Note: I’ve put up nearly all of my Hong Kong photos in a public album on Facebook.
The view of Hong Kong’s skyline from the 29th floor of a Kowloon skyscraper is almost enough to distract a man from his crispy glazed eel, fish skin salad, and lamb dumplings.
On my way to Hong Kong, I flew through San Francisco and enjoyed an aerial view of the Golden Gate Bridge, probably the most beloved piece of architecture in America. What we love about the Golden Gate (and I’m stealing this idea from Christopher Alexander) is not just the bridge itself, but the fact that it takes an already beautiful natural landscape and improves it.
Fifteen hours later, I swiped my Octopus card and stepped onto the Star Ferry.
The Star Ferry carries passengers across Victoria Harbor, between Hong Kong Island (think Manhattan) and the Kowloon peninsula (Brooklyn). Locals say “Hong Kong side” and “Kowloon side.” The ride takes five minutes, a ticket costs about 30 cents, and you will absolutely freak.
Recipe for a world-class skyline: Take one island. Add at least a million people. Add money. Bake a few decades.
That’s how you build New York, Singapore, or Vancouver. Okay, downtown Vancouver is a peninsula, but a peninsula is just an island with codependency issues. It’s also how you build Hong Kong, and even if you’ve lived in the city your whole life and slaver over skyline photos like centerfolds, you’ve never seen anything like Hong Kong Island. Its north shore is as exuberantly vertical as Yao Ming, and after fourteen hours of airplane food, it looks not unlike a waiter holding up the city on a platter.
So I wandered, hungry, through the nighttime streets of Kowloon. I passed a Disney-like courtyard featuring a massive statue of a teddy bear. Hong Kong has a predilection for ostentatious and aggressively cute public art, and this was my first taste. I walked past anti-Falun Gong propaganda banners and enough neon to bring 24-hour daylight to a small town.
Hong Kong is a walking city. Its subway system is excellent, but I mostly used it to travel beneath the harbor between the Kowloon and Hong Kong sides. I walked up through Tsim Sha Tsui (aka TST), the nightlife district that affords further luscious views of the skyline, and passed hundreds of restaurants, mostly Cantonese but also Shanghainese, Western, fusion food, Indian, southeast Asian.
Just north of TST is the Jordan neighborhood, where I rented a windowless guest room at Pak Lok Mansions. The word “mansion” has somehow inverted itself in east Asia, where it means a room or apartment that doesn’t require a long-term lease. My room, which I secured through Airbnb, was clean, tiny, and boring, with an in-room shower and toilet, for $40/night.
Over on Temple Street, just west of Kowloon’s main north-south boulevard, Nathan Road, is a daily night market that opens in the late afternoon and runs until after midnight. Stalls offer souvenirs, textiles, wallets, cooking utensils, stationery, and incense. Near the south end of the market is a small street food district. At one intersection, competing spicy crab restaurants spill out into the street. I’d like to think of myself as the kind of person who, upon arriving in an unfamiliar city, would sit down with locals and patiently dismantle a whole spicy crab. I am not. I kept walking and had dinner at a chain restaurant.
This is no great surrender, honestly. Chains in Asia fulfill the role of chain restaurants everywhere: they’re inexpensive, approachable, reliable, and specialize in some aspect of the local cuisine. What Asian chains add to the equation is really good food. I confirmed this calculus at an outlet of the Tai Hing chain with a plate of “five-star” roast pork, rice, and “healthy vegetable.” The healthy vegetable was Chinese broccoli (gai lan) Hong Kong’s favorite vegetable, steamed until its juicy stalks turned crisp-tender and drizzled with oyster sauce. The roast pork belly, served bone-in at room temperature, had crackly and slightly sticky skin.
I intended to limit myself to mostly Cantonese food in HK, but with no one to lash me to the mast and alluring restaurants of all descriptions, I strayed. At San Xi Lou, on the seventh floor of a Hong Kong-side high-rise, I ate the most perfect Sichuanese food: smashed cucumber salad, ma po tofu, and pickled red turnip in chile oil. The chile oil had been cooked just shy of burning, and the cubes of crunchy vegetable were well-oiled, red and smoky, chile-hot and temperature-cold. Afterwards I rode a vintage double-decker tram along Des Voeux Road until lured out by banner with a cute polar bear advertising Hokkaido-Yo frozen yogurt at Circle K. January in Hong Kong is temperate, a lot of 65°F days, not too cold for frozen yogurt.
One morning I walked up Cotton Tree Drive to the Peak Tram station and caught one of the first vintage red funicular cars of the day to the top of Victoria Peak. The Peak is a geographic feature whose existence is hard to believe, even when you’ve seen it up close: a mountain smack in the middle of downtown Hong Kong, bristling with houses that grow fancier and more Beverly Hills-like the higher you climb. The Peak itself frames the skyline. “You think you’re so tall?” it says to the assortment of skyscrapers by I.M. Pei and his ilk. “Daddy’s home.”
The tram has been ferrying passengers from the foothills to the 1800-foot summit of the Peak since 1926, and it has the appeal, and the click-clack soundtrack, of a classic wooden rollercoaster. I’ve ridden a funicular in Japan, but this one is faster, and the track curves sharply a couple of times on the way to the top. At the summit, if it’s evening you’re treated to that famous view of Hong Kong glowing at night. In the morning, you get Hong Kong cloaked in smog.
From the summit, I hiked down a paved trail, past many vigorous-looking elderly Chinese people (and bedraggled tourists and expatriate fitness nuts) hiking up. About halfway down I met up with the Mid-Levels Escalator, the world’s longest escalator complex, which runs downhill in the morning and uphill the rest of the day.
This is travel writing practice for me. Is this interesting? Do you want to hear more?