With enough malls to give Dubai a run for its money and a rabbit warren of backstreets where, for a consideration, you can pick up anything from a pet bird to a silk scarf, Hong Kong certainly hasn’t lost sight of its mercantile roots. Wandering the streets, you’re tempted by a neon sign, a clever patter or a pile of something interesting every few steps. And yet, it’s impossible to make a trip to the Chinese megalopolis without getting carried away by the culture. Wooden temples peep from in between skyscrapers, tiny teahouses jostle for space with slick modern restaurants and t’ai chi masters share their wisdom in bright green parks overlooked by hulking edifices of glass and stone. It’s hard to know where to start, although a good place to try is Kowloon.
Kowloon is one of the most densely populated places on the planet and nowhere is more crammed than the Mong Kok district, where skyscrapers sit cheek by jowl with busy street markets and malls. In spite of the modernist architecture, the area keeps its traditions alive, not least in the Bird Market (Yuen Po Street) where curious visitors mingle with locals on the hunt for a new pet. It doesn’t look like much at first glance but once inside, the crowded rows of cages that contain anything from parrots to sparrows will either horrify or delight. Further on, birds give way to equally colourful, if far less controversial, flowers, while around the corner on Prince Edward Road West, you’ll find rwb330 – a wonderful little shop that sells the fruits of a collaboration between local designer Stanley Wong and a mental health charity.
Hungry after a morning inspecting the Bird Market’s miserable macaws (and releasing a few sparrows, in my case), Fuk Kee Congee, a quiet no-frills haven from the bustling streets, is a welcome sight. For those not in the know, congee is a porridge-like dish made from rice and served up with anything from strips of gingered pork to griddled prawns. It’s an acquired taste (definitely avoid the Cathay Pacific version) but delicious when done well. If that doesn’t appeal, try Tim Ho Wan. The world’s cheapest Michelin starred restaurant, the queues are appalling but the food – dim sum – is well worth the wait.
Afterwards, we hopped on the tube and headed across the harbour to Causeway Bay, where there’s local design galore in the boutiques of the Island Beverly Centre, Causeway Place and the Jardine’s Crescent Street Market. It’s crowded and a bit overwhelming, but there are great bargains to be had once you’ve got your bearings. If it all feels a bit too much, take a taxi back to Central and turn inland to Hollywood Road, a fascinating old street that’s home to an odd mix of shops, temples and street stalls. Here, you’ll find jade jewellery, kitsch Chairman Mao alarm clocks and everything in between as well as tiny tea shops selling delicate jasmine and green brews. Don’t miss the Man Mo Temple – or forget to leave a lucky offering to the local deities.
While both the Bird Market and Hollywood Road both scream China, a trip up to the Peak offers a different view of the past. Built by the British to service the well-heeled European settlements perched at the top, the century-old tramline that takes you up wouldn’t look out of place in London. But while the technology and the sepia photos displayed at the station are pure Victoriana, the stunning views of the city are not. As you go up, the skyscrapers fall away, replaced by flashes of greenery and sea-blue before, at the top, a spectacular 360 degree view of the city hoves into view.
Like taking the tram to the top of the Peak, spending an evening cruising around Victoria Harbour won’t get you many points with the off-the-beaten-track brigade but it will prove thoroughly entertaining. The Star Ferries Harbour Tour is great if it’s commentary and coffee you’re after but for a party atmosphere and plenty of wine, head to Central Pier 9 and hop on the Aqua Luna group’s red-sailed junk which looks a bit like an Oriental pirate ship and tours the harbour to the sound of thumping club beats. It’s also a great vantage point from which to enjoy Hong Kong’s ‘Symphony of Lights’ which illuminates 44 of the city’s towers every evening.
If you can bear to leave the ship, head to a vast shopping mall named Hysan Place where you’ll find Red Almond – one of the best places to try eye-wateringly spicy Sichuan cuisine in Hong Kong. Particularly good is the spicy beef and the Sichuan sour soup, although it would take a braver gastronome than this one to attempt the stewed duck tongues. Afterwards, hop in a cab to the SoHo area (in and around Elgin Street) afterwards for a cooling nightcap or take a taxi back to the humming Knutsford Terrace in Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui for a couple of cocktails and a quiet booth where you can plan the next day’s attack. There’s certainly no shortage of things to do in Hong Kong.
NEED TO KNOW…
RIH stayed at the Mira Hong Kong, where rooms start at £184 per night. See themirahotel.com for more information and to book. Cathay Pacific flies five times daily to Hong Kong from London Heathrow, with returns starting at £629. To book your flights visit cathaypacific.co.uk. For more information on Hong Kong, see discoverhongkong.com.