Hong Kong: Too Fast, Too Furious

JULY 2007…

One of the things I remembered most about Hong Kong was the weather. Or rather, the dismal weather. Granted, it was a stopover trip and I didn’t choose the best season to visit but I never thought I would find a more humid city than my own.

It was July (read: summer), the weather was warm, humid and the air was still. The moment I stepped out of the subway and onto the streets, my skin started to collect a layer of perspiration that stayed with me for the rest of the day. Not a good start.

And then, there was the dreary accommodation. Again, I was trying to balance budget and accessibility, but I have seen better-looking rooms at the same price. Even though hotel rooms are known to be small in land-scarce Hong Kong, I reckoned the room layout could have been better designed. There was barely enough space to walk between the different pieces of furniture and I had to close the bathroom door before I could use anything in it. That would still have been fine if at least the room looked fresh, which was not the case. The furniture and decor were old and dated and… let’s just say not very inspiring.

Not just all shopping and eating
Before you mistake this article as a diss of Hong Kong, let me move on to the more inspiring bits. Hong Kong may be known as a shopping and eating getaway, but as any city’s tourism authority will tell you – there are gems to be discovered. You just need to know where to look.

And the first one in sight (literally) is Victoria Peak. Locally known as The Peak, it is the highest hill on Hong Kong Island at 552 m and offers great views of the city and waterfront.

The Peak Tram in Hong Kong, China.

The Peak Tram slowly trudging up the funicular railway to The Peak.
It has been in operation since 1888.

Part of the fun in visiting The Peak is taking the Peak Tram up there. The tram is known for the steep incline it climbs the hill at with buildings passing by at an intense tilt, creating the illusion that they are falling away. Fun as it was, I had to resist the urge to hold on to my seat and remind myself to breathe.

The Peak Tram in Hong Kong, China.

The view from inside the Peak Tram showing how steep the incline is.
Try not to fall off your seat!

Once at the top (and on flat ground again), panoramic views appeared all around me and the greenery provided a breath of fresh air. Sad to say, the air remained warm and humid despite the sea breeze blowing in. The sticky conditions did not invite one to linger and so, once I was done collecting photo evidence, I escaped into the air-conditioned mall. There are not one, but two malls at The Peak – the Peak Tower and the Peak Galleria – where you can shop and eat once you are done admiring the views.

Panoramic view of the city from The Peak in Hong Kong, China.

The panoramic view of the harbour from the Sky Terrace 428 viewing platform.

After visiting the natural skyscraper of Victoria Peak, I went to see some artificial ones next. And that would be at Victoria Harbour, home to the city’s skyscrapers which line both sides of it. Undoubtedly the heart of the city (and not just because it is literally in the middle of it), Victoria Harbour is a vital connection in the city linking Hong Kong Island to Kowloon Peninsula.

Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, China.

Victoria Harbour in the day…

But night time is when Victoria Harbour really shines with its star attraction, A Symphony of Lights. Every night at 8pm, lights and pyrotechnic fireworks dance on both sides of the harbour and on participating buildings around in a choreographed light and sound show. I’ll admit it’s very touristy, but still, I didn’t want to miss it. So, I packed a simple dinner and headed to the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade outside the Hong Kong Cultural Centre early to reserve a seat for the best views. And I wasn’t disappointed – the lights were the perfect dessert to my riverside picnic and a happy end to the day.

A Symphony of Lights at the Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, China.

And transformed into a sea of dancing lights at night.

Sightseeing with the Octopus
We usually think of the transportation system only when we want to get from point A to point B. But did you know that the public transportation system in Hong Kong can be a sightseeing attraction too?

First things first, you’ll need an Octopus Card, the stored value card that lets you travel on multiple transportation systems such as the airport express, bus, subway, tram and ferry. Since there’s usually a deposit value in the card that you can’t use, one tip is to loan an Octopus card from someone who’s a regular traveller to Hong Kong and top it up at the airport when you arrive. That would save you a couple of bucks.

I got to use my Octopus card almost immediately after clearing immigration. From the airport, I boarded the Airport Express for the 24-minute trip to Central. Then I changed onto the subway using my Octopus card to get to my accommodation.

That’s standard fare, you say. Alright then, here comes the non-standard ones. First up, I hopped onto the ferry for a short river tour (actually I merely crossed the harbour). Operated by Star Ferry, the ferry’s main route (and purpose) is to connect Central and Tsim Sha Tsui across Victoria Harbour.

The Star Ferry in Hong Kong, China.

The iconic white and green Star Ferry at the Star Ferry Pier in Central.
It has retained its iconic design since the 1900s.

Though it was a bit slower (and riskier) than the subway, it was more fun crossing the harbour this way, not to mention cheap. I got to admire the sea view from the ferry instead of staring at endless underground tunnels. And yes, I paid for the ride using my Octopus card, which made it very convenient for tourists.

The Star Ferry in Hong Kong, China.

Inside the open-air sitting area on the ferry.

Yet another unique transportation system in Hong Kong is escalators on the ground. You won’t need your Octopus card for this, but it might come in handy at the end. The Mid-Levels Escalator was first built to help residents commute the hilly terrain in the city. But doing double duty for tourists, it offered a unique way to see the city as well.

The Mid-Levels Escalator in Hong Kong, China.

Up we go on the Mid-Levels Escalator.

The Mid-Levels escalator has the reputation as the world’s longest outdoor covered escalator system at over 800 m in length. While heading up on it was fun, let me just say this in advance – the escalators only go up but not down. When I reached the top, I found myself 135 m higher up on the ground with the only way back down being the 782 steps of stairs running along beside it. To be honest, I was tempted to take a bus back down with my Octopus card.

The Mid-Levels Escalator in Hong Kong, China.

The view from the top. Now I just have to slowly make my way back down…

The last stop on the Octopus sightseeing tour is the Tram System which runs on Hong Kong Island. This one I didn’t ride, but it was a feast for the eyes nonetheless. Better known locally by their iconic double-bell ring “Ding Ding”, each tram is only 1 m wide and often painted in beautifully designed advertisements. The pretty artwork on these narrow-width trams made them look like an art show on wheels.

Double decker trams in Hong Kong, China.

Double-decker trams plying the street with their cute designs.

Last but not least, even without the Octopus card, you can explore the city on your own two tentacles (I mean legs). Wandering through the streets of Hong Kong was the best way to see the city. Billboards lit up the night as bright as day and night markets bustled with activity into the wee hours. As I watched the evening peak crowd commute through the streets, I said my thanks for not being part of them, at least for the time being.

Lights on the streets at night in Hong Kong, China.

Bright as day on the streets of downtown Hong Kong.

Back to the shopping
Although I said earlier that Hong Kong is not just about shopping and eating, this article would not be complete without a quick mention. Shopping malls are ubiquitous in any city that calls itself a shopping haven, and in Hong Kong, the mother of all shopping malls is the IFC Mall which links the two towers of the International Finance Centre. It has over 200 brand-name shops and restaurants spread over four storeys. It is also perfect for hiding in on a hot humid afternoon to enjoy the air conditioning. That’s how I got sucked in and almost couldn’t find a way out (both because of the shopping and the air conditioning.)

Night markets are the other retail therapy option. There are quite a number of night markets in Hong Kong touting just about anything that comes to mind. The most famous ones are the Temple Street Night Market and the Ladies’ Market. These are the places to go if you want to find a bargain (or bargain your way through) or to just stroll around and soak in the atmosphere.

A night market in Hong Kong, China.

The galore of goods on sale at a night market.

Mind the language
The other unforgettable experience I had in Hong Kong was the language barrier. Although I am Chinese as well, I do not speak or understand Cantonese (a Chinese dialect), which is the de facto language used in the city. But because I look Chinese (obviously), shop staff automatically assumed I was a local and spoke to me in Cantonese.

My most memorable (or should I say traumatic) experience was one where a cashier rattled off a promotional speech in Cantonese to me. When I apologised that I didn’t understand Cantonese, she repeated the whole thing in Mandarin, only to be rejected in the end. I felt bad for her, having to repeat herself and I felt bad for the people behind me in the queue (who were probably rolling their eyes).

This scene repeated itself throughout my whole trip in varying degrees of “Say it again?” that made me wish I had looked more like an outsider/tourist so that they would address me in English instead. As such, instead of the relaxing getaway I envisioned, I reckoned I used more brain cells instead – in part to see if I could decipher what they were saying and in part trying to decide if I should make them repeat (in case it was something important or a really good deal) or just ignore them and walk away (which would seem rude).

It was so tiring that my dreary accommodation started to look like heaven at the end of the day, because that’s the only place where I didn’t have to deal with anyone – Cantonese or not. I will need a better strategy if I want to return to Hong Kong. Or maybe I should just drag someone who speaks Cantonese along with me.

Hong Kong is a fast-paced city and not the immediate choice if your intention is to rest and relax. I’m sure there’s abundant nature in Hong Kong somewhere (in the likes of Lantau Island maybe), but often, that’s not what comes to mind first. It might also leave you even more frazzled if you arrived looking to destress. My conclusion: Hong Kong is good at what it does best – as a quick weekend getaway for shopping and eating. For slower options, look elsewhere.

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