Spotlight On: Hong Kong
With its long history of English colonisation mixed with, geographically speaking, an unmistakably Asian setting, Hong Kong has the slightly jarring yet heady sense of somewhere both reassuringly familiar and thrillingly foreign. Glittering high-rises thrust skywards, intermingled with ancient and rotting apartment blocks; at street level, signs are written in both Chinese and English, while slick coffee chains occupy the same neighbourhood blocks as dishevelled looking shops from which you can purchase potions made of snail cream and snake venom amongst other herbal concoctions.
Head for the Heights
No trip to Hong Kong is complete without a journey on the Peak Tram, from the top of which, on a clear day, Hong Kong lies beneath you in a beguiling patchwork of architecture, harbour and hills, surrounded by shockingly green swathes of jungle.
A short walk to the funicular’s starting point takes you through a small museum, with a cursory glimpse into the railway’s history and its various incarnations over that 120-year period. Taking our seats on the right-hand side, from which the best views are to be had, we raise sceptical (read: nervous) eyebrows as the gears clank and the funicular slides clunkily up the steeply angled slope. There are glimpses into the top storeys of apartment blocks and vivid close ups of lush greenery, even more surprisingly dense given the concrete jungle it surrounds. Up top, the beauty of these natural elements slide away into a dismayingly brash (but completely to be expected in such a touristy location) shopping mall: think Madam Tussaud’s, a couple of tacky eateries, gift shops and a 3D photo zone.
We bypass all of this to head out to the terrace and drink in the view, notions of which we’ve been teased with all morning - and find that it’s shrouded in fog. Hong Kong has been spirited away by weather conditions - not that the photo touts consider this a problem: just pose against the white-out (nature’s equivalent of green screen) and they'll simply doctor the picture to make it appear that you’ve enjoyed the terrace with postcard-perfect scenery behind you.
Although disappointment mingles with our laughter (“Hey, have you seen the fog from over there yet?!!”) there’s something quite magical about the non-view: given the immense heights of the buildings we’ve seen at street level, it feels as though we’ve soared so far up that we’re above the clouds. There’s almost imperceptible movement within them, too: first a retreat, then an advance, coquettishly exposing the crown of a building before enshrouding it once again in folds of white-grey. The harbour, previously just an idea, is now discernible thanks to the lengthening lines of wake produced by the ghostly vessels that scud along its surface.
Eventually, patience and an almost child-like belief in a land that exists beyond the clouds is rewarded as the city treats us to a slow reveal. It’s not as sharp-focus as the views offered by the photo touts’ fakeries, but possibly all the more enchanting because of that. Those with time and energy to spare aren’t confined to the (WiFi enabled) viewing deck though - the area, with its many paths and trails, from which snapshots of the city can be glimpsed through dangling vines and twisting trunks, is popular with hikers and joggers, as well as those simply wishing to experience different, less Instagramatically-familiar vistas.
A land of contrasts
Some destinations entice you to immerse yourself, fully and deliberately, in the destination itself; others seem to have a more introspective, reflective effect. Hong Kong feels far more like the former, even if some of the places in which we wish to immerse ourselves are, in fact, places of reflection. But then, contrasting parallels are something that Hong Kong does exceptionally well - stand at the top of one of its many hills and observe the graceful curves of a temple roof softening the angular lines of a modern cityscape, see a smartly-suited businessman make an offering at a street shrine, look at an astonishingly modern high-rise and learn that it was designed with complete faithfulness to the ancient wisdom of Feng Shui and, at a traffic light, watch a perfectly turned-out woman tap an impatient designer heel at the side of a toothless cycle-rider with flattened cardboard boxes strapped precariously to the rear of his ride.
A stroll around the Wan Chai neighbourhood provides an evocative insight into this seemingly effortless juxtaposition: hipster cafes boasting polished concrete, Tolix stools and exhaustive coffee options sit just meters away from traditional tea carts, on which pyramids of tinned milk are gravity-defyingly balanced.
The Chi Lin Nunnery, a Buddhist temple complex in the Diamond Hill district, seems to epitomise this dichotomy. Built in the 1930s, it’s a serene place, imagined in the Tang Dynasty style: intricately crafted wooden structures, held together without the use of a single nail, are interspersed with lotus ponds and exquisitely manicured bonsai trees. Beyond it, however, the skyline bristles with high-rises - a sight momentarily as disconcerting, to our eyes, as the huddles of saffron-robed monks alternating between prayers and offerings on the one hand, and taking group selfies on the other. There’s an on-site restaurant, nestled behind a large water feature, here: we booked well in advance to sit at communal tables and lunch on delicious vegetarian food.
Food for thought
Unsurprisingly, eating makes up a large part of our days in Hong Kong, where you can feast on roasted goose - complete with beak - at lively, local restaurants or sample all manner of street food. There’s no end to the number of upmarket restaurants at which you can enjoy several courses of painstakingly prepared cuisine - China Tang, with its slick clientele and opulent decor, offers great people watching, as well as authentic flavours with a cosmopolitan twist, while at the Michelin-starred Celebrity Cuisine, Chef Cheng works with the kind of culinary imaginativeness that’s given his tiny, 40-seat restaurant a cult following. Sweet tooth? Maybe skip dessert (which on our visit was hard-boiled egg white in a red date broth) and head for a branch of Hui Lau Shan for one of their amazing - largely mango-based and intensely sweet - confections, which merit the term “pudding” far more than “drink”.
The same breadth of range applies to our shopping choices in Hong Kong - although there’s a dazzling array of designer stores to swoon over, as well as the discounted options at outlets such a Fiorentina Village, it’s in the markets that we have our most enjoyable and colourful experiences.
Head to the Jade Market for an irresistible treasure trove atmosphere, with piles of green stone, considered to be lucky in Chinese culture, fashioned into virtually everything imaginable, whether of an ornamental or useful nature. Be prepared to be pressured to buy if you so much as look for more than a nanosecond at a piece, steel yourself for some haggling and don’t be alarmed when the vendors whip out cigarette lighters and hold the bare flames to their wares: they’re simply proving to you that it’s genuine jade, rather than plastic.
The Goldfish Market is another highlight, depending on your feelings about seeing the walls and entrances of shop after shop lined with huge clouds of clear plastic bags, each filled with shimmering masses of goggle-eyed fish. The piscatorial offerings of this street have their roots in the significance of goldfish in Feng Shui, but the scope of the market has since broadened to include other domestic pets and products, as well as open tubs of wriggling reptiles and amphibians. It’s a sight possibly not for the fainthearted, although there’s an authenticity about the street that makes a visit, if not pleasant, then at least interesting - since we can’t imagine that any tourists are likely to be stocking up on live fish as souvenirs, we’re fairly certain that most of the transactions we see taking place are among locals.
The same probably can’t be said of the Temple Street Night Market, which draws crowds of locals and tourists alike with its huge array of handbags, purses, souvenirs, electronics, tea sets and clothing, stretching as far as the eye can see down a street fringed with lively open-sided restaurants. The energy of the place is intoxicating and we pick up some well-priced, if not exactly genuine, designer goods. It’s worth pushing beyond this lengthy section of market, though, to find yourself in a less-well lit area where fortune tellers strain to make their prophecies heard over the caterwauling emanating from nearby street karaoke tents; around the corner, a handful of stalls sell sex toys and drug paraphernalia, leading us to wonder, given the number of couples earnestly consulting oracles, whether there's any deliberateness in the positioning of their stands.
For other nighttime entertainment and a superb atmosphere, don’t miss the Wednesday night races at Happy Valley racecourse, or the Symphony of Lights, at 8pm nightly, down by Victoria Harbour. The music to which the light show is set is most certainly not the most tuneful you’ll ever hear, but the overall effect is spectacular nonetheless.
Where to stay
We stayed at the Dorsett Wanchai, situated just opposite the Happy Valley Racecourse. The Dorsett chain has an impressive presence in Hong Kong, offering a range of affordable, low-key luxury in key locations. With so much to do and see in Hong Kong itself, it makes perfect sense to stay somewhere in which it will be a pleasure to start and end your days, but without a swag of amenities - huge spas and sprawling lounge areas, for example - which will only bump prices up and tempt you away from the authenticity of your surroundings. The Dorsett chain has cleverly combined Asian hospitality with an approach that seems almost pared down in comparison with other luxury brands - and yet (it’s that dichotomy again…) doesn’t, thanks to opulent decorative touches in every direction, fantastic views and seamless service.
Getting there: Virgin Atlantic flies daily from London Heathrow to Hong Kong and is offering return Economy fares from £479 per person: www.virginatlantic.com . Flights from London take around 12 hours.
Room Rates: Dorsett Hotel room rates vary according to each hotel’s location, but start from HKD 600per night for a standard room at the Tsuen Wan. Rooms at the Dorsett Wanchai are from HKD1000 for a standard room. These prices are for the room only and will incur an additional 10% service charge.
*During my stay, I was the guest of Dorsett Hospitality International. All words and opinions are my own.
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