One of the most useful things to have when travelling to Hong Kong, aside from a thick wad of Hong Kong dollars and a thicker resolve to only spend on shopping that’s necessary, are reservations. Hotel or hostel, it doesn’t matter. Any warm, unoccupied place with a working shower would do.
Because no matter how fun tramping around the streets of Hong Kong with a giant backpack over your shoulders may sound, it really mostly isn’t.
First of all, finding and booking a nice hotel on the same day is insanely expensive. Secondly, the buildings where the cheap hostels are? You’ll have to be quite determined to battle it out with scores of other weary tourists like you. And finally, no matter how you much you love the movie, Chungking Mansions is really not as romantic as Wong Kar Wai made it out to be.
The first time I ever went to Hong Kong, my friend B and I spent a good portion of our first day maneuvering our luggage through unsympathetic crowds, hauling them up flights of stairs, and squeezing into elevators to peer in tiny rooms inside huge buildings along Nathan Road.
And contrary to what all those movies and novels tell you, not all innkeepers are hearty, cheerful folk. In fact, a good portion of them could get downright vicious. At our fifth or sixth stop, red innkeeper claws waved us into a tiny box on the 13th floor of Mirador Mansion, and we could not escape. “We’ll take it,” we croaked, as if we had any real choice in the matter, and we watched the claws pluck hungrily at our money. We sort of had to stack our bags on top of each other’s to make room for our feet, but ah. We were in Hong Kong.
Marked-down designer clothes
I learned quickly, that there are two major tourist activities in Hong Kong. Number one is eating. Number two is shopping. Considering myself something of a serious traveler (basically meaning I consider tour packages too tourist-y), I made a resolve to dabble only minimally in both.
I was there to see the real Hong Kong, dammit! I will not have myself rifling through marked-down designer clothes in outlet malls or eating at atrociously-priced restaurants when I can be out there, breathing in post-colonial Kowloon and feeding on HKD 3 sticks of skewered pork cheeks. So B and I busied ourselves with a city map and walked everywhere, stopping only occasionally to accost strangers for directions.
Our determined feet took us down the tourist trail—Hong Kong Museum of Art, Boulevard of the Stars, Temple Street, and away from it: side streets, watchtowers, beautiful old walls, Kowloon Park to watch a friendly game of football between locals, an old fishing village (okay, we had to take a three-hour bus ride for that one).
We stopped at the tiniest, most authentic looking noodle houses (perpetually in search of the best), fell in love with greasy bowls of beef soup, and unsuccessfully complained every time we were charged for a glass of tap water.
Arguing is quite difficult, really, when nobody understands anybody.
Fine. Forget what I said about minimally dabbling in food. One cannot dabble minimally in food when in Hong Kong. By lunchtime the next day our most important mission was to get to this dimsum place no earlier than 3 p.m., to avail of their sweet afternoon discount on the dimsum.
By dinner time we were on Youtube, clicking on Anthony Bourdain’s Hong Kong episode and rabidly taking down notes. Thanks to technology, we knew exactly where we were going next: Tai Po Market for what is allegedly the best roast goose in the world.
Dear friends, I kid you not, that one and a half-hour journey via subway is worth it. Tears still glisten in my eyes whenever I think back to that meal. Skin so perfectly crispy, flesh so magnificently tender that one cannot help but murmur, in between grateful, greedy chomps: Thank you, plump little goose, for allowing yourself to be roasted so beautifully.
After the meal, the walk back to the subway will become magical. Everything will be bathed in a soft, pink glow, and you will find yourself purchasing a kilo of rambutan or lychees from a smiling fruit vendor, all in slow motion.
Seriously, how can anybody travel to such a living, breathing mecca of neon and commerce without sinking into the frenzy of it all? It’s impossible not to get caught up in the colors, the pace, the pedestrian lights, the chattering and hissing of buses, the streets packed with the rush of bodies, all those massive buildings packed with shiny, pretty things.
Even if I never cared much for consumerism, I’d have to say this city is just amazing at it. Now, as for consuming rational amounts of alcohol, I am all for it, so we shuttled of to the Lan Kwai Fong district on Hong Kong Island for some good old beer and revelry.
The area is off the Central subway stop: it’s basically made up of rows and levels of bars and youth and promises of happy hours. We hung out at a 7-11 type store and stood sipping our bottles on the sidewalk, watching tourists and designer garb melt into one vibrant swirl.
We ended up at a hip bar where everyone looked like a model. But it was fun, nevertheless, because B got to strut out some serious dance moves and we were able to bring home a brand new umbrella that someone left behind (and was so destined for us to keep).
Our last day in Hong Kong, I am ashamed to admit, was spent wildly trying on shoes and band shirts in a mall, where we earned the extreme fury of a tiny shopkeeper who had to fold and refold everything in our wake.
The rest of the day was a blur, and when I finally came to, I found myself clutching three pairs of shoes, two blouses, and a ridiculously overpriced Sonic Youth shirt. I had come boldly looking for the real Hong Kong, and it seemed the real Hong Kong had found me instead—found me, gagged me, and sucked me down its silver capitalist snout.
And so I was almost resigned to admit, with my new purple boots and all, what could be more Hong Kong than shopping and eating and shopping and eating and enjoying every guilty second of it, anyway? I mean, really, that’s the entire point of their insane budget surplus, right?
Still, I cannot shake this haunting vision of the Giant Buddha (which we went to see on our third day) who seemed to be serenely, almost amusedly peering at the commerce below.
I remember what seemed to be a peaceful, knowing smile on his lips, and am assured that beneath all of Hong Kong’s glass and steel, all its malls and markets and merchants and money, is its real soul, richer, more vibrant, and more divine than anything Hong Kong will ever have to offer on sale.