This was my fourth trip to Hong Kong. In fact, I was here as recently as March 2015. The main reason for repeated visits is that my younger brother, Dan, lives here with his wife, Philippine, and two children – Zara and Louis.
In many ways, it is an incongruous place. It’s very Chinese in feel, but its British legacy looms large. With place names such as Stanley, Aberdeen and Repulse Bay, the hangover from days of empire is clear to see. It’s all down to the opium wars. [I’ll understand if you prefer to skip to the next paragraph if you don’t need the history lesson.] In the mid-19th century, Britain was importing vast quantities of Chinese tea and silk and couldn’t interest its oriental counterparts in anything it had to offer. So, in one of the most callous acts in human trading history, Britain began to get the Chinese hooked on opium imported from India, in order to balance out the tea and silk imports. Needless to say, Chinese officials weren’t impressed by this and a war ensued. Well, two actually. British military might won the day on both occasions and, cutting to the chase, Hong Kong – a bit of Mainland China, known as the New Territories, and a few strategically important islands – was ceded to Britain on a 150-year lease. This came to an end in 1997 when Hong Kong was returned to China.
Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of China, meaning that it has many dispensations from the law of the People’s Republic. This is particularly in relation to its financial services sector, which leaves it free to compete with London and New York.
But what does this all mean for the visitor? Firstly, it’s an incredibly easy place to visit. Some have described it as ‘China-lite’. You will get a sense of Chinese culture, religion, food and etiquette, but in an easily digestible form. Every sign is in Cantonese and English. Hong Kong is also incredibly safe, with exceptionally low crime rates.
So what should you experience if you are visiting? Well, along with some time with my family (Dan has a boat which we went out on a couple of times – great, fast fun) and a university friend of mine, we had slots of time to ourselves. And Jane left it to me to decide what to do. After all, I have done all of the ‘sights’ over the years. So my list consisted of:
1. A taxi ride (taxis are comparatively cheap) to the top of Victoria Peak for the views (don’t bother with the expensive viewing platform … buy a drink at Pacific Coffee for equally good panoramas), followed by a funicular tram ride down. This way round works best as the queue at the bottom is always five times as long as the queue at the top.
2. The Hong Kong Museum of History in Kowloon, although skip the geology and wildlife bit.
3. A cocktail at the Intercontinental hotel in Kowloon as the light is fading and the lights of north Hong Kong island start bursting into life, followed by a trip back across the water on the Star ferry.
4. Contrasting visits to the frenetic and (to western eyes) gaudy Wong Tai Sin temple complex and the serene Chi Lin nunnery.
5. A mooch around Stanley market to pick up a few clothes and gifts.
6. Tailing some Chinese people into a less than salubrious Kowloon restaurant, to get the most authentic Cantonese food.
We did all these and I think Jane ended up with a good sense of the place. And October was a perfect time to visit, with lots of 30 degree sunshine.
I’ll leave the last comment to Jane. “Hong Kong? It’s full on. It’s pretty much what I expected in terms of that cultural mix; and the mid-city neon left me feeling a bit like a rabbit in the headlights at times. But I’ll leave with senses sated: the bustle, the tastes, the sights and sounds—a great place to visit.”
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