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China Deep Dive: Hong Kong

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After a twelve day prologue in northwestern Türkiye we landed at Hong Kong International Airport on a Friday evening to begin the "real" summer vacation. Mei Ling and I have a de facto agreement that we will visit China every other summer with the intervening years being dedicated mainly to Europe. If I had to choose just one foreign nation I would be allowed to travel in for the rest of my life I would immediately pick China simply because of its size and the sheer number of massive cities and strange landscapes that I've never visited. I think of China as a continent within a country. Having Mei Ling with me makes China much more accessible and manageable than it would be if I was on my own without the benefit of speaking Chinese. China is also the best country in the world for eating, as long as one has an adventurous palate, and is the place where we've had many of our most memorable food experiences.

We've traveled to many of China's major cities together but even so we've only scratched the surface. Beijing and Shanghai are the main cities for international tourism but on our previous visit in 2019 we found that they had been sanitized and purged of character in a rapid push for modernization. We have no plans to return to those cities in the foreseeable future. Instead we chose an itinerary to focus on several provinces we had never visited, namely Fujian, Szechuan, and Chongqing. Of course we still had to arrive in China somewhere and the ideal choice from Istanbul was clearly Hong Kong. This was a city I had already visited a few times and had a strange mental relationship with. While I certainly enjoyed the markets and food culture I always felt like Hong Kong was missing some crucial element that lifted my spirits in the rest of China, although I could never put my finger on what it was. In the past we had never ventured outside of the city of Hong Kong which is just a small part of the special administrative region, so there was still plenty of territory for us to explore.

One of Mei Ling's old friends was waiting just outside the terminal to pick us up. The airport is located on an artificial island just north of Lantau Island and we had quite a long drive to our hotel in Mong Kok, a busy section of Kowloon. Airbnb's in Hong Kong seemed to be a poor value and we had found a good deal at the Royal Plaza, although it was still a sticker shock after the prices we had become accustomed to in Türkiye. Once we were finally checked in all we wanted to do was get dinner before collapsing into bed. The hotel was attached to a large mall with numerous restaurants but many of them were already closing at nine o'clock. Eventually we found a Japanese place that could accommodate us and kicked off the East Asian segment of our summer vacation with a gluttonous sukiyaki feast.

We set no alarms for Saturday morning and no one suffered any disrupted sleep from jetlag. so we rather bemusedly rolled out of bed around eleven in the morning. This didn't present a problem as we didn't have much on our agenda for our three full days in Hong Kong. The hotel was just a couple of blocks from the Fa Yuen street market which is best known for discounted clothing but also has plenty of fruits stands where we immediately loaded up on lychees and yang mei. The latter is a juicy, fragile drupe that is almost unknown outside of China. They bruise very easily and ferment quickly once they are damaged which is probably why they are never exported to Europe or the Americas. I had them for the first time on my first visit to Shanghai as an adult and they're one of the things I always look forward to after I arrive in China. We wandered around Fa Yuen for a couple of hours reacclimating ourselves to the East Asian vibe. Hong Kong is immediately recognizable by the endless blocks of tall residential apartment buildings with faded, dirt-streaked pastel facades and countless window AC units. The windows themselves are often grimy to the point of being opaque or blocked by clothing hung out to dry. The overall effect is quite dystopian especially in overcast weather like we were having.

We strolled around Mong Kok for a while shopping for a couple of minor items. The only thing I had forgotten to pack were extra blades for my safety razor, which proved to be impossible to find. I had to buy an entirely new kit but it wasn't that expensive. I also found a place to get the haircut I'd missed out on in Türkiye. One thing that was very noticeable in Hong Kong was the large number of pedestrians who wore masks. Of course masks were already a thing of the past in the United States in summer of 2023 and we had rarely seen them in Türkiye but they were very common here across all ages, especially the ugly disposable procedure masks. Hong Kong hadn't had a substantial number of COVID cases since winter and I wondered if people were really worried about catching COVID outdoors or if the mask was just a convenient way of avoiding interaction. It was another element that added to the overall dystopian atmosphere that I felt in the city. We found ourselves a pretty good lunch in a food court on the top floor of an indoor market. One of the menus had a picture of chicken foot soup that appeared to contain a human thumb and index finger making a pinching motion. I passed.

After lunch we met up with another one of Mei Ling's old friends and his family and spent the afternoon bumming around Sham Shui Po, another busy commercial neighborhood just north of Mong Kok. There was another multilevel food market here called Pei Ho with its own food court. Mei Ling and I probably would have eaten here but it was a little too gritty for her friend so we ended up having dinner in a rather mediocre restaurant.


After dinner we made an exhausting climb up hundreds of stairs to the top of Woh Chai Shan, an incongruous forested hill adjacent to the busy commercial district of Sham Shui Po. Standing among the trees gazing out on the dense rows of residential apartment towers gave a new perspective on the term "urban jungle".

On Sunday morning we roused ourselves at a more reasonable time in order to spend the day on Lantau Island with another of Mei Ling's old friends. This mountainous, sparsely populated island is best known to foreigners as the site of Hong Kong Disneyland but also has a famous monastery and several small fishing villages.

We took Hong Kong's efficient and clean metro to a heavily developed section of the island called Tung Chung where the departure station of the Ngong Ping cable car is located. The cable car travels three and a half miles to the top of the Ngong Ping plateau, the highest part of Lantau. We paid a little extra for a Crystal Cabin which has a glass floor and floor-to-ceiling glass walls. It was well worth the extra expense because the panoramic views of Lantau were spectacular. It was like King Kong's island with clusters of towering white skyscrapers. Below us we could see more intrepid travelers making the journey up the mountain by foot.

We exited the cable car into a small tourist village filled with souvenir shops and snack bars. After lunch at a noodle restaurant we made our way to the main attraction of the plateau, the Po Lin monastery. This Buddhist monastery was found just a century ago by traveling monks from Jiangsu province. It is named for the lotus flower which is a Buddhist symbol of purity. Aside from being a tourist attraction the monastery is popular among locals as a place of worship.

The Tian Tan Buddha was completed in 1993 and has already become one of Hong Kong's most well-known features. The statue is over a hundred feet tall and sits atop a platform that can only be reached by climbing two hundred and sixty-eight steps upward from the monastery. It was quite a brutal ascent but eventually we all made it and spent a few minutes catching our breath at the top.

The pavilion around the statue is decorated with six massive bronze statues known as "The Offering of the Six Devas" for the gifts they are proffering to the Buddha. Through the fog we could see the hilly, uninhabited islets south of Lantau.

Back at Ngong Ping we boarded a bus to Tai O village. There are numerous fishing villages scattered around Hong Kong but Tai O is the consensus favorite and a tourist infrastructure has developed to meet the needs of its visitors. The colorful fishing boats and wooden houses on stilts had lots of visual appeal and were dutifully being photographed by clumps of tourists at every vantage point.

The village has a daily market that is largely dedicated to souvenirs, herbal remedies, and street foods and probably isn't very useful to the residents aside from being a source of income. We did try the local specialty of fish maw soup which was quite tasty.

It didn’t take long for us to get bored of the market and we began hunting for areas that were unappealing to the tourists. At the end of the market we found a paved walkway that took us past some more authentic, residential buildings that weren’t so charmingly ramshackle. At one point we passed a large tortoise that was trying to escape from a plastic basin on someone’s doorstep. I assume it was a pet and its owner was well aware of the tortoise’s limitations in mobility.

A narrow path off the walkway led to a patio on the water that could have been a small restaurant. While I relaxed with the kids on the patio Mei Ling found some people at a nearby shed and confirmed that we had in fact walked into someone’s private backyard. The owners were very good-natured and Mei Ling had a long chat with them. Tai O is mainly populated by Hakka Chinese, an ethnic subgroup that migrated from the north and mingled with the local Cantonese. The Hakka still retain their own dialect and customs although they are fairly integrated with the native populations of the southern provinces.

We took another long bus ride to Mui Wo on the eastern shore of Lantau. This was a rather bland little suburb that had its own food market and was also the departure point for ferries to Hong Kong Island. We walked across a short canal from the ferry area to the market but it was hardly worth the effort. Most of the stalls were shuttered and there were just a couple of bored fishmongers cleaning shellfish and a few tables laden with faded vegetables.

We had a pleasant ferry ride between Lantau and Hong Kong Island with interesting close-up views of some of the smaller uninhabited islands. The skyline of the island was as impressive as I remembered it from my last visit in 2008. One aspect that I really enjoyed was the extreme diversity of architectural styles among the skyscrapers, so that there was no dominant theme or style but rather a patchwork of colors and shapes.

We met up again here with Mei Ling's old friend and his wife and daughter and began to ascend the steep roads that coursed uphill from Central Pier. The island had a completely different atmosphere from Mong Kok and the other Kowloon neighborhoods. It felt more European and sophisticated but at the same time it was somewhat sterile and even gloomy. There were English signs, international restaurants, dive bars, and lots of graffiti although there were far fewer Caucasian faces than I remembered seeing on my previous visits. I wasn't exactly in love with Kowloon but I was grateful we had decided not to stay on the island.

We checked out a few of the most famous streets in the Central neighborhood which featured some impressive street art. One memorable spot was Wing Lee Street which was actually a pedestrian walkway through a 1950's housing development. The buildings were saved from modernization by the popularity of the movie "Echoes of the Rainbow" which was filmed on the street although it's questionable whether the residents benefited at all from the area's salvation. It was a pleasant respite from the commercial areas but otherwise didn't stand out to us as particularly different from other neighborhoods in Hong Kong.

We made a strong effort to find a place to have dinner but struck out completely. There was a major emphasis on pub grub in the area and very few authentic local restaurants. Overall it seemed like everyone was partied out from the weekend and most of the restaurants were empty and lifeless.

Ultimately we decided we would just eat in Mong Kok again and we made our way back to Central Pier for the short ferry ride across Victoria Harbor. I knew there was a nightly light show at the harbor called "A Symphony of Lights" at eight but I didn't know exactly what it was or the best place to see it. We got on the crowded ferry just before eight but the boat had no outside area where we could stand to see the show. I craned my neck to look through a window but aside from some blinking and flickering lights in the skyscrapers I couldn't see anything. I still don't know if we missed the show or if it's just overhyped.

The plan for our last full day in Hong Kong was to go hiking in the Sai Kung peninsula on the eastern side of the New Territories but I don't think there was ever a realistic probability we were going to do it. The weather had been muggy both days so far and the forecast for the next day didn't look any different. Sai Kung was difficult to get to and I didn't have a solid plan for what we would do when we got there. When we didn't wake up until almost ten that morning it was clear that we wouldn't be doing any hiking that day. We returned to the market food court from the first day and had another excellent breakfast from a variety of stalls.

Without much of a plan for the day we began to wander south in the general direction of Victoria Harbour. Mei Ling guided us to a huge office tower called Langham Place that was once the tallest building in Kowloon. In front of the sixty story skyscraper is an enormous bronze abstract sculpture by American artist Larry Bell called Happy Man. Five pseudopod-like projections clearly stood in for the head and limbs but the nature and source of happiness were not obvious. Perhaps the sculpture had just ingested a giant paramecium.
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The first fourteen floors of the tower were devoted to a vast vertical mall primarily distinguished by the imposing Xpresscalators which transported shoppers directly between the fourth and eighth floors. In 2017 numerous people were injured when the main drive chain of an Xpresscalator snapped causing the device to go into high speed reverse and deposit all its passengers in a heap at the base. In the United States this probably would have meant the end of the Xpresscalator and some serious financial problems for the owners of the building but fortunately China is a little better balanced in terms of the litigation industry and the escalators were still in service for us to enjoy.

We spent an inordinate amount of time inside the mall, considering that we were traveling, but on the positive side it was a good opportunity for people-watching and generally getting a sense of the daily Hong Kong routine. For most of the time we were there the fourth floor was crowded with young people awaiting their opportunity to buy paraphernalia related to a boy band that was scheduled to perform somewhere in the area later on that day. The mall also had an illuminated rainbow staircase that the kids appreciated.

Once we were done at Langham Place we strolled around the city blocks for a while and soon enough found ourselves in ... another mall. This was a less upscale place focused on clothes and cosmetics for younger women and teenagers. Mei Ling made herself at home while I tried to keep the kids from playing tag and tearing the place apart. Some of the mannequins at the clothing stores were wearing masks, emphasizing how the facial coverings have transformed from a hygiene item into a fashion accessory in Hong Kong.

By the time our final morning rolled around I was more than ready to leave Hong Kong. It's hard for me to put in words why some cities that are very popular with travelers just don't resonate with me. Some other notables are Paris, Vienna, and Chicago. While I wouldn't say that I dislike Hong Kong, the city simply doesn't excite me and I'm not that motivated to explore when I'm there. The street life is frenetic but feels more desperate than joyous, unlike my favorite cities on the mainland. The griminess and datedness of the looming tenement buildings on every block certainly don't help. The best thing we could think of for our last few hours in Hong Kong was to walk all the way down to Tsim Sha Tsui on the waterfront. The only notable stop we made on the walk down was at the Nelson Street wet market, one of the largest outdoor markets in Hong Kong and probably the most enjoyable for us on this visit.

At the northern edge of Tsim Sha Tsui we encountered an enormous apartment complex called the Victoria Towers. As far as the quality of the structure it was far better than much of what we had seen in Mong Kok and the island but the sheer size of the buildings was overwhelming. I tried to estimate the number of people that might call the buildings their home and figured it was at least ten thousand. I couldn't imagine how anonymous I would feel living in a building like this, but for many of its residents it probably represented a dream come true to live in a modern building in an upscale area. Just another example of differing aesthetics between the continents.

We walked through a sports center into Kowloon Park which was a fairly drab city park by Chinese standards. There was some pleasant greenery and a couple of small ponds with a backdrop of glass skyscrapers that reflected the sky. We didn't see any of the community activities like tai chi or dancing that make mainland Chinese parks so much fun to explore but it was a nice respite from the crowds on the streets.

From the south side of the park it was a short walk to the Harbour Promenade, which is all that many visitors see of Kowloon. A statuesque bronze replica of the Hong Kong Film Awards statue marked the entrance to the Avenue of Stars, a knockoff of the Hollywood Walk of Fame that features the handprints of over a hundred Chinese movie stars set at intervals along the waterfront. We had a similar view of the Hong Kong Island skyline that we had from the ferry but more time to appreciate it from a variety of angles.

Behind the Avenue of Stars was the K11 Musea shopping mall which prominently featured several luxury brands and a large empty space in the center that a small plane could have flown through. We hooked around the mall to find a route back to Nathan Street from which we could get a double decker bus back to Mong Kok. Here there was one more open plaza with a backdrop of futuristic Kowloon skyscrapers, our final taste of Hong Kong's postmodern edge.

We retrieved our bags from the hotel and caught an Uber to the train station. It seemed we had given ourselves plenty of time by arriving an hour ahead of the departure but we had forgotten that crossing from Hong Kong into the mainland was similar to crossing an international border. We had to pass through several checkpoints and before we knew it we were looking at a critical shortage of time to make our train to Xiamen. If we missed it we would have had to wait until the next day. The process at the final checkpoint was extremely slow and Mei Ling had to go into Jedi mode, convincing all the people in front of us on line to let us go first and then imploring the sluggish official to shuffle through all our passports a little faster. We had to run at full tilt with all our luggage to the platform and made it onto the train about a minute before the doors closed. It was one of our closest calls yet, but there was no point in dwelling on a negative experience. The train had already begun moving as I hoisted bags onto the rack above the seats. Eventually I had everything in place and the kids had their iPads and headphones and I could finally sit down in my narrow cattle class seat. It would be a four hour ride to Xiamen, our first stop in the real China.

Posted by zzlangerhans 16:34 Archived in China Tagged family hong_kong big_buddha family_travel travel_blog tsim_sha_tsui tony_friedman family_travel_blog mong_kok tai_o ngong_ping sham_shui_po

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Hi there, fellow travellers! Thanks for sharing your great story and pictures! Happy trails in the future!

by Vic_IV

Glad you enjoyed the read.

by zzlangerhans

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