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Conquering Hong Kong isn’t an option, but a game plan will ensure you don’t lose your way
“The thing about Hong Kong is that there’s so much choice,” my friend said one sweltering September afternoon. We were slogging our way through the courtyards of the Bird Market then past the open-fronted shops of the nearby Flower Market before heading to the 100-plus stalls of the Ladies’ Market. “Do you think Hong Kongers are ever overwhelmed?” she asked. It was 35°C without the humidity that day and my clothes were damp with sweat. I was too beaten down by the heat to consider the states of mind of seven million locals, so I ignored her. The question came up again.
“When they’re shopping for shoes,” she persisted a few days later while we were doing just that in the open-‘til-midnight APM Mall. “How do they decide on a pair and not wonder if there are nicer ones in the hundreds of other stores?”
Her concern for the mental health of Hong Kongers was interesting — and maybe warranted. One of China's Special Administrative Regions (or SARs; Macau being the second), the Cantonese-speaking region is the fourth most densely populated “country” in the world. There are 16,000 shops, and 11,000 restaurants for all those people, but that kind of bounty does beg the question, can too much choice make it hard to choose?
And what if you’re one of the 50 million visitors who bustle through Hong Kong every year? How will you choose where to shop or eat or even stay? Here, we look at some options. It won’t help you conquer Hong Kong, but it might stop the compact, already-too-vertical, ever-expanding region from overwhelming you.
STAYI can’t predict the future, but I know what your first question will be when planning your inaugural trip to Hong Kong: “which side is better? Kowloon or Hong Kong Island?”
For now, the Kowloon Peninsula is still grittier than Hong Kong Island with more crowded, open-air stalls for tchotchkes you never knew you wanted than the Island’s bright, glass-and-steel malls and tai tais, or ladies who lunch. Hong Kong higher uppers might agree. In 2011, they announced plans to transform Kowloon East into a second Central Business District, CBD number one being in the Central neighbourhood on the Island.
But Kowloon also has Tsim Sha Tsui and Nathan Road aka the “Golden Mile of Shopping” and the 118-storey International Commerce Centre, the tallest skyscraper in the SAR that’s also Guinness World Record-recognized for its twice nightly light-and-music shows; Hong Kong Island has the oldest colonial building in the region and the double-decker trams that have been ding dinging since 1904. Old and new is everywhere.
The SAR’s 85-station subway system doesn’t make it easier to choose a side. Trains run every two to five minutes with a 99.9 percent on-time rate despite carrying 5.1 million commuters on work days. The world’s 10th-busiest subway system might be the best run — going from peninsula to island is as easy, say, as finding a fake Jimmy Choo handbag.
MDs long hauling it to the SAR for a working vacation might decide where to stay by considering how they want to commute each morning. The Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (HKCEC) is on Victoria Harbour in the Wan Chai neighbourhood on Hong Kong Island. Crashing in Kowloon would mean taking the metro or the Star Ferry, which has been dutifully crossing the Harbour since 1888. The cruise is an easy 10-minute ride with Wan Chai’s Star Ferry Pier next to the HKCEC. Prefer to walk to work? Hong Kong Island it is.
EATOf the 11,000 restaurants in the SAR,I wouldn’t besurprised if 10,999 of them serve dim sum. I ate so many steamed dumplings during my stay, if you poked my belly, I too would’ve “hoo-hooed” like the Pillsbury Doughboy.
Dim sum roughly translates to “touch your heart” and I, being part Chinese, have indeed loved the brunch since I was little. Also eaten for lunch, there can be as many as 150 snack-size items on a menu with up to 2000 in its entire range. The steamed, baked and fried items are always served with tea, which is why the experience, said to originate in the ancient Silk Road teahouses that comforted boned-tired travellers, is also called yum cha or“to drink tea.”
The best dim sum in town is arguably at Lung King Heen (8 Finance Street, Central, Hong Kong Island; fourseasons.com/hongkong) and Tim Ho Wan (five locations; search openrice.com/english/restaurant/index.htm for details).
Lung King Heen was the first Chinese restaurant ever to be awarded three Michelin stars. Kowloon-born-chef Chan Yan Tak, who admits only to being “50-something,” was honoured in 2008 after Red Book inspectors made 12 anonymous visits. Also focussed on seafood, the Cantonese restaurant has upheld the honour for six years.
Lung King Heen or “View of the Dragon” is inside the swanky Four Seasons Hotel. Its floor-to-ceiling windows frame Victoria Harbour and Kowloon or “Nine Dragons” so named for the eight mountains to its north plus the Song Dynasty emperor who named them.
The restaurant’s xiao long bao will also catch your eye — and burn the inside of your mouth if you don’t know how to eat it. The steamed, Shanghainese pork dumplings with crab meat contain a hot broth. I learned to first pick the slippery sucker up with my chopsticks, place it onto my Chinese soup spoon, then poke a hole it with one stick to let the steam out. The spoon caught any liquid that spilled out. I then drizzled the dumpling with some kind of vinegar and voila. No ER doc needed.
Dim sum costs about $60 per person.
Tim Ho Wan is the cheapest (one) Michelin-star restaurant in the world. It costs about $10 per person to eat there. It can take up to two hours to get a table at any of the five locations; I went to the Tim Ho Wan on Fuk Wing Street in Sham Shui Po, the area for cheap electronics. About 1500 people pass through the 110-seat joint a day — including travellers on their way home. When I visited, there was luggage at the door.
Former-Four Seasons-chef and owner Mak Kwai Pui worries about not being able to keep up with appetites. His two dim sum masters and 22 cooks start at 5am each morning; they open their door at 8:30am.
The most popular item on the menu is the baked barbecue-pork bun (about $2.50 for three). It was the best BBQ pork bun I’ve ever had (and I’ve had a lot): crispy on the outside, light and soft on the inside, sweet and yet savoury too.
PLAYAfter you’ve chewed over forking out Michelin-star money or Michelin-star time, dig into Hong Kong’s past.
Completed in 1846, the Flagstaff House is the oldest colonial structure in the SAR. Formerly the home of the commanders of the British Forces in Hong Kong through 1978, the Greek Revival property in Hong Kong Park is now the Museum of Tea Ware (10 Cotton Tree Drive, Central, Hong Kong Island; hk.art.museum; free). Its collection includes 600 pieces: 300 that are porcelain, the rest unadorned Yixing clay, which is unglazed to better capture the colour and fragrance of tea.
The Hong Kong Tourism Board’s free Tea Appreciation Classtakes place Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays between 4 and 5pm next door at the beautiful LockCha Tea House (lockcha.com). In addition to single-harvest, estate tea, it sells lovely cups, pots — and vegetarian dim sum.
I had more tea at Leather 1/1 (2D1, 2/F, Yip Win Factory, 10 Tsun Yip Lane, Kwun Tong, Kowloon; leather1of1.com), a factory space-turned-workshop in Kowloon’s Kwun Tong neighbourhood, which is fast becoming the future. Kwun Tong was an important manufacturing sector before businesses moved to (cheaper) mainland China. Galleries and other creative spaces have embraced the empty warehouses because of the low rent.
Angus and Manho didn’t serve their tea in beautiful glassware like they did at LockCha, but the two twenty-somethings in leather brogues, cropped pants and button-down shirts sweetly set out paper cups before teaching a group of us how to hand stitch — read: no sewing machines — leather pouches. My pouch was the colour of eggplant. Turns out I should stick to my day job.
The price of each workshop depends on the piece you’re making: donut-shaped key chains take three hours and cost $35; Oxford messenger bags take 18 hours and cost $250. Fees include the leather. Their English is limited, but their instructions easy to follow. Call or email to sign up, otherwise just visit to buy a memento like a cool, handmade, leather guitar strap.
Or experience old and new together at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum (1 Man Lam Road, Sha Tin, New Territories; heritagemuseum.gov.hk; adults $1.50).
I tiptoed around glossy ceramics, solid bronze statues and people-sized stonework in its permanent T.T. Tsui Gallery, but felt like wailing out war cries and giving some nunchuks a whirl at Bruce Lee: Kung Fu, Art, Life. Not wanting to get woman-handled by the small, Chinese security guard on the lookout for cameras, I quietly browsed the 600 items instead.
On now through July 20, 2018,the massive exhibit features hundreds of photos, handwritten letters and notes, and equipment and clothing, including Bruce Lee’s protective headgear, black leather boots and the traditional tang suit he wore while training.
I spent an hour studying his reports cards — he was good in bible history and moral science; bad in arithmetic and geometry — manuscripts that detailed the primary freedom of Jeet Kune Do — “the wheel revolves when it is not tightly attached to the axil” — and his letters to Linda. In one from 1971 that he wrote while filming The Big Boss in Thailand, he asked for pictures of her and their two children.
As I walked out of the museum, I overheard a woman saying that she loved the Cantonese Opera Hall. I didn’t even know that was yet another gallery in the same museum. I should have known. In Hong Kong, there are always more options.
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