Imagine the bustling streets of New York, then times it by ten. Add a dash of Chinese culture, a wallop of nature and half dozen fish balls that don’t actually contain any fish, and you have the beautiful city that is Hong Kong.
At 7.2 million people, Hong Kong is a dynamic city with an incredible history, towering skyscrapers and a unique mix of English and Chinese that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. While Hong Kong has existed for a millennium, it was officially founded in 1842 to solidify a truce between Great Britain and the Qing dynasty of China during the First Opium War. A decade after the British took control of Hong Kong, the Black Death swept into China, killing hundreds of thousands of people. It would remain part of Hong Kong’s life for a century.
During World War II, Hong Kong was captured by the Japanese. For three years and eight months the British-Chinese culture of the city was destroyed, replaced with Japanese text, language and art. The booming city of 1.6 million people was slashed to only 600,000. Japanese occupation was incredibly harsh for the Hongkongese, being the darkest part of their history. Japan ceased occupation on August 6th, 1945, in response to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For forty-two more years, Hong Kong was controlled by the British, with the reunification between Hong Kong and mainland China finally occurring in 1997.
If you’re planning a trip to Hong Kong, you won’t have much trouble getting around. It’s a gorgeous, friendly city with a lot to see and a lot to do. Traveling to Hong Kong would be similar to traveling to any big city, like London, New York, or Paris, but there are a few things you should keep in mind before visiting The Gateway to China.
It would be easy to mistake Hong Kong as being just another Chinese city, but in reality Hong Kong is still very much British. Streets throughout the city have a mix of English and Chinese names, such as Jordan Road, Salisbury Road, Portland Street, Cheong Wan Road, Tak Hing Street, and Lung Wo Road.
Shopkeepers are fluent in Mandarin and English, and youth are often very excited to practice on Westerners. In fact, four times while in Hong Kong I was stopped by somebody wanting to chit-chat and take my picture. If you ever get lost, just wave down a local or drop by a shop. There is a good chance whoever you meet can tell you exactly what you need to know.
Watch Out For Ghosts
Hong Kong has seen its fair share of darkness over its lifetime, from the Black Death to the Japanese Occupation to the hauntingly chaotic Kowloon Walled City. Being a city based on Chinese spiritualism and Victorian Era’s love for the macabre, Hong Kong has plenty of ghosts – many which are not friendly. Unlike the Casper we all know in love in the West, Hong Kong’s ghosts are hungry, aggressive, and lonely enough to attach themselves to an unaware victim. Smoke drifts through many streets of Hong Kong, soothing the lost spirits that linger throughout the skyscrapers and honking traffic. Photography of these areas is culturally frowned upon, as it might be dangerous for the photographer if they caught any spirits on film.
The Temple of One Hundred Names, which is lined with hundreds of stone tablets, is one of the places these spirits can find peace. The temple was created to sooth the spirits of over 200,000 victims of the Black Death. There are many other places throughout Hong Kong where the spirits reside, so tread carefully: you might not be alone.
Prepare to Eat and Shop
China is home to high demand and low prices, and Hong Kong is no different. One Hong Kong dollar is equivalent to seventeen Canadian cents, or thirteen American cents. Delicacies such as fish balls (sugarless donuts), pickled snake, window hung fried chicken, fresh fruit and vegetables and ice cream sundaes are all part of the local cuisine.
For shopping, there is the world renowned Jade Market, along with dozens of custom tailor stores. At night, many tailors approached me and wanted to sell me cheap, custom suits. If you’re looking to spruce up your wardrobe, Hong Kong is the place to do it. Be warry about handing out your phone number though: occasionally I still get calls from the tailors asking about suits, even though it’s been over two years.
Plenty of Parks
While Hong Kong may be home to 7.2 million people, the majority of the city and surrounding area are islands, forests and parks. Being said, Hong Kong is home to the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, Hong Kong Park, Kowloon Park, Lamma Island and the New Territories, which consists of mostly uninhabited forests.
Lantau Island is home to Hong Kong Disneyland, the smallest Disneyland in the world. Unfortunately, it is believed that within a few years this Disneyland will be forced to close due to another one opening up near Shanghai. Along with Disneyland, Hong Kong Island is home to Ocean Park, a marine mammal amusement park.
Hong Kong has some of the most breathtaking views I have ever seen, with Victoria Peak being the most famous. Victoria Peak can be climbed one of two ways – either by tram, or by foot. While accessing the tram might be easier, the queue usually lasts for hours, so climbing the mountain might actually be faster. The view from the top is incredible, showing a panoramic view of the city, Victoria Harbor and the adjacent Kowloon. The Peak is home to many restaurants, shops and quirky places to visit. It is one of the most popular places to visit in the city, having over seven million visitors every year.
Lantau Island offers a different kind of view. Away from the noise, the smoke and the neon signs of Hong Kong is Ngong Ping and Tian Tan Buddha, a massive stone Buddha with an upturned hand towards Hong Kong, blessing it. Lantau Island is also home to Tai O, a thousand year old fishing village that has been paralyzed by the recent globalized salt and fishing trading market. Nicknamed "The Venice of the Orient", this poverty stricken village sits along the waterways on stilt houses, with winding, twisting walkways between them, some which are so narrow I could hardly fit through! Being a fishing village, Tai O is also a paradise for cats, for any of you cat lovers out there.
If you want a different view of Hong Kong, you can rent a "junk" – an authentic red sailed fishing vessel, and take a trip out onto Victoria Harbor. Renting a junk is very common and very cheap, costing anywhere from $34 to $135 an hour. You can charter a junk to take you to different islands, or to go out for a swim, or to float through the harbor and watch the spectacular nightly performance, A Symphony of Lights.
While most people associate a higher population with more crime, Hong Kong is actually the opposite, and is recognized globally as the 11th safest city in the world, just one point below New York and three points below Toronto. Being able to speak English with ease, being able to navigate the streets and being surrounded by the Chinese vibe of helpfulness and goodwill makes Hong Kong one of the best places in the world to visit, especially for first time travelers.
Would you ever visit Hong Kong? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments below!
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And, as always, a big thank you to my sweetheart Jessica Nuttall for proof reading a countless number of my articles. I couldn't do any of this without you. I love you.
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