SENSORY OVERLOAD – Hong Kong: Asian melting pot of skyscrapers, neon lights and colonial heritage

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words & photos | Aidan Hernandez

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My visit to Hong Kong brought with it the thoughts of cheap electronics, Bruce Lee and Neon Lights, but the city proved to be so much more. Once I got lost in its myriad of narrow streets amongst colonial relics and a multitude of buzzing night markets that sold everything from the latest phone accessory to an exotic bird of some kind, I realised that I was truly in one of the premier cities in the world.

In a mash-up of cultures, in what is a melting pot in the orient, I was overwhelmed and inspired during a short stay in the city back in March as a stopover in my travels through Asia. Hong Kong never prominently featured in my long term travel plans but the more I spoke with other travellers, the more they labelled it as a must-see destination (if only for a few days!). So, I took a small detour and spent a short five-day city break into what I found to be a most peculiar and interesting part of the world.

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Background

I couldn’t say much for the history of the area preceding the colonial ceding to Great Britain in 1842 aside from the fact that Hong Kong was under the rule of Imperial China since 214BC during the Qin Dynasty. The area remained largely unoccupied during the period, eventually serving as a port, naval base as well as a fishing and pearl hunting harbour.

The British East India Company commenced trading with the Chinese around 1699 where the demand for tea fuelled a rapid expansion of trade, with the British resorting to fuel the trade with exports of opium (then opposed by Chinese rule). What was essentially a massive trafficking operation (which by 1825 generated most of the money needed to buy tea) led to the First Opium War which resulted in the British occupying Hong Island in 1841.

The British rule was the foundation to make the territory what it is today, with thousands of Chinese migrants fleeing domestic upheavals in the mainland, settling in the colony. In 1860, after the Second Opium War, the British also gained a Perpetual Lease over the Kowloon Peninsula which led to China leasing the territory (1898) and its surrounding islands to Britain for 99 years.

Japan occupied Hong Kong during WWII and during the three and a half years of occupation, an estimated 10,000 locals were executed with many more residents fleeing to mainland China due to food shortages. After the war, there was a trend of decolonisation sweeping the world, however, Britain kept Hong Kong for strategic reasons where a great population boom in 1949 following the Communist revolution and civil wars saw thousands flee mainland China and return to the city. During this time, it grew into one of the economic powerhouses of the region (known as the ‘Asian Tigers’) and established itself under a Free-Market Democratic System.

In 1984, China and Britain began talks on the future of the region and signed a joint declaration on the conditions under which Hong Kong will revert to the Chinese Rule in 1997. Under the ‘one country, two systems’ formula, Hong Kong became part of the communist-led country while retaining its partially democratic political system for fifty years after the handover.

There have recently been growing concerns within the general public that such democratic freedoms are being eroded by China, with thousands taking to the streets in pro-democracy rallies. Social tension between people of Hong Kong and mainland China has heightened in recent years as the communist superpower imposes more cthe_gibraltar_magazine_october_2016-photos_page_070_image_0002ontrol over the region. Many fear they will lose ground in international markets as a consequence of Chinese integration.

Although Hong Kong still retains its cultural identity to an extent, I couldn’t help the feeling that nearly twenty years after the re-integration into mainland, Beijing has been progressively steamrolling into the territories freedoms. This was my impression when I spoke to some locals who claimed that they were “deprived of their rights to self-determination in 1997”. This scenario struck a chord as made the connection to Gibraltar’s case. One where a proud people hold a strong sense of identity and make a stand for their rights to democracy and freedom of speech.

Getting aroundthe_gibraltar_magazine_october_2016-photos_page_071_image_0002

It is fairly easy to get around the city, the fact that most locals speak perfect English makes the initial culture shock factor of the city almost unnoticeable. Getting around is straightforward and not that expensive, be it on the MTR, tram or bus system, it is worth getting an ‘Octopus Travel Card’ with some credit on it so you can tap in and out of stations – they even work in some supermarkets for that emergency snack along the way!

Hong Kong Island

Strictly not a sight in itself, but a district where I personally found the more interesting vibes when it came to experiencing the last remnants of the British rule. The site of the original British settlement, most street names retain their Britishness, complete with Gloucester Road and Jubilee Street. But, sadly, there seems to be an active Chinese revival where old colonial relics are being bulldozed to make way for more modern architecture. Sure, there are some impressive modern buildings such as the HSBC building, also known as the ‘Robot Building’, which looks like something straight out of Blade Runner and it’s good to hear that thousands demonstrated against the demolition of relics such as the Star Ferry terminal in the past. However, it is clear that since the territory was ceded back to China, there has been a distancing from that colonial past. Nevertheless, this is a buzzing area of the city, boasting double decker trams and traditional Chinese merchant shops juxtaposed with westernised high streets in what is surely one of the most densely populated areas in the world (one above Gibraltar on the rankings!). You will be sure to find something to keep you busy here.

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The Peak

If you had to choose one of the classic sights in the city, Victoria Peak would probably top the list. Do make sure that the weather is decent, as I remember sadly missing out on what is considered to be one of the top cityscapes in the world due to a dense fog – or smog as seems to be prevalent here! Luckily, the recommended way up to the top of the 552m peak is also an experience in itself, so I couldn’t complain. Catch the tram from the terminus just off the Hong Kong Park and you will be rewarded with a trip up some crazy gradients in one of the city’s oldest forms of transport. At the top of The Peak, there are plenty of cafes and ‘tourist-traps’ to keep you busy (aside from the viewing platforms of course) and if you are into the current fitness craze, the 50km Hong Kong hiking trail also starts here; not after a large lunch though!

Star Ferry

Hong Kong is a place with many sides to it and sometimes the voyage between them can be just as memorable. Fair enough, you can probably get by quicker by hopping on to the MTR underground system which is actually quite reasonably priced and efficient when compared to other major cities around the world (TFL I’m looking at you…!). Nothing, however, is more memorable than hopping on to the Star Ferry (established in 1888) from the Victoria harbour (Kowloon) to head over to Hong Kong Island (Central) and admiring what must be one of the most dramatic neon-lit cityscapes in the world: probably the best value boat tour anywhere on Earth!

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Man Mo Temple

Amongst the endless winding streets and steps in the central area (Hollywood Road) lies this must see Taoist temple nestled around a couple of grimy high-rise flats. Now declared a monument, this temple is a tribute to the ‘God of Literature’ (Man) and the ‘God of War’ (Mo). On first entering the complex, you will be greeted to a collage of colour, light and smell as a multitude of lit lanterns and unusual incense coils hang from the ceiling. Locals can be seen paying homage to idols as they burn incense sticks in this really atmospheric, and downright smoky chamber, making it a complete contrast to the hustle and bustle of the financial district nearby. Top photo-taking opportunities abound – although strictly speaking you aren’t allowed-oops!

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Night markets

I love a street market. I find that there is always something interesting to be discovered in the chaos. Hong Kong offers a bizarre variety of markets which come alive in the evenings and something that I would recommend checking out. Temple Street Market in Kowloon may be a place for fake labels and counterfeit goods, but it is definitely one of the liveliest; imagine a Chinatown scene in some B-movie complete with fortune teller stalls and Cantonese street performances and you’ll be right on the mark! For something a bit different, head over to Mong Kok where you can walk through countless shops with bagged and stacked live aquarium fish known as Goldfish Market. The Yuen Po Flower and bird markets carry an array of exotic caged birds captivating you with their song and sharing space with stacks of plants as well as rare orchids – a sensorial overload guaranteed! Wherever you find yourself, you are sure to find a swarming market somewhere along the way with plenty of opportunities to find a treasure!

Giant Buddha – Lantauthe_gibraltar_magazine_october_2016-photos_page_072_image_0004

Run away from the overbuilt madness of the city with a day trip to nearby Lantau Island referred to as the ‘lungs of Hong Kong’ due to its verdant mountainous terrain. The relatively underpopulated island is home to a few small traditional fishing villages such as Tai O and, in complete contrast, a Disneyland!

However, one of the most popular attractions on the island is the 34m high Tian Tan Buddha statue and Po Lin Monastery. It is reachable via the Ngong Ping 360 aerial tramway. The 5.7km-25-minute gondola ride provides beautiful vistas to the South China Sea on a clear day and you can opt to ride on a glass bottomed crystal cabin for that extra wow factor. Once at the Buddhist comthe_gibraltar_magazine_october_2016-photos_page_072_image_0003plex, make your way up 268 steps for a closer view of the iconic bronze statue (world’s largest outdoor Buddha statue) while dodging the countless pilgrims from all over Asia!

The Po Lin (precious Lotus) Monastery is an interesting and colourful piece of architecture complete with its nice gardens and devout monks. This is definitely a good contrast (and respite) to the high-rise overload of the main city.

Day trip to Macau

If you have the time, it is definitely worth spending a day in nearby Macau, 64km to the west of Hong Kong across the Pearl River Delta. Macau was part of the Portuguese Empire since the mid 16th century and was one of the last European colonies remaining in Asia until 1999.

Best known at ‘the Vegas of China’ the Macau special administrative region is where Chinese high rollers flock for a spot of gambling – it actually dwarfs Vegas’ gambling revenues by a considerable margin and it shows. High-rise glitzy casinos with some eclectic designs (peppered with many a jewellery store) dominate the skyline here but beyond this lie some very ‘Mediterranean’ vibes in what is another cultural hotpot.

As I walked through many of the paved streets of Senado Square and narrow alleyways, it actually reminded me a lot of Gibraltar. There was something about the architecture, the wrought iron balconies and the painted wooden window shutters that reminded me of home, and it made for a nice change to all that neon. The most famous monument as you walk up some stone stairways (expect masses of tourists – as in all UNESCO world heritage sites!) are the ruins of the Church of Saint Paul also known as the ‘Gates to Nowhere’. They are the remains of the stone facade of a 17th century catholic church that was burnt down in 1835. It was one of the greatest monuments to christianity in Asia and it’s definitely worth a look.

You will need your passport for this trip, but it is relatively straightforward to get there from Hong Kong Island. Head over to the Hong Kong Macau Ferry terminal and catch the fast TurboJET ferry – which has a regular schedule to get to and from Macau – and in little over an hour you will be munching down on some nice Portuguese Egg Tarts! the_gibraltar_magazine_october_2016-photos_page_073_image_0002

Top tip: make sure that the weather is nice and clear as my experience was marred by heavy fogs which led to a three-hour delay (both ways!) as we lay stuck in the middle of the South China Sea with little more than two-metre visibility!

Flavours

In my opinion you can never immerse yourself in another culture without exploring their culinary habits yourself; you have to taste a culture to understand it and in some ways, many of my highlights while travelling have always revolved around food. Hong Kong is definitely a foodie paradise and it is plain to see out in the streets with many a street food stall, restaurant and food hall busy with locals well into the night.

Cantonese influence on the cuisine is clear. One can readily find the best examples of ‘Siu Mei’ (or roast meats Hong Kong style) including roasted and crispy belly pork, or ‘Char Siu’, or the best versions of the classics roast duck or fragrant chicken. One dish that i had previously not tried before was the Cantonese Congee or savoury rice porridge. This velvety soupy broth is sometimes served with ground pork and tends to be a breakfast staple with locals – definitely a hearty and comforting dish.

Perhaps more than any other dish (or set of dishes) I was looking forward to before getting to Hong Kong was the Dim Sum. Traditionally served with tea, these small morsels of delicately presented fried and steamed food would be wheeled around diners in carts where they could be mixed and matched to your liking. One such place that served the dim sum this way was “Maxims Place’ in Hong Kong Island where the delicately steamed shrimp dumplings (or ‘Har Gau’) and other little tasty dishes served in bamboo steamer baskets, were brought in one after the other and ticked off a list (easily building a considerable tally!)

You can make the pilgrimage to one of the Michelin starred restaurants of the Tim Ho Wan chain, don’t fret, think plastic chairs and cups – this is dubbed as the ‘cheapest Michelin Starred restaurant in the world’. Look around at the locals (and admittedly some tourists) as they wash their chopsticks in bowls of tea and tick away their orders on small pieces of paper! the_gibraltar_magazine_october_2016-photos_page_073_image_0003In a nut shell

However many days you spend in Hong Kong, this metropolis is bound to leave an impression on any visitor, be it with the futuristic skyscrapers set amongst steep gradients or many of the overwhelming shopping experiences to be had, there is truly nothing like it. It is definitely a place of mixed identities and one of those places that needs to be explored to be truly appreciated. Sure, it remains a city of two halves, one marred with political uncertainty and somewhat of a pollution problem, but it remains an intense, culturally unique and certainly a global city. Go ahead, dive into a place that will surely have something to match all tastes – if not, just head over to Macau and gamble your sorrows away!