A lot has happened in Hong Kong since I traveled there five years ago, and I think that will make it even more interesting to revisit here. I didn’t take a camera on this trip, but I went filter-happy with my cellphone as you’ll see.
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Interestingly enough, people from Hong Kong do not trust their tap water despite it being safe to drink according to the World Health Organization’s standards. Ironically, the first half of my trip was spent drinking the tap water, and the latter half spent boiling it after my Air BnB hostess made me feel insecure about it. However, there is no evidence whatsoever that it is unsafe, and I find it an interesting factoid about HK culture that virtually the entire population needlessly boils their water. So, feel free to defiantly drink tap water in Hong Kong.
I’m not going to talk about dim sum or yum cha, except to say, for the sake of the curious, that they are almost the same except for the time of day when you eat them. Dim sum is for breakfast, and yum cha is for high tea, although tea is served with both. Food selection varies slightly between the two, but you will obviously not clue into this.
I want to tell you about something more crazy, which is dai pai dong. The term means ‘big license plate’ because they require a special license to operate, which used to be physically larger than that of a regular restaurant. The best way to think of dai pai dong is to imagine a hybrid between street food and mall food courts. The restaurants are not necessarily on the street, but they are in some large space, usually outdoors, with many tables and chairs set up between the vendors. The one we visited was not outdoors. It was in what reminded me of a parking garage and was called Tak Fat Beef Ball, which is just the best name I’ve ever heard.
The purpose of dai pai dong is convenience, speed, and affordability. It’s a great place to grab lunch during a break from work, either alone or with friends. There’s some selection, the food is prepared quickly, it’s not expensive, and the turnover rate of customers is high. My family and I wandered into one of these locations with my friend from Hong Kong just for the experience, looking for a place to sit all together, and not in any hurry, so you can probably imagine we were not exactly respecting the dai pai dong philosophy with our slow decision making and relaxed pace. People all around us were crammed into tables doing it the correct way, but we were surely too small a party to be displeasing anyone with our cluelessness. That place is closed now. Rest in peace, Tak Fat Beef Ball.
Markets are my jam, baby. There are tons of them, but some are virtually identical. You will see Temple Street Market and Ladies Market recommended on many travel blogs, but I found these to be too similar to warrant visiting both, even though I did.
Stanley Market is worth the trip out of the city, and there are plenty of transit options to get there. The quality of the items here is much higher than the street markets in the city. I bought a singing bowl there to add to my collection, and some incense that I still haven’t finished. I also got a painting for my brother. The painting was nice, but I have to admit that I was partly charmed into buying it by the dry humor of the vendor. I asked her, “Did you paint this?” to which she replied, “If I say yes, will you buy it?” In addition to the market, Stanley Park is just a nice place to be.
There is a flower market in the Mong Kok district. This is an area in which you will undoubtedly spend a lot of time anyway, so if you’re on this trip with a significant other, maybe you’d like to nonchalantly meander into this floral paradise to get a nice bouquet for her to bring back to your accommodations.
Right next to the flower market is an adorable bird market, or a terrifying bird market, depending on your attitude towards avian species. Maybe you’d want to nonchalantly meander into this place to get a nice bird for your significant other, too. Anyway, it certainly makes for a fun walk around for tourists, despite its very legitimate and non-gimmicky purpose of supplying birds and bird-related supplies to lovers of our feathered friends. I thought this market might be reflective of higher rate of bird-ownership in Hong Kong, but it turns out they are below the world average for having birds as pets, and even lower than here in Canada. Maybe they just don’t like pet stores.
One thing they certainly aren’t big fans of in Hong Kong is thrift stores. According to the world wide web, Chinese people do not really like the idea of wearing the clothing of people they do not know, people who may have done horrible things and upon whom may be the wrath of the gods. Some of that wrath may have stuck to their clothing. Therefore, there are very few thrift stores in Hong Kong, but I went to one.
It’s called Mee & Gee (for some reason) and I was looking for an article of clothing with some really poorly translated English on it, for the perfect souvenir. I found a lot of that, but nothing that really hit the nail on the head. I was really hopeful, because I had seen someone on the street wearing a shirt with the phrase ‘Never Forget That Days’ printed in large, flamboyant lettering. I thought it was hilarious and I was sure I could find some Engrish gold like that if I tried. I’ll have to give it another go on my next trip.
I only went to the Sha Tin area because that’s where my friend’s family lives, but that detour was quite a nice surprise. It turns out residential life in Hong Kong isn’t all that bad, at least in certain districts. You would expect the long stretches of apartment complexes needed to house such a large population to be an eye sore, but they actually look very pretty standing at attention along the Shing Mun river, and the mountainous New Territories offer generous compensation for the high population density. Enjoy a walk along the river, but don’t look so intently as to notice the dead fish glimmering in the sunlight.
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You won’t be completely without things to do here either. There’s this place called Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery, where you can climb up a bunch of stairs lined on each side with golden-colored statues of Buddha, each one unique. It’s a bit of exercise but the temple at the top is pretty and there’s a view as well.
If you’re going to do tea, do it right at MingCha Tea House. This place is actually run by a Japanese lady, so hopefully it’s not a faux pas to recommend a non-Cantonese establishment in an article about Hong Kong. This tea experience is not cheap, but it’s definitely done right, so if you care about things being done right, MingCha is your best bet. You get the full ceremony, and there’s lots of high grade tea you can buy, as well as some beautiful accessories.
As an aside, you may be tempted to think that in a place inhabited by ethnic Chinese, good tea would abound. The truth is that, though tea will certainly be offered at every restaurant, it’s usually tea that has been sitting in a plastic container since it was brewed in the morning. Even at a more high-end restaurant, the loose leaf in the the pot is the same grade as what you would be served at a dim sum hall in the West.
All that being said, when it comes to buying loose leaf in bulk, Hong Kong is a great place to stock up. Though you may still have to search more and pay more for the highest grades of tea, the medium-high grades are very easy to find, and you really can’t go wrong with a fat brick of pu’erh or a reserve of dragonwell which would certainly cost you more anywhere else. Thanks for indulging my tea rant.
I didn’t know it at the time, but 2015 was a politically interesting time to be in Hong Kong. A year earlier, in response to China’s efforts to interfere with their elections with an electoral reform that would allow them to pre-screen candidates for the position of Chief Executive, HK’ers started the Umbrella movement. It takes its name from the use of umbrellas in defense against the pepper spray deployed by the Hong Kong Police. As the election would only be two years later in 2017, the anti-Beijing sentiment was still lingering during our visit.
Being a democratic blip on the edge of a massive, totalitarian state leaves the people of Hong Kong with an acute awareness of their freedom and its fragility. The recent demonstrations in response to yet another attempt by Beijing to reach into the city state are another example of citizens’ 6th sense when it comes to these efforts, as we have seen them make their displeasure known. I found these latest protests even more representative of Hong Kong’s keen eye than the 2014 ones because the premise for the extradition policy is actually very reasonable. The fact that people saw through it and were willing to push so hard against it is a fantastic demonstration of Hong Kong’s democratic spirit. But I will now digress from the politics.
Lest you expect Hong Kong to be a sprawling concrete jungle, I am happy to inform you that there is a lot of green space. There are many parks, such as Kowloon Park, which has an aviary with pretty birds. It’s definitely worth a visit.
This is not Kowloon Park, but it is one of many green spaces which can be enjoyed within the city.
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But if a park is too brief an escape from the city for you, or even if it isn’t, take a boat to Lamma Island. The fare is extremely cheap, and you can spend a day walking the trail which will lead back to where you can get your ride back. Try to time it right, since the boats leave every 90 minutes. The island offers some beautiful views and scenery, as the trail goes high enough for one to look out onto the vast South China Sea. There are restaurants before the trail starts where you can get fresh seafood. Also, if you’re into trying weird Hong Kong treats, someone along the trail will be selling a soy-based dessert called tofu fa. It’s basically a soft chunk of tofu basking in a sugary liquid. So, if you like tofu, and you like sugary liquids, maybe you will like this. In any case, you will feel cool for trying it.
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Do not leave without going up the Victoria Peak and enjoying a view of the city. Try to do so on the clearest day possible. As a resident of Montreal, going up to the peak made me realize that Hong Kong and Montreal have a lot of similarities, though Hong Kong is obviously more grand. Both cities are on bodies of water, both have mountains with city views, both have humid climates, and both are multicultural metropoles. One of the most interesting facts about Hong Kong is how new it is, considering its size and population. The before and after pictures from even 50 years ago are astounding.
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I’m certainly no expert on the place. I didn’t even go see the Giant Buddha. Looking back on that time makes me really thankful for the opportunity to experience such a lively place, especially considering what’s happening there now. Travel only gives you a glimpse of what a place is, but it also gives you a love for it. I love Hong Kong. I really hope they stay free.