Visiting Hong Kong during the coronavirus
Welcome to Hong Kong. No amount of protests, or global pandemic is too much to slow the city down or slow its pulse. My concern that Hong Kong would be a no-go zone was unreasonable. In my two weeks here, it was hard to feel that I was terribly restricted in my movements. Yes, I had initially thought of Hong Kong as a quick stopover on my visit to China where I would visit several cities, taking in the vast country of Marco Polo’s travels.
Staying in Hong Kong ultimately turned out to be a great blessing in disguise, allowing me to become fully familiar with the city’s environment. If my initial reaction was one of anxiety, it was overcome by relief as I saw that Hong Kong had everything I love about the other Asian cities, featuring legendary food, some cool architecture and women, naturally.
Of course, what I love about Hong Kong has nothing to do with the fact that it’s in Asia. Whilst Hong Kong will be seen as a region of China (it has SAR status), to Hong-Kongers they are a separate nation. Yes, they remain broadly speaking ethnically Chinese, but they will tell you that they are quite different from the Mainland Chinese. It helps that they speak their own language, whilst still using the Chinese characters to make it possible for ease of understanding.
A century of British rule has left behind a legacy of Afternoon tea, elegant tailoring and cars that drive on the left hand side. It’s still has just enough reminders of the Empire if you look hard enough. You will find that tea is commonly drunk with milk ( milk tea), in spite of Asians being frequently lactose intolerant. There are chicken pies sold in the bakeries, alongside the traditionally Cantonese Egg Tarts. Another reminder of the Colonial past comes in the street names. Stroll along Nathan Road, and you come to Salisbury Road, site of the famous Peninsula Hotel. There is a town called Stanley, and a fishing village named Aberdeen. The governor’s building is in Statue Square.
Most of the famous buildings are located on the island of Hong Kong. But then, what about Kowloon? Here’s where things become interesting, because it seems that the British weren’t able to leave much of a mark here. Apart from the harbour area, which is known as TST, there are fewer places that are as photogenic as on the island.
So which one should you choose? The island side has the peak, for starters. That gives you the best vantage point of the city, allowing you to use the observatory for a 360 view of the city. Next to it is the Hong Kong, a beautifully preserved garden of fountains and tropical flowers. There is an aviary and a tea museum too. There is also the tram, which runs all the way from the Happy Valley racetrack to Kennedy Town on the other side of the Island.
But you might find this all slightly demure. In that case, you will want to spend time in Kowloon. This is where Hong Kong starts to become less reserved, and more Chinese. It’s here that you will find some of the most frenetic streets, site of dozens of street market (selling mostly Chinese imported goods). If you want to try some of the excellent street food, you will have to come here too. Try the fish balls, sold everywhere in the Mong Kok district.
Tea and Sympathy
There is no shortage of tea (China is nearby after all), but its impressive how frequently it is drink. After the British ruled Hong Kong for a century, its common to have a ‘milk tea’ (usually sweetend with condensed milk). It’s typical to be offered a tea or a coffee with a lunch or breakfast, more so than alcohol or any soft drink. For the quintessential Hong Kong snack, try an Egg tart (thickened custard in a flaky pastry case) and a cup of milky tea or coffee). You can have this anywhere, but you’ll want to be sitting down to eat the egg tart, which has a habit of breaking apart at the first bite.
Alongside the familiar egg tarts, look for incredible chicken pies which supply the taste of something truly magnificent. Hong Kong has no shortage of bubble teas (mostly Taiwanese), and these are full of strange and unusual flavours such as taro and sweet potato. They have also been used by protesters to spread their pro-democracy slogans on post-it notes spread on the walls.
Whilst you can find the designer coffee bars that you get everywhere, its better to stick with the tea, which feels like a much more authentic experience. There’s a story about the creation of this authentic Hong Kong drink and it’s too much to explain here. But in short, someone decided that they could go one step better with the English Earl Grey, making it into something more heavy, the condensed milk rounding out the sharpness of the dark tea. It started as a working person’s drink, rather than any thing fancy. Now it is the most popular tea drink in Hong Kong.
Like any big city, it can feel really overwhelming if you come here without an idea of what to do. So to make it easy, here, , are my ten favourite things to do in Hong Kong.
Take the Star Ferry to Central from TST at 8pm.
By doing this, you get to experience the famous Symphony of Stars, which is a light show from the skyscrapers of the central district set to music.
Visit a Cha Chang Teng
For a really classic Hong Kong experience, go to one of these cafes, which are open from morning to night. They date back to the seventies and can be found in all the main districts. With prices low, they welcome anybody, but that shouldn’t put you off. Order from laminated menus, choosing such delights as the milk tea, or French toast. A local treat is a peanut butter and condensed milk sandwich.
Visit a mall
Even if you aren’t a big shopper, you can enjoy the experience of a Hong Kong mall. I particularly enjoyed the Argyle Centre (Mong kok), for it’s fun boutiques and excellent snacks. There are plenty of luxury shops in Central district, but I found it much more fun going to the more offbeat smalls, which have so much character. I can’t forget the delightful Dragon Centre – which has eight floors filled with unique shops – in Sham Shui Po, for example.
Another unmissable experience. From early morning to the afternoon, Hong Kongers crowd together to order Cheung Fun (soft rice noodles with minced pork) and siu mai (translucent prawn dumplings). In the older restaurants you can still see the birdcages and the waitresses pushing carts of dumplings and pastries.
Hong Kong Park
From the tram, get off outside admiralty station. Then walk past the famous Lipppo towers and into Hong Kong Park. This is such a wonderful place to relax, enjoying the birds that live in the Aviary. There is an observation tower, waterfall and even a tea museum.
Visit a Chinese Bakery
With prices of many food stuffs rising, it is good to find affordable snacks at low prices. Chains such as Wing Wah and Kee Wah sell nicely packaged boxes of egg rolls, sesame and almond cookies, as well as the famous pineapple shortcake. On the other hand, there are several franchises which do French patisserie extremely well. The Chinese bakeries are usually independently owned, and the labels will be mostly in Chinese. But I recommend that you try them, if only for the egg tarts and Lai Wong Bau – a steamed bun filled with custard.
Bar Street in Prince Edward
You can walk a long way in a particular area and not find anything remotely resembling a bar. Then you will come across an area almost exclusively designed for drinking. Most of them will a Happy Hour – with up to half the normal price of a drink. It’s common for some of them to have women standing outside calling customers in.
A very pretty place which I have already talked about. Visiting will give you a different outlook on Hong Kong.
These make a good contrast to the sterile malls in the Island, which are mainly used by suited office workers. Although you will not be able to buy much of the produce on display (dried fish heads anyone?) it’s great to see a wet market in action. You can always find plenty of excellent snacks to buy as you watch the housewives bargaining for the best selections.
I love Mongkok. It might seem like most of the best places are all clustered around Central, but they really aren’t. Within just a few streets, you can find flower markets, a street selling goldfish, and dozens of cafes. It’s also the most populated area of Hong Kong. Day and night, you can come here and you won’t be lonely. It’s a little rough around the edges, but I had the best time here. Take the MTR to the Mong Kok subway and walk in any direction. You have the best cafes, restaurants and markets all within walking distance.
Information about your trip
With many places closed, be prepared to make last minute adjustments. Although many places are doing business, several venues remain closed, such as the Happy Valley racetrack, Disneyland, and Ocean Park. More importantly for budget travellers is the fact that many hostels are not taking new bookings until the summer. With many hotels at under 10%, it’s possible to stay anywhere at short notice. Many are from 300 Hong Kong dollars a night. For a more luxurious stay, try the 5 star Royal Plaza in Mong Kok. https://www.royalplaza.com.hk/en/. I tried to arrange accommodation through Couchsurfing, but at the last minute many of my hosts changed their minds. It seems that many Hong-Kongers do not use Airbnb much either. In the end, a very kind friend let me stay at her place for a week. I was able to spend much more time in Hong Kong because of her.