Sampling Hong Kong: Enjoy dim sum, Victoria Peak and soak in the ambience
January 13, 2013 10:00 AM
With some 7 million people inhabiting 426 square miles, Hong Kong is one of the world's most densely packed cities.
Hong Kong's famous Peak Tram makes its way past Hong Kong's skyline. It carries 120 passengers more than 90 times a day up and down the Victoria Peak hillside.
Hong Kong is home to the world's longest outdoor escalator system, constructed in 1993.
By Marlene Parrish
HONG KONG -- This city is China, sort of, but more like China's window on the west. Home to some 7 million people, Hong Kong is one of the most densely packed cities on earth.
It is also one of the most vibrant, mysterious and nonstop cities. Opportunities to shop are plentiful, and the number and variety of international cuisines are legendary. The culture and people (90 percent Chinese) might be foreign to us, but getting around the city is easy and efficient with inexpensive transportation. A visitor could try them all -- double-decker buses, trams, ferries, the underground and fleets of taxis -- all with the bonus that they are clean and easy to navigate.
The city is relatively safe, and there are enough green spaces to escape to when the skyscrapers, noise and traffic fumes begin to overwhelm.
Hong Kong receives about 30 million visitors a year. Some come for finance and banking or business. Some come for cutting-edge electronics and high fashion, and many others come to tour museums and temples.
I visited Hong Kong for several weeks over the December holidays to be with son No. 3 and his family. Much of our time was well spent sampling foods in local eateries and wandering malls, street markets and interesting alleys in search of mild adventure, and always with two children, ages 10 and 5, in tow.
I last visited Hong Kong in the early summer of 1997, when said son married his Thai bride. Only a few weeks later, on July 1, the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty as a special administrative region of the People's Republic of China -- that, after being a British colony since 1841. Today's Hong Kong is a capitalist city with its laws and rights intact and China has pledged to continue these policies for 50 years. People still drive on the left (so watch your step!) but the Union Jack flags are gone, and the queen's image is no longer on coins. The city has expanded and has built so many skyscrapers, hotels and massive apartment complexes that, from above, it seems built of Lego towers.
But enough background. Let's go to town.
The Hong Kong Airport Express is a high-speed train to the center of the city that is clean and efficient. Announcements are spoken in Cantonese, Mandarin and English, the fare is about $12 and the ride takes less than half an hour. The train whizzes past the shipping container port and offers a good look at the harbor, busy with the work of tugboats, sampans, junks and ferries. Now you are in Central Hong Kong.
To get a sense of the expanse and density of the city, take the Peak Tram to the top. It travels through neighborhoods and patches of jungle-like greenery and makes a very steep and speedy climb. Long ago, only rich foreigners were allowed to live on the Peak, and their transportation was by either "one-man-powered" rickshaws or sedan chairs carried by two or more men. It took three years to construct the tram, actually a funicular railway that rises 437 yards over its .869 mile length, because much of the heavy equipment and rails had to be hauled uphill by workers who had no mechanical support. It opened in May 1888. Originally steam-powered, the tram is now computer-operated.
There is usually a long queue for the tram at the bottom. If it's a clear day and you are a walker, opt for a taxi instead, traveling all the way to the Victoria Peak Gardens, well beyond the top tram stop. The gardens once belonged to the governor's mountain lodge, but the building was demolished by the Japanese during World War II. However, the governor's elegant terrace remains.
Along the walkways, you'll find breathtaking views past and beyond Kowloon, across the harbor to open water all the way to the South China Sea. This is a favorite photo op. If you're the type to plan ahead, buy a bento box in advance and enjoy a picnic lunch on one of three stair-step levels in the park. Then walk down (it takes about 25 minutes) along a twisty, steep and winding but safe and little-used road to the Victoria Peak tram tourist area. After checking out shops, restaurants and viewing terraces, take the tram back to the central city street level. The queue up-top is very short, and the ride takes about 5 minutes.
Oh, the food! Cantonese chicken and lobster dishes, Argentine steaks, Spanish tapas, Indian dal and French everything. It's all here. Mario Batali's Italian outposts, Lupa and Carnevino, draw expense-account mobs, and so do Jimmy Haber's BLT restaurants. But that's not what I want to eat.
In Asia, I ate Asian: Cantonese, Thai, Vietnamese, dim sum, Peking duck, bowls of noodles and tubs of rice. I also ate some odd but pretty good-tasting animal parts, specifically stewed chicken feet and marinated heel muscle. (I've been to many nose-to-tail dinners, and now I'll add assorted feet to that mix.) At home, I favor food that is organic, fresh and local. That isn't the rule in Hong Kong, however, because produce, eggs, dairy and protein are imported from a vast elsewhere. Not a problem, because I belong to the "when in, er ... China" school of cuisine.
Hong Kong Chinese eat out a lot, and they usually eat in large groups. Whether with colleagues, friends or family, the Chinese consider restaurants a major place to socialize. Most of the places we visited were full of neighborly and celebratory voices. Many were often so brightly lit, I could have worn sunglasses.
At Pho Yummee, on The Peak, I satisfied a craving for pho, a steamy bowl of rice-noodle soup with bean sprouts and paper-thin slices of beef. Garnishes were herbs, fish sauce, lime wedges and slices of scarlet Thai bird chilies, which are also the Vietnamese chili pepper of choice. The table also was laden with sausage meat wrapped around a "skewer" of lemon grass and crispy pork-filled spring rolls that we wrapped in butter lettuce leaves and sprigs of fresh herbs. (Note to self: put Vietnam on the bucket list.) Tiny cups of caffeine-dense coffee swirled with sweetened condensed milk are drip-brewed at the table. At your first meals in Hong Kong, notice that unless you specify otherwise, you will be given glasses of warm, often very warm, water. And always take packets of tissue with you, because napkins make only the rare appearance.
The ferry crosses Victoria Harbor from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon Peninsula, the New Territories on the mainland. The distance is getting shorter and shorter because of land reclamation, the fancy term for constructing ever more buildings on both sides. Even if you don't go beyond a mall or two on Kowloon (I didn't), the 7-minute crossing is a must-do. The ferry, one of 12 boats in the fleet, jockeys its way through an obstacle course of large and small boats and watercraft. There's just enough time to see the Hong Kong skyline at eye level, and it is spectacular. If you can, take the ferry after dark, when the buildings are lit and bright.
Most downtown buildings are constructed with respect for feng shui, an ancient system of arranging physical premises to deflect evil forces and assure the welfare of inhabitants. Before construction, a feng shui geomancer is consulted to determine the best placement for doors, windows and even furniture. The famous 70-story Bank of China Tower designed by I.M. Pei is the exception. The building ignores the ancient principles, featuring diagonally sharp shapes on all sides, and negative symbolism in the numerous "X" shapes. The building is, shall we say, not a favorite of the residents of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is the epicenter of dim sum culture. Specialty dim sum restaurants serve nothing but small breakfast, snack and lunch dishes all day, every day. Only a few restaurants still employ middle-aged ladies pushing steam carts or trolleys, calling out their contents while trolling around tables. Nowadays, most places have table service and you are given an ordering card. Orders are placed, the food arrives, and the server presses a chop mark onto the card indicating the price of the dish. Here's where that dim sum guidebook comes in. You can point to the photos you want to order and even make an attempt to say the names. (Good luck with that.)
The guidebook will also explain the considerable etiquette of dim sum. There will be baskets of fluffy steamed buns filled with pork, prawns, chicken and vegetables. Steamed meatballs and chicken feet with black bean sauce. Slippery steamed rice sheet rolls with minced meats. Meat and veg dumplings, pot stickers. Crisp morsels such as spring rolls, crunchy fried wontons. Meaty pork ribs, slices of roast goose. Bright green steamed bok choy, water spinach, Chinese broccoli, green beans. And rice, bowls and bowls of snowy white rice. Go as often as you can.
The road is packed with shops and stalls selling all manner of antiques, clothing, accessories, souvenirs and things you didn't know you needed. I found a Japanese shop dedicated entirely to the presentation of bone, jade and wood carvings, including netsuke, miniature Japanese collectibles. And I had a personal "chop" made which says (I hope) "Food Guide." Very cool.
Hong Kong is home to the two longest outdoor covered escalator systems in the world. The longest one -- rising 443 feet over its 2,600-foot length -- cuts right through Hollywood Road linking the Midlevel residential area to Central. It offers a nebb nose's sneak peek into shops, apartments, markets and street life. From 6 to 10 a.m. it rides commuters downtown, then it runs uphill the rest of the day until midnight. At one stop, see a sign for Rednaxela Road. During construction of the neighborhood, a Brit foreman ordered his local Chinese worker to paint a street sign. The man complied according to his cultural schooling and wrote the sign Chinese-style (backward for English speakers) for Alexander Road. The spelling stuck.
Tailor-made clothing isn't as popular as it once was. Still, there are many expert tailors who will copy patterns and sew up custom-made garments. Go online to determine which tailors specialize in men's or women's clothes and which are English-speaking. Because selecting local fabric can be a dodgy business (polyester substituted for silk), and your time in the city may be short, it's a good idea to buy fabric at home, and bring along a favorite outfit to copy. Also know that good tailors often have many back-up orders, and you'll be at the back of the line of their production schedule. Caveat emptor.
A favorite day trip includes a visit to Stanley on the south side of Hong Kong island. Take a double-decker bus, and do try to sit upstairs in the front for the best view during the twisty, winding 20-minute ride. In the open-air, covered stalls of Stanley Village, find discount clothing in Western sizes (big), souvenirs, toys, "art" and gadgets. Most shops have fixed prices, but it never hurts to ask for a discount or the "best price." The waterfront is lined with restaurants, a delightful promenade and a beach. We had lunch in a tiny noodle shop tucked in among the stairs and shops of the village. I'm sure I could never find my way back.
Because I was with family during the December holidays, I enjoyed staying home, having family meals and playing championship rounds of cards. I didn't go to a single museum, though there must be two dozen at least. There were no visits to temples and none to performing arts events. Nor did I go to the outlying islands; Lantau's most famous site is the Tian Tan Buddha, the world's largest seated bronze statue of the great one. So there's much to do next visit, when I'll also try to get to the markets of Mong Kok: Ladies Market, Goldfish Market, Flower Market and Bird Garden.