My daughter had two of her university chums to stay with us recently before heading off for a few days in Hong Kong. “What should we see and do there?” they asked. This gave me pause for reflection. I had spent nine years of my adult life in Hong Kong but I didn’t find the question that easy. Hong Kong itself is the spectacle of course. Anyhow in simple answer to their question I gave them; a journey on the Star Ferry, the Peak Tram and the Peak itself, a Dim Sum meal and a walk around Mong Kok.
However it made me think what did I get out of Hong Kong? What really moved me and stirred my senses in one way or the other? Hong Kong is an extraordinary place though not an easy place to settle in by any means – it took me a couple of years to begin to appreciate its charms. Equally I found it painfully hard to leave. Hong Kong holds fond memories and certainly it now forms part of my psyche. I am not inclined to return though, probably because it is inexorably tied with the friends of my “salad days” and in the absence of whom any visit would be tinged with sadness. Anyhow enough of my Orwell “Coming up for Air” moment – we have to move on.
My own personal Hong Kong “Top Ten” in no particular order:
1. Sai Kung Beaches
Out in the New Territories to the North East is the Sai Kung Peninsular and where Hong Kong’s most spectacular and beautiful beaches are to be found. If you were walking the MacLehose Trail, the 100 km path that runs across the New Territories, these beaches can be found along the second leg from Long Ke to Pak Tam Au. Above and below is in fact Long Ke Wan beach which can be found at the beginning of this leg. During weekdays and in the winter months the beaches are quiet because there is a long walk to get to them. During the Summer weekends a few pleasure junks will make the trip but the beaches don’t generally get too badly crowded ala Repulse Bay. These photos were taken on a cold but sunny weekend in Winter – just glorious really.
2. Dim Sum
Literally means “to touch your heart”. I think the Chinese got that just right! Going for dim sum is usually known in Cantonese as going to “drink tea” (yam cha). Most of my readers will know what dim sum is so I won’t describe all the individual dishes.
I really really miss the sheer cacophony of a busy Hong Kong restaurant at lunch time. The whole family at a table – Dads and Grandads reading newspapers, wives chatting, kids running about and hard pressed waiters shouting out their wares as they wheel about their trollies. Certainly this is a group and/or family activity. My own favorite was the City Hall Restaurant in Central – a vast dining hall which was generally always full with a substantial queue outside.
I think of all the things I miss about Hong Kong a good dim sum restaurant tops the list. Of course we can get dim sum around the world now and certainly in Bangkok where I currently live but the quality and atmosphere is just not quite the same.
3. Prawn and Egg Curry at the HSBC Mess
Every Thursday without fail “The Bank” executives had a curry lunch in the “mess” at 1 Queens Road Central or ‘Level 28″ as it became less prosaically known. The type of curry varied but it was always curry. Now I must explain that this was not actually the kind of curry that my colleagues from the sub-continent would recognise but rather, as they put it, a “British Curry”. Notwithstanding it was extremely popular amongst my Chinese, Indian and British colleagues alike. My personal favorite was the “Prawn and Egg” accompanied with many condiments; coconut shavings, raisins, banana, cucumber, dried fried onions and poppadums. Really a most glorious lunch.
Afterwards, if you had any room left, you were served vanilla ice cream, coffee, cheese and biscuits by white jacket liveried waiters most of whom we had known for many years.
4. High West
This is the highest westerly peak on Hong Kong island just west of Victoria Peak itself (“The Peak”). Very few people climb High West as it is actually quite hard to find. The track is good but an awkward and ill-signed detour off the Peak circuit (Lugard and Harlech Roads) deters. Most people are just not aware of the hill or how to easily approach it. The quietness of this location, in this busiest of all cities, makes the extra effort particularly rewarding and often you will have the summit to yourself. It is a gloriously positioned to see out towards Hong Kong’s western islands; Cheung Chau, Peng Chau and Lantau – to name but a few. It is very peaceful with only the slightest of hums from the Western District and Pok Fu Lam far below. This is a great spot to while away an hour on a late Summer’s day with Swifts darting all about.
5. The Star Ferry
Yes I’m not being particularly original here but surely this must be one of the most spectacular trips in the world (and one of the cheapest). HKD1.25 used to get one on the “first class” upper deck where you get the most wonderful views of Victoria Harbour. Canny Hong Kong hands used to go lower deck at HKD0.75 which had the other advantage of obviating the stairs at both terminals. The disadvantage being however was it was hotter and noisier being closer to the engines. I usually splashed out.
The Star Ferry is a great class leveler in other ways. I once saw the respective chairmans of The Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corporation and Hutchison Whampoa sitting on a ferry bench adjacent to a group of domestic amahs and street hawkers. I’m not sure about now, because it has moved from its former Queens Pier location, but in the 80’s and 90’s it was the quickest way to get from Central on Hong Kong island to the Southern tip of Tsim Sha Tsui and certainly the most scenic.
6. Hong Kong Colonial Cemetery
An odd choice possibly for a top ten list, the Hong Kong Colonial Cemetery, now known simply as the Hong Kong Cemetery, was founded in 1845. I visited this in 2006 just as I was leaving Hong Kong for the last time. Knowing I probably wouldn’t return I was spurred on to see all the things I should have seen during my time here. Located in Happy Valley, next to the race course, the cemetery runs up the hillside over a large wooded area. Quite beautiful really. In all my time on the island I had hardly noticed it. There are both military and civilian graves. At the beginning of the colonial era, the British garrison force had the same problem as those in in India: the weather. Many could not adapt to the tropical weather and succumbed to tropical diseases particularly Malaria which Happy Valley, then a rather swampy area, was prone. It was extremely poignant to walk around and read the inscriptions on the headstones particularly of those who died within a week of landing in Hong Kong. They had little time to make a mark on Hong Kong – had I?
7. Hong Kong Walks
There are many wonderful walks in Hong Kong in fact it is one of the best walking cities that I have been to in the world. Which walk to highlight? There are great walks away from Hong Kong island notably the Lantau Trail and the Maclhouse Trail (the first leg of which I briefly described under “Sai Kung Beaches”). My brother, an old “Hong Kong hand”, put me on to The Peak to Stanley walk. It really is an amalgam of parts of the Hong Kong Trail, Black’s Link, Lady Clementi’s Ride and the Wilson Trail. It affords wonderful views over the south side of Hong Kong island – much of it unspoilt countryside. This is a reasonably strenuous walk (includes the “Twins” and the “1000 steps” – I didn’t count – too tired) on a good path, of about 4 – 5 hours, which will eventually lead you down to the Stanley Peninsular and a well earned beer….or two.
8. The Chinnery Bar
There are many fine and sophisticated bars in Hong Kong but this is my personal favorite. A haven in the Central business district. For lunch try the steak and kidney pie with a chilled beer in a tankard – actually come to think about it that probably is not the height of sophistication! In the evening however a cocktail will be served with proper and due ceremony. Sorry if this sounds a bit of an advert but this really is a classy bar. I didn’t go often but every time I did it seemed special somehow.
9. The Wayfoong
This historic steamer belongs to The HongKong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. The Wayfoong (which incidentally is Cantonese and literally translates as “Abundance of Remittances”) once resided in Shanghai. It was deliberately sunk in WWII in order that the Japanese military did not capture it. After the war the boat was raised and shipped to Hong Kong. There it was put to various uses. One being to burn old bank notes in it’s boiler furnace and another to pick up new arrived foreign staff newly from Europe and to bring them across the harbour from Kowloon to Victoria Island. When I first joined the Bank some of my bosses had arrived in this fashion. A truly memorable start to a Hong Kong career. In my time executives could take the boat out periodically at weekends to the many islands and entertain their guests with Pimms and prawn and egg curry! There were faster and more comfortable boats but it was always a great sense of occasion going out on the Wayfoong.
Post Script: Since writing this post I have been advised that HSBC sold the Wayfoong in 2005 after long service. I hope the new owners are looking after the Wayfoong and it is is still plying its way around the islands of Hong Kong.
10. Hong Kong Indonesian Restaurants
In my bachelor days often on a Sunday and invariably after getting up late, I would set off, with The South China Morning Post under arm, down to Causeway Bay to the New Indonesian Restaurant. The food served there was largely Padang food from West Sumatra. All the cooks and staff there were Indonesians and many had been there for years. If with company I would generally order a rijsttafel (a Dutch word that literally translates to “rice table”). This is an elaborate meal of Indonesian side dishes served in small portions, accompanied by rice. Popular dishes include sambals, satay, corn cakes, gado gado, fish, fruit, pickles and nuts. If I were by myself I would invariably order a plate of mixed satay, a corn cake and Opor Ayam – essentially a mild chicken curry cooked in coconut milk.
It is rather odd that whilst I have been to Indonesia many times, on relatively short duration trips it has to be said, I have much preferred Indonesian food as served in Hong Kong and Singapore restaurants. Probably just a matter of knowing where to go I suppose.