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Hong Kong Phooey


Gran and Pops, married 1977I grew up listening to my grandparents’ stories of the cultural paradise of Hong Kong. They have lived there for two decades and had loved every second. Their comparisons with the society I knew in the UK became irritating, but after my grandparents generously treated me to a holiday there in 2007, I began to understand their passion.

Picture the scene; Christmas Day 2007. An aeroplane bound for Hong Kong is populated with screaming babies, snoring overweight British men and freakishly smart Chinese kids pressing 100 buttons a minute on their Nintendos. An unusual choice of date to travel you may think? Believe me, it was certainly not a mutual decision. A brief “Happy Clismas” from the Asian cabin crew was undoubtedly a disappointing celebration for 16-year-old me and my sister Alice, 14. However, all negative feelings were washed away as we landed at Hong Kong International airport (which incidentally is based on a separate tiny island, making the experience of landing all the more thrilling) and we were greeted with millions of twinkling lights, emanating from this enigmatic land.

Gran and Pops, 2008

Barely five minutes after arriving at the stylish Wesley Hotel on the dynamic Hennessey Road our grandparents, Gran and ‘Pops’, together with our father Robert, whisked Alice and I away for our first taste of Hong Kong’s native cuisine. Now I had tried authentic Asian food before as I have relatives in Japan, but nothing quite prepared me for the so-called ‘delicacies’ that were to be placed in front of me; jellyfish (which was in fact quite the opposite of a jelly consistency, ‘gristlyfish’ would be more fitting), shark fin soup and pig’s uterus (yes, really) among others; a dramatic change from my usual Christmas feast. There was a silver lining though when I discovered a love for steamed barbeque pork dumplings, which are every bit as mouth-watering as they sound.

The next morning, after a disturbed jet-lagged sleep, we hazily walked to Stanley Market; a location which, to me, encapsulates the vivacious atmosphere of Hong Kong. The definition of hustle and bustle, this traditional open-air market was right up my street (pardon the pun). Vibrant colours, friendly faces and sweet aromas welcomed us as we ventured through the stalls, selling everything from those freaky waving cat ornaments to elaborate electronics. With more jewellery than Del Boy could ever dream of, it was a teenage girl’s fantasy and I was beaming brighter than the illuminations of the Hong Kong skyline. Previous overseas market experiences have often been uncomfortable due to the overly confrontational traders, but I was pleasantly surprised by the charming locals.

The phrase ‘street food’ is no truer than at Stanley Market. To some people, this custom may seem dirty, disgusting even, but I was fascinated by the enthusiasm of the cooks and the authenticity of the whole concept. The smell of fresh, juicy fish frying right under my nose was simply too much to resist. Even this one part of the Hong Kong lifestyle was such a culture shock; instigating a new maturity within me where I could truly value such a captivating place.

I had visited Japan a couple of years earlier but I found their society to be more like ours in the UK – rigid, controlled, boring. To my mind, Hong Kong was more of a controlled chaos. The gleaming, superbly structured skyscrapers (there are more here than in New York and Tokyo combined) in the westernised Kowloon area, was reminiscent of back home in London, or of any busy wealthy city really. Even so, the disorientation I experienced in Stanley Market was nothing compared to our next destination.

After a peaceful day’s break, it was time to continue our exploration. The trip began with an early morning boat ride to Tai O, a quaint fishing village on Lantau Island. We were awakened with the cool sea breeze blowing in our hair, surrounded by breath-taking scenes, but this was no luxurious day out. Stepping off of the boat, it quickly became apparent that this community had not seen a lot of money. State-of-the-art towers were replaced with wooden shacks balancing on stilts in the sea; diamanté jewellery was substituted with dried puffer fish souvenirs hanging outside of crumbling shop windows. Visitors had no choice but to eat in run-down cafés which were managed purely on a ‘you get what you’re given’ basis (for us it was a peculiar frothy brown gruel). I can imagine that this primitive setting would be a holiday nightmare for many but, for me, it was a complete dream. It was real.

In Asia, it is impossible to escape the impact of the local Buddhists. It is not a religion that I know a great deal about but the impression I had of Buddhism, before my visit, as a reserved and devout community was certainly confirmed in Hong Kong. On a second excursion to Lantau Island, we visited the Tian Tan Buddha statue in the highlands of Ngong Ping. The sculpture was so enormous that I could imagine it coming alive and taking over the world, the stuff of a cartoon film. Pops, the king of all fantastical facts, confirmed my thoughts telling me: ‘The Tian Tan Buddha is the world’s largest seated outdoor bronze Buddha statue.’ Embarrassingly, my grandparents seemed to almost fly up the 260 steps leading to the statue, leaving Alice and I panting behind them much to their amusement.

Arriving back at Heathrow, the last 10 days seemed like a dream. Hong Kong simply must be experienced for it to be fully appreciated, so if you like the sound of an enlightening kingdom bursting with colour and a contagious love of life, then you certainly won’t be disappointed.

The superficial lifestyle that had swamped my teenage years had been substituted by an appreciation of a civilization that truly values the simple things in life. I believe that this experience was pivotal in discovering my inner adult self. My love for Asia was recently rekindled as I have booked a 10-week trip travelling around Indochina.

If I disappear off of the face of the earth and never return, then you know where I’ll be.

The Essentials
When to go: Hong Kong’s sub-tropical climate means that the temperature is mild in winter and hot and humid in the summer. The Autumnal months (Sep-Nov) provide the most comfortable weather conditions with clear, sunny skies and temperatures ranging from 21˚c to 26˚c.
Travel: Flights leave from London Heathrow on a daily basis for around £499 return. Having arrived in Hong Kong, trams are the perfect way of getting around quickly and seeing the sights simultaneously. Also, the Star Ferry, as well as being a landmark of HK, is a fun and convenient way of travelling from Hong Kong Island to the Kowloon area.
Where to stay: The Wesley hotel in the Wan Chai district of Hong Kong Island provided me with clean and modern accommodation in a busy part of the island. You can also find popular deluxe hotel chains such as the Four Seasons, which recently won the 2012 Travellers Choice Relaxation and Spa title with prices starting from £350 per night.
What to see: Personally, I would highly recommend a trip to Lantau Island for an experience of the ‘real’ Hong Kong. However there are plenty of attractions to accommodate everyone’s preferences, from the giant pandas at Ocean Park to historical landmarks like the Clock Tower.
Food and Drink: Street food is a must-try, but if you fancy something a little more formal then Dim Sum at the City Hall is faultless. With a wide variety of traditional dishes from steamed prawn dumplings to sweet egg tarts, and with glamorous waitresses to welcome you in immaculate local dress, even the most fussy of tourists are sure to be impressed. To drink, why not try Chinese tea, which consists partly of the chrysanthemum flower. It is one of the most refreshing drinks you’ll ever try so is ideal for cleansing the palette between dishes.

Fact Box –
A brief background: Hong Kong became a colony of the British Empire after the First Opium War in 1842, but China resumed sovereignty in 1997. With a population of seven million and a land mass of just 426 square miles, the island is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. According to recent estimates, it has also been revealed that Hong Kong has the longest life expectancy of any country in the world, so there’s no need to worry about putting on the pounds on this holiday.

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