I didn’t know what to think or expect of Hong Kong prior to visiting. My brother loves the place – he lived in Hong Kong for several months back in college as part of a study abroad program and still raves about his experience. A dear friend of mine visited last year in the sweltering heat of summer and told me she never wishes to return again. During my recent South America travels I met David, an American expat who has been working and living in Hong Kong for the past 5 years. He told me I would love Hong Kong.
Turns out he was right.
Hong Kong was never a top travel destination for me because I had always grouped it with Mainland China in my brain, and up until recently, I had zero interest in visiting China. I completely rode the country off as this overcrowded, polluted place filled with weird food that I knew I wasn’t going to like and loud people with opposite values on respecting personal space. I realize this impression was unfair, simplified and ignorant, but based on my many visits to American Chinatowns and a one-day layover in Shanghai, I decided China wasn’t for me. And because Hong Kong was basically China in my head, I wasn’t particularly gung ho about visiting Hong Kong either.
I am extremely thankful for David for talking up Hong Kong as much as he did and inviting me to a Junk Boat Party with his expat friends last month. I think the booze cruise was a huge impetus in my decision to finally pull the trigger and visit. That and the fact that the flight is only 2.5 hours from Japan.
Hong Kong is not just a place I enjoyed visiting, it’s somewhere I could imagine living. It’s such a diverse place on so many levels – the people, the cultures, the physical terrain… You’ve got East and West, grit and luxury, a concrete city nestled among green, lush mountains. There is so much old thriving with so much new – it’s absolutely exhilarating.
I arrived in Hong Kong in the evening and went straight from the airport to Happy Valley Racecourse to catch the last of the Wednesday races. I knew beforehand of Hong Kong’s huge expat community, but my first impression was that of pure shock because it felt like every single person at the venue was an English-speaking foreigner in their 20’s-40’s. Everything felt familiar and I was comfortable right off the bat. David and I bet on a race over a couple of beers. Unfortunately, we witnessed a horse get injured on the track. The veterinarians rushed in and injected the bleeding horse with a tranquilizer/sedative, he toppled to the ground and the ambulance took him away.
Ladies Market is the name; Negotiating is the game.
Ladies Market (officially called Tung Choi Street) is the go-to spot for purchasing knock-off designer bags and purses, fashion, paintings. The temptations were high! I stopped myself from purchasing Iseey Miyake and Fjallraven Kanten bag knock offs, but held back in a difficult effort to continue traveling light. I wasn’t able to leave completely empty-handed though. The art-lover inside of me forced me into purchasing two large oil canvas paintings for about $35 USD, quite a bargain if you ask me!
As someone who doesn’t frequent street markets on a regular basis, haggling is still a relatively new and uncomfortable undertaking for me. Thankfully, David equipped me with a few good pointers before the day’s bargaining commenced:
1.) Cut the price in half: at minimum, halve the initial number the seller throws at you and work the negotiations up from there
2.) Act blasé. Don’t show too much interest
3.) Walk Away don’t invest too much emotion into any item. Always feel good about walking away. you can always go back later and there is always another seller who is more desperate than the last.
Who know’s if my loot was actually a steal. The important thing was that both me and my seller walked away from the bargaining happy and accomplished.
Hiking Lantau Island to the Big Buddha
In terms of weather, May tends to walk the line between warm, pleasant temperatures and uncomfortably humid and sweltering heat. The evenings are perfect and comfortable but the days demand compulsory visits to Mother Nature’s vast sauna. The mugginess didn’t stop me from going on a couple of hikes though. The longer of the two hikes I completed was a hike through Lantau Island to the Big Buddha. I was dripping in sweat five minutes in but I find exercising in heat to be so refreshing and detoxifying.
I couldn’t see more than 15 feet in front of me because of the heavy fog.
2.5 hours later, we made it to the big Buddha. He was mostly covered by clouds and haze, but I got lucky for a minute.
Hanging out with Buddha’s friends.
We cooled down with beers and grub at Mavericks, a beachfront joint with a California surfer vibe.
Junk Boat Party
As I mentioned earlier, my trip to Hong Kong was strongly influenced by an invite to a Junk Boat Party and it definitely was the high point of my visit. Junk Parties are a favorite weekend activity among Hong Kong’s expat community. It’s basically a day-long booze cruise with amazing company.
Here I am making new friends.
My favorite part of the day was the sunset sail back into the harbor. Hong Kong’s skyline is absolutely beautiful.
The group photo of the day. So much of why I fell in love with Hong Kong had to do with the fabulous community of expats David introduced me to.
Window Shopping PMQ
PMQ (stands for Police Married Quarters) is an old police dormitory in Soho that has been repurposed and transformed into a trendy area of boutique, artsy shops. For the early part of the 1900’s, the buildings were used as the site for Queens College, the first Western Education school in Hong Kong. After 1951, the buildings were used to house police officers as the city’s population and need for security personnel grew. This was a major benefit for the officers because the Central Police Station was located very close by. In 2009, in an effort to preserve the building and its historical significance, the area was revitalized into an art and design hub with over 100 shops. There’s everything from leather goods to posh sunglasses to handmade jewelry to oil canvases. Basically all of my favorite things.
Hong Kong has quite a few markets. You have Ladies Market for fashion and clothing, Temple Street Market for electronics and gadgets, Cat Street for antiques, the Jade Market, for well, jade. One of the craziest markets in the city is the Wet Market (Chun Yueng Street) which sells produce, seafood and meats. It’s a colorful, crowded and stinky place full of energy and life.
You have your standard vegetable stands.
And you can find durian for sale. Durian is a spiky fruit that has earned the title of the smelliest of all fruits because of its distinct, revolting odor. Here is a funny YouTube video of people trying durian. One girl said it tastes “like a melon with the texture of an uncooked egg.” I agree with that statement. The smell is so much more foul than the actual taste.
There are frogs for sale, meant to be food – not pets!
And probably the most disgusting part of the market – the meats and seafood. Vendors literally chop live fish up and display bloody cuts of their insides – beating hearts, twitching veins and all. It’s grotesque, but hey, it’s fresh.
Bar Hopping at Lan Kwai Fong
Lan Kwai Fong is the go-to place to drink with friends and experience Hong Kong’s nightlife. It’s a street lined with over a hundred bars and restaurants. Here’s a bunch of randoms posing with a yellow ferrari with the license plate “dream.” It was Cinco de Mayo, hence the piñata and sombreros.
Notice how packed the streets are!
Edward Snowden’s Hideout
Not much to say here besides spotting the Mira Hotel where Snowden was hiding out when he leaked those confidential National Security files. According to this Telegraph article, he had told The Guardian that his rationale for choosing Hong Kong as a hideout was because of “its commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent.”
Hong Kong Eats
The only dishes I knew I wanted to try in Hong Kong were Pork Buns and Dim Sum.
Tim Ho Wan is famous for its dim sum and is one of the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurants in the world – like $15-25 cheap. The restaurant is especially known for their Char Siu Bao (barbecued pork buns). We headed to the Tim Ho Wan at Central Station under the IFC Mall late Saturday morning to order takeout. The plan was to avoid the lines and have a casual picnic on the roof of the IFC.
As we were walking around Central, I saw hundreds of ladies camped out on cardboard boxes.
David filled me in on what was happening. Apparently on their days off (Saturday and Sundays), all the Philippine women working in Hong Kong (mostly nannies and maids) gather around Central Station with their friends to chat and hang out all day. Ever balcony and hallway is claimed by the women. We were lucky to snag an open table on the roof to have our dim sum picnic. Char Siu Bao and dumplings galore!
The other cheap, Michelan-starred restaurant I ate at was Din Tai Fung. Din Tai Fung was started in Taiwan and has locations all around the world, but the branch at Tsim Sha Tsui in Hong Kong was the first of their restaurants to earn the star. The most popular dish is the Xiaolongbao or steamed pork buns.
The cooks hard at work preparing the yummy Xiaolongbao.
Another famous local restaurant I dined at was Mak’s Noodles. Mak’s is a family-owned restaurant specializing in Wonton Noodles. It was started by Mak Woon-chi who once served his famous Wonton Noodle dish to Chiang Kai-shek, a renowned Chinese military leader and the President of the Republic of China in the late 1940’s. Mak’s Noodles has been passed down through the generations and now has several locations besides the original one near Central. If I’m being honest, I didn’t think the food was that great. It was cheap though, which seems to be a theme as far as local cuisine in Hong Kong goes
The only local dessert I tried was an egg tart from Tai Cheong Bakery. Tai Cheong’s warm, flakey, sugary egg tart are considered a must-try while in Hong Kong. They were good, but definitely not a dessert I would go out of my way for.
The food scene in Hong Kong is downright amazing. Besides the dim sum, noodles and dumplings, I also ate at a mouthwatering steak restaurant called Steak and Frites which only serves steak and fries. I would love to go back. There was also a fantastic Japanese Grill and a tasty Chinese restaurant but I can’t remember their names. Lastly, the bubble milk tea. I had to imbibe at least one of those tapioca ball-filled suckers daily.
On my last night, we took a sunset hike up to Victoria Peak, more commonly known as just “The Peak.” It was cloudy and hazy (no surprise) and I sweated like a beast on the hike up (also no surprise) but the city views were impressive. It still blows me away how much nature surrounds Hong Kong’s concrete jungle. It was a fantastic way to wrap up my visit.
And a few additional snaps to wrap it all up…