Learning to fall in love with the new face of Hong Kong.
Where has Hong Kong gone? These are my thoughts. The city I knew so well in my youth has all but disappeared and for the first few hours disappointment rankles.
In comparison to a visit thirty years ago, the new sanitised Hong Kong is barely recognisable. Modernisation comes with a loss of much of the gritty charm that characterised this city. Sometimes this is a good thing. The streets feel safer, public transport is clean and easy to use and Kai Tak Airport is no longer providing white knuckle flights amid the high rise buildings and mountains. Yet some old features remain and are as charismatic as ever.
Aberdeen Harbour, previously a seething mass of humanity is now tranquil with smartly paved walkways that tastefully meander along the waterside. There are seating areas and artwork depicting times past when the sea bobbed with sampans – roofed wooden boats of various sizes - and red-sailed junks. Today, tall, glossy sky-scrapers enclose a yacht filled harbour and there are few traditional boats. The Jumbo Floating Restaurant is a welcome relic of the past. Floating restaurants became a part of the bay after WW2 and the Jumbo - established in 1976 - is still a popular tourist destination. The gaudy red and gold is meant to resemble a Chinese Palace and has featured in numerous films. Celebrities have dined here including John Wayne, Tom Cruise and HM the Queen. The food is a little expensive but the atmosphere like the décor is exuberant. Get there from the waterfront using the free water shuttle or pay for a sampan ride around the harbour.
No trip to Hong Kong is complete without at least one ride on the Star Ferry. Although the terminal is now efficient - accommodating modern ticket machines and turnstiles, thankfully the iconic green and white boats are unchanged. Inside, the wooden bench seats still have the adjustable backs enabling passengers to face whichever way they choose. The ferryboats chug across Victoria Harbour with a steady creak much as they ever did carrying a cross section of Hong Kong life. A trip after dark will reveal the city skyline reflected colourfully in the water. A free light show occurs each night at 8.00 pm illuminating the high-rise buildings on either side of Victoria Harbour and lasts around ten minutes. The Star Ferry will often stop mid-harbour when the Symphony of Lights is on and this is a great way to experience the old and new faces of Hong Kong together. A nightly occurrence since 2004 there is a musical accompaniment which is played on both harbour fronts and is also available with an App.
At night, Hong Kong becomes a city of light akin to a science fiction movie. The central mid- level escalators and walkway systems - unique to Hong Kong - provide a free and fascinating way to appreciate the glowing buildings. Modern, yet also distinctly Hong Kong.
Stanley Market- once varied and frequented by locals and tourists - has lost much of its original charm. A maze of small souvenir shops crammed beneath one large cover to give the feel of a marketplace. The area is now sanitised with paving, parking and cafes - much like Aberdeen Harbour. Yet it is still worth a visit and a good place to buy a few gifts. Go early in the morning before it is crowded and enjoy the spectacular views across the bay. Cross from the mainland on the Star Ferry and take a bus – it’s a great way to enjoy the scenery.
For a more authentic glimpse of Hong Kong life, visit the flower, bird and fish markets on Kowloon. All three are within walking distance of one another. Head for Yuen Po Street Bird Garden, here the round doorways and relaxed atmosphere have an old-world feel. This is more a meeting place where people come to chat and display their own birds – buying and selling is secondary. Elderly men play at chequers or sit chatting while making intricate bird cages. The air is full of song from the colourful - and often tiny - birds. Parrots perform spontaneous acrobatics on their perches. Tame budgerigars hop about on the outside of their cages.
By contrast, the nearby flower market is a jostling kaleidoscope. Some shops specialise in a single variety – orchids are popular - which makes for a strong impact on the eye. Every space is utilised – blooms spilling from the open shop fronts and pavements are narrowed from trestle tables loaded with plants and arrangements. To the uninitiated, many shops appear to sell the same flowers - presumably, customers have their preferred florist.
Walk a few blocks to Tung Choi Street North and find shops devoted to the sale of ornamental fish. Goldfish in every shape and colour hang in plastic bags on stands outside the shops – within fish-tanks display a plethora of species and aquatic accessories.
Buyers stand close and scrutinise the fish – choosing the right one is not a light undertaking. According to Feng Shui - the ancient Chinese art of bringing harmony to home or workspace - a colourful aquarium is highly auspicious.
Wearied by the walking take a tram ride. These are a great and affordable way to see the city. Climb up to the top deck on these beautifully restored heritage trams and watch the world go by because the best part of Hong Kong is still the great diversity of buildings and people, rich and poor, ancient and modern - a tram ride will provide a window seat from which to observe this ever changing city.
An Octopus Card is by far the best means of paying for transport in Hong Kong. One card pays for most public transport including, public bus, tram, Star Ferry, metro (MTR) and the Airport Express.
To find out where to purchase and what else the card can be used for