Hong Kong

Introduction

Hong Kong is a densely populated, compact city of ancient mystery and modern glitter giving a fascinating mixture of East and West. Located on the Kowloon peninsula, Hong Kong includes hundreds of islands, the largest being Lantau Island,  reaching into the New Territories adjacent to mainland China, and including the famous skyline of Hong Kong Island itself.

'Koala' tower on Hong Kong island

Pioneered and administered by the British for 99 years, and now a special administrative region of China, Hong Kong has attracted entrepreneurs from all over the world. It is the perfect business hub, busy, vibrant, exciting and uniquely bringing together ancient Chinese culture and modern Western capitalism. It is a mysterious, sometimes mind-boggling, blend of contrasting worlds and ideologies.

Hong Kong is noted for this blending of cultures –  Christian churches juxtaposed with Buddhist and Taoist temples, quaint narrow streets and multi-laned roads; modern department stores and  traditional markets; skyscrapers next to floating rickety junks; Western-style restaurants and market stalls selling ancient Chinese delicacies. Even the road signs bear English names and Chinese script.

There is no place in the world quite like Hong Kong. An international stopover and gateway into Asia which, for the next 50 years at least,  is set to continue this unique blend of East and West where anything seems possible.

Practicalities

Most cruise vessels berth right in the heart of Hong Kong, Kowloon, at Ocean Terminal a massive structure adjacent to the famous Star Ferry Pier in the heart of the bustling Tsim Sha Tsui area. Museums, shops, restaurants etc. are all within walking distance. You can start exploring Hong Kong straight away!

Get your bearings on the Star Ferry Pier where the unmistakable clock tower stands as an Edwardian landmark giving you the first taste of East meets West. The 1915 British colonial red brick and granite tower was once the landmark of Chinese migrants who were destined for life overseas or in Hong Kong itself.

All within walking distance (for the fit and healthy) of the Star Ferry Pier is Kowloon Park with the Museum of history and ornamental gardens, aviary and playgrounds. A little further on the Tsim Sha Tsui East is the Hong Kong Science Museum and Promenade giving beautiful views of Hong Kong Island.

Further afield in Kowloon there are many markets and temples including the Jade Market in Kansu Street, a short ride away in Yau Ma Tei. Kowloon is your main access point into the New Territories and mainland China itself,  although this is a little too far to go for a day trip and is the urban region adjacent to the Kai Tak airport where international flights can be found swooping in low over the Hong Kong skyline!

From the Star Ferry Pier you can also take a short ferry ride to Hong Kong Island. On Hong Kong Island you can find the famous Aberdeen area where ancient style sampans float in timeless serenity against a backdrop of highrise skyscrapers. You will also find South East Asia’s biggest ocean themepark with roller coasters, rides and shows. Plus some excellent shopping in the Stanley markets.

A trip to Hong Kong Island would not be complete without a ride to Victoria Peal on the famous funicular tram that takes the visitor up a steep ride for stunning views (weather permitting). There are also some walking routes at the top of the Peak that can give surprising tranquility above the bustle below.

A little further afield is Lantau Island,  about a 1 hour ride from Star Ferry Pier. Lantau is famous for the Po Lin Buddhist Monastry a cultural experience that includes a 34 meter bronze statue of Buddah! Lantau is the largest island in Hong Kong and also the most sparsely populated.

From Hong Kong you can also travel to Macau Island, also a part of a Special Administration Region of China, an island that is noted for being the Las Vegas of the East. It can be entered for up to 30 days on passport without special visas. Gambling is not the only opportunity of the island and there are remains of its former Portugese influence. Journey times take about 1 hour from Star Ferry Pier.

To get around the Kowloon area there are a variety of transport options, buses, trams, taxis, ferry boats and of course foot, often the quickest way when the traffic is busiest. Don’t forget the underground rail system. Transport is usually very reasonably priced and moves well apart from rush hours when there can be delays.

Hong Kong uses the Hong Kong dollar (HK$) with 10, 20, 50, 100, 500 and 1000 notes and 1, 2, 5 and 10 dollar coins. There are of course 100 cents in the Hong Kong dollar with 10, 20 and 50 cent coins. Hong Kong can be expensive if you want it to be although there are some pleasant surprises to be found.

Shops generally open late, around 10am, and stay open well into the evening. Banks and post offices hold more regular 9 to 5 hours. Tipping 5 to 10% is customary even where a service charge is made. Toilet attendants might expect HK$1-2 and helpful taxi drivers 10% or just round the fare up.

Police wear khaki and those with a red mark on their shoulder speak English. Dial 999 in an emergency and ask for the police. While Hong Kong is a fairly safe place beware of pickpockets in crowded areas. Hong Kong is 8 hours ahead of GMT.

Context

Markets are found in many of the side streets

Two hundred years ago Hong Kong was a barren island dominated by rocks. It was of little importance to either the Chinese or British. However, the British Empire was taking off in India and trade routes with Canton in China were being established. The British began the illicit import of Indian opium into China aggravating the Chinese authorities. The Chinese had made Opium a banned substance because of the harm it did to the people.

British authorities concentrated their Illegal drug trafficking via Canton. The Chinese authorities tried to stop the British. They besieged British warehouses in Canton demanding 20,000 chests of opium were surrendered. The Chinese were unsuccessful and the act initiated the first opium war.

Fighting at Canton resulted in Britain claiming Hong Kong as a colony in 1841 where the Union Jack was raised at Possession Point. In 1842, the British forced the Chinese into signing the Treaty of Nanking formally ceding Hong Kong to the British and ending the first opium war that had begun in 1839.

The second opium war started in 1856 after the Chinese searched a suspicious looking British vessel. Fighting continued for 4 years until the British invaded the Forbidden City in Beijing. The Chinese were again forced to sign treaties. In 1860 the British gained the area Kowloon, helping them to protect the island of Hong Kong.

In 1898, the Second Convention of Peking ensured that more surrounding Chinese islands were handed over to the British for 99 years commencing in July 1898. The British promised to give the islands back after that date but enjoyed control over Hong Kong and surrounding territories for that period.

In 1984, just before the hand over date the British also agreed to include Kowloon and Hong Kong in the area that would be handed back to the Chinese in 1997, providing that for fifty years citizens would be able to enjoy the political freedoms and practise capitalism denied those on the mainland.

During the years of British control Hong Kong enjoyed religious freedoms not permitted on the mainland. Christianity was legal and churches and cathedrals were built upon Hong Kong. Also expressed in Hong Kong are the permitted Chinese religions and philosophies of mainland China including Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.

General interest

The Star Ferry links Hong Kong Island and Kowloon

In Hong Kong Cantonese cuisine is the most common. The tangy sauces and rapidly cooked meals also characterizes Chinese restaurants across Britain! However, some dishes like BBQ pork spare ribs are not authentic Cantonese dishes at all but have been introduced in the “Westernized-Chinese” food that appeals to non-oriental pallets.

The dim sum is a unique Cantonese food consisting of bite-sized morsels of chopped vegetables, seafood and meats in a fried or boiled pastry. The dim sum is usually served from morning until early afternoon. The dim sum is related to the “yum cha” tradition where travelers would stop and rest to taste tea.

When in Hong Kong you can also experience other regional Chinese dishes including the richer and heavier Shanghai food and the spicy Szechuan meals liberally flavored with chilli, peppers and garlic, giving them their renowned hot and spicy flavor. A visit to China would not be complete without sampling the Peking duck, a delicacy served with honey and soy sauce, roasted and eaten with miniature pancakes that are wrapped around the duck meat and combined with cucumber and spring onion for a delicious and unforgettable mouthwatering experience.

Alongside the restaurants you will find food stalls selling unusual and delicious snacks from the side of the road and in parks. Many are worth a try but do understand some will be offerring absolutely genuinely Chinese food, including hygiene standards that may leave you surprised and dishes, like rat or snake, that simply shock you.

If you want to stay well, keep away from local dairy products, ice-creams in particular, that are often made from milk and which lacks the rigorous processing of the Western world. Well-known ice-cream brands sealed and shipped are usually fine, but local substitutes can leave you with a churning tummy.

If you happen to be in Hong Kong for Chinese New Year in late January or early February be prepared for celebrations, fireworks, holidays, banquets and general festivity that can rival that of the Christmas holiday season, often continuing for a few weeks! Giving money in small red envelopes is a tradition at this time.

In April you will find the Ching Ming festival where ancestor’s graves are tidied and paper money, cars, boats etc. are burned and sent into the afterlife to relatives. In May and June there is the Dragon Boat festival with races and teams from all over the world competing. In August food will be left out on the roads to appease ghosts and in September the mooncake festival will ensure lanterns and processions. And as can only happen in Hong Kong In December Christmas decorations will be hung!

Key attractions

Kowloon Park – in the heart of the Tsim Sha Tsui area are the landscaped gardens of Kowloon Park. You can find the Hong Kong Museum of history here, aviary, swimming pool, indoor games hall and pleasant ornamental gardens that will give you a sense of peace in the midst of a bustling busy world.

Hong Kong Cultural Centre, next to the Star Ferry Pier is the cultural centre and Hong Kong Space museum. You will find theatres, one of the world’s largest planetariums and art galleries with Western and Chinese art.

Star Ferry and Aberdeen – take the star ferry to Hong Kong Island and visit the zoological and botanical gardens. Here you will also find the Aberdeen area and the floating junks where people can be found living in sampans and dwelling on the waters against a backdrop of high rise commercialism.

Victoria Peak Tram – also on Hong Kong Island you can take a tram to The Peak for magnificent views (weather permitting) over Hong Kong or just enjoy the 1400m almost vertical ascent by tram. As one car rises the other is lowered connected by a steel cable taking about 8 minutes to get from top to bottom. They run every 10 minutes from Garden Road Central.

Ocean Park – On Hong Kong Island children will enjoy the rides at Ocean Park as South-East Asia’s largest entertainment centre with rides and shows including the Dragon Rollercoaster.

Stanley Bay offers bargains galore in its market with clothes, leather, ornaments and souvenirs. You will also find McDonald’s here from where you can sample the unique Hong Kong ricer burger.

Quirky facts

If you’re ever in Hong Kong, Kowloon, on an ordinary Sunday, fairly late in the evening, and see hundreds of people gather picnic style in the public squares and parks, it probably isn’t because there is some huge cultural festival about to occur. It is the Filipino cleaning ladies having some time off!

Also should you not be tempted by the delightful food found in the restaurants and markets you can always opt for the unique meal offered by McDonalds, Hong Kong, in the Stanley Market area, the Hong Kong special rice burger, for those stomachs which appreciate a decent taste of rice between the buns.