Hong Kong: A Tale Of Two Cities



It’s still before dawn when the first joggers set off along the Lugard Road, the tarmacked path which circles The Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong island. It’s only when they reach a break in the surrounding canopy of trees that they see the city laid out below them. From this perspective, Hong Kong looks like a vast collection of toy skyscrapers, somehow amassed by a child, with over 7,800 high-rises reaching towards the heavens. As the sunlight breaks through the clouds it lifts the film noir gloom from the city, revealing the colours of the day. Looking down, the closest tower blocks are painted in muted beige and pink while beyond them tower the gleaming glass obelisks of the bustling commercial centre. Some of these joggers will soon be heading towards them to start their working days. For now, they continue to pad around The Peak as the dawn chorus intensifies with the sun and butterflies dart through the air. This is a city that rewards the early birds.

A world away from the heaving crowds on the streets of downtown Hong Kong, on the MacLehose Trail you’re more likely to have your path crossed by a scuttling land crab. Chirping crickets replace the sound of traffic. The long and winding route curls around the Sai Kung Peninsula before heading west across the New Territories and is evidence of a startling, oft-forgotten fact about Hong Kong: despite being one of the planet’s most densely populated places, less than 25 per cent of its total area has been concreted. The vast majority of its land remains as it always has been: grassland, woodland and shrubland. This makes for unexpectedly fine hiking. Soon after setting out eastward on the MacLehose Trail, walkers are afforded perfect views down over the shimmering waters of the High Island Reservoir and up towards Sai Wan Shan, a grand peak which itself will be dwarfed further along the trail by the New Territories’ central mountains. When the trail reaches the coast it dips down towards the gorgeous wave-lapped beaches of Long Ke and Sai Wan, where sweaty hikers reward themselves by stripping off and splashing into the cool water.


In the shabby courtyard a trash fire burns in a metal barrel. An old woman sweeps the dusty floor outside Cleanly Cleaners, just along from a salon named Hair Show and a little shop with an old neon sign advertising foot massages. In the centre of the square, a gaggle of tourists are taking pictures of one another on their phones, crouching low to the ground to find an angle which can capture the huge edifice behind their friends. This is one of Hong Kong’s most photographed buildings, yet it’s not a temple or seat of government. Yick Fat was built in 1972 as simply another public housing tenement block, but it’s become an emblem of a city where lives are lived bunched close, one on top of another. The building is just one of five densely built residential buildings on the block, together comprising 2,243 flats that are home to around 10,000 people. Above the heads of the amateur photographers, laundry hangs from windows on each of the 19 floors beside precariouslybalanced air conditioners. Satisfied with their photos, the tourists disappear, leaving behind the residents of this monument to urban living.

Hong Kong takes its name from a phonetic Anglicisation of a Cantonese phrase meaning ‘Fragrant Harbour’, although it’s hard to imagine anyone ever describing the traditional fishing village of Tai O as ‘fragrant’. In the quiet streets that run past market stalls, the air is thick with the smell of drying fish and octopus, fried fish bladder and fermented shrimp paste. Built around an inlet on the western coast of mountainous Lantau Island, Tai O is a time capsule of Hong Kong as it was before high commerce arrived. The Tanka people have lived here for centuries much as they do now, in simple homes built mainly from tin which jut out over the water on stilts with fishing boats moored alongside them like cars in driveways. They are the only motor vehicles to be seen as the narrow streets are fit only for bicycles, tricycles and wheelchairs. Nowadays most of the fishermen are retirees, like 77-year-old Mr Fung. He gave up work 30 years ago, encouraged by his three sons and two daughters. ‘It is very tough to be a fisherman,’ he says. ‘During my youth the catch was good, and we could sell it to mainland China. Then after a while the catch got smaller and my children asked me to stop.’ Mr Fung’s children now all work in the city, in construction, but still return home at weekends to see their dad and enjoy the simpler life outside the concrete metropolis.


In a city of tall buildings, the tallest of them all is the International Commerce Centre in West Kowloon. At its summit sits Ozone, which at 490m is by some measures the highest bar in the world. It’s so high, in fact, that the views of the distant city below are often obscured by thick banks of cloud which make the ground appear and disappear like a mirage. The bar’s signature cocktail, the HK Skyline, is designed to pay tribute to its lofty location. Served inside a smoke-filled glass container, the sweet, grapefruit-tinged concoction comes topped with champagne bubbles. It is made using rum from a mountaintop Guatemalan distillery that produces its spirit entirely 2,300m above sea level. Priced at a fittingly sky-high £32, it is a favourite of the local high-rollers who begin to gather amid the tourists at the end of the working day, throwing their money around and admiring the busy city far below.
Wan Chai is a frenetic neighbourhood just to the east of Hong Kong’s Central district, full of offices and teeming shops. However, one step into the retro interior of Tai Lung Fung and it’s easy to forget all that completely. The décor recalls the Hong Kong of the cult 1960 film The World Of Suzie Wong, with Chinese lanternshaped fairy lights, a dragon-like qilin head on the wall watching over everything, and menus designed to resemble old newspapers. The soundtrack is largely ’80s, featuring Cantonese synth pop such as Chinese star Alan Tam’s Love Trap, which seems to create a conducive atmosphere for regulars to hang out and swap gossip over cocktails. The place is co-owned by friends Lavina Smith and Sam Leung, whose pet African grey parrot taps along the bar and plays with her cat. Their signature drink is the Plum Classic (above right), made with plum wine sourced from a local woman. ‘Every season she gets fresh plums from the New Territories, so it’s 100 per cent made in Hong Kong,’ explains Lavina. ‘Every year we buy about 100 litres, so we have a very limited amount of cocktails that we can sell each season.’


It is just after noon when the 92ft wooden junk sets off from Tsim Sha Tsui pier to start its first lap of Victoria Harbour. The boat’s blue and white sails flap in the cool breeze, decorated with stylised Ming dragons which give them the look of fine vases or ancient ceramics. Out on the water, their fluttering is the only sound above the chilled Balearic soundtrack emanating from somewhere below deck, while the smell of the air is tinged by salt. The boat is designed to evoke another age. For over 1,800 years, junks were used as everything from cargo ships to floating homes, but today this vessel simply hops between stops on a loop of the harbour, passing cruise ships and tiny fishing rafts as it goes, and offering the chance to see the city as once many first-time visitors did: from the sea.

In the late afternoon, as the Star Ferry sets off to cross Victoria Harbour once more, it is carrying a broad cross-section of Hong Kong: young and old, locals and tourists, commuters and families. Small children clamber on the seats excitedly while, nearby, men in suits check their mobiles and pensioners doze. Each day the ferry takes more than 55,000 people back and forth between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island; that’s 20 million journeys every year. The ferries arrive and leave as regularly as subway trains and are exceptionally cheap. When they started running in the 1880s, the boats were powered by steam; these days the journey is completed on diesel-electric ferries decked out with wood-panelling and much needed air-conditioning. Arriving on the other side of the harbour in around five minutes, the great mingled masses file off as their replacements board to continue the ferry’s endless cycle.


It’s Saturday evening and the customers perched on stools at the wooden counter that surrounds Little Bao’s openplan kitchen are being exquisitely tortured. They must wait and watch as their food is prepared right in front of them, and try to ignore the rich scent of frying Szechuan chicken wafting in their direction. Luckily, the diners’ torture is short-lived. This is Hong Kong’s unique take on fast food, the brainchild of celebrity chef May Chow, regarded as one of the best in Asia. ‘It’s American and Chinese together,’ explains her sous-chef Sam Ng. ‘We always use Cantonese food ideas and then give it a little twist.’ Their signature dish, the bao from which the restaurant takes its name, are Cantonese steamed buns that are served like burgers filled with chicken or pork belly. Their surprise hit has been ice cream bao, which sees smaller bao deep-fried like doughnuts and then filled to make a green tea or caramel ice cream sandwich. ‘We never thought the ice cream bao would be so popular, but it was mindblowing,’ says Sam. ‘People wait for two hours just to get the ice cream. Hong Kong people are crazy about desserts, they always have another stomach for it.’

At Joy Hing, a traditional hole-in-the-wall joint on a noisy commercial street in Wan Chai, they do things the old-fashioned way. Founded towards the end of the Qing dynasty, in around 1900, their speciality is char siu – Cantonese barbeque. The rich smell of roasting meats lures in passers-by, while barbecued geese and ducks hang by their necks in the window and a whole pig is suspended tail-up from a hook. In front of the carcass the chef works methodically with his cleaver, the sound of his chopping competing with the whir of ancient fans working overtime to cool the hot air. He serves up a plastic plate overflowing with meat plus rice or noodles, and a mug of milky tea, for just £3. This sort of food at those sorts of prices breeds a loyal fan base. Queues form around the block twice a day when the nearby offices release their workers. One man at a battered Formica table explains he’s been coming here for over 40 years. In front of him sits a plate of roast duck and noodles, cooked the same way it has been here for over a century.


Street art in Hong Kong didn’t really catch on until 2014 when an organisation called HK Walls started linking artists with walls they could legally decorate. Nowadays, an hour-long walking tour takes groups past work by a host of internationally acclaimed graffiti artists. Appearing early on in the tour is perhaps the city’s most famous mural: the layered stencil painted by local artist Alex Croft (above left). It depicts Kowloon Walled City, a densely packed den of prostitution, gambling and drug abuse, much of which was controlled by Chinese triad criminal gangs before its demolition in 1994. ‘It represents a way of life that was a lot different to what we know today,’ says Alex. ‘The rumours of what went on behind the walls of that building are still talked about today: a lawless place that if the police entered some of them might not come out. I didn’t plan for the painting to be up on the wall for as long as it has been but it has brought me good luck along the way ever since.’

Reassuringly for the novice artist, traditional Chinese ink-brush painting is not overly interested in achieving photo-like realism. ‘We’re not so concerned with details,’ explains art teacher Carole Leung. ‘We’re just trying to capture two things: the form, and the spirit. How do you paint spirit?’ That’s a question she sets about answering in her lessons, at the end of which her students will have produced their very own piece of art to take home with them. Carole teaches in her intimate studio inWan Chai, with Spanish guitar playing softly on the stereo and endless pots of oolong tea on hand. As her students learn how to delicately render bamboo shoots and leaves using just black ink and different edges of a brush they are also introduced to the traditional artist’s meditative discipline. The artform dates back to the 5th century AD, and Carole is determined to keep it alive by passing on the lessons of her own teacher ShumWing Kwong. ‘He passed away last year, but his notes are like gold,’ she says. ‘I want to pass them on, but also to modernise them too by introducing more colour.’ Her own radiant work on the walls shows what is possible – although matching them might take longer than the allotted two hours.


William Ng and Pandora Wu have discovered the secret of eternal youth, and they’re willing to share. ‘I’m 80 years old,’ says William with a grin after leading a tai chi class on a bakingly hot morning without breaking a sweat. ‘Doing tai chi can make you stay young,’ he explains. ‘Pandora is over 70. It’s unbelievable! She’s like a magician.’ The graceful martial art may be slow-moving, but William’s students go through a full-body workout requiring total concentration. They seem to have tapped into something deep and serene. If William is to be believed, that’s because the gentle exercise regulates and harmonises every part of your body from your blood circulation to your digestive system. William and Pandora teach classes in a park on the harbourside three mornings each week, often throwing in a little kung fu and qi gong, a similarly languid holistic practice. They say it’s not just good for their bodies and souls – it’s keeping a tradition alive. ‘When visitors come to Hong Kong they want to touch and feel Chinese culture,’ says William. Fortunately for future visitors, he’s got his very own elixir of life to keep him going. ‘I won’t stop until God says he wants to see me!’ he says, and lets out a childlike laugh.

The Sunday afternoon air is so hot and muggy that it seems hard to walk through, never mind race horses in. Yet that’s exactly what the thousands of fans and gamblers out at Sha Tin Racecourse have come to see. There has been horse racing in Hong Kong since 1841 and it didn’t take long for this colonial sport, originally intended only for the British elites, to become incredibly popular with the locals. Nowadays the huge stand at Sha Tin has an official capacity of 85,000 – a figure which is easily reached at Chinese New Year, a time when it is considered auspicious to bet on a horse. Opposite the stand, white and pastelcoloured tower blocks rise, giving the course the perfect Hong Kong backdrop. As the race draws near, old men hoik and spit as they rustle their sporting newspapers and betting slips. There is a lingering smell of cigarette smoke, and nobody can quite keep still as nervous, fidgety energy fills the arena. Then, finally, they’re off. The crowd is quiet until the horses and their jockeys reach the last 100m. That’s when the shouting and hollering begins. They bellow the number of their pick in Cantonese as the pack nears the finish. Then number four – Booming Delight – surges forward and pulls clear at the line. The crowd is split: some curse, others punch the air. The victors head inside to collect their spoils.

Published in Lonely Planet Traveller, December 2017.