A brash city full of subtle delightsLike a curtain rising on a Broadway show, the fog lifted as I stepped out of the airport express train at Hong Kong central station. The immense buildings that are scattered around the Central area looked pristine in the sunshine, their windows reflecting each other like a tribe of Narcissi captivated by their own appearance.
▶ The view of Hong Kong Island from the Hutong restaurant looking across Victoria Harbor . The laser show takes place every night at 8 p.m.
It was my first trip to the city that’s also an island, a beach resort, a relic of the colonial past and a vibrant economic power house that’s just a little bit worried about its paternal grandfather on the mainland.
Hong Kong is less than 4 hours from Seoul, but it seemed like a world away. Whereas Korea spent centuries in isolation, this city has been a cosmopolitan crossroads for generations. The sharp edges of its oriental ancestry have been softened by waves of immigrants, foreign businesses and colonial administrators.
China regained full territorial possession of Hong Kong in 1997 and it was renamed. It is now known as the Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (SAR). Residents once feared a communist-imposed end to the freedoms they enjoyed under British rule but now Hong Kong’s residents are more fearful of China’s capitalist aspirations.
Thinking about these issues made me hungry. It was time for lunch. Hong Kong is a place that revels in food. Eating is a sport, a sybaritic ritual, an exploration in search of the latest innovation.
My first stop was Pacific Place, a high-toned shopping center located in Admiralty. The drive there was a pleasure ― cabs are cheap and plentiful in Hong Kong. We rode through soft afternoon sunshine under a powder-blue sky that bore the unmistakable sheen of recent rain. With all the English-style signs and street furniture it seemed like London, if London had palm trees and mountains with muscular crests.
I arrived at ye shanghai just before 1 p.m. Only five hours before I had been freezing in Seoul. Now I was in a sleek art-deco restaurant with views of a warm promenade and a menu listing a host of Shanghainese cuisine. I ordered a portion of steamed pork and shrimp dumplings. They were heavily scented with the aromas of surf and turf, interspersed with a hint of chopped spring onions. They disintegrated on my tongue in a rush of hot liquid, leaving a delicate wrapper and a robust filling.
▶ After nightfall the street markets in the Central district glow with many lanterns, and bargains abound. [JoonAng Ilbo]
As I began to pack a sesame pocket with minced chicken and pine nuts I considered my mission. In less than 36 hours I wanted to sample the best Chinese cuisine, shop in Hong Kong’s famed markets and experience a small sense of the island’s essence. With such an extensive agenda there was no time for a main course.
From ye shanghai, another cab whisked me to my hotel, The Cosmo. Situated in Causeway Bay at the border of Happy Valley, it offers luxurious accommodation at a fraction of the price charged by its neighbors. The staff gave me a royal greeting and stowed my luggage in a charming room, leaving me free to go shopping.
In Hong Kong, if food is weft, then shopping is warp. Between the two of them they make up the essential fabric of the city and what an extraordinary piece of cloth it is ― colorful, complex, ancient and modern, all rolled into a kaleidoscopic landscape that changes with each second. Canyons of steel and concrete rapidly give way to mist-shrouded mountains. From expressways laden with traffic, a few well-chosen turns can take one onto serpentine roads that feel like English country lanes.
One of these led me to Stanley, a one-stop location for souvenirs, some electronics and, if you look hard enough, antiques. Stanley is a beach town and has the atmosphere of one. It was relaxed and charming. The bustle of Hong Kong’s central district was less than 30 minutes away by car, but it felt much more distant. Strolling along Stanley’s seaside main street I passed bars and cafes. This was a place to relax with a glass of wine and watch a wintry sun the color of persimmon sink into clouds that looked like pale blueberries.
In the market itself there were few surprises until, near the end, around a corner, next to a small strip of sand, I found an antique shop. Inside, at the back, there was a grandmother in a small kitchen teaching four children how to read. In front there were treasures. I bought a beautiful painted box decorated with exquisitely rendered birds. It was less than $20. Paying so little for something so gorgeous felt like stealing.
Back in the city, night had fallen. It was time to take the Star Ferry, which has been running across Victoria Harbor for almost 100 years. The boats have an ancient air. The old wooden seats are scented with salt spray. As the ferry pulled away a wisp of cloud cleared from the face of a full moon. The city’s lights were reflected in the water. I am a seasoned traveler, but this was breathtaking. Cities are, in my view, mankind’s most astonishing achievement. Their beauty can be more inspirational than any work of art. Hong Kong gave me one such moment, a few seconds that I can tuck away forever.
▶ Food at Hutong
The ferry costs less than $2, not even that if passengers sit on the lower deck. I was taken from Hong Kong island to Tsim Sha Tsui, on the Kowloon side. A few minutes later I was being seated at Hutong, on the 28th floor of the One Peking building. The views from the restaurant rivalled those I had seen on the ferry, except that multi-colored lasers were now dancing from the roofs of the skyscrapers.
Most restaurants that have such a spectacular view serve indifferent food. This is not so at Hutong. They offer Northern Chinese cuisine with Szechuan and Cantonese specialties like crispy deboned lamb and shrimp cooked with crab roe. Both were memorable, but they were soon to be eclipsed by another visual feast.
I rode back towards Hong Kong Island by a circuitous route on board the Aqua Luna, a Chinese junk with red sails that is owned by Hutong’s parent company. The ticket price included a glass of wine, and soon I was leaning on the rail and looking up at the full moon that had made my Star ferry ride so memorable. As I sipped Cabernet Sauvignon I felt like I was drinking in some of the city’s soul. This small cruise is not to be missed, especially on an evening when the skies are clear.
After a sound sleep and an excellent breakfast at The Cosmo I was back in the hunt and on my way to Hollywood Road, home to Hong Kong’s antique district and a host of tea shops. I arrived at the Hollywood Tea Gallery in search of refreshment and found plenty. The charming proprietor sat me down on a low antique bench in front of a scarred table and let me sample four different teas. She recommended a mix of ginseng and oolong. It was delicious and made every corner of my mouth come alive. For less than $40 I left with a 10-piece porcelain tea set and enough ginseng tea to last me through Seoul’s long winter.
I like to play chess and I was in need of a chess set. Just below the tea shop there were a series of alleyways called the Lascar Levels, that descended via staircases to the streets of Central. Each was packed with antique stores and some alleys had a European flavor that reminded me of Tuscan hill towns, with small cafes tucked away alongside a patio that boasted a small set of tables and large umbrellas.
On one of these terraced treasure troves I found a shop that was packed with beautiful pieces. Nothing was truly an antique, they were copies, but none the worse for that. Handing over less than $50 I walked away with a chess set that had been carved from soft stone, all contained within a beautifully decorated box. Once more I felt like a thief. For the price of dinner I had purchased something I will want to keep forever.
In my remaining hours I visited the Anna Ning gallery and saw some vibrant art by the new wave of Hong Kong-based painters; I ate at Happy Valley’s Dim Sum on Sing Woo Road, one of the city’s most famous restaurants and, by all accounts, the best in Hong Kong for dim sum; I rummaged for terracotta figures in antique shops where sunshine sparkled through the dust; and I had my feet massaged at the Foot Joy Club in Wan Chai ― the establishment’s name says everything one needs to know.
During my short visit I had experienced so much of what makes Hong Kong such an incredible city. In balmy weather, typical for this time of year, I had found a tranquil metropolis that left me craving another visit. For those seeking a break from the Korean winter, this is the trip to take.
Some essential details
Korean Air offers regular daily service to Hong Kong. Return fares begin at 500,000 won ($532) excluding taxes. www.koreanair.com
Cosmo Hotel, 375 Queen’s Road East, Wan Chai, Hong Kong. The inexpensive rates change daily. (852) 3552 8388 www.cosmohotel.com.hk.
ye shanghai, Level 3, Pacific Place, Hong Kong (852) 2918-9833
Hutong, 28th floor, One Peking Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong (852) 3428 8342, www.aqua.co.hk
Dim Sum 63 Sing Woo Road, Happy Valley, Hong Kong (852) 2834 8893.
Foot Joy Club, Ground Floor, Cosmopolitan Hotel, 387 Queen’s Road East, Wan Chai, Hong Kong. (852) 2838-8176.
Anna Ning Fine Art, Room 101, St. George’s Building, 2 Ice House Street, Central Hong Kong (852) 2521-319 www.annalingfineart.com.
Hollywood Tea Gallery, 149 Hollywood Road, (852) 2815-5282
by Daniel Jeffreys