Hong Kong: The Other City That Never Sleeps

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Hong Kong: The Other City That Never Sleeps

One of my first impressions about Hong Kong was how busy it is. Not only does time seem to fly here, but even the people and the vehicles as well.

Hong Kong is a regional center in Southeast Asia. No, check that. It is THE regional center of Southeast Asia. Many multi-national corporations have opened their Asia Headquarters here. The international Port of Hong Kong is currently the third busiest port in the world. The Hong Kong International Airport is number eight in the world’s busiest airports. This probably explains why the busy feeling prevails – people and cars and buses and trains and planes and boats and ships all move at a dizzying pace.

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Hong Kong moves at a dazzling pace mainly because it is the center of trade in the region. PIC: VA

But I soon discovered that Hong Kong is not all about trade and commerce. It is also a top tourist destination. My local guide reported that Hong Kong has been enjoying an influx of tourists from the United States, Europe and Asia. Recently, there has been an increase of tourists from Mainland China and the former Russian republic. Why do travelers, myself included, go to Hong Kong? Here are some reasons:

The food is terrific. Hong Kong is technically a territory of the People’s Republic of China so there is an inherent Chinese culture in everything, especially in the cuisine. However, it also has a huge British influence having been ceded to Britain in 1842. It was only in 1997 that Hong Kong was handed over by the British back to China.  Today, it is a haven for food lovers because dining in Hong Kong is like being in a giant international buffet composed of everything from exotic street corner food to Michelin-quality fares.

I headed to the side streets of Mongkok and Yau Ma Tei district because I heard they are the home of many small stalls that sell popular street food. I found sellers of a whole shebang of steamed, fried, boiled, broiled or baked whatever. There are shops that sell different kinds of noodles with a variety of broths and meat toppings. There are dimsums of various fillings, my choice of either deep-fried or steamed.

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Traditional Hong Kong pork noodles are still popular street side fares that never lost their home-style yumminess. PIC: VA

I learned that the famous pork bun in Hong Kong will vary depending on which of the two major islands you are in. Since Mongkok is on the Kowloon side, the filling would be minced pork, sausage, salted egg and some seasoning. If you were on the other island (confusingly called the Hong Kong side), it will probably be char siu (or barbecue) pork. Not to worry though, many popular restaurants offer both kinds of fillings.

Exploring the side streets showed me the variety of food I could get. There were specialty shops that sold only a certain kind of food, for example, just congee. Or claypot rice. Or pies. Many locals habitually flock to stores that offer food on skewers. I really had no idea what they were or what they were made from, but people liked to eat them.

For me, a travel adventure does not necessarily mean climbing mountains, jumping off cliffs or diving for underwater caves. It also means, most of the time, trying an unusual food. So, I tried some of these strange looking things on skewers. Everything was arranged on metal trays laid side-by-side on tables in a sidewalk. There were no labels or menus or descriptions and the shopkeepers didn’t speak English at all – so the strategy was to just point at random. I picked something that looked like tentacles, one that looked like tofu, one that appeared like a sliced yellow hotdog and something that resembled a big soft elbow pasta. The shopkeeper dropped some of them into a large deep fryer and some of them into a large pot of boiling broth. A few seconds later, I had a takeaway box of street food that had no name.

They were delicious.

Well, to be honest, not all of them. I picked something that was probably for those with uncommon palates. Nevertheless, I looked at the people eating around me and they were sincerely enjoying their meal. A lot of people come to this area to eat and run. Some just sit on small stools to consume their meal, others eat standing up on the sidewalks and others eat while walking. That shows you just how busy life in the city is.

You actually don’t need a map to find this place.  Just follow the aroma after getting out of the train station.

If you are looking for a more traditional eat and a more relaxed ambiance, duck into one of the many air-conditioned restaurants along the main streets. Hong Kong has plenty of the popular chains if you’re craving fast food – burgers, pizza, fried chicken, pasta, donuts. It also has plenty of sit-down cafes, fine dining restaurants and specialty shops, like one that offers fresh giant king crabs along Nathan Road.

To do:  The egg tart (dan tat) is one of the most popular pastries in Hong Kong. It was reported that while he was Hong Kong’s British governor, Chris Patten had egg tarts for breakfast every morning. Find a Tai Cheong Bakery (or any popular bakery) and try some of these heavenly pies. Warning:  you might have to wait in line to get your tarts.

The architecture is awesome. If you’re into modern buildings, skyscrapers and skylines (or even if you’re not), Hong Kong is the place for you. The Hong Kong side is a concentration of tall structures that would qualify as candidates for the Miss Universe Pageant For Tall Buildings, if ever there was one. Each beautiful tower seems like it is trying to outstage its neighbor.

To be honest, I don’t get tired of Hong Kong. It’s a bit expensive, yes. But I have enjoyed every trip I made here. It’s convenient. Communication is easy. Going around is efficient and there’s plenty to do.

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A trip to Victoria Peak or The Peak gave me a spectacular view of the place. The high peak is perfect for taking a photograph that captures the magnificence of the architecture. A quick scan of the buildings made me think of the deliberate and painstaking efforts put into the design of each building. Each one is unique and has a distinct quality and personality in its design.

With a limited land area and growing population, Hong Kong architects expanded upward. It is now home to more than 7,600 skyscrapers, high-rise buildings and iconic structures. The International Commerce Centre is the tallest building in Hong Kong, but has slipped to number ten from number four world-wide. Believe it or not, Hong Kong has a height restriction so builders could only build up to a certain number of storeys.

Another awesome thing about these buildings is that they are not only for show. They also put on a show, literally. Each night, weather permitting, the buildings take part in a show called A Symphony of Lights. At 8:00pm, colorful lights installed outside these buildings flash in sync to a choreographed sequence accompanied by music and a narration.

Spectators go along a journey of five themes that highlights Hong Kong’s culture, spirit and success. The spectacular display uses a variety of lights to bring about the scenes of each of the five themes. Each show segment has a high point that emphasizes the theme from ‘Awakening’ to ‘Energy’ to ‘Heritage’ to ‘Partnership’ and finally to ‘Celebration’.

The show is offered for free.  Heeding the advice of locals, we arrived early at the Tsim Tsa Tsui waterfront to find the best spot to enjoy the full scale. Other watchers go to the promenade at Golden Bauhinia Square. If you want a more exclusive spot, you can take a sightseeing ferry from Victoria Harbout around that time. For this one, you have to pay for the ferry ticket. If you’re really too busy to go, book a hotel room with a view of the Victoria Harbour and just watch from the comfort of your bed. For us, the waterfront, near the Avenue of the Stars, was more than perfect.

To do:  Ride the tram to or from Victoria Peak for a great view of the skyscape. It is an old tram with wooden seats and goes up and down an inclined rail on Mt. Austin. It is pulled by large iron chains powered by huge motors. Inside the tram, the buildings seemed to stand at a weird angle because of the slanting route.

The engineering is marvelous. A quick trip around Hong Kong revealed many engineering marvels that testify to the industrial success of the city. I was mesmerized by The Tsing Ma Bridge that connects Lantau Island with Hong Kong. Our local guide claimed it to be the longest suspension bridge in the world. True or not, it is a sight to behold by day or by night.

The Kowloon side is separated from the Hong Kong side by the Kowloon Bay. People used to (and still do) take a ferry boat to cross over to each island. Now, you can cross by bus, car or train. We traveled in a van and we passed through the Cross Harbour Tunnel, a large tunnel that was built under the bay. This engineering feat greatly made traveling in Hong Kong much faster, more convenient and safer – even if you are literally hundreds of feet below sea level.

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An old school ferry crosses the bay under which an underwater tunnel now helps ease travel. PIC: VA

Hong Kong’s subway system is also one of the world’s best. It is very efficient and easy to master. The link from the city to the airport is also very convenient. The high speed MTR Airport Express train assures travelers that yes, you will make it to your flight. It stops right at the terminal.

And speaking of airports, the Hong Kong International Airport is another engineering feat. It might not be the biggest airport, but certainly one of the busiest. So how can an airport of that size handle such a big volume? The answer is in its good engineering design. The space was optimized, but it is not cramped or cluttered. Natural light is used efficiently to brighten the area. A simple but logical lay-out provided the efficiency of moving passengers, bags, cargo and of course, airplanes.

To do: Take a selfie at the passenger terminal building. Angle your shot so that you catch the historic 1910 Farman bi-plane that hangs from the ceiling as your background.

The attractions are incredibly diverse. Although Hong Kong fits the description of a modern metropolitan city, there are still a great deal of cultural and heritage areas scattered among the urban landscape. This mixture of new and old world adds a distinctive feature to the kind of attractions Hong Kong offers.

I noted that Buddhist and Taoist temples are common all over the city. There is still a strong religious tradition prevalent among locals. Chinese businessmen make daily educated decisions about their commerce and go to the temples to light incense and ask for blessings. The remote Po Lin Monastery is a real Buddhist temple. Tourists flock to this temple in Lantau Island to see the giant statue of Tian Tian Buddha (also called Big Buddha) and to get a sweeping view of the sea and mountain around the island.

Hong Kong has several theme parks for kids and adults alike. Ocean Park is probably among the oldest theme parks that are still in operation. As a kid, I’d hear about Hong Kong’s Ocean Park and would sometimes see it in movies.  And yet, many years later, it’s still up and running. But sadly, there is an old feeling about it – I looked around and saw that time did its job. Some areas could use a facelift.

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Ocean Park Hong Kong, a 40-year old theme park, still draws thousands of visitors each day. PIC: VA

A newer and more popular theme park has been drawing thousands of visitors each day in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Disneyland is almost a mandatory attraction for every HK visitor. Why shouldn’t it be? It is among the top 20 theme parks in the world.

Me and my group headed there and got in as soon as it opened. Instantly, we were children again. No ride was ever silly for us, every spot was a picturesque scene and every show was worth lining up for. We made it a point to stay to watch the parade and the closing time fireworks. It lives up to its tag of being the happiest place on earth.

Another area that has become our favorite was the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade. It is a large area beside the Kowloon Bay where you can laze around, have tea or coffee, sit on benches or on the ground, watch the stars or just simply enjoy the night.

A short walk brought us to the Avenue of the Stars. It is Hong Kong’s version of Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. We had fun checking out the palm impressions of famous celebrities, trying to see how many of them we can recognize or remember (most of them are of Chinese or Hong Kong stars). The attraction was built years after Bruce Lee died so it was impossible to get his impression. To honor him, a full statue was erected along the avenue.We had to wait in line to take a picture.

To do: Find the star for martial arts superstar Jet Li and snap a hand selfie with his imprint. His hand is quite small, but as we know, packs a mighty good punch.

Farther down, we chanced upon the old Clock Tower. It was originally part of the Kowloon-Canton Railway station back in 1915. The rail station has long been closed, but the Clock Tower still stands proud as a Declared Monument. At night, the tower glitters in splendor. And yes, it still keeps time.

And of course, in Hong Kong, shopping is life. My local guide said this very first thing about shopping in Hong Kong: “The ‘SALE’ signs are permanent.” This means that anywhere you go and any time you come, there’s always a sale, so do not be pressured to buy immediately. With a little patience, you can find real bargains.

Because we had prepared in advance, we knew where to go. When sundown came, we headed off to the Temple Street Night Market in Yau Ma Tei. At night, the whole area becomes one big bazaar where one can find a gazillion of goods. It’s the place to get souvenirs and cheap items. This market has the distinction of being a backdrop of many international movies and TV series – it’s that popular. While haggling is allowed, some shopkeepers are offended if you haggle too much but eventually decide not to buy anyway. So if you have no intention of buying the item, don’t waste your time – or theirs. You might also find some electronics and cameras selling for half the usual price. Stay clear of them. If you are intent on buying some of these items, search online for trustworthy shops based on reviews. There are still shops that try to scam unsuspecting tourists.

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The Mongkok Ladies’ Market is where you can shop and dine without hurting your wallet. PIC: VA

The Temple Street Night Market is still a good place to shop. We ended up buying a lot more than we had planned because some stallkeepers were easy to talk to. If you can’t find anything here, you can take a short walk and head over to Mongkok. A one-kilometer stretch of road has been converted to the Ladies’ Market. Don’t let the name fool you – it’s not exclusive to ladies. Like the Night Market, there are a lot of stalls here and you can also haggle your way to a bargain.

For others with preference for branded items, Hong Kong is a giant mall. Specialty shops are scattered across the city. Nathan Road and the Admiralty area are famous for stores that carry brand items. High-end shops are also plenty.

It is really a shopper’s paradise. We ended up going home with an extra bag filled with an assortment of items.

To do:  Leave some room for more shopping at the airport. There’s practically no difference in the tag prices because Hong Kong is entirely duty free. If you regret NOT buying that Mickey Mouse sweatshirt in Disneyland, there’s good news – they have a souvenir store in the airport that sells these shirts at the same prices. Neat.

To be honest, I don’t get tired of Hong Kong. It’s a bit expensive, yes. But I have enjoyed every trip I made here. It’s convenient. Communication is easy. Going around is efficient and there’s plenty to do. If ever I get bored, I know I can just hop on to a ferry and within an hour I’m in the next country, Macau.

But getting bored is very unlikely. In the other city the never sleeps, I know that something’s always happening somewhere anytime.

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Van Alcazar

Van Alcazar

Van Alcazar is a Business and HR Consultant whose work involves travel. He usually travels with his wife, Jean, and they both love to explore interesting destinations and try different food. Van is also a writer and often writes about his travel experiences to help other travelers get the most out of their trips.

1 Comment

  • Erika
    Erika

    I love Hong Kong! It has the same energy and excitement as New York – it’s like we never left home!

    August 20, 2017 at 9:09 pm
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