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Hong Kong

April 1st, 2004 · No Comments

Hong Kong is renowned for its fast pace, loud locals and amazing architecture — a nexus of shop-till-you-drop. Greg Lowe hits the city’s streets to find the best places to wine, dine and spend time.

My first few hours in Hong Kong are spent in a strangely pleasant state of surreal shock. Everything on this densely populated high-tech island, complete with ultramodern skyline and distinctly Asian underbelly, operates at a higher velocity than Thailand. It’s faster, brighter, louder, newer, and more often than not, pricier.

The first signs of the spectre of sensory overload that haunt me for the first 12 hours or so, set in on arrival at Hong Kong International Airport.

Norman Foster’s mammoth achievement of architectural and engineering mastery cannot be relegated to merely an impressive structure — it is an experience in itself.

My plane parked at gate 70, and the first shock is being shepherded to a train station. Despite the signs saying, “Relax the next train will arrive in 3 minutes”, I panic about picking up my bags or getting to passport control.

I realise I’m not alone when other first-timers to Hong Kong in the crowd voice the same concerns, only to be reassured by an airport employee that this is the train to passport control. Immediately I give the “oh so knowledgeable’’ look of the seasoned traveller, hoping that no one mistakes me for a Hong Kong virgin. The formalities of passport control and baggage collection are plain sailing, as is getting to Hong Kong island.

Bus, taxi and the airport express train are the options available, and I opt for the latter due to its ease. The Express travels at speeds of up to 160km per hour, and the 30km journey takes 23 minutes and costs HK$180 (900 baht) return. Having been exposed to the fact that Hong Kong is light years ahead of Bangkok in terms of contemporary architecture, it’s time to introduce the Octopus card — a fantastic example of the island’s love affair with technology.

Octopus is a travel card that you can use on virtually all of Hong Kong’s excellent public transport network: the MTR (metro train service), buses and trams. Available at all transport stations, 7-11s and Circle Ks, Octopus sets you back HK$50 deposit, but you can stack it up with as much cash as you feel necessary (HK$100 did me for extensive travel over four days). It works by magnetic induction, so you don’t even need to take it out of your bag or wallet, just drag it over the sensor pad and the fare is deducted.

However, for me what’s more magical about this dinky little gadget is that you can also use it at Circle K and 7-11 to purchase anything from a copy of the South China Morning Post newspaper to a few bottles of the delicious Tsing Tao beer.

Shuttle buses run from Hong Kong station to some of the major hotels, and Central MTR station is a short walk through connecting tunnels. I travel to the Novotel Century Hong Kong by taxi.

Cabs in Hong Kong are safe, reliable and reasonable value over short distances. Drivers speak enough English to get you where you want to be go, but it’s worth carrying a local tourist map with place names in Chinese just to make sure. Business travellers will be pleased to know machine-printed receipts are available — just ask your driver.

During the 10-minute ride to my hotel, I’m introduced to downtown Hong Kong for the first time. Imagine a slice of Yoawarat (Bangkok’s Chinatown) spliced with Singapore’s business district, and squeezed at the sides so it towers above you, forcing you to strain your neck to see the sky. The night-time neon blaze of Hong Kong’s streets maes the arrival all the more impressive.

Wan Chai district is my home for the next few days, and after a quick shower I head out for a bite to eat. The area has its fair share of good bars, pubs and restaurants that cater for most needs — from fairly posh eateries to local-style noodle and soup shops.

After a bowl of delicious pork and shrimp wonton soup with noodles — a steal at HK$18 — in a small eatery with 20-something Hong Kongese, I stroll along Hennessy Road, O’Brien Road and down Lockhart Road back to the hotel.

Lockhart Road is an odd mix of strip joints, respectable pubs and decent restaurants. Wan Chai itself is a prominent red-light district that gained notoriety when war-ravaged, party-crazed American GIs used to stop off for R&R during the Vietnam War.

Don’t be put off, though, the area’s decent above-board bars and pubs, which attract a respectable good-time crowd of 30-somethings, such as the Horse and Groom, are well worth checking out.

Daylight reveals Hong Kong’s business side. It’s early morning and everyone’s on their way to work. The general level of affluence here is self-evident and demonstrated by the sharply dressed locals, plugged into MP3 players, playing with palmtops or shouting down the newest mobile phones. Even the cabbies have Bluetooth phone headsets.

For breakfast I have a bowl of congee, and I realise that it isn’t just a low blood sugar level that has made me feel a little light-headed — I’m still floating on a cloud of disorientation. Deciding it’s time to do some stress-free sightseeing, I walk to Johnston Rd to take a ride on one of the numerous double-decker trams that operate on Hong Kong Island, running East to West from Kennedy Town to Shau Kei Wan.

It’s a great way to get your bearings and take in the sights and sounds of the main island, and they are practically free — just a HK$2 flat rate fair for adults, which you pay every time you get off.

My journey from Wan Chai through Causeway Bay, North Point and onwards takes 40 minutes. A seat on the top deck next to a window guarantees an excellent view of the magnificent architecture, as well as the hustle and bustle on the streets. You see dynamic, in-your-face haggling over everything from dried fish and fruits, to fake Rolex watches and designer handbags being flogged out of suitcases.

Either get off at Shau Kei Wan, for a walk around the fruit market and catch the MTR to Central, or just wait for another tram.

After observing Hong Kong from street level, I head for the dizzier heights of the island’s summit, Victoria Peak (532m).

Peak Tram — the funicular railway built by Phineas Kyrie William Kerfoot Hughes and opened in 1888 — embarks on a 30-minute super-steep journey from Central Station every 10 minutes (adult return HK$30). At the top it’s a pleasant 3.5km walk around the summit.

One point worth remembering, make sure the weather is good before you leave. I didn’t, so I saw more cloud and mist than anything.

Hong Kong’s skyline is impressive during the day, but seeing the city light up like a Christmas tree, when it gets dark, is a memorable event. There are a few places to watch this from, which include the Peak and Star Ferry.

I decide to take the ferry, which crosses the  waters of Victoria Harbour from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon on the mainland. Ferries leave every 10 minutes and take the same time to reach the other side.

From Kowloon pier it’s a short walk to The Penninsula, one of Hong Kong’s oldest hotels, which harks back to colonial days and is famous for serving High Tea everyday from 2pm to 7pm. However, having drunk enough tea in my life to sink a navy, I take a rain check on supping China’s favourite beverage with well-to-do wives and head for the 28th floor of Peninsula tower.

My destination, Felix Bar, the first hotel appendium in Hong Kong designed by global style guru Phillipe Starck. Despite celebrating its first decade, Felix is by no means dated. The minimalist use of open space is highly original, and the bar offers a fantastic view of the harbour, the island’s architecture. As day turns to dusk, I sip my “Jade” cocktail, kick back and enjoy the view. It also has the best-designed men’s room I’ve ever come across.

I also visit Captain’s Bar at the Mandarin Oriental, but the best fun and games to be had are in Lan Kwai Fon and Soho. Just follow the signposts from Central station. My favourite watering hole is Club 64.

They say in Hong Kong that there isn’t a type of food you cannot get. Vong’s, at the Mandarin Oriental, is famous for its Pacific Rim fare (reservations advised), and the number of high-end establishments serving Shanghainese, Sichuan, Cantonese, Indian, American, European, Middle Eastern, Japanese and more are all most too numerous to list. While these places provided world-class cuisine, you must also try the myriad local noodle and rice shops.

Furthermore, you haven’t been to Hong Kong if you haven’t eaten yum cha (dim sum). A noisy, boisterous and thoroughly enjoyable affair, go with friends an indulge yourself. Sundays is recommended, but the wonderful array of food is available everywhere from 8am to 4pm daily.

For the shopaholics among you, Hong Kong is a veritable Aladdin’s Cave, with everything from the latest gadgetry to international fashion brands. For authentic goods and a decent chance of after-sales service, check out the major malls such as Pacific Place and Wan Chai Computer Centre.

However, if like me you’re after authentic Hong Kong hecticness, nothing beats Mongkok. Take the MTR all the way to Mongkok, head out of exit E and be prepared for ultra-busy jam-packed streets that ooze a distinctly Chinese experience.

Mongkok’s great for street markets, a stunning array of DVDs, electronic equipment, cameras and dodgy gear. I love it, but head back to Kowloon Walled City Park, one of the city’s green lungs, in the evening to relax and watch the old guys do Tai Chi.

My four days in Hong Kong were fantastic, but not quite long enough. I’d seriously recommend a full week. That way you can visit the parks, mountains, beaches of Repulse Bay, the New Territories, and the host of hidden activities and attractions of this truly amazing city.

One thing is for sure, however. I will be back.

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