When looking at a world map, Hong Kong is usually represented by a tiny dot, or sometimes nothing at all. Other, larger countries in Southeast Asia may seem like more worthy destinations to the unknowing traveller, but maps, as we all know, don’t always accurately represent reality.
What Hong Kong may be lacking in size, it makes up for in originality. After 156 years under British colonial rule, Hong Kong is currently a special administrative region (SAR) to China; its dichotomous past has led to an eclectic present. The melding of Chinese customs and British intervention created a physical and cultural landscape that is distinctly Hong Kong, and can be seen nowhere else in the world, east or west.
Do all the things that you might otherwise miss as you rush to Victoria Peak or follow the crowds to Disneyland. As much as you can, stay outside and pay close attention, not only to speeding traffic, but also to the various anomalies you stumble across. Take time to wander different neighbourhoods and observe and participate in their quirks. Trust me, it will add a satisfying sense of adventure to your trip, and provide a story or two gratis for you to bring home with your purchased souvenirs.
With over 7 million people living in an area only a third the size of Rhode Island, the US’s smallest state, Hong Kong has become the most vertical city in the world. The skyline along the coast of Victoria Harbour is rightfully one of Hong Kong’s major tourist attractions — even more so when lit up like an old-school arcade game in the evenings. Equally as fascinating are the housing estates that come in an array of pastel colors and include high-rises so tall and narrow they appear to be two-dimensional. One notable example is the Kin Ming Estate in Tseung Kwan O that houses over 22,000 people, but you can find housing estates, private or public, in every district of Hong Kong. Take your time admiring these Lego giants while imagining how long you would have to wait for the elevator to your apartment on the 70th floor. Whether looking at them from the street, a double-decker bus, or a rooftop, it is easy to imagine you’ve stepped into a futuristic city where people live in tiny apartments in the sky. To add to the housing estates’ sci-fi vibe, curtains the colour of hospital scrubs can sometimes be seen adorning each and every window of a building; the fast-paced lifestyle of Hong Kong must leave little time for buying new curtains.
Yuen Po Street Bird Garden
If Hong Kong were a suitor, a bird would be its prospective bride. Old men walk their songbirds in cages on sunny afternoons, and flamingoes dot the ponds of Kowloon Park. If you are looking for birds in large quantities, you won’t have to look far to locate an aviary. In most of Hong Kong’s parks you can find sanctuaries devoted to housing an assortment of bird species. The aviaries can sometimes be disappointing though, since the birds are either nowhere to be seen, or hidden behind netting and bars that are both dizzying and depressing to look through. For a more up-close bird experience, visit the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden in Kowloon. As you wind through this small but packed market, you will cross paths with escaped grasshoppers the size of mice and hyper birds performing back-flips in cramped cages. Many people also bring their pets here for the opportunity to get some fresh air and to perform for an eager audience. Perched atop a shoulder, nibbling on an ear or hanging on a finger, the birds obviously have very special relationships with their owners. Usually, neither will mind if you want to take a photo, or daringly hold the bird yourself. After you get your feathered fix, Flower Market Road is right next door, and a great way to replace the smell of birds with more pleasant aromas.
Domestic Workers on Sundays
Though 95 percent of Hong Kong’s population is Han Chinese, its minority groups have a strong and significant presence. One such group are the female domestic workers from Indonesia and The Philippines. Their one day-off from work is Sundays, and since they live with their employers, they don’t have homes of their own to relax in. As a result, thousands of them congregate outdoors, create shelters using cardboard, tarps and blankets and spend the day catching up with friends and family they haven’t seen all week. Kowloon Park and Victoria Park are some of the best places to see women in matching sweat suits performing in hip hop competitions or eating brightly coloured meals that look like edible art. Some of the domestic workers are Muslim, and in quiet areas of the parks, you can hear their music as they pray in beautifully designed headscarves. Don’t worry about casually walking by and respectfully observing different groups’ rituals; the women are accustomed to having their Sunday lives on public display. Surprisingly, the authorities not only allow the women to takeover large areas of space, but also block off entire streets for them. Though the women must not always enjoy their free time sitting on the concrete ground, at least they have a designated area to do so.
Outdoor Markets and Kitchens
Food is an integral part of public life in Hong Kong, and restaurants, bakeries and street food vendors are busy at all hours of the day. People are often munching on things that look either delicious or debatable, and what you think you ordered off the menu might not always be what you get. Dim sum and hot pot are two reliably tasty dishes, while other food options may only be for the strong-stomached. Everyone should at least get a good look at the array of ingredients Hong Kong offers, and outdoor markets are the place to do so while giving your senses an intense workout. In Sham Shui Po, you can watch as rainbow scales fly from a fishmonger’s catch, while a butcher chops and wraps up a savoury roasted duck in three swift moves. Bins containing hundreds of different types of dried fish, herbs and vegetables spill out of storefronts and exude an aroma best experienced and not described. Pieces of raw, red meat hang from outdoor stalls, while fresh fruit and vegetables are sold across the street. Blinding fluorescents spotlight tofu and egg vendors, and shoppers can be seen carrying their purchases home in small red plastic bags as taxis honk at them to get out of the street. The best time to go is during the after-work, before-dinner rush, when there is an electric feel in the air that is both exhilarating and disembodying.
Outdoor kitchens are also set-up during this time, and tables, chairs and a kitchen are quickly assembled on side streets to accommodate evening diners. Outdoor kitchens are like found objects, and can be discovered by pursuers in a small village in the New Territories or around the corner from upscale department stores in Central. The cook often uses several enormous woks to prepare meals for patrons, and dishes are scrubbed with hot water in large tubs on the ground. Plumes of steam rise from the cooking food, and bare bulbs dimly light the kitchen; the scene brings to mind sultry detective films from the 1940s. In addition to the outdoor kitchens’ striking atmosphere, the food is often delicious and always cheap. And the best part? It’s Hong Kong, so they’ll probably have an English menu.