I first went to Hong Kong some forty years ago, and immediately felt a bond with her vibrancy and way of life, her noise, her chaos, even the smell of the place. Shopping Hong Kong’s markets are always high on my to do list whenever I visit. Every visit I discover a new one, maybe only a street or two long, but I still have my favourites I return to again and again. They are also a great place to start when discovering The Fragrant Harbour for the first time. Combining local atmosphere with bargains, Hong Kong’s markets are a place where everything from bobby pins to (mostly fake) antiques are for sale – and when the heat and haggling become too much, there is always somewhere to sit and, with a cool drink and a delicacy to nibble, watch the world pass by.
Here are some of my suggestions for both first time and also frequent visitors: Continue Reading →
Rising above the chaos of modern Hong Kong, The Peak has long had an exclusive air, offering a place to retreat from the chaos, the smog – and the heat – of the city.Dodging traffic in Central, or struggling out of the MTR in Causeway Bay, it is easy to forget that Hong Kong is actually a mountainous island rising out of the sea; anywhere flat is usually reclaimed land. Most of the island is covered in dense vegetation, for this part of the South China Sea is filled with scrub-covered islands, making perfect hide-aways for those pirates who loom so large in legend and history.
The mansions up on The Peak were (and remain) the retreats of the incredibly wealthy. Those without their own means of transport relied on rickshaws to reach the summit, an arduous trip taking over three hours. Then, amongst predictions of spectacular failure, The Peak Tram opened in 1888. With the best seats initially reserved for use by the Governor, The Peak could now be reached in 8 minutes, in all weathers save a typhoon. The Peak Tram was a complete success, and the rickshaws vanished.
I heard them long before I saw them; the twittering of voices, so happy, so light, but growing to a deafening crescendo as I came closer. Walking back from the Star Ferry to Central is via a series of raised walkways which connect the high-rise malls and expensive hotels while providing safe access over the road. Indeed, a day can pass in Hong Kong without ever descending to street level.
Hong Kong is for walking. In a place perennially crowded and which I have visited so many times, it’s amazing what I still discover, whether it be in a side street, or even in full view. It’s so tempting to always revisit old favourites, yet in a place which has survived by always reinventing itself, there is always something new – or very old – to find.
Hong Kong: Fragrant Harbour, in memory of those perfumes which once drifted out on the sea breezes to greet incoming ships. Now the smell is more distinctive, a mix of heat
and unrecognisable spices, a place where drying seafoods and traditional medicines mingle with wet markets and lush vegetation. Then there is that piquant touch which comes from being one of the most densely populated places on the planet. Like Proust’s madeleines, the unique tang of Hong Kong has become locked in my memory.
As a child, the wall of odours crashed over me as soon as I stepped from the plane. Now, with the airport moved to the reclaimed island Chek Lap Kok, landing in Hong Kong proves much more sterile. No longer the dramatic sudden drop between buildings, looking through windows into people’s lives: a family at dinner, someone shaving. It has become too easy to pass from the air-conditioned airport via waiting car to hotel foyer with only a breath or two of the outside air.
In Lan Kwai Fong, however, I closed my eyes and immersed myself in old Hong Kong. The smells and sounds belong only here. Some penny turtles slept in the foyer of my hotel, readying themselves for a day of swimming in water-filled porcelain bowls and clambering over mountainous pebbles and artistically arranged sticks. I stepped past them into the tiny Kau U Fong Lane. Despite the early hour, I was soon covered in sweat. From a few steps away the bustle of Aberdeen Street threatened at any moment to spill over and drown where I stood, but for a moment I had a few square meters to myself, a rare privilege in Hong Kong.
Gough St, Central is a small street in the Central/Western district of Hong Kong Island which boasts an amazing, and often changing, range of restaurants and cafes. It is reached by a five-minute walk from Sheung Wan MTR- uphill. Seriously uphill. Gough Street runs through that area of Hong Kong where the steepness of the streets necessitates a footpath more steps than path. Rock walls struggle to stop everything from sliding downhill, with roots of giant trees cascade over the rocks, somehow holding the stone walls together. Walking remains the best choice; many taxis won’t come to this area because of the difficulty negotiating the roads, and the ubiquitous minivans which serve as light buses simply can’t fit.
Yet walk up Aberdeen St, past the Lan Kwai Fong Hotel, and turn right into Gough St. In that short walk lies a snap shot of Hong Kong, from pedlars touting their wares on the street to high-end galleries. A few streets away are the Graham St wet markets; a few streets the other way is Cat Street, lined with antique stores. Continue Reading →
When in Hong Kong, I spend most of my time on The Island. One of my aversions to visiting Kowloon is how, for all its attractions, it is essentially one large tourist trap. From the moment I step off the Star Ferry to the struggle up Nathan Road, I’m subjected to a constant barrage from touts who make a living ripping-off tourists. At every step someone thrusts a would-be bargain into my face.
The crowds here are not the practical, walkable crowds of The Island. Tourists loiter every few spaces, with hawkers hovering around them, ready to pick off the unwary, the weak or the wounded. Despite the milling crowds, too many places offer the perfect setting for a murder. Even the walkway under the main street feels dubious, lacking both light and ventilation.