The way lay up a scrub-covered hill, the odd bauhinia in flower poking through the bushes. Below us was a bay, in which rode a few moored boats. A placid looking residential development sat at the far end of the prospect, peaceful blue hills rising up behind. We climbed further to the accompaniment of birdsong, passing occasional bunches of walkers taking photos. At the top was a rock, on which posed a yogini pulling an asana against the backdrop of the South China Sea. Her attendant photographer was already at her feet, peeling off memories that would decorate her followers’ feeds for at least 24 hours. The path down ended at the beach we could now see.
Fishing eagles rode thermals they shared with paragliders. There was a complete absence of traffic noise. We were actually smiling at our fellow hikers, even the yogini and her posse. Shek-O lay below us to one side, Tai Tam to the other. Little islands jutted out of the sea and, in the distance, a big ship came steaming out of the harbour the hills concealed from our view.
We were in Hong Kong, of course. But it wasn’t at all what I’d expected.
Hong Kong and I go way back. Which is to say, I visited twice in the mid-1980s, and then never again till this year. In ‘my’ time, what I remember:
That approach into Kai Tak airport (of course). The address in Cantonese of my uncle’s place in Pok Fu Lam. Shopping in bustling Stanley market, gawping at the huge buildings in Central, trying to tell a Cantonese-speaking cabbie how to get home. At night, the big sky ablaze with neon lights. When it all got a bit much, sailing in my uncle’s boat to the nearby islands, and falling into Aberdeen Harbour (which in those days was approximately akin to taking a bath in the Yamuna in Delhi. In a word, inadvisable).
In my memory, Hong Kong is a magical place, with Western amenities, yet not of the West. It seemed then to be the closest thing to what we could achieve, if only we knew how. The thought of Hong Kong, its mad history, remained a constant in my life. I inhaled stories of it, from its pirates to its trader tycoons. Its energy, its very buzz, so apparent to a preteen, is what I took away with me. The plan was to go live there, once I was old enough.
Life had other plans, of course.
When I returned this spring, I expected the energy, which is still there. But this serenity, these views and happy hikers and no honking cars?
What happened while I was away?
I should point out that I climbed the Dragon’s Back—as this hike is poetically called—in a mildly hungover state. The night before had been spent conducting research (you think the Where to Eat and Drink section writes itself?). I’d been chasing the perfect Old Fashioned across the Island, occasionally missing my footing and falling into a puddle of vodka and sake.
Being out in the open was the perfect antidote. It seemed incredible to me that the heaving street scene of Soho was only a few metro stops away, on this ‘little’ Island where the scarcity of space makes it one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world. This is one of the great paradoxes of Hong Kong—it is at once an über-city, a metropolis defined by the manic energy that comes from putting millions of people in close proximity to each other; yet also home to places like Dragon’s Back, spaces where the citizens can breathe.
It isn’t just the green expanses of Hong Kong that will surprise you. In the shade of the big buildings lie older neighbourhoods that repay closer inspection. Centre yourself around Hollywood Road on the Island and walk from Central to Sheung Wan, which is where the city’s British history began in the 1840s. The streets bear the imprint of their history. At one end is Tai Kwun, where the Central Police Compound used to be, and the Magistracy. Now it is a lovingly restored space, with tony restaurants occupying the old barracks, overlooking a square over which an ancient mango tree still looms. Behind the barracks is an old jail, which has been preserved in its original configuration. A museum sits above and behind the square.
As you wander down the hill, look up every now and then; ancient banyans shade you from the prying eyes of those in the apartments crowding the skies. Aged men and women wander past, walking their dogs. In keeping with that laidback vibe is PMQ. Originally the quarters of married policemen, it is now an art hub, a quiet refuge above the bustle of Central.
Down the road is the Man Mo temple, built in 1847, a super example of Chinese religious architecture. Devotees mingle among the tourists; be respectful as you click away. Look at the alleys that run up and down the main drag. You’ll see a lot of ‘public’ art, walls and parapets that have been utilised by local artists to make their views known. It is illegal, strictly speaking, but the locals take great pride in them.
Stop in any one of the many cafés, and bring your drink out to sip on the street. Pottinger Street and others like it are close by, selling old communist memorabilia, brass doodads, semi-naughty playing cards and the like. There are fancier art galleries and antique stores. Hipsters would never go in there, of course, but up the hill a bit are quiet streets with little bars and restaurants between chic stores that wouldn’t dream of advertising. This place is a mix of old and new Hong Kong, and there isn’t a mall in sight, thankfully.
If you’re thirsty after all the walking, have a drink—you’re in Soho now. Or make your way down to the water, by the Hong Kong Observation Wheel. The ‘junk’ Aqua Luna picks up passengers there. The ride evokes the old maritime history of this place—Aqua Luna’s Cantonese name is Cheung Po Tsai, of whom more later—by taking you around Victoria Harbour. Is there a better place to get a sundowner?
Cheung Chau is a very different neighbourhood because it’s an entirely different island. You have to take a ferry there. Because motorised traffic is banned, it’s remarkably clean and quiet. You either hire a bike or tricycle, or you walk.
Or you can hire a local sampan man to take you in his boat to one of the Island’s top draws, the treasure cave of the remarkable pirate captain Cheung Po Tsai, who owned these waters in the early 19th century. The cave itself is tiny, a dark little hole where you can touch the walls to either side. But the story is fun, and the setting quite lovely. Think trees in bloom, soaring marine birds, and a complete lack of noise (again). Cheung Chau sits on the main sea lane between Macao and Hong Kong in the Pearl River Delta, which was the artery to Guangzhou (or Canton, as the English knew it then). You can see why the old pirate made such a good living.
Cheung Chau is home to an old fishing community. Now, tourism is a big part of the economy, and old and new come together on the main promenade, where visitors sit by the harbour eating seafood. It is pleasant and markedly less expensive than the city. At one end of the promenade is the atmospheric Pak Tai temple, home to a Taoist deity propitiated by the locals for good catches and their safety while at sea. A short walk through the neat little village brings you to the beach at the other side of the island. When I visited, it was still quite cool and windy, but when the weather is nice, it must be absolutely lovely.
The size of this place; the approachability of it and the absence of glitz, make for a really charming experience. Some locals rent vacation homes to Hong Kong types who long for a break from the city. When you’re by the quiet little harbour, watching the old people walking up and down with their grandkids, it is easy to see why.
Sham Shui Po was my last stop in Hong Kong. It is in Kowloon, a few stations away from the malls and hotels on the waterfront, but a world removed. This used to be the heart of working-class Hong Kong, infamous for its ‘cage’ homes and red-light district. Now, as everywhere else, it is gentrifying rapidly, but it still retains its ‘mohalla’ air.
The old markets spill over into the street, with fabric, clothes and gadgets being sold in their own niches. There is even a toy market, while Apliu Street has everything you’ll need in the electronic way, including parts for old analogue stereo equipment. One superb old shop sells clothes, luggage, even toy cars, but every last thing is made of paper. When a loved one passes on, or when you need to remember them, you burn these ‘necessities’ so they will accompany them into the afterlife. Stores such as this, tucked in between motor repair stores and the like, are a far cry from the Hong Kong you’d normally see. The rents are too high everywhere else.
That other Hong Kong obsession, food, is catered for as well. Again, this addresses a need that more expensive parts of Hong Kong can’t meet. Small vendors have been priced out of most of the zones tourists normally see. But here, catering to a mostly local, very knowledgeable clientele, are old speciality stores, including at least one Michelin-rated tofu vendor, while a store selling traditional Cantonese sweets has customers patiently waiting in line.
Mak Kwai Pui couldn’t have put the flagship outlet of his iconic dim sum chain, Tim Ho Wan, in a better place. Chef Mak is an affable man, who wears his Michelin star lightly. He spoke of his humble origin, passing lightly over his apprenticeship at the fabled Lung King Heen at the Four Seasons. (The story goes that the cost of one plate of dumplings there covers an entire meal at Tim Ho Wan.) The agreeably tatty surroundings, the queue outside, the waiters shouting orders at the cooks—Tim Ho Wan is ‘down home’ in the nicest possible way. That the food is outstanding in a completely unfussy way completes the story.
I left for the airport from Sham Shui Po. It seemed a good way to end my journey. I had no interest in shopping and didn’t want to go to Disney World. I’d come to get the pulse of a place I’d loved from afar yet thought I still knew.
The things I’d seen aren’t unknown by any means. But if you have the time, ride a ferry to the outer islands, or walk one of Hong Kong’s many peaceful trails. Or even just wander down a street in this most beguiling of cities, just letting all that history wash over you. It really is quite something.
Hong Kong is well connected to India. Cathay Pacific provides a regular direct service from New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Hyderabad. Air India and Spicejet fly direct between New Delhi and Hong Kong. Indigo flies direct from Bengaluru.
Hong Kong has a super metro system, which is well-marked in English, and extends all over Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories. If you’re there more than a few days, invest in an Octopus card. Once you’ve loaded money on it, you can flash it to pay for travel on buses, trains, trams, ferries and the like. In addition, lots of vendors accept it for food, shopping, etc, so you always have a safe cash backup in your pocket.
Taxis can be a bit painful, as the drivers don’t always speak English. Uber isn’t ‘quite’ legal yet; it exists, but its service can be patchy.
On the Island, the tram is a good way to get a feel for the bustle of the city. The thoroughly modern trams do a nice job of evoking the old-time feel of the service. Try the Tramoramic tour. The route lies through some of the busiest parts, through the big towers that define the skyline, and then the party district of Wanchai, and even around the racecourse at Happy Valley on a branch line.
A ride on the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour is recommended for nostalgia junkies, and those visiting when the weather is nice. Most of the outer islands (including Cheung Chau) are accessible only by ferry. They operate from the Island, from the Central Ferries Pier.
If you’re a hiker and/or a cyclist, Hong Kong has well-marked trails you can explore. The Hong Kong Tourism website has a trove of stuff to do while you’re here, and it is easy to navigate. Outdoor activities are listed as well.
Where To Stay
I stayed at the Hotel Madera Hong Kong (June tariff from approx. HKD800 to HKD 1,400) in the Jordan area of Kowloon. It is well situated (the Jordan MTR is a five-minute walk) and comfortable, and the area around is perfect for wandering about. Friendly service, and superb suites; the normal rooms are a bit basic though. There are fantastic views from the rooftop bar. There is also a Madera Hollywood in the Soho area.
Depending on your preference (and loyalty card), Hong Kong has the full range of chain hotels.
Where To Eat & Drink
On the Island, Madame Fu has taken over a full floor in the beautifully renovated Tai Kwun. The food is good, but the real star is the space, a collection of immersive themed rooms that lead off a balcony that seems to stretch for miles. Expect beautiful lamps, lots of art (some of it for sale), and the sort of curatorial attention to detail that includes a floral expert on staff. Statement lunch or dinner? Look no further.
Mott 32 is also wonderful, housed within the Standard Chartered building in Central. As its location suggests, it is spend-y, but worth it for a splurge to celebrate an anniversary or other occasion. The food is a modern take on Cantonese cuisine, with cocktails, a solid wine list, and a design ethos that’s heavy on atmosphere. The loos are worth a look too. And they’re good about children.
Ho Lee Fook in Soho is just as atmospheric, but a lot cheaper, and will have you party much harder and later. Great service too. Just up the road is their sister restaurant Hotal Colombo, which takes its inspiration from Sri Lankan canteens. It is small, but the food is delicious, and Chef Gizzy and her crew will make you welcome quickly.
Down a bit is Slide on 79 with good cocktails, comfort food, and a convivial after-work crowd to relax with. Around the corner is Quinary, which is the place if you’re the sort who craves smoked cocktails and the like. In Wanchai, the award-winning Daarukhana will quell your homesickness and suggest ways in which ‘modern’ Indian restaurants can be both authentic and fun. If speakeasies are your thing, the aptly named PDT (Please Don’t Tell, naturally; not that I’m telling you) at the The Landmark, Mandarin Oriental, is fun. Provided you can get in. If you want a floating drink, look no further than Aqua Luna, a ‘junk’ that cruises around Victoria Harbour.
Nan Hai No. 1 is an upscale seafood place in the Cantonese style in Kowloon, with a popular terrace with superb views of the harbour and the city. Also in Kowloon is dim sum standout Tim Ho Wan. Go to the Sham Shui Po site for the ‘original’ neighbourhood flavour(the real original site closed down some time ago). Michelin-Starred restaurants don’t get any less pretentious (or cheaper) than this.