Hong Kong may welcome over 44 million overnight visitors each year, more than any other city in the world, but it really only has a handful of obvious attractions. Whizz across the harbour on the Star Ferry, ride the 120-year-old funicular to Victoria Peak for that vertiginous shot of the city, take a jolly over to Lantau Island to marvel at Big Buddha and lose all your inhibitions on a ruinous night out — an unforgettable few days. Yet Hong Kong is far from a one-trip wonder. As one of the most populous places in the world, it boasts inventive architecture, sociable public spaces and tight-knit neighbourhoods. And Hong Kong’s obsession with eating means that wherever you wander you’re bound to find fantastic food.
At 25p a ride, Hong Kong’s charming old trams, which rattle east to west across the length of the island, have got to be one of the world’s best-value tourist attractions. Most visitors hop on somewhere around Central, to gawp through the wooden windows as they pass Sir Norman Foster’s HSBC Building, I.M. Pei’s Bank of China Tower and the colonial-era Old Supreme Court, before hopping off 10 minutes later to get lost in the shops around Wan Chai or Causeway Bay.
Continue riding the rails east along King’s Road, however, and a grittier, noisier even more colourful version of Hong Kong emerges. Locals haggling over fruit and vegetables; piles of £1 tops and T-shirts spilling onto the pavement; flashing foot-shaped neon advertising reflexology parlours; street cobblers and key cutters; and speciality shops selling everything from spanners to phone covers. Apartment blocks are of the old-school variety — brightly coloured with washing hanging out of the windows on bamboo poles, reminiscent of the Hong Kong I grew up in some 30 years ago.
There are two tram routes heading east. The North Point tram ends at Chun Yeung Street, a hyperactive wet market where baskets and boxes have to be lugged off the tracks to allow the trams to clunk past. Alight here then wander down to the waterfront and along the pretty Quarry Bay Promenade for super city views without the crowds. Tack back to King’s Road and pick up the Shau Kei Wan tram to the ‘Monster Building’ at 1026 King’s Road. Built as public housing in the 1960s, this gargantuan E-shaped edifice, which featured in Michael Bay’s 2014 Transformers: Age of Extinction, looks like a humongous game of Tetris.
And there are plenty of fantastic, reasonably priced places to eat en route, too. Fuel up at Michelin-starred dim sum specialist Tim Ho Wan where baskets of prawn dumplings, barbecue pork buns and fried turnip cake come in at just a few pounds a pop — but expect to queue. Try juicy, crispy roast goose at Heping Restaurant, moreish fried rice noodles topped with silky beef at Mui Fa Chuen (2-8A Tsat Tsz Mui Road), or garlicky black ink squid washed down with Tsingtao beer, before having a boogie to some Canto-pop, at rowdy Tung Po (99 Java Road). Leave space for some airy egg puffs at Lee Keung Kee (76 Shau Kei Wan Main Street East), waffles that you can take to the next level by smearing them with peanut butter, sugar and condensed milk.
Hands on his Speedo-covered hips, Mr Chow stands at the end of the pier, a rickety finger of wooden planks pointing into the South China Sea. Across the water, glowing peacock green in the glorious autumn sunshine, the 108-storey International Commerce Centre stands sentry over Victoria Harbour. Every few minutes a passing tanker, tug boat or ferry churns the water to froth. Mr Chow waits. And waits. And waits some more. He knows when to make his entrance. Toned and tanned, only 80 years old, he’s been swimming here for the past 50 years.
Until recently, Mr Chow and his spring-chicken septuagenarian friends had the bamboo-shrouded Sai Wan Swimming Shed to themselves. Then came the Mass Transit Railway (MTR). The launch of the West Island MTR subway line in late 2014, connecting west coast Kennedy Town — aka K-Town — to the city centre in eight minutes, immediately opened up this working-class neighbourhood to gentrification. Three years on and rents have rocketed, estate agents have pushed out many of the independent shops and ageing wild swimmers share their space with selfie-takers and Pomeranian walkers.
For now, this newly connected version of K-Town simmers nicely between being too local to attract tourists and polished beyond all recognition. Wander its broad streets and you’ll hear the clack of mahjong tiles and the click of laptops, the warbles of Cantonese opera on the radio mixing with the sound of coffee percolators. There are traditional bonesetters, acupuncturists and herbal medicine stores, alongside craft beer specialists, organic cafes and yoga studios. Sure, within the wafts of ginseng, egg tarts and XO sauce, there’s the odd whiff of pretension (what’s a progressive lifestyle platform? A restaurant, apparently), but on the whole, it all feels invitingly cool.
No more so than on weekends when the pavements bubble with brunchers sampling some of Hong Kong’s hippest restaurants. Catch on Catchick Street has whitewashed interiors, wicker lamps and folding doors overlooking the passing trams. The menu evokes a Melbourne cafe; so lots of sunny flavours — think organic eggs, avocado, chorizo, halloumi and stacks of seafood. Then there’s the Praya Waterside Eatery which offers the perfect dose of refined HK living with such homely dishes as porridge with pears and walnuts, sourdough bread topped with mushrooms and poached eggs, and pancakes with whipped butter, lemon and sugar, all served amid woody interiors and terrific views of the tree-lined waterfront.
This sunny little corner of Hong Kong was once a much darker place — it’s the site of the notorious Kowloon Walled City, around six acres of land which, due to a quirk in history, fell outside the jurisdiction of both British and Chinese law. A hotbed of criminal activity and a haven for illegal immigrants, over the years one building after another — most without foundations or running water — squeezed inside its old stone ramparts, filling every gap, covering every path and road, until its anarchic architecture housed more than 33,000 residents.
Demolished almost 25 years ago and replaced with a jogging, cycling and a tai chi-friendly park, all that remains are a couple of the original granite entrance plaques and a wing-tipped yamen (an Imperial government administration hall) with a few fun interactive displays on the Walled City’s extraordinary history. Entry is free and it’s worth 20 minutes of your time. Nowadays, though, this low-rise neighbourhood — a colourful melange of locals Indians, Thais and Indonesians — is best known for its fabulous food.
Pull on clothing with an elasticated waistband and head to Islam Food on Lung Kong Road, a Formica-covered eatery that’s been serving up aromatic Chinese Muslim Uighur dishes for around half a century. From its eight-page menu choose veal goulash served in a crisp, glistening patty (which squirts when you bite into it); the chicken sesame, served cold with an unappealing-looking yellow skin but packed with a heavenly rich buttery flavour; the light, flaky, cardamom-spiced mutton spring rolls; the satisfyingly salty pot pan scallions; and a beef brisket curry, so tender it falls apart between your chopsticks. Afterwards, walk to Prince Edward Road for some peach-, rose- or green tea-flavoured jelly at Golden Hall Dessert (6 South Wall Road).
The area’s Thai food is one of the top draws. Swing by trendy Chao Phraya (19 Lung Kong Road) for fried pumpkin curry with soft-shell crab. Or hit the deafening Kowloon City Wet Market (102 Nga Tsin Wai Road). Downstairs, butchers in white plastic boots and aprons haul halved cows onto hooks, seafood is plucked from tanks and weighed on hanging scales, with payments thrown into hanging red plastic buckets used as tills. Upstairs, meanwhile, in the Cooked Food Centre, Amporn Thai’s lettuce-wrapped mincemeat and chilli-coated red snapper sashimi has queues forming outside the door every night. Need a lie down? The neighbourhood is also packed with Thai massage joints, with a one-hour rub down costing less than £20.
When in Hong Kong
End a day of pounding the streets by sinking your body into a soft armchair and your feet into a bucket of hot herbal water. Regulated massage studios are on almost every corner — look for signs with flashing neon feet.
Green & clean
Although Hong Kong may be best known for its skyscrapers, more than 70% of its land is dedicated green space. Among the sensational hiking options is the stunning MacLehose Trail.
Kung Fu fix
The Bruce Lee exhibition at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum (until 20 July 2018) is well worth the journey to Sha Tin. Exhibits include the iconic Game of Death yellow jumpsuit.
A night at the gee-gees
One of Hong Kong’s best-loved institutions, Happy Valley horse racing takes place every Wednesday evening, September-July, and entry is just HK$10 (£1).
Because I’m happy
Happy hours are a big deal in boozy Hong Kong — you’ll find special offers everywhere from five-star hotels to rooftop bars and nightclubs every night of the week.
How to do dim sum
Dim sum is served for breakfast and lunch, although you can find the odd late-night spot such as Dim Dim Sum in Wan Chai. Order by ticking a menu card at your table then pay at the cashier desk when you leave.
Published in the March 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)