I couldn’t talk about Hong Kong without first talking about Anthony Bourdain.
The night before we flew to Hong Kong from Hanoi, we sat down—as we often do in the days leading up to a trip—and watched the relevant episode of Parts Unknown. We furtively made notes on where to eat and what to do. The next day, I searched for the show’s transcript so I could copy out and study a few of Mr Bourdain’s more poignant remarks. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Anthony Bourdain has shaped the majority of my travel experiences for the past four years.
We spent our first day in Hong Kong re-tracing his route through Central, up and down the Mid-Level Escalators, back and forth on the Star Ferry. We were sitting in our Hong Kong hotel room that night when we learned of Anthony Bourdain’s untimely death. Like many, I was shocked and saddened by the news—a feeling sharpened around the edges by the fact that we’d been following in his footsteps around one of his favourite cities that very day. I admired him as a writer, and was constantly awed by his on-point observations and talent for weaving the indescribable into eloquent prose. I deeply appreciated his belief in visiting left-of-centre places. I love that he advocated for tourism in the sorts of places that need it most—particularly two of my favourite countries, Georgia and Armenia.
There are life lessons to be drawn from the racing pace, the endless charge forward, the often mindless efficiency of a city like Hong Kong. For reasons of timing, I will always associate it with melancholy.
Hong Kong revisited
This was in fact my second visit to Hong Kong—I first came here in 2004 with my family. I don’t remember much, apart from the Mong Kok markets and my first ever encounter with a squat toilet. At home in Australia, I still have boxes filled with beautiful blouses my mum bought for me at the Lady’s Market.
It’s always a privilege to be able to return to a foreign place and see it with fresh eyes.
“All of us, when we travel, look at the places we go, the things we see, through different eyes. And how we see them is shaped by our previous lives. The books we’ve read, the films we’ve seen, the baggage we carry.”
My life has obviously changed quite dramatically since 2004. And I’ve picked up a tad more baggage. Coming from Vietnam and after almost three years living in Southeast Asia, it was the scale and the apparent coherence of Hong Kong that struck me. Sure, there are some familiar sounds and smells—but there’s no denying that Hong Kong is a true metropolis.
The tug of modernity is palpable in Hong Kong. Colossal skyscrapers hang over the island’s old, soulful neighbourhoods—each its own ecosystem of cha chaan teng tea shops and ginseng dispensaries. And every now and then, a pocket of green tranquility. Hong Kong is frenetic and fast-moving, powered in part by cutting-edge technologies and big money, but mostly by bare-chested men pushing boxes of anything and everything on flatbed trolleys up and down the slanted streets.
“To feel sentimental about the past is unusual for Hong Kong. Hong Kong has always been about changing. It’s always embraced change.”
One of the first things I noticed about Hong Kong this time around was the bamboo scaffolding. It makes sense given the climate and the scalding sun, but it’s still funny to see something so rudimentary being employed in such a new, shiny city. Reflective, state-of-the-art skyscrapers wrapped in bamboo poles tied together with rope. What a brilliant juxtaposition.
Walking through Hong Kong for a second time, I also noticed the tiny family run shops Anthony Bourdain talked about in his latest episode on Hong Kong—the tiny shanties clinging to the sides of office blocks where elderly locksmiths and blacksmiths eek out a living. It would be a shame if Hong Kong were to lose this part of its character, but I get the impression that there’s no standing in the way of change in this city.
Photographing Hong Kong
Rich, dense and aromatic neighbourhoods like Sheung Wan and Yau Ma Tei in Kowloon are a delight to explore on foot with camera in hand. But I must say I felt more uncomfortable pulling out my camera in Hong Kong than I have anywhere else in a very long time. It seems Hong Kong’s residents have grown weary of the tourists’ gaze. And who could blame them: It’s mostly tourists that have turned their housing estates and shop entryways into selfie spots.
With old businesses constantly shuttering and new ones opening, Hong Kong is the kind of place you can visit multiple times and always count on seeing and experiencing something new. I recommend spending at least two full days in Hong Kong, with a third day set aside for a day trip to Macau. I’ll be publishing my Hong Kong to Macau day trip guide in the coming weeks.
Capturing Hong Kong on camera is an almost impossible task. The proportions and the depth of the city are incomprehensible. Nonetheless, here are a few of my favourite images of Hong Kong and Macau. Stick around until the end for a few of my recommendations on what to see, do, eat and drink in Hong Kong.
My Hong Kong recommendations
We had no real plans for Hong Kong, so we ended up following a large chunk of Rice Potato’s Hong Kong weekender guide to a tee. I highly recommend checking it out if you have 48 hours or more in the city. Along the way, we wound up stumbling on a few places. Here are my recommendations for what to see, do, eat and drink in Hong Kong.
See & do
Hong Kong Heritage Museum (📍info & directions ) Hong Kong’s premier institution for art, culture and history. The permanent Bruce Lee exhibition exceeded our expectations; and the special exhibit on designer Tommy Li (through September 2018) is fantastic.
Chi Lin Nunnery & Nan Lian Garden + Choi Hung Estate (📍info & directions ) A refreshing green retreat at the top of Diamond Hill, this 1930s-built monastery and garden is skirted by Hong Kong skyscrapers, making for some spectacular views. From Central, take bus 101 (make sure you sit up top) for a tour of the city. Alight at the Choi Hung Estate and take a few snaps at Hong Kong’s most Instagram-worthy apartment complex. The Nunnery is just a short walk away.
Star Ferry (📍info & fares ) No visit to Hong Kong would be complete without a ride on the iconic Star Ferry, which connects Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.
Mong Kok Markets (📍location ) Not my favourite activity, but the flower, birdcage and goldfish markets in Mong Kok are worth visiting if it’s your first time in Hong Kong.
Central Mid-Level Escalators (📍location ) The longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world—and the perfect spot for people-watching. A true Hong Kong icon.
Tai Kwun (📍info & directions ) Hong Kong’s newest cultural institution, Tai Kwun is housed in the historic Central Police Station complex, close to the Central Mid-Level Escalators.
Man Mo Temple + Yue Po Chai Curios Store (📍info & directions ) A small, atmospheric temple crowded with curling incense and elaborate alters. Directly opposite Man Mo you’ll see Yue Po Chai Curios Store—a much-photographed antique shop with a round entryway.
Hollywood Road (📍info & directions ) One of Hong Kong’s first roads is still a thronging hub for dining and commerce. Otherwise known as ‘Antique Road’, Hollywood Road’s markets are a little touristy but boast a nice range of souvenirs. We picked up some vintage perfume and department store posters, which we’ll eventually get framed.
‘Dried Seafood’ Street (📍info & directions ) Wing Lok and Ko Shing Streets in Sheung Wan are known for their bird’s nest and ginseng stores. The whole area around Des Voeux Road is a joy to explore on foot—here you’ll find some of Hong Kong’s best shopfronts and see men pushing their famous flatbed trolleys.
Yau Ma Tei & Temple Street Night Market (📍location ) Another historic Hong Kong neighbourhood, this time in Kowloon. Visit after dark to see the neon signs lit up. We missed the nearby Temple Street Night Market, but it comes recommended.
Yick Fat Building (📍location ) Another impossibly huge, mindbogglingly dense apartment estate that’s become a popular photo spot (much to the residents’ chagrin).
Day trip to Macau (📍info ) Turns out the ‘Vegas of China’ has a lot more to offer than just casinos. Look out for Macau day trip guide, which I plan to publish in the coming weeks.
Eat & drink
Australia Dairy Company (📍location & hours ) Possibly Hong Kong’s best-known breakfast spot, this local joint serves traditional fare (think macaroni with spam, and cheese toasties). As a general rule, everything on the menu tastes a lot better than it sounds. Don’t miss the lotus seed pudding. Expect to pay around 100 HKD for breakfast for two.
Hoi On Cafe (📍location & hours ) We much preferred the French toast at Hoi On—and it’s far less touristy than Australia Dairy. The location is ideal for grabbing a quick breakfast before taking the ferry to Macau.
Dim Sum Square (📍location & hours ) The food at this no-frills restaurant blew us away. Try the vegetable rice rolls and the crispy pork buns.
Mak’s Noodle (📍location & hours ) A Hong Kong classic with at least five branches throughout the city. Try the signature dumplings and beef brisket noodles.
Butao Ramen (📍location & hours ) The best place in Hong Kong for authentic Hakata ramen. Alternatively, try the ‘green ramen’, made with basil and Parmesan (it’s surprisingly delicious).
Shake Shack (📍location & hours ) Sorry not sorry! We were pretty excited to stumble on a Shake Shack when we arrived at Central from the airport, and it ended up being our first meal in Hong Kong. Try the exclusive ‘HK Style Concrete’ (vanilla custard, French toast, peanut butter sauce, and banana, topped with maple sugar). The IFC branch is a great location, with a rooftop garden overlooking Victoria Harbour.
Grassroots Pantry (📍location & hours ) Redemption for the previous entry. An imaginative vegetarian menu served in beautiful surrounds. Try the popcorn ‘chicken’.
NOC Coffee Co. (📍location & hours ) I had nice coffee at The Cupping Room and Why 50, but I have it on good authority that NOC Coffee Co. serves the best flat white in Hong Kong. Fellow Australians, rejoice.
Egg tarts & egg waffles | Two classic Hong Kong sweet treats you must try. There are stands and stalls all over the city.
We stayed in (and highly recommend) Sheung Wan district on Hong Kong Island. Close to Victoria Harbour, between Central and Mid-Level, it’s a lively and character-filled neighbourhood, close to some of the city’s best cafes and restaurants. A lot of the activities and eateries I’ve recommended here are within walking distance of Sheung Wan. It’s footsteps from Central (handy for getting to/from the airport), and the Macau Ferry Terminal.
We stayed at Homy Hotel Central in Sheung Wan. The compact rooms have street-facing windows and are spotlessly clean, with new bathrooms and daily service. If Homy doesn’t take your fancy, there are a few other hotels in Sheung Wan, ranging from no-frills to 4-star.
Have you been to Hong Kong? Share your recommendations in the comments below!