – I can’t wait to return.