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Hong Kong High Life

WHEN horse number six, Northern Flyer, galloped slowly past, framed by the twinkling lights of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers and cheered by thousands of Chinese whoops ringing out from the grandstand behind, I felt a wave of relief I had limited my bet to a hundred.

The bay gelding was way behind the eventual winner, but the atmosphere trackside at Hong Kong’s Happy Valley racecourse was at fever pitch as he cantered over the line somewhere in the middle of the pack. I crumpled the betting card in my hand and let it drop to the ground, but I was grinning like the village idiot as I shoved my way through to the bar. Before the race I had been tempted to bet quite a lot more, but because I had resisted the temptation, I was still a thousand dollars up.

I was brought up constantly being told that gambling is a waste of money and I have to admit that when I do have a flutter, I usually end up both out of pocket and miserable. I’d gone along to Happy Valley because I had been told thousands of Hong Kong people flocked there on Wednesday evenings, and Sha Tin on Sundays, to gamble their hard-earned cash. Honestly Mum, it was my journalistic duty to attend. My winnings on the night were the fruit of an old system I learned as a kid, put into action as I traveled to the racecourse on one of Hong Kong’s hugely popular but rickety trams. The betting system is simply called Backing the Horse with the Name you Like Best.

The Hong Kong Jockey Club, which was founded in 1884 and takes all Hong Kong bets, had a turnover of $71bn HKD last season, so I don’t think the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which was founded in 1884 and takes all Hong Kong bets, will rue the loss of $1,000 HKD (about $150) too much.

It costs just $10 to get into Happy Valley, and the minimum bet is $10, but my enjoyment of the experience was priceless. I was caught by the tide of excitement, changing from my guise as the serious writer, reporting from the grandstand, to betting slip-waving racing nut, cheering himself hoarse from the trackside fence, in the time it took to wash down a McDonald’s Big Mac with just one plastic cup of Heineken. Surely people don’t enjoy such free and easy evenings out in other areas of China?

Sovereignty of Hong Kong island and Kowloon, which is Hong Kong’s mainland area and is connected to the island by three tunnels, was handed back to the People’s Republic of China by Britain in 1997 after a 100-year lease on the colony ran out. As I was planning my trip, I wondered: Had I missed the chance to see it at its wealthy best? Before the handover, China agreed to theoretically allow the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region – as it is now officially known – to retain its social, economic and legal systems for 50 years, but the cab driver running me to my hotel seemed quite pissed off when he was telling me life there isn’t as good as it was ten years ago. He was telling me the time to see Hong Kong in all its glory could be running out, because elections are looming in September and is Beijing pressing hard for it to be governed by “patriots” to the Chinese way of life.

Seven million people live in Hong Kong, and the central areas of the island and Kowloon, on the mainland, are full of the fast-paced hustle and bustle that is main attraction of the place. In streets shadowed by tall buildings, people are everywhere, walking, working and talking into their mobile phones. Horn-tooting cars, vans and lorries zip along the city streets and the smell of freshly cooked noodles hangs in the air.

The best place to see Hong Kong in all its capitalist glory is from Victoria Peak, which overlooks the city, 552m above sea level. The views of ‘Asia’s World City’, as it is billed in the airport arrivals lounge, are dizzyingly beautiful in every direction with Victoria Harbour and Kowloon breathtaking as they stretch out ahead of the multitude of skyscrapers. The Peak Tram, which takes you on the return journey, is pulled up the hillside along the track by a thick steel cable at what feels like a 45-degree angle. From the station at the top, which is inside a shopping centre, it is only a few minutes up the hill to the actual peak, where I took out my camera and joined the tourists taking snaps of the skyline from different vantage points.

My five nights were being spent at a hotel in Causeway Bay, which was an amazing place to go shopping, especially at dusk when the roads are closed off to accommodate the shoppers who head there after work. I walked along with thousands and thousands of faces coming towards me. Times Square, a huge shopping centre there, was one of those malls with everything strategically arranged shops meaning clothing, lifestyle products and electrical goods outlets were situated on the same levels. The young and hip were at Island Beverly, a tightly packed shopping centre with narrow walkways with stalls selling the latest clothes and accessories from local designers. In the Admiralty district, there is another huge, bedazzling shopping centre, Pacific Place, where the fashion boutiques of all the top European designers can be found. Pacific Place, which you can get to from the Admiralty subway station, is not far from Hong Kong’s financial centre, and I thought to myself you’d need to be a top earning broker to be able to afford to shop there regularly.

From Pacific Place, I took an escalator leading up to Hong Kong Park, one of the few places of open space and tranquility I found in the city. As well as an aviary, it has lots of streams, lakes and fountains nestling in between the acres of tropical vegetation. As I walked through, there were at least two just-married couples having their wedding pictures taken, and it seemed to be a popular spot for the city workers to sit and eat their lunch.

After soaking my tired and aching feet in the bath in my hotel room, I decided it was time for a few beers, and I headed up to the island’s SoHo district, which I had been told was the place to find trendy and lively bars. It’s a good walk halfway up the hill from the harbour, so I used the famous, 800m long, public escalator which snakes through the streets. The barman in my hotel told me the escalator was built to encourage expatriates living in the mid-levels to leave their cars at home and walk to work, but he added that it had only worked for a couple of weeks and then the the city became just as gridlocked than ever. I ended up in a lively yet cool bar called Nu, where I got a comfortable seat and chatted to some friendly American revelers over a few bottles of Heineken.

I used the ferry to get back and forth between Hong Kong and the mainland. The Kowloon terminal is in Tsim Sha Tsui, a vibrant shopping district where electrical goods can be bought cheap, tailors will fit you for custom made clothes and DVDs are sold for the equivalent of just a few dollars. Tsim Sha Tsui is a labyrinth of crowded, neon-lit streets and is also home to the famous Chungking Mansions area, a section of streets full of budget guesthouses, shops and late-night strip bars, which is brimming with backpackers.

For culture vultures, Hong Kong’s cultural centre, museum of art and museum of history in Kowloon are all well worth a visit. The history museum tells the story of how Hong Kong was ceded to Britain at the end of the 19th century after the Opium Wars, when China had tried to stop British traders using the port to flood the country with Bengalese opium in exchange for tea and silk.

The cultural centre and art museum, which regularly exhibits collections by local artists, are situated on the Kowloon waterfront opposite Hong Kong’s historic Peninsula Hotel. Non-residents are welcome to call into the hotel for afternoon tea, although smart casual dress is a must. After sipping down a refreshing pot of tea in beautiful surroundings, I walked along the nearby Waterfront Promenade, which offers great views of Hong Kong’s islands skyscraper skyline, especially at dusk.

Not many cities have peace, quiet and fresh air as close at hand as Hong Kong. On the Southern side of the island, just 20 minutes away from the central finance district by bus, are places like Repulse Bay and Stanley. Here, the South China Sea laps the shores, there are hardly any cars around and people stroll rather than rushing about.

I took a bus to Aberdeen from Hong Kong’s central station and decided to charter a sampan for an eye-opening 30-minute tour of the harbour, which is home to thousands of people living on their boats as well as the famous floating restaurants. After a walk around Aberdeen, I caught a minibus to Repulse Bay, a beautiful beach resort to which many locals head at weekends, and on the way I was treated to some of the most breathtaking coastal scenery I have ever seen. Southern Hong Kong is surrounded by hundreds of small, uninhabited islands, some little more than rocks, which jut out of the glistening South China Sea. I had a sudden urge to take a dip, and moments after the bus pulled up at Repulse Bay beach I was in my boardies, running to the shore and throwing myself in the water.

After an hour swimming and sitting in the sun, I boarded another bus for the short ride to Stanley Market. The market has hundreds of little stalls full of bargains and it was nice to be able to stroll around the stalls at leisure, looking for gifts for the family.

Learning how to get around on Hong Kong’s inexpensive public transport system is brilliant fun, and even if money isn’t an issue, a bus or a tram will often cut through the gridlocked traffic quicker than a taxi could. Hong Kong also has a very busy, state-of-the-art subway system called the Mass Transit Railway, which serves the northern side of Hong Kong island and most of Kowloon, to which it is linked by a tunnel under the bay. One day unlimited tourist passes are available so you don’t have to keep going to the ticket machine, although you will need your passport when buying one at a station.

Hong Kong’s rickety trams, which have been around since 1904 and run day and night across the north of the island, are very cheap and very popular. One of the best ways to see Hong Kong is from the front seat on the top deck with the window down, but at times, you are lucky to be able to squeeze on a packed tram at all. Hong Kong’s bus services cover the whole island, and buses run regularly out of Central bus station, along with the minibuses, which cris-cross Hong Kong’s more obscure routes and seem to get to their destination in rapid time. As a local sitting next to me on a minibus pointed out, traffic lights mustn’t apply to them.

The Star ferries will take you to Kowloon and back for  $2 HKD (About 40c) each way. The old green ferryboats, which have open sides, offer great views of Hong Kong island and Kowloon from sea level.

Navigating the mazes of streets and alleyways on foot, both on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, I found myself regularly stopped by salesmen and politely offered the chance to buy a suit, or invited into Cantonese food bars where there wasn’t an English word on the menu. People are invariably friendly, unlike London or New York, where people seem to avoid speaking to each other.

China’s monument to the reunification is the Hong Kong conference and exhibition centre, which stands on a point jutting out into the harbour at the island’s Wan Chai district. Outside, on Expo Promenade, the impressive Reunification Monument and the beautiful Golden Bauhinia glisten in the sun. The centre, which was opened in time for the handing back ceremony, has a huge aluminium roof designed to capture the rhythm and delicacy of a seabird’s wing. The centre also boasts the world’s tallest glass wall, which opens onto fantastic views of Victoria Harbour. 

It’s a beautiful, modern expensive-looking building and seems to reflect Hong Kong’s capitalist heritage. I just hope if Patriots, as the taxi driver called them, get the vote, they can see its unique value.

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