HONG KONG (香港, xiāng gǎng) – more fully known as the Hong Kong SAR – wears a lot of hats: it remains one of the world’s largest financial hubs; its modern face hides a surprisingly traditional culture; and it’s also an experiment in governance with which the mainland authorities hope to win over a recalcitrant Taiwan. While Hong Kong’s famous addiction to money and brand names tends to mask the fact that most people work long hours and live in tiny apartments, the city is bursting with energy and the population of seven million is sophisticated and well informed compared to their mainland cousins, the result of a relatively free press. The urban panorama of skyscrapered Hong Kong Island, seen across the harbour from Kowloon, is stunning, and you’ll find a surprisingly undeveloped countryside within easy commuter range of the hectic centre and its perennial, massive engineering projects.
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Hong Kong comprises 1100 square kilometres of the south China coastline and a number of islands east of the Pearl River Delta. The principal urban area is spread along the north shore of Hong Kong Island, which offers traces of the old colony – from English place names to anachronistic double-decker trams trundling along the shore – and also superb modern cityscapes of towering buildings teetering up impossible slopes, along with whole districts dedicated to selling Traditional Chinese Medicine and herbs. The south of the island offers several decent beaches, a huge amusement park, and even hiking opportunities.
Immediately north across Victoria Harbour from Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsula – and especially its tip, Tsim Sha Tsui – is Hong Kong’s principal tourist trap, boasting a glut of accommodation, shops and markets offering an incredible variety of goods. North of Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon merges with the New Territories, a varied area of New Towns and older villages, secluded beaches and undeveloped country parks. In addition, the Outlying Islands – particularly Lamma and Lantau – are worth a visit for their seafood restaurants and relatively laidback pace of life.
Brief history of Hong Kong
While the Chinese justifiably argue that Hong Kong was always Chinese territory, its development only began with the arrival of the British in 1842, following the first Opium War. Further gunboat diplomacy eighteen years later secured Britain the Kowloon Peninsula too, and in 1898 Britain obtained a 99-year lease on an additional one thousand square kilometres of land north of Kowloon, the New Territories. Up until World War II, the territory prospered as frequent turmoil in mainland China drove money and refugees south into the apparently safe confines of the British colony. This confidence proved misplaced in 1941 when Japanese forces seized Hong Kong along with the rest of eastern China, though after Japan’s defeat in 1945, Britain swiftly reclaimed the colony. As the mainland fell to the Communists in 1949, a new wave of refugees swelled Hong Kong’s population threefold to 2.5 million, causing a housing crisis that set in motion themes still current in the SAR: land reclamation, the need for efficient infrastructure, and a tendency to save space by building upwards.
Approaching the handover
In the last twenty years of British rule, the spectre of 1997, when Britain’s lease on the New Territories expired, loomed large. Negotiations on the future of the colony led in 1984 to the Sino-British Joint Declaration, paving the way for Britain to hand back sovereignty of the territory in return for Hong Kong maintaining its capitalist system for fifty years. However, fears grew that repression and the erosion of freedoms would follow the handover. The constitutional framework provided by the Basic Law of 1988, in theory, answered some of those fears, illustrating how the “One Country, Two Systems” policy would work. But the following year’s crackdown in Tian’anmen Square only seemed to confirm the most pessimistic views of what might happen following the handover, especially to members of Hong Kong’s embryonic democracy movement. When Chris Patten arrived in 1992 to become the last governor, he cynically broadened the voting franchise for the Legislative Council (Legco) from around 200,000 to some 2.7 million people, infuriating Beijing and ensuring that the road to the handover would be a rough ride.
After the histrionics of the build-up, however, the handover was an anticlimax. The British sailed away, Beijing carried out its threat to reduce the enfranchised population, and Tung Chee-hwa, a shipping billionaire, became the first chief executive of the Hong Kong SAR. But then came the Asian financial crisis, recession and soaring unemployment, avian flu outbreaks and finally SARS, a baffling virus that killed 299 people. Public dissatisfaction with Tung coalesced every June 4 (the anniversary of the Tian’anmen Square crackdown), when about half a million people turned out to demonstrate against him – and, by extension, Beijing’s hold over Hong Kong.
This was too much for the powers in Beijing, who wanted Hong Kong to showcase the “One Country, Two Systems” approach to Taiwan – which, now that former colonial enclaves have been reclaimed, remains the last hurdle to Chinese territory being reunited under one government. Tung was sacked in March 2005, and his successors – career civil servant Donald Tsang, and the current incumbent, Leung Chun-ying – have proved more in line with Beijing’s wishes, pliant bureaucrats who ignore public concerns about welfare and urban redevelopment, while favouring the demolition of Hong Kong’s dwindling antique heritage to make way for ill-planned roads and ever-larger shopping malls.
Meanwhile, local politics seem more divided than ever along pro-Beijing and pro-democracy lines, with the latter continually pushing for universal suffrage. Democratic factions have, in fact, polled over a third of the vote since the handover (in 2008 they won 23 of the 30 electable seats), meaning that they hold a power of veto over bills passed through Legco. But how all parties involved will pull together in the face of China’s rising power remains to be seen.
Accommodation in Hong Kong
Hong Kong boasts a colossal range of every type of accommodation, though booking ahead is essential – either to secure a better rate at the higher-end places, or because budget accommodation fills up quickly. At the upper end of the market are some of the best hotels in the world, costing several thousand dollars a night, though less renowned places offering motel-like facilities start around $800. The cheaper end of things is served by guesthouses and hostels: always check these rooms for size (though they’ll always be very small), whether they have a window, and whether you have to pay extra for the use of air conditioning. You’ll still be lucky to find a double for less than $350, though shared dormitories can come in as low as $150 a night for a bed.
Youth hostels and camping
The Hong Kong Youth Hostels Association (yha.org.hk) operates seven self-catering hostels – mostly a long way from the centre – offering dormitory accommodation for IYHF members from $90.
You can camp for free at the forty campsites run by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (afcd.gov.hk; click on “Country and Marine Parks”), all in relatively remote sites. Facilities are basic – pit latrines and tank water that must be boiled – and you’ll need to be self-sufficient. Pitches are available on a first-come, first-served basis, so get in early at weekends and holidays.
Eating in Hong Kong
Thanks to its cosmopolitan heritage and the importance attached to food in Chinese culture, Hong Kong boasts a superb range of restaurants. The most prominent cooking style is local Cantonese, though you can also find places specializing in Chaozhou, Hakka, Beijing, Sichuanese and Shanghai food. International options include Western fast-food chains, curry houses, sushi bars, hotel lunchtime buffets, pizzerias and restaurants offering Southeast Asian, vegetarian and South American cuisine. The places listed here are a fraction of the total, with an emphasis on the less expensive end of the market; Chinese characters are given where there is no English sign. For up-to-date reviews, pick up copies of the free weeklies HK Magazine and BC Magazine, or check womguide.com and openrice.com.
Cha Chaan Tengs
The cheapest meals are found at local cha chaan tengs – literally “tea canteens” – and on the upper floor of indoor produce markets (also known as “wet markets”), where you can get a single-plate meal – wuntun noodle soup, or rice with roast pork – for around $40. City-wide versions of these places include Fairwood, Café de Coral and the above-average Tsui Wah, whose main branch is at 15–19 Wellington St in Central, and which serves great fishball soup and Hoinam chicken (cooked in stock and served with rice).
Curry houses in Chungking Mansions
It’s an ugly building, but Chungking Mansions on Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, is where you’ll find some of Hong Kong’s best-value curry houses, where a filling meal will cost around ¥100 per head. Establishments include:
3F, Block C 2368 1682. A Nepali curry house par excellence, once you ignore the spartan surroundings and slap-down service. Daily noon–3.30pm & 6–11.30pm.
7F, Block E 2721 2786. Consistently good Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Malay dishes; all halal and one of the best in Chungking Mansions. Daily noon–3pm & 6–11.30pm.
3F, Block B 2312 0366. Friendly service in clean surroundings, if slightly more expensive than some of its neighbours. Daily noon–3pm & 6–11.30pm.
Taj Mahal Club
3F, Block B 2722 5454. Excellent North Indian food, and good value if you avoid the relatively expensive drinks. Daily noon–3.30pm & 6–11.30pm.
All through downtown Hong Kong you’ll see open-fronted shops with large brass urns set out on a counter, offering cups or bowls full of dark brown medicinal tea at around $5 a drink. The Cantonese name for this is lo cha or “cool tea”, because in traditional Chinese medicine, tea is considered “cooling” to the body. The teas are made from various ingredients and claim various benefits, but are usually extremely bitter – ones to try include ng fa cha (five-flower tea) and yat sei mei (twenty-four-flavour tea).
Hong Kong’s festivals
Festivals specific to Hong Kong include the Tin Hau Festival, in late April or May, in honour of the Goddess of the Sea. Large seaborne celebrations take place, most notably at Joss House Bay on the Sai Kung Peninsula. Another is the Tai Chiu Festival (known in English as the Bun Festival), held on Cheung Chau Island during May. The Tuen Ng (Dragon-Boat) Festival takes place in early June, with races in various places around the territory. Other Chinese festivals, such as New Year and Mid-Autumn, are celebrated in Hong Kong with as much, if not more, gusto as on the mainland.
Hong Kong drinking and nightlife
The most concentrated collection of bars is in the Lan Kwai Fong area on Hong Kong Island, perennially popular for late-night carousing, with drinkers spilling out onto the street. Other locations include the long-established, slightly sleazy expat scene around Wan Chai, and a scattering of options aimed at travellers in Tsim Sha Tsui. Some venues charge a $50–500 entrance fee on certain nights (generally Fri & Sat), though almost everywhere also offers daily happy hours at some point between 3pm and 9pm – worth catching, as drinks are otherwise pricey. For event details, consult free HK Magazine (hk-magazine.com) and BC Magazine (bcmagazine.net). The gay scene, while hardly prominent, is at least more active than in other Chinese cities; check Time Out Hong Kong (timeout.com.hk) for listings.
Money in Hong Kong
The Hong Kong dollar
Hong Kong has its own currency, the Hong Kong dollar, which is pegged at around $8 to the US dollar and so is currently worth a little less than the Chinese yuan. Yuan cannot officially be used in Hong Kong, though a few stores will take them.
Hong Kong for free
Hong Kong might be an expensive place compared with the Chinese mainland, but there are a number of free things to take advantage of while you’re here. These include entry to all downtown parks, plus the Zoological and Botanical Gardens; the Edward Youde Aviary and the Museum of Teaware in Hong Kong Park; all government-run museums on Wednesdays; martial-arts performances in Kowloon Park on Sunday afternoons; the ferry ride through Aberdeen Harbour to the Jumbo floating restaurant; Mong Kok’s bird and goldfish markets; harbour views from Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront; the BOC tower and Central Plaza; and introductory cultural courses, plus a harbour cruise, offered by the HKTB.
If you plan to travel around a good deal, get hold of an Octopus Card (octopus.com.hk), a rechargeable stored-value ticket that can be used for travel on all MTR services, most buses and most ferries. The card itself costs $50 and you add value to it by feeding it and your money into machines in the MTR; the Senior version for over 65s provides discounted fares. The fare is electronically deducted each time you use the card by swiping it over yellow sensor pads at station turnstiles or, on a bus, beside the driver. Octopus cards can also be used in many retail outlets, including Park’n’shop supermarkets, Maxim’s restaurants and 7-11 stores.
Things to do in Hong Kong
Aberdeen Harbour cruises
Approach Aberdeen Harbour and you’ll be grabbed by women touting for a sampan tour (around $50/person for a 30min ride, irrespective of the number of travellers). The trip offers photogenic views of houseboats complete with dogs, drying laundry and outdoor kitchens, as well as luxury yachts, boat yards and floating restaurants, which are especially spectacular when lit up at night.
Cheapskates can, in fact, enjoy a ten-minute free harbour trip by catching a ferry to the garishly decorated three-floor Jumbo Restaurant (Mon–Sat 11am–11.30pm, Sun 7am–11.30pm) from a signed dock with a red gateway near the fish market; there’s no pressure to actually have a meal here if you just want to look around. You’ll also pass through the harbour if you use the Aberdeen–Lamma ferry.
Hiking Pat Sin Leng
One of the best day-hikes in Hong Kong – for views at any rate – follows the serrated heights of Pat Sin Leng, the Eight Immortals’ Ridge. It’s an exposed trail, so pack a hat, water and sunscreen, and wear shoes with a decent grip.
Start by catching the MTR to Fan Ling, from where green minibus #52B (daily 6am–8.20pm) runs to the insubstantial hamlet of Hok Tau Wai. Follow the road past a small cemetery to Hok Tau Reservoir, from where the trail climbs loose scree to the grassy ridgetop, which you then simply follow east. Around halfway along, Wong Leng is the 639m apex, a good place to stop for the views and lunch. From here the trail continually climbs and descends the short, sharp, scrubby summits, before finally descending steeply to Tai Mei Tuk village and buses back to Tai Po.
A 4km-long strip of the mainland ceded to Britain in perpetuity in 1860 to add to their offshore island, Kowloon was accordingly developed with gusto and confidence. The skyline here has never matched Hong Kong Island’s, thanks to Kowloon being in the flight path of the old airport at Kai Tak, though things could be changing: 2010 saw the completion of Hong Kong’s tallest building, the 484m-high International Commerce Centre (ICC), atop Union Square and the Airport Express terminal in West Kowloon. With rocketing rents and dwindling space along Hong Kong Island’s north shore, perhaps ICC marks a shift in venue for the SAR’s next wave of cutting-edge, harbourside architecture.
Initially, it’s hard to see how such an intensely commercial and crowded place as Kowloon could possibly appeal to travellers. One reason is the staggering view across the harbour to Hong Kong Island’s skyscrapers; another is the sheer density of shopping opportunities here – from high-end jewellery to cutting-edge electronic goods and outright tourist tack – especially in the couple of square kilometres at the tip of the peninsula that make up Tsim Sha Tsui. To the north, Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kok are less touristy – though even more crowded – districts teeming with soaring tenements and local markets, some of which sell modern daily necessities, others with a distinctly traditional Chinese twist.
These days, it’s not so clear-cut where Kowloon really ends. The original “border” with the New Territories to the north was Boundary Street, though now Kowloon district runs on for a further 3km or so, as the commercial emphasis shifts towards towering residential estates clustered around shopping plazas, parks and other amenities. A scattering of sights here includes one of Hong Kong’s busiest temples, the Wong Tai Sin, and its prettiest, the Chi Lin Nunnery with its Tang-style architecture and beautiful attached garden.
The Mid-Levels Escalator
Head east along Queen’s Road from the Central MTR – or follow walkways from the IFC – and you’ll reach the covered Mid-Levels Escalator, which rises in sections 800m up the hill as far as Conduit Road and the trendy Mid-Levels residential area. During the morning (6–10am), when people are setting out to work, the escalators run downwards only; from 10.20am to midnight they run up. Places to get off and explore include the restaurant district between Wellington Street and Lyndhurst Terrace; the narrow lanes west of the escalator between Queen’s Road and Hollywood Road, full of crowded produce markets and small shops specializing in domestic goods; Hollywood Road itself, lined with antique shops; and the restaurant, bar and café district of Soho, laid out along Elgin and Staunton streets.
The Outlying Islands
Hong Kong’s 260-odd Outlying Islands offer a mix of seascape, low-key fishing villages and rural calm, with little high-density development. The islands of Lamma and Cheung Chau are fairly small and easy to day-trip around, while Lantau has a far greater range of sights and might even demand a couple of visits. You could also make use of local accommodation to base yourself on any one of the three, or just hop over for an evening out at one of the many fish restaurants. The main point of departure is the Outlying Islands Ferry Pier in Central; Lamma can also be reached by ferry from Aberdeen, while the MTR extends along Lantau’s north coast.
Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car
The 5.7km ride between Po Lin Monastery and Tung Chung aboard the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car (Mon–Fri 10am–6pm, Sat & Sun 10am–6.30pm; 25min; $94 one-way, $135 return; np360.com.hk) provides fantastic panoramas of Lantau’s steep north coast. Airport buses run from Tung Chung, making Lantau the perfect place to spend a last afternoon in Hong Kong before catching an evening flight out.
The Star Ferry
One of the most enjoyable things to do in Hong Kong is to spend ten minutes riding the humble Star Ferry between Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon and the pier in front of the IFC2 Tower on Hong Kong Island (daily 6.30am–11.30pm; upper deck $2.50, lower deck $2; www.starferry.com.hk). The views of the island are superb, particularly at dusk when the lights begin to twinkle through the humidity and the spray. You’ll also get a feel for the frenetic pace of life on Hong Kong’s waterways, with ferries, junks, hydrofoils and larger ships looming up from all directions.
The Peak – formerly Victoria Peak – rises 552m over Central and the Harbour, providing the few urban elite who are astronomically wealthy enough to own houses up here with the only perspective that really matters in Hong Kong: downwards. Reasons to come up here include not just the superb vistas and forest walks, but also the unnerving ascent – either leaning back at an extreme angle on the Peak Tram, or careering around corners at the top of a double-decker bus.
Ascending and descending the Peak
The most popular way to arrive at or depart from the Peak is aboard the Peak Tram (daily 7am–midnight; $28 one-way, $40 return; thepeak.com.hk), actually a funicular railway whose incredibly steep track climbs the 386 vertical metres to the Peak Tower in about eight minutes. The tram’s lower terminus is on Garden Road, reached aboard bus #15C from outside the Outlying Islands Ferry Pier (daily 10am–11.40pm; approximately every 30min; $3.50).
For an equally fun ride, sit upstairs at the front of bus #15 (daily 6.15am–midnight; $9.80) as it tackles low branches and hairpin bends on the half-hour ascent from the Outlying Islands Ferry Pier – you can also pick it up at Exchange Square bus station or along Queen’s Road East.
An excellent way to descend the Peak – or, if you’re a hardened jogger, to ascend it – is on foot via the Old Peak Road, a concrete track whose unsigned beginning is a little hard to find around the side of the Peak Tower. An extremely steep, twenty-minute hike lands you among high-rise residences southwest of the Zoological and Botanical Gardens, which you can reach by continuing down the road for a further fifteen minutes.
The Sai Kung Peninsula
Hong Kong’s easternmost projection, the rugged Sai Kung Peninsula is a mass of jagged headlands, spiky peaks, vivid blue seascapes and tiny offshore islands. Most of the area is enclosed within country parks, with a range of picnic spots and walking trails around the coast and out to Hong Kong’s finest beaches.