A City Upon a Hill

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I loved Hong Kong before the wheels hit the tarmac. Everything about the city is first-rate, from the food, to the shopping, to the public transportation, but it’s Hong Kong’s natural setting that makes it a cut above the rest. Spread out over tons of tiny islands in the South China Sea, Hong Kong is home to some shockingly great beaches, surprisingly rugged terrain, and more scenic coastlines than grace the whole of mainland China.

For such a small area, there is an incredible amount of diversity, from the culture to the geography. Obviously a very developed area, Hong Kong somehow manages to maintain its natural beauty amid countless high-rises balanced on the very steep hillsides. Of course, after having spent the last two weeks in mainland China, the Hong Kong blue sky probably looked a little more blue to me than it might have had I been coming from somewhere else, but even so, the view of the city in the afternoon sun when I landed was spectacular.

So here's the thing: when you get to the top of Victoria Peak
So here’s the thing: I took this photo on the patio of a Bubba Gump’s. I KNOW. Why they occupy prime retail location on the top of Victoria Peak, I do not know, but look at the view!

Defining what exactly Hong Kong is isn’t particularly straightforward. It certainly isn’t its own country and is technically listed as a “Special Administrative Region” by the Chinese government. What this amounts to in reality is a city that bears almost no resemblance to the mainland, save a moderate presence of Chinese culture. The government here is autonomous to a certain extent, and obviously this arrangement has been problematic of late, but for the casual visitor, it could not feel further from China. Drop London onto some very hilly terrain, mix in some Cantonese culture, and you have Hong Kong.

The central urban area in Hong Kong is split into two main parts, Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, separated by the narrow Victoria Harbour. When I was looking for a place to stay, it was nearly impossible to find a consensus as to which side was better and I got the impression that you really couldn’t go wrong.

You definitely can go wrong.

Largely through good luck, I ended up renting an apartment in an absolutely perfect location on Hong Kong Island, and after a brief walk around Kowloon, I was left wondering why anyone would stay there. I read an article that described Kowloon as the Mr. Hyde to Hong Kong’s Dr. Jekyll, and that is the perfect summary. With a few notable exceptions, Kowloon is pretty unpolished and chaotic, which can certainly have its own appeal, but also feels inauthentic.

The exception to this is the area clustered around the harbor. Here you’ll find extravagant, very high-end shopping malls, and some of the nicest hotels in the city. If you want a room with a view, you’ll want to choose the Kowloon side, as the view across the water at the Hong Kong Island skyline is much more impressive than the reverse. Even with that in mind, I would still have a hard time choosing Kowloon based on what I saw, unless all I wanted to do was shop and eat at a Jamie Oliver restaurant.

Here’s the deal: I’m obviously missing something here. Lots of people love Kowloon and there is a ton to do on that side of the city, and some interesting history there as well. I didn’t spend nearly as much time there as I did on Hong Kong Island, mainly because I pulled the ripcord and quickly retreated any time I went over to Kowloon, so I am only briefly acquainted with that part of town. I’m sure someone who knows what’s up could show you nothing but great things in Kowloon. But from my experience, Hong Kong Island, and the outlying, smaller islands, are so nice that I would not waste any time on Kowloon.

By any measure, Hong Kong Island is ultra sophisticated. The British influence seems strongest in this part of the city and much of the island is dedicated to the business and financial district. As a tourist, head to artsy-cool Central and Sheung Wan.

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Bruce Lee is everywhere in Hong Kong

One of the things I think travel writing loves to sell you is the idea of wandering. “A stroll down X-street in Y-city will find you surrounded by countless restaurants, all with tantalizing, mouth-watering menus. It’ll be impossible to choose the perfect spot for dinner.” Honestly, how often has this happened to you?

European cities always get this treatment, but in my experience, it rarely works out. I can actually remember the exact number of times I’ve just randomly happened upon a great little place without at least some direction or a recommendation because it’s happened, like, three times. The reality is, a lot of restaurants are crap. I can’t count how many times I’ve headed out confident that I would serendipitously discover the best place in town and have ended up eating an overcooked steak in some totally uninspired restaurant because the person I was with and I got so fed up/hangry that we just threw in the towel and went somewhere totally mediocre.

Easily my worst experience with this was when I ended up in a near-empty Chinese restaurant in London that almost certainly had a meeting of the Chinese mafia going on in a back room. In a foreshadowing of what I thought was to come, I ordered the bang bang chicken and it was predictably not good (tragically, this restaurant has now closed, in case you were interested).

But Sheung Wan is perhaps the one place on earth where this is actually true. It really is, despite all that, a neighborhood where you can pop into just about any restaurant or bar and have a good experience. There’s definitely a vibe in Sheung Wan; every restaurant is either pretty hip, or very hip, but you truly, for once, will have your pick of great restaurants with all different kinds of food. If you go to Sheung Wan and don’t have a good meal, I will take full responsibility.

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This Alfa Romeo is a poor substitute for the matte red Ferrari that went by moments before

Sheung Wan is the area in town that many people bemoan for its proliferation of cocktail bars and intimate eateries, and while this development has certainly robbed the area of some of its authenticity, you can still get glimpses at the historic side of the city here, too.

Hidden on a small side street, this tiny barber shop has been in operation for more than 50 years
Hidden on a small side street, this tiny barber shop has been in operation for more than 50 years

But, as is almost always the case with neighborhoods like this, gentrification has done a number on obliterating a lot of the area’s history, and that great wine bar around the corner was probably a small family business not that long ago. That’s not the kind of thing you want to see happen in a city, but it didn’t seem to me like you were going to find this idealized “old Hong Kong” in Kowloon either.

Street food carts (known as dai pai dong), with their rickety plastic chairs and tables, still cram themselves into some of the city’s more narrow side streets, and while high rent is having an impact on family-run small businesses of all kinds, you can still find a few businesses flourishing in unassuming storefronts wedged between bars and the omnipresent Starbucks.

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Dai pai dong

If you want a cheap meal and a taste of local food culture, you can’t do any better than dai pai dong. Once a mainstay in Hong Kong, these street vendors are now a dying breed, with only 25 left in the city. Citing health reasons and a need to free up street space for traffic reasons, the Hong Kong government no longer issues these licenses (dai pai dong literally means “restaurant with a big license plate”). As a result, these stands will all be gone when the owners die (the holder of the license is required to be present at the stand at all times). This practice originally started at the end of WWII, when the government issued these special permits to families of deceased soldiers as compensation and a means of supplementing income.

In the summer months, and even still in September, dining at one of these establishments is not a particularly comfortable experience. With no air conditioning, it’s quite warm and sticking your face in a bowl of steaming soup won’t help. But the food and the price can’t be beat, and these are some of the few places in the city where you’ll see people from every walk of life suffering through the miserable hot, delicious experience together.

Having eaten almost exclusively Japanese, Korean, and Chinese food for the last month, I was definitely taken with Hong Kong’s fantastic dining options and I did end up in a great Italian restaurant and a 50’s style burger joint a few nights. While I felt slightly guilty forgoing the more local food, everything I had was delicious and it’s worth it to try some of the excellent non-Chinese restaurants while you’re in Hong Kong.

The two most common local dishes here are dim sum and wonton noodle soup. Not going to beat around the bush, the dumplings in Shanghai were much better; sorry, Hong Kong. Cantonese food is great because it is so much lighter than many other kinds of Chinese cuisines, but the pork buns in Hong Kong were just sad. If you want something that won’t make you hate yourself, the lighter fare in Hong Kong is great; a good shrimp dumpling is amazing and I don’t even like shrimp, but leave the heartier fare to Shanghai and the mainland.

The wonton noodle soup is a must. The name is pretty self-explanatory and you can find noodle shops absolutely everywhere in the city. If you’re traveling alone, these places are perfect. There’s none of the “Are you meeting someone?” “Just one this evening?” awkwardness. You order basically the second you sit down and you’ll be out of there in 20 minutes. It’s also dirt-cheap, a relief in the not-so-cheap Hong Kong.

Graham Street Market
Graham Street Market

The street markets in Hong Kong were the things that reminded me the most of China and like dai pai dong, are a dying breed. The issue is the same; the government wants to move these stalls off the streets into centralized, controlled environments for health and safety reasons, and to free up valuable street space to help fix traffic problems. I have a hard time faulting them for their reasoning, but the obvious downside is that another part of the city’s history will be lost. Many of these markets are more than a century old and most of the vendors have worked there their entire lives.

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I have a hard time making up my mind about this issue. Hong Kong is a huge city with an important international role, and managing a city effectively to deal with the demands of 2015 means addressing issues like traffic and food safety. Doing things as they’ve always been done for the sake of tradition is not productive. At the same time, these street markets and food stalls are what make Hong Kong interesting and unique, both for tourists and locals, and removing markers of a city’s past is dangerous, too.

If you want to see old Hong Kong, you’re going to have to leave Hong Kong Island and Kowloon altogether, and venture farther afoot. There are tons of outlying islands in Hong Kong, some very developed, some largely untouched. It can be hard to initially tear yourself away from the amazing city, but you’ll be glad you did.

Lantau Island is one of the most and least developed islands in Hong Kong, home to both Hong Kong Disneyland and Tai O, a fishing village that despite its popularity among tourists, remains almost entirely untouched. Smalls houses sit on stilts above the ocean and the salt pans, and you’ll quickly know by the smell that this is very much still an active fishing community. Nearly every storefront sells dried and fresh seafood, and I saw more than one dried shark carcass proudly hanging in the windows of shops.

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Judging the prosperity of a place like this can be an interesting exercise. Compared to the luxury apartment buildings just a 40-minute bus ride away on the other side of the island, these humble dwellings look a little bleak, but look inside any house and you’ll find a top-of-the-line flatscreen TV. I love places like this because it makes you rethink how wealth is manifested and what people value. Of course, I’m sure that on average, a person in Hong Kong Island makes much more than a fisherman in Tai O, but it’s fascinating to me to see how a fisherman chooses to spend his disposable income: on a nice TV, rather than on a front door.

Someone with a better camera and actual talent could have really done this justice
Someone with a better camera and actual talent could have really done this justice

The main attraction of this island is the Tian Tan Buddha perched on top of a hill overlooking the nearby Po Lin Monastery. The Buddha is only about 20 years old, so while you won’t be in the presence of a wonder of the ancient world, it’s still worth a visit for the beautiful views.

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View of Po Lin Monastery in the distance
View of Po Lin Monastery in the distance
Wisdom Path and surrounding mountains. The
Wisdom Path near the monastery and surrounding mountains. The 38 wooden markers with Chinese calligraphy are supposed to lead you on a path to enlightenment.

Lamma Island is frequently billed as the hippie foil to Hong Kong’s polished city center, which I found to be wishful thinking for the most part. Things definitely move a little slower on Lamma, and while the downtown area screams grungy beach town, the group of suit-clad business people hustling for the ferry on a weekday morning didn’t allow for a sense of total idleness. My assumption is that this quiet island offers a more affordable option than living in downtown, so Lamma Island seems like an attractive place to live if you want to get out of the city without going far.

Before I came to Hong Kong, I had no idea that there were such excellent beaches, and the best part is stumbling upon them by accident. Hiking the Dragon’s Back trail (this awesomely named hike is definitely worth it for the bird’s-eye view of the island below), I took a wrong turn and ended up in Big Wave Bay, a name that should be taken with a grain of salt. The “big waves” are really more of a gentle swell, and hats off to the group of determined surfers who were trying to ride these two-foot curls.

View from the Dragon's Back
View from the Dragon’s Back

Nothing about the waves detracts from the beauty of the beach; you’ll find an odd piece of trash floating here and there, but this tiny beach wedged between two hillsides is the perfect place for a lazy afternoon.

Look at those waves!
Look at those waves!

Of course, some stretches of sand are worth the trek all by themselves, and the crescent-shaped beach in Repulse Bay, a 40-minute bus ride from downtown, is not about to steal tourists away from the Caribbean, but it’s damn nice. Trees interspersed along the wide shore negate the need for eye-sore plastic umbrellas and the site of enormous shipping containers rolling past a mile in the distance can seem a little odd at first, but shark nets keep the swimming area near the beach remarkably clean. You definitely won’t be swimming in an oil-slicked cesspool and it’s actually pretty cool to see the juxtaposition of the idyllic beach and the gritty side of Hong Kong’s commerce.

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Like Waikiki, but not shit
Like Waikiki, but not shit

As far as I’m concerned, Hong Kong has only two issues: the stifling humidity that makes you want to die and the expat problem. The thing about expats is they are an inherently interesting group. Yes, the world is getting smaller and moving to Hong Kong would hardly induce culture shock for any Westerner, but there is still something intriguing about people who live as expatriates. Hong Kong is a very cool place bursting with expats, primarily British, and the problem is they’re all very aware of how cool their city is, and they’re pretty impressed with themselves, too.

You could level this criticism against a lot of big cities–I would have a hard time arguing New Yorkers aren’t impressed with themselves–but people in Hong Kong struck me as a little aloof. By contrast, the expats living in Shanghai that I met, who are dealing with a much more alien environment than people living in Hong Kong, were some of the most down-to-earth, laid-back people I’ve ever met.

Everyone in Hong Kong is perfectly polite and pleasant, but not exactly warm. This is a city best visited with a lot of friends, as it doesn’t seem likely that you’re going to make many here. People keep to themselves and their group (hardly a bad thing), but it makes meeting locals a challenge. The only people I got to know in Hong Kong were people visiting the city on business or other tourists.

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You can’t come to Hong Kong with the expectation of seeing China. Whatever the political-administrative ties are with the mainland, this is not China, which is part of its appeal. You come to Hong Kong to experience a vibrant, dynamic city with an interesting history, fantastic food, and a stunning natural setting.

Next stop: Delhi

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