APPROACHING Hong Kong on the speedy MTR Airport Express rail link, we get a good introduction to the island geography that helped establish Hong Kong as a global powerhouse.
We have just disembarked from our flight a short while ago, yet, we are again treated to sensations of flying as the train leaps across deep channels between forested islands on giant bridges. One of them — the Tsing Ma suspension bridge — is among the longest in the world. In under half an hour, we streak from the Hong Kong International Airport on Lantau Island into Hong Kong city itself.
And as we reach the port of Kowloon, with countless ships moored to the horizon, we begin to see the brilliance of the location — and gain some sense of how the occupiers from Great Britain saw it too.
Arriving in 1841, the British perceived enormous potential in the way that Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon mainland circled Victoria Bay (Victoria Harbour) to create an ideal, sheltered port.
The British flag is gone now, and a sea of distinctive business towers on Hong Kong Island reach for the sky, facing the harbour with Victoria Peak rising behind. The downtown business districts like Wan Chai, Sheung Wan and Central are so dense with city developments that it seems unlikely that any parts of original Hong Kong would still exist.
Old Hong Kong reinvented
But they do, and they lie somewhat buried within the cityscape, waiting to be discovered by us. These original enclaves of Hong Kong are most effectively toured on foot, giving full rein to random explorations. Some of the best unfold in spots like Possession Street, Hollywood Road, Tai Ping Shan, Peaceful Hill, SoHo, PoHo and Lan Kwai Fong, to name a few.
An Old Town Central self guided walking tour (offered by the Hong Kong Tourism Board) helps open the door to these historic areas, many of which have evolved into trendy neighbourhoods where cafés and boutiques sit next to more traditional grocers and produce vendors — or even a coffin maker! The flowers and trees continue to thrive at tiny Possession Point, where the first British flag was planted.
But to gain a whole other well-informed perspective, we took our tour in the company of an experienced guide, and paid for the benefit of her knowledge. The Walk Hong Kong company offers guided urban walks and day hikes for different tastes and fitness levels. That may be important to consider, as many of the neighbourhoods are built on the lower slopes of Victoria Peak, resulting in hilly streets, sidewalks and alleyways.
Both the PoHo and SoHo districts reflect the progression of the past to the future, with clusters of galleries, clothing boutiques and cafés, plus alleyways providing wall canvases for murals and graffiti art. Photo shoots with fashion models are not uncommon here. Similarly, Peaceful Hill brings its own alternative vibe.
One increasingly popular direct route to the essence of Hong Kong heritage for visitors is through their stomachs. This can be accomplished by booking a foodie tour through suppliers that have been vetted by the Hong Kong Tourism Board.
These offer the opportunity to explore different Hong Kong dishes under the direction of a qualified guide, who takes the language guess work and picture-pointing procedures out of the dining process.
Possibly the most adventurous choice for a foodie tourist is to forgo the hotel breakfast and head out to discover how regular Hong Kong folk get their day off to a start. This can be done in the district of Shim Shui Po on the Kowloon side — a gritty, no-frills side of the city where workers duck into eateries for traditional Cantonese breakfast dishes.
We are led by our very knowledgeable guide from Hong Kong Foodie Tasting Tours. On this Sham Shui Po Foodie Tour, she starts gently, herding her charges into a bakery and serving them pineapple buns and a sweet milk tea. Thus fortified, the group moves on to more adventurous choices like rice rolls, soybean milk, congee, roast pork, egg noodles and walnut cookies, at six tiny eateries in the neighbourhood.
Another way to dig below the shiny metropolitan surface of Hong Kong is to attend an event that has a deep mythical meaning for the Cantonese residents of Yuen Long Town, in the New Territories.
Every year, on the 23rd day of the third lunar month, the busy centre of this town erupts with colour and excitement, as a holiday is proclaimed to celebrate the blessings of the Chinese goddess of the sea, named Tin Hau.
The highlight of this holiday is a parade — and what a parade it is. Teams in bright, matching outfits congregate in the morning and unveil the giant snaking dragons and lions that they have crafted in the preceding months. The parade marshall gives the green light and the assembled creature teams take to the streets of the parade route, while throngs of residents line the sidewalks. The crash and clatter of drums and cymbals is constant, and the marchers seem undaunted by the escalating heat of the day.
We finally take our leave, exhausted but satisfied that another one of Hong Kong’s lesser known treasures has been revealed.
■ We flew to Hong Kong on Singapore Airlines on the spacious A380. From there, we hopped on the MTR Airport Express train service to Hong Kong city — it costs HK$115 (S$20) one-way for an adult ticket.
■ In Hong Kong, we contracted the services of a guide for our Old Town Central walking tour. The guided tour is offered by Walk Hong Kong. The rates can be obtained by e-mailing them.
■ Wear comfortable shoes to maximise mobility when walking up and down steep streets and lanes in Hong Kong.
■ We expanded our early morning culinary horizons on a Kowloon tour offered by Hong Kong Foodie Tasting Tours. It cost HK$750, which covered all tastings.
■ Visit www.discoverhongkong.com, www.walkhongkong.com for more information.
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