Landing in Hong Kong is an experience. You know you’re coming in to land, you know there are mere seconds left in the air, but the descent is over water. And you’re still over water. Which is far closer to you than is comfortable. Then there’s a flash of tarmac and a bump as you land. There are a few airports I’ve been to like it, but no matter how many times I do it I still feel my stomach lurch.
It’s the start of a theme that runs through any trip to Hong Kong – there’s simply not enough space. The airport runway is one of the longest piece of flat land on the peninsula, and it’s man-made.
It’s a nerve-jangling landing. I wish I’d asked for aisle seat. I’ve landed at London City a fair few times, so this water-water-water-water-runway-land kind of approach isn’t new to me, but despite not being a nervous flyer it’s always tense. This time it wasn’t helped by the fact that I came close to missing my flight out of Beijing. I left plenty time for the airport – I’d been warned it was quite a long, slow process to leave China – but three hours to check in, clear security, immigration, customs and more pointless security was not fun. Whatever, I’m now somewhere I’ve always wanted to go: Hong Kong!
Kowloon & Hong Kong Island
There are four parts to Hong Kong – Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, the New Territories, and outlying islands – each with its own style and representing a different part of the city/state/SAR, each representing a different expansion of Hong Kong when it was under British rule (and, let’s be honest, got primarily by force). The New Territories (which aren’t in any way new) are mainly mountains and uninhabitable, the same goes for the outlying islands. Kowloon is a dense concrete jungle of tower blocks, markets and bustling people. It’s neon shop signs and street hawkers represent the ‘Oriental’ side of Hong Kong, but with the addition of street signs and buses that are very clearly a British influence. It’s so tightly packed together that the fire escapes are like spider webs and you wonder how any daylight reaches street level through the tower blocks.
Hong Kong Island is what most people would recognise as Hong Kong. In fact, it’s home to the city of Hong Kong (once called Victoria) – it’s the famous shoreline of skyscrapers, it’s Victoria Harbour, it’s where all the big companies are, it’s where you find the old colonial buildings and today’s government.
To put it in context, Hong Kong’s 7.7 million inhabitants live in an area that – including all the unpopulated islands and hillside – totals 240 square miles. Essentially, the inhabited parts are not much larger than Edinburgh, just with about 10 times the population.
There are more than 125 buildings in Hong Kong that have more than 60 floors. It. Is. Mental.
OK, let’s get to the important part. Food in Hong Kong is a strange mix. There’s the very traditional foods from China – including dumplings, dim sum, Cantonese dishes and Chinese pastries – influences from 150 years of British rule – Afternoon Tea is very much still a thing in some parts of town – and of course the glut of ‘Western’ foods that are taking over the globe.
I had some delicious vegetarian dumplings as a street snack one afternoon – in this case, vegetarian meaning chicken – but the highlight, bizarre as it will seem, was a weird British-Cantonese fusion of a spicy marinaded pork sandwich, slow roasted with a Cantonese glaze and a chilli and apple sauce on the side. Utterly unexpected, possibly ‘modern fusion’, but oddly one of the best tasting dishes I had. Unlikely a candidate as it looks.
Central – Mid-Levels Escalator
The what? Would be a perfectly understandable response to that title, but it’s just another part of Hong Kong’s eccentric nature. Transport on Hong Kong Island is hard – how do you get lots of people to the central business district from all of the apartment blocks on the slopes around? The roads are narrow and really twisty, there’s no hope of extending the MTR metro service (which, by the way, is incredibly efficient) that way. Well, turns out the solution thought of in the 90s was to build a giant series of escalators. From 6am until 10am they go downhill. From 10am to midnight, they go up.
It’s an utterly bizarre idea, but it actually works incredibly well. You start at almost sea level and you go up, through the trendy bars of Soho (there’s clearly a LOT of British influence in the street and area naming across Hong Kong), and end up half way up the hillside. I have no idea how drunk or high the person who through it up was, but it’s actually pretty amazing.
I once wrote a very odd article in an old job about the most distinctive horse racing venues around the world (I mean, who hasn’t?…). The oldest out with the UK is in Mauritius, if you’re interested; but the other one that stuck in my mind was Happy Valley. Once unusable marshland, it was built in 1845, bringing horse racing to the British stationed and living in Hong Kong. Today it’s home to the Hong Kong Jockey Club, and horse racing is BIG in Hong Kong. It’s the main gambling here, and every Wednesday night there are races.
Obviously I had to see this for myself. I had an absolutely brilliant night, despite the drizzle and absolutely no luck on my flutters (my brain is far too numbers orientated for gambling). By education I am a biologist, and I find horse racing fascinating from that standpoint (although somewhat conflicted by the ‘motivation’ used on the horses), but as much as anything it’s all about the people watching and the atmosphere. It’s a weekly local race night, but by the number of people there and the noise you’d think it was an international event. Amazing.
The Hong Kong Story
And on Friday it rained. And rained. And Poured down some more. It’s a tropical monsoon of a shower, and it lasted about 5 hours. Thankfully I knew it was coming and had opted to spend a large chunk of my day in the Hong Kong History Museum. I’ve already admitted that I love a good museum, but this one is fantastic. For such a densely packed place, the museum is flat and sprawling, but across 8 large galleries it charts the area’s 400 million year history – from rock layers and prehistoric tropical jungle, right through to the handover in 1997.
It’s a fascinating look at how the city evolved from incoming migrants, fishermen and farmers to one of the world’s most recognisable and important cities. Created in 1998, it’s beauty lies in the way it lays everything out in a plain, simple factual manner. No opinion or interpretation (with the exception of Gallery 7 – the Japanese Occupation during WWII – it isn’t exactly what you’d call ‘positive’).
As someone who knew a bit about Hong Kong, but not a huge amount it was a fascinating introduction to everything from pre-British Hong Kong, the Opium Wars, the various treaties that created and expanded Hong Kong, its growth in the early colonial times, its grim fate in the Second World War, the enormous boom in the late 20th Century, to of course the handover in 1997 when it became the Special Administrative Region (of China) that it is today.
Everyone talks about the view from Victoria Peak – Hong Kong Island’s highest point. The Peak Tram. The spectacular panoramic views across the whole region, how you can pick everything out.
For me, it looked pretty similar to when I went to Gibraltar. All I could see was fog as I struggled to stay on my feet in the gusting winds…
So Hong Kong. I can’t describe it. It’s a cross between a tropical island, an over-populated Chinese city, a jungle made of concrete, and a British city. I don’t really even know where to begin. But there’s one thing I do know – I absolutely loved it.
It’s hectic, frantic, so full it’s unreal. One moment you think you’re in an ancient Chinese market packed into a dark space, then suddenly there are neon lights, ‘western’ fashion shops, a British road sign and fake designer handbags. You look out over the bay at night as a Junk floats by, but behind it is a famous skyline, famous banks along Victoria Harbour with a dazzling light show.
East meets West? 21st Century meets ancient Chinese tradition and British colonialism? Quiet charm meets hectic concrete jungle? I am lost for words (a very rare occurrence) on how to articulate this incredible place. But I want to go back. It’s irresistible and everyone should see it.