in Travel/Experience

Impressions of Hong Kong

hongkong

After 6 days in Hong Kong for my first time, there’s a lot to share. Here’s the sights, people, and impressions that stick out:

Hong Kong is Vertical

The first thing you can’t help but notice about the city is the preponderance of high-rises. Most of the city is so covered in tall buildings that you have to crane your neck in order to see the blue of the sky. It’s not often that every gap between buildings is entirely filled with other buildings of the same size. The effect is arresting and still hasn’t gone away – the ‘suburbs’ are only slightly less congested, as they are filled with dozens of identical public housing high rises. Apparently more people in HK live or work over the 14th floor than anywhere on earth, and I can believe it.

But why is this? How come there’s not a single Western city with a comparable skyline? Living space is at a similar premium in places like New York and London, but those cities only breach the 20th floor for iconic office buildings, not regular buildings. It must be our restrictive zoning laws aimed at preserving the traditional city skyline, as well as a propensity to sprawl out rather than up. We Westerners prefer the white picket fence to the space efficient apartment, which is apparently less of a problem for the crowded Asian countries. It’s a shame –  in HK at least, there is always nature space nearby, and the skyline is undoubtedly the finest in the world, given how often it is destroyed in films like Pacific Rim and Transformers 4.

Hong Kong is Clean

All those people and buildings make for tons of bustle, with every step outside filled with colors, signs, buses, and things going on. Yet another thing I noticed immediately was how clean the city is. Most streets are completely litter-free, with only a few where the odd pieces of trash number above the single digits. And every piece of greenery is spotless – from congested planters to park grasses to on-ramp sidelines, all are immaculate. Coming from the infamously dirty San Francisco, this stuck out to me the most (although I hear Singapore is even more so).

How the heck do this many people keep such a busy place so clean? Sure, there’s a $250 fee for littering, but police are invisible here – I’ve seen maybe ten in 6 days of wandering. That’s not the prime deterrent – it seems to be more of a society-wide custom not to litter. Bright orange trash cans are plentiful and obvious, but again, cities the world over have pulled similar measures in attempts to get their citizenry to trash responsibly. No, the credit here lies to the citizens – somehow they have all independently decided to do the right thing. I wonder how that was done – maybe it’s just the knowledge that if they all did it the city would quickly become disgusting.

One last theory – homelessness is almost nonexistent here, and free public toilets are plentiful. From my admittedly anecdotal SF experience, the dirtiest places are often the areas with the most homeless. That’s no reflection on them as individuals – anybody who lives on public streets would be hard pressed to make their trash private. Plus, since we have no public toilets, smells accumulate, which could ( broken window theory style) further exacerbate the general filth. Not so in Hong Kong. Streets stay clean, and waste stays where it belong.

Attractions

The area around Central MTR station is the banking downtown of the city, although this just means the towering buildings are mostly offices rather than houses. Man Wah Lane is here, where you can pay people in street stalls to make custom stamps for you. Lan Kwai Fong is the rowdy nightlife spot, although it’s almost entirely foreigners. Go up the Mid Levels Escalator (longest outdoor escalator in the world) to get to the less-known Police Married Quarters which is a former barracks converted into a super-chic art gallery. To the east, the area around Causeway Bay MTR  is the Times Square of HK, though I think they outdo NY with the massive advertisements carpeting far more than a few square blocks. This hilarious map is a good run down of the rest of HK island.

Across the bay, Tsim Sha Sui is filled with Indian tailor guys trying to get you into their store, while the promenade along the water boasts a stunning view of HK island and an Avenue of the Stars a la Hollywood, although you won’t recognize any of them other than Bruce Lee. The nearby Kowloon Park is worth walking through, and the Hong Kong Museum of History was also a great stop, running down HK’s colonial history and its evolution to the modern metropolis.

Farther north, Mong Kok is probably the most packed part of the city, filled as it is with shopping opportunities. Wander around to find the street stalls that sell Chinese knockoff versions of anything, whether it’s a selfie stick, LEGO set, electronic, or clothing. (If you need more electronics, Sham Shui Po is two stops north and identical except exclusively electronics.) Keep poking around Mong Kok to find the specialized streets – there’s one for flowers, another for pets, and others for sensual massages – all within a few blocks of each other. Also poke into Langham Place, the massive 12 story mall that is the go-to spot for HK’s young and fashionable. Nearly every building has a large mall on ground floor, but this one is special – I literally got lost in it since all the escalators or purposely spread out to make it hard to escape.

For the touristy stuff, the Nan Liang Garden and adjacent Chi Lin Nunnery are easily accessible gorgeous examples of Eastern architecture and flora, though they’re only worth a half hour. The Victoria Peak tram offers the premiere view of the city, although the lines is often hours long during good weather. The Ngong Ping cable car is a worthwhile ride out to the famous Big Buddha and the accompanying monastery, with its Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas.

I’m no foodie, but pretty much everything here is delicious. Get something with fish balls, sample all of the different dim sum variants, and find a place that serves the Cha Cha dessert – a sort of ice cream/bean combination. You can’t go wrong.

Macau

No HK visit is complete without a day in Macau, a one-hour ferry ride away. The former Portuguese colony is transforming into a Vegas of the East, although it’s all right next to an authentic colonial city. This means you can walk through towering casinos and five minutes later wander through sleepy Spanish style streets – I almost thought I was back in Barcelona in parts of the main island. The reclaimed Cotai strip down south is even more Vegasy, fake and overblown as it is. Be sure to get all the way down to Coloane Village, a charming and sleepy beachside town near gorgeous beaches.

People

I Couchsurfed two friendly souls while in HK. The first was Lean, a friendly fellow from the Phillipines who worked for Reuters. He graciously made breakfast for me each morning and shared his tiny 400 foot hotel room with me- he didn’t have extra bedding so I made a sheet out of a towel and just wore all my wool underwear, which worked out nicely.

The second was Cali, a tough-as-nails single mother of two who lived in one of the public housing high-rises on the outskirts of a metro line. Walking to her place from the metro was a trip – you end up taking four escalators, two skybridges, and elevator before getting to her building, as well as walking through two separate malls. Her kids were at the grandparents for the week, which is good because otherwise there wouldn’t be space for me in her tiny flat, shared as it was with a dozen fish and three cats. I enjoyed the chance to see how HK locals live, and to hear Cali’s story (the majority of residents live in public housing).