Hong Kong was a British colony from 1841 to 1997. As a result, most of the political and administrative bodies established in the colony were created by the British. When the British government handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997, there was an agreement that the region would retain its structures and remain somewhat politically autonomous for fifty years. Recent years have witnessed continued threats by Bejing as it cracks down on Hong Kong’s capitalist freedoms.
To fail is to find something – Hong Kong Cantonese proverb
At 7.5million people, the island is the world’s seventh most populated city, with a population density of 25,900 per kilometer. Hong Kong has the largest skyscrapers of any city in the world, the highest number of billionaires in Asia and one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, 300 buildings are over 150meters tall and 60 buildings are over 200meters tall.
The extension of Kowloon was called the New Territories and was granted to Britain by Peking in 1898, in order that Britain could adequately defend Hong Kong against European invaders. It comprised an area three times the size of the colonial Hong Kong. Kowloon, Hong Kong City and the New Territories make up the region of Hong Kong. Despite the fact that several towns exist in the New Territories with a population of 3 million, the area is still predominantly parkland.
Hong Kong Neighborhoods
Kowloon – Southern tip – Tsim Sha Tsui
Th southern tip of Kowloon is characterized by huge shopping malls and Michelin starred restaurants. It also includes several historic areas. Taking a stroll down Kweilin Street, you come to fascinating historic sites such as the Tin Hau Temple and all around are traditional tenement buildings, called tong lau, which date back to the early part of the 20th century. You can also catch sight of some of the street shrines and altars, such as the Shenist shrine below.
Religion plays a subtle but important role in people’s lives. Whereas 21% of Hong Kong identifies as Buddhist, 49% identify with the Chinese folk religions, which include the worship of local gods and ancestors. Shenism is a term coined by academics in an attempt to label Chinese folk religion. Essentially, it is a collection of folk beliefs that worships ancestors (lineages) and many deities.
The Kowloon City Market is a fantastic place to get excellent Chinese food, there are food stalls everywhere around a communal set of multi colored tables. There are stall and seafood tanks packed with seafood of every kind.
Hong Kong – Central District
There are many wet markets in Hong Kong. These are markets that sell mostly perishable goods and are frequented by the locals where they can buy live chicken, fish and other animals. The food is not pre-packaged.
Graham Street’s open air market is said to be one of the oldest open-air markets in Hong Kong, located in the downtown area, it has been operating for 160 years. At the intersection of Graham Street and Hollywood Road is the most famous graffiti wall in Hong Kong. The shopping includes everything from forks and knives to slippers and bathrobes. The Graham street market is officially a wet-market as it sells fresh meat, fish and produce but is not a typical one.
There are several vantage points in Hong Kong for obtaining memorable skyline views of of the city. One of those is the highest bar in the world, the bar at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Hong Kong, while another requires a rather difficult hike up to Shek O Peak on the Dragon’s Back trail. There are others, such as the Tian Tan Buddha area on Lantau Island, accessed by taking the 360degree cable car.
However, one of the best front row views of Hong Kong is from the Kowloon InterContinental Hong Kong Lobby Lounge. Here is the most popular place to watch the nightly Symphony of lights show over the Hong Kong skyline.
Wan Chai Neighborhood
The Wan Chai neighborhood has a heritage trail that takes about 2 hours to cover. It highlights the Hung Shing Temple and the iconic Blue House on Stone Nullar Lane, a way one street in the neighborhood noted for many historical landmarks.
The blue house cluster is a colorful set of 3 brightly colored buildings in yellow, blue and orange. Built around the 1920s, the area is a historic site.
The Wan Chai market has a wet market as well as a dry market where you can find anything for sale, and really, anything.
Sheung Wan Neighborhood
The Sheung Wan neighborhood is located in the north-west of the Island between central and Sai Ying Pu. It is a great area to experience both the new and old architecture styles.
The area has become the hipster haven and is filled with antiques, restaurants and cafes as well as medicine and dried seafood shops. It felt more like a western city than any other neighborhood, probably because of the newer buildings.
The neighborhood has a HAPi shop where you have five different stores in one: a fashion retail, home furnishings, floral shop, bistro and grocery. It also has traditional wet and dry markets.
In this neighborhood you will also find the Man Mo Temple, an 1800s temple featuring a lavish interior with incense and spirals overhead. The temple is dedicated to the Taoist deities Man Tai and Mo Tai.
Lantau Island and the fishing villages
Lantau Island is the largest of the Hong Kong Islands and is famous for its few remaining traditional Chinese fishing communities. It is considered the “Venice of the Orient”, although the similarities escape me, except of the boats and canals. Whoever coined that phrase probably had never been to Venice. On Lantau’s northwestern coast, you will find the village of Tai O, probably the most authentic example of Southern China’s fishing life and culture.
On a three day itinerary, I would include Lantau Island. If you only have 2 days, I would reserve them for Hong Kong city and Kowloon neighborhoods.
Choosing a guide in Hong Kong
We used two different guides in Hong Kong. One guide for the Kowloon side and one guide for the Hong Kong city side. We did not have a guide on Lantau Island. We take great care when choosing a guide to choose someone who is local, understands the history and politics of the region and at least tries not to insert cultural or political bias into the itinerary. In many places such as Israel and the Palestinian territories, we felt that getting such an individual would be difficult to do. We therefore hired 3 guides for different regions, all from various social and political walks of life, but all were local.
In Hong Kong, we wanted someone who understood the colony, by way of experience, someone who had grown up in the region. We also wanted someone who understood the cuisine, as we were very interested in exploring Hong Kong culinary traditions.
Our first guide gave us a lengthy tour of Kowloon. He was from the New Territories, had a long family history in the area and he was very knowledgeable of the local restaurants. Our second guide ended up being from Great Britain, had lived in Hong Kong for only a few years and quite frankly, had misrepresented herself when she advertised her background. She had a Chinese sounding last name and not once did she mention she was a new arrival to Hong Kong when we spoke to her. She had very little knowledge of even the most typical local dishes, such as tripe. She had never tried it and did not know what it was. The lesson learned is to ask direct questions before you commit to a guide. References are key.
Mondisti Hong Kong trip tips
- If you only have a few days, stay around Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. Visit Lantau island only if you have at least three to four days.
- Be very careful in choosing a guide as Hong Kong has many expats who want to finance their stay by starting their own guiding business. Not the experience you are looking for.
- The various neighborhoods are all unique, visit as many as you can manage.
- The shopping is great but we do carry on only, so we do not shop much.
- The easiest way to get a great view of Hong Kong city is from the InterContinental in Kowloon but there are several cable cars that take you to great heights and great views.