Despite spending the last six months in an epic city of tens of millions, my wife and I still felt like a pair of bumpkins when we arrived in Hong Kong. From the architecture to the transport, the shopping to the food, Hong Kong is a city whose density, diversity and accessibility rival any other destination around. In our three days there, we barely scratched the surface of this tremendous archipelago.
Hong Kong is a vertical city. It is now the world’s second tallest, according to Forbes, with 30 buildings over 700 feet. While New York has a handful more, Hong Kong’s greater density and hilly backdrop makes the skyline massively more impressive. Manhattan seems positively spacious compared to the pockets of buildable land on Hong Kong island, which has sagely restricted new building through the creation of parks and reserves, as well as a cap on “reclaiming” land from the harbor. Such demands have left little incentive to leave buildings under 20 stories intact.
That’s not to say that Hong Kong is a towering beast made entirely of glass and steel. Despite its size and density, the finance capital was still engaging and approachable. Our walks around the heart of the city took us past neoclassical and colonial government buildings, down café-lined streets fit for Europe, through a gorgeous and quiet botanical garden, across the campus of a simple Episcopalian church and left us peeking over a wall at a bright green mosque. Further, when one neighborhood, city or even island grew monotonous, we could just hop on the nearest bus, subway, ferry or escalator and see something new.
New York, London and Tokyo all get the fame for mass transportation, but if you really want to see a city move people, go to Hong Kong. A mass network of ferries, trams, double-decker buses, subway and high-speed rail is simply the first round. Hong Kong ups the game with jet-foils, a cable car, helicopters, and even the world’s longest series of escalators. Almost all of them accessible with a single, aptly named “octopus” debit card, ---that can also be used to pay for your morning Starbucks.
By 2050, I suspect Hong Kong will have developed a series of connections between skyscrapers that allow residents to skip the time-wasting rides in elevators and travel about the city entirely on the 23rd floor, in tubes.
Our second day in Hong Kong, a twenty minute trip on a double-decker bus took us to the opposite side of the island, and the little beach town of Stanley. This little village, sadly thronged with people, offered us little in the way of tourism, but everything in the way of shopping. Sure, Hong Kong has its Nathan Road, its fabulous malls, its Italian brands you’re just not rich enough to even know of, but so does Shanghai. It’s the simple stuff we can’t get. We were simply stunned to find, in a medium-sized market in a little town, American goods beyond our wildest dreams, --- cheap Mach 3 razor blades, Vaseline body lotion, and even shoes for our big American feet. It was Christmas in January, folks. Forget the Gucci purse, this was a shop-till-you-drop experience expatriate style.
By our third day, my wife and I were ready for a change of pace, and Hong Kong’s archipelago of smaller islands seemed a perfect respite. Because it was Chinese New Year, we skipped the more popular Lantau and Lanma for Cheung Chau. This car-less island of 30,000 seemed to have much more in common with a Greek isle than the Asian epicenter of urbanism only an hour’s ferry ride away. The ferry pier was, expectedly, surrounded by a tourist market, but once past that we enjoyed views of a harbor full of fishing boats, bedecked in red and gold bows, flags, lanterns and other accroutements of New Year’s. Soon, we climbed the island’s quiet north hill but were disappointed by a haze-suppressed view and frightened by roving packs of stray dogs. We descended through lovely little alleys, surrounded by apartments whose varied levels of renovation reflected a diverse population seeking the island lifestyle. Cheung Chau seems to have its fair share of both native fisherman and rich urbanites seeking a retreat. Nonetheless, the exterior styling of the buildings, rich and poor, was inevitably “beachy,” the sort of peeling-paint, falling-fence, rusted gate look that I’ve found preeminent in beach towns in California, Tanzania, Italy and now, China. My theory is that it’s a combination of natural influence of sand and salt and a human attitude that says, “I live thirty yards from the sea, how much do you really expect me to care?”
Nothing made us feel more like the Chinese country cousins than Hong Kong’s food scene. Shanghai has a tremendous range of international restaurants, but they are consistent only in their exaggerated expense. One walk down a street in Hong Kong’s Soho left us watering at the mouth, convinced of the quality behind the glass by an indescribable combination of décor, atmosphere, menus, and plate sightings. Painfully, our winter trip to Japan meant that we had to be easy on the wallet and restrict our consumption to lighter fare. We had olives, wine, and cheese, and enjoyed organic pizza and cereal. We erred once with supermarket sushi, still apparently only a good idea in Japan, but were otherwise delighted in every choice.
We couldn’t neglect the local specialties, though, and made a lunchtime trip to Maxim’s Palace at City Hall, a dim sum institution. The restaurant consumes the third floor of a large performance center, with an ever-full banquet hall that seats many hundreds. When we visited, it seemed every available wall space, and even the windows, were covered in decorations celebrating the New Year. “Ordering” and eating was a similar experience to a churrascaria, where men-bearing-meat badger you with savory offerings until you admit defeat and tell them no. Here, it was older women pushing carts of steaming dumpling goodness. We had a barrage of shrimp, pork, and leafy greens that left us full until the next morning… and our ferry ride to Macau.
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