City life: Hong Kong

Chaotic, claustrophobic but brimming with character, the work-hard-play-hard city is always on the move. Yet despite being constantly in flux, Hong Kong somehow still manages to cling on to its many traditions.

By Mark Stratton
Published 5 Oct 2015, 09:00 BST, Updated 5 Jul 2021, 11:27 BST

As I dip my chopsticks into some Cantonese chow at a food stall in Central, the sound of a throaty Ferrari reverberates around the glassy skyscrapers, mingling with jackhammers and the 'ding-dings' of Hong Kong's historic trams.

Noisy, prosperous, and energetic, this claustrophobic Sino-British lovechild never stands still. Since China regained Hong Kong in 1997, the city has been in the grip of development. Bigger shopping malls cater for mainland Chinese tourists hungry for luxury brands, while future projects are in the pipeline, including bullet trains — expected by 2017 — and a sea bridge to neighbouring Macau.

Such transformation however hasn't diminished its dual east-west identity. Pro-democracy protests continue, while an intensely Asian workaholic ethos remains. Classical heritage manages to keeps its head above water alongside world-class modern design. The cuisine retains its Cantonese origins yet is continually reinvented.

"You almost have to jog to keep up with its pace," explains The Peninsula Hong Kong's director of PR, Winvy Lung.

"Visitors can do so much in a limited time, thanks to round-the-clock service and efficient transportation. You can enjoy breathtaking views hiking on the Dragon's Back Trail in the morning, savour classically British afternoon tea, then end with a nightcap at a chic rooftop bar."

And while most visitors spend their time either side of Victoria Harbour, on Hong Kong Island or Kowloon, they shouldn't overlook the more than 260 other islands and nature-rich New Territories. These offer hikers and bikers a chance to experience an often-overlooked side of Hong Kong.

What to see & do

Faced with a bamboozling amount of choice, I allocate a day each for classic sights, walks and exploring Hong Kong's natural attractions.

The classic attractions can generally be found clustered around Victoria Harbour. I get orientated on South Kowloon's Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront near the 100-year-old former railway station clocktower. From here, wondrous views stretch from the harbour towards Hong Kong Island's skyscrapers; funkily illuminated at night by a 12-minute light and sound show, A Symphony of Lights. This spectacle is even more amazing viewed close-up from Aqualuna's red-sailed traditional Chinese junk.

After crossing the water on an iconic Star Ferry boat (in operation since 1898), I disembark at the Central business district to ride the Peak Tram, which has been hauling itself up a 45-degree incline since 1888, providing visitors with panoramic views across Hong Kong.

Markets, such as Temple Street Night Market, are hugely popular, yet can also be a touch touristy, and I much prefer ambling around Hong Kong Island's grittier, less-visited western districts — Ko Shing Street's dried traditional medicines are ghoulishly compelling (sea-cucumbers are offered to diabetes sufferers, while dried lizards are meant to cure sexual impotency). I light a stick of incense at the nearby 1847 Man Mo Temple, devoted to the worship of the Gods of Literature and War.

Beyond the urban sprawl, Lantau Island's highlight is the hair-raising cable-car ride to Tung Chung town centre. Next to the terminal on the island is Ngong Ping village whose attractions include the Buddhist Po Lin Monastery, standing in the shadow of a colossal 112ft-high bronze Buddha.

Yet my biggest surprise is the beauty of the New Territories, a vast, largely rural swathe of land between urban Kowloon and Mainland China. First I bike along the Sha Tin to Tai Po cycleway, following the scenic Shing Mun River. "Twenty years ago, this was still farmland," says fellow cyclist Sydney Luk. "They built satellite high-rise cities to ease overcrowding and these cycleways link those cities."

Then I walk the Tai Long Wan Hiking Trail along Sai Kung Peninsula — often referred to as 'Hong Kong's back garden'. The route undulates between forested hillsides and gorgeous, sandy surfing beaches like Ham Tin. "I live downtown and come here to breathe," says hiker Philip Wok.

Where to stay

Barman Johnny Chung tells a mean anecdote. Visiting film star Cary Grant once asked him to get a screwdriver. When Chung returned with an actual screwdriver, Grant grabbed the vodka and taught him how to make the cocktail.

Having worked at The Peninsula Hong Kong for the past 59 years, Johnny forms part of the fabric of one of Asia's grandest hotels. Arriving from the airport in one of their 14 Rolls-Royces, I treat myself to high tea, which is being served in The Lobby — a gilded neoclassical space adorned with fleur-de-lis columns
— accompanied by a string quartet.

Original, high-ceilinged guest rooms flank the lobby, although my room is located within a 30-storey tower added in 1994. Fortunately, there's no discernible difference between the interiors of the old and new rooms — cream, walnut, and chocolate decor, kitted out with an arsenal of high-tech innovations such as bedside tablets and touchscreen panels controlling everything from curtains to lights. Needless to say, my 25th-floor view over busy Victoria Harbour is better than anything my HD television could show me.

The Peninsula's opulently spacious rooms start from £320, which won't suit all budgets — but don't worry, cheaper options exist, such as Heritage Lodge. Barracks-like in appearance, the hotel has welcomed guests since 2009, after a government-funded heritage scheme breathed new life into a vacant site that had served many roles in its 128 years, including as a customs station, labourers' quarters, quarantine facility and a psychiatric hospital. "Our aim is to preserve cultural heritage and provide affordable accommodation," Kiki Ko-Li, Heritage Lodge's assistant manager tells me.

My room is furnished with reproduction Chinese furniture. Elsewhere, striking photos chart Hong Kong's meteoric development. Equally as impressive is the blueberry cheesecake I'm served at the onsite restaurant-cafe.

Somewhere in between the Peninsula and Heritage Lodge, fashionable Causeway Bay's tech-savvy Mira Moon Hotel matches the aspirations of a design-hungry city. On first impression its chichi moon-shape lampshades, lipstick-rouge chairs, ceramic flying rabbits, and peony mosaics leave me wondering what exactly award-winning Dutch designer Marcel Wanders was on. Yet it turns out there's a delightful cohesion behind the mayhem, with everything inspired by the popular Mid-Autumn Festival, held on the night of the full moon between early September to early October.

Mira Moon's Jessica Leung explains the mythology to me: "Hou Yi shot down nine suns to make Earth more comfortable to live upon. He was awarded the elixir of immortality but his love, Chang'e, drank some and flew to the moon unable to return. She sent a jade rabbit to Hou Yi to keep him company."

If a replacement rabbit suggests Hou Yi got the blunt end of a stick, guests certainly don't. A nightly DJ performs by a terrace garden at the Supergiant Tapas & Cocktail Bar, while rooms are a techie's paradise, complete with free wi-fi, a Bluetooth music system and a smartphone offering free international and local calls.

Where to eat

The food scene in Hong Kong is dominated by rich Cantonese sauces and traditional dim sum. I joined Hong Kong Foodie's tour of Kowloon's Sham Shui Po, the poorest district in the city. "Locals come here to eat, it's a foodies' heaven," promises guide Fiona Mei Sin.

We kick off with a fairly typical breakfast of pineapple buns with sweet milk tea on Yu Chau Street, at a cha chaan teng — a fast-turnover teahouse ubiquitous in Hong Kong. It's crowded. "If you want to get a table, stand close and pressurise people to leave," Fiona advises me.

Another feature here, and throughout Hong Kong, is restaurants specialising in a single dish prepared and honed by families for generations. The Lau family's diner on Fuk Wing Street has a devoted following here for its salty delicious egg noodles dusted with shrimp roe. Later on the tour, we're also introduced to popular Teochew cuisine (from east Guangdong), including its signature dish of braised goose with pork knuckle, served lukewarm.

In Central, sandwiched between the financial district's towering skyscrapers, I'm lucky enough to encounter one of Hong Kong's increasingly rare dai pai dong. These once-commonplace open-air foodstalls are slowly being edged out by the authorities, who blame them for being unhygienic and holding up the traffic. But here at Sing Kee, however, amid sizzling aromas, I've no complaints about the squid in black bean chilli sauce, and I even get to experience the famous Chinese no-waste eating policy first-hand with not-for-the-fainthearted pig's intestines. Dishes cost around £4-5 each.

It's not all rough-and-ready street fare here, however. Hong Kong's 64 Michelin-starred restaurants are proof the city has also embraced refinement. Dim sum gets an intricate makeover at trendy Mott 32 with such dishes as delicate steamed black cod dumplings and pan-fried turnip cake with dried scallops. Meanwhile, two-Michelin-star Duddell's's finesses traditional Cantonese cooking with non-Chinese ingredients and techniques for its exquisite nine-course tasting menu, with highlights including Japanese noodles combined with Chinese wontons and duck broth enhanced with luxurious black truffle.

Such culinary flair has led to an influx of gweilo (Westerner) uber-chefs — the latest, Londoner Tom Aikens at The Pawn. In a striking colonial-era former pawnbroker's house in Wan Chai, the former firebrand has created an unpretentious British-themed menu that offers a fine-dining take on comfort food like pies and fish and chips. The result? Dishes such as piglet belly with poached pineapple and confit squid.

"I fell in love with Hong Kong's vibrancy," says Aikens. "It's so diverse and is a melting pot of all sorts of different food cultures, which makes it an interesting place for any chef."

Ladies Market.
Ladies Market.


Hong Kong is a retail smorgasbord, with everything from fake Rolexes being hawked around Chungking Mansions (five 17-storey blocks of low-budget shops and eateries) to shiny new mega-malls. Kowloon's two biggest tourist draws, Ladies Market and Temple Street Night Market, are worth experiencing to glimpse the energy and bustle of photogenic lanes offering everything from goldfish to fortune tellers and jade. My favourite market is the crowded and pulsating Aplia Flea Market — full of Del Boy characters flogging mobile phones and cameras alongside secondhand electrical appliances. If you're in the market to buy pricier electrical goods, it's worth looking out for outlets bearing the Tourist Board's Quality Tourism Services (QTS) accreditation.

Such markets are worlds apart from the dreamy, air-conditioned malls where locals and tourists drift around clutching takeaway frappuccinos, seduced by window displays of chic European brands. It's particularly easy to get lost amid the watches, handbags and cosmetics at Harbour City — a mega-mall of 450 outlets. My advice? Head straight to PMQ. The former living quarters for married police personnel is now a charity-run hub for up-and-coming designers. Established ground-floor stores subsidise studio-cum-shops on floors two to seven, helping a new generation of creative talent take its first step onto an expensive shop-rental ladder. Do your Christmas shopping here and you can be sure your gifts will be unique.

PMQ's young guns include school friends Felix Tai and Jeffrey Leung, both 25, who run Pomch, where industrial items are transformed into quirky products. These include 'Boombottle' speakers constructed inside jerry cans. "PMQ has given us our first retail exposure, as we couldn't afford market-rate shop rents," says Leung.


Hong Kong's nightlife is notably more conservative than in Asian cities such as Bangkok. "We prefer to go out for food and drink, and sometimes movies or karaoke, but not so much clubbing," explains Mira Moon's Jessica Leung. While there are clubs, locals prefer bars, many of which open all night and offer DJs.

However, the two entertainment districts most frequented by foreigners are both fairly raucous. Music pours from the 90-odd bars of Lan Kwai Fong, where you can try 10-shot challenges for HKD$198 (£16), have a massage of questionable repute, and drunkenly devour doner kebabs. Elsewhere, Wan Chai is in parts perhaps even more risque, with British pubs mingling with 'red light' bars. Yet Wan Chai also boasts classier joints like Jason Atherton's ceramic-tiled tapas bar, Ham & Sherry, on trendy Ship Street.

Hip, nondescript-looking speakeasy bars are also dotted across the city. At Fu Lu Shou — tucked away behind a decayed shopfront on Hollywood Road — customers need a keypad code to enter. Its laid-back little world upstairs ripples with chatter from young professionals ensconced in comfy sofas sipping fiery cocktails blended with Chinese herbs. "We're too small for big crowds," says owner Ping Lam. "We want people to relax and chill out in comfort." The comfort element is reinforced with a retro menu featuring chicken chow mein and banana splits.

Similarly enigmatic is Joan Martinez's Ping Pong Gintonería, a Spanish-style gin joint in Sai Ying Pun that stocks over 80 varieties of the spirit, many from the old country. The cavernous interior recycles what Joan calls "the DNA of a former table tennis hall". It's a retro vibe the owner is clearly proud of. "The city grows so fast. Nobody looks back to how Hong Kong used to be," Joan laments. "We want to hang onto this neighbourhood's feel, not change it."


Getting there
British Airways, Virgin Atlantic fly and Cathay Pacific fly non-stop from Heathrow to Hong Kong, while the latter also flies direct from Manchester.
Average flight time: 11h30.

Getting around
Airport Express (£8.30) takes 24 minutes into Central Station, while taxis are relatively cheap. The extensive public transport network includes the iconic Star Ferry — don't miss a trip for incredible views of the skyline.

When to go
Hong Kong has a pleasant climate year-round, with mild, dry winters, frequent showers in spring, a hot, humid summer, and a warm, fairly dry autumn.

Need to know
Currency: Hong Kong dollar (HKD).
£1 = HKD11.99.
International dial code: 00 852.
Time difference: GMT +8.

How to do it
BA Holidays has four nights' B&B at The Peninsula Hong Kong with BA flights from £1,319 per person based on two sharing.
Lee's Travel offers a three-night budget package with flights and rooms at the Stanford Hillview Hotel, from £599 based on two sharing, on a room-only basis.

Published in the November 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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