After leaving Shanghai, I had very high expectations about Hong Kong. Everybody I talked to, who already had the chance to visit this city, gave enthusiastic reviews and told me I would have loved it. Now, some of these people had told me the same about Shanghai, and definitely, it was not love- at all.
Regardless of how it would have been, the first, literal impression I had of this place, was this:
The very first evening, right after arriving at sunset, was spent with this view, on this side of town (Kowloon). I decided, that it was too beautiful, too spectacular, too amazing, that I would rather take it all in, from a distance, before perhaps being disappointed when entering in the bowel of the city. I was so enchanted that I left my camera in its case, and made the minimum effort to document the scene- hence used my Iphone with very poor results (but it's just to give you an idea!).
OK so here are some facts:
Hong Kong is one of the two Special Administrative Regions of the People's Republic of China, the other being Macau (which is a 45-minutes ferry ride away from HK). It is situated on China's south coast, it is known for its expansive skyline and deep natural harbor. With a land mass of 1,104 km2 and a population of seven million people, Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated areas in the world (and you can see it!!!). Hong Kong's population is 93.6% ethnic Chinese and 6.4% from other groups. Hong Kong became a colony of the British Empire after the First Opium War (1839–42). The Hong Kong Island was first ceded to the UK in perpetuity, followed by the Kowloon Peninsula in 1860 and then the New Territories in 1898. The British had control until 1997, when China resumed sovereignty. This time period greatly influenced the current culture of Hong Kong, often described as "East meets West" (yes, I took it from Wiki).
So basically the good news is, all the Chinese who live in Hong Kong, while maintaining many of their own traditions (religious, cultural and culinary) have been deeply influenced by the British colonization, in terms of common law, education and administration- so no spitting around, no pissing everywhere, no screaming, pushing or all those disgusting things that the "main-landers" - so are called in HK- do oh so happily.
Hong Kong is a civilized, sophisticated, modern and welcoming place. It is full of people and full of noise- it is a vertical city, as there is a clear lack of space for everybody around. One moment it feels like walking down Fifth Avenue, and one moment later, you are engulfed in the lush tropical forest on top of Hong Kong Island. There's Harvey Nickols and Armani and Louis Vuitton super stores, and then, down the road, the most traditional shops selling dried ingredients for the most exotic Chinese cuisine. There is a highly developed public transportation system, which spans from escalators to ferries to underground metro to trams (and I have been on all of them!).
So while in Hong Kong, we stayed in Kowloon- which is basically like staying in Brooklyn- you have the view of Manhattan but you are not quite in the middle of everything. We booked ourselves at the Sheraton Hong Kong Hotel and Tower- which was beautiful and elegant- however, from our window, right next to us, we could see the majestic Peninsula Hotel - a landmark in the city, famous for its high afternoon teas and its extreme luxury.
The most fun way to go from Kowloon to HK Island is with the famous Star Ferry - which is a true institution here.
The ferry arrives right in the middle of Central- the heart of the city. As the guide said, if HK was a country, Central would be its capital. All the administrative and financial institutions are here. Here it's where business is done. And lot's of it. There are different areas around Central, such as Soho, the Mid Levels, Lan Kwai Fong. They are all close to one another- basically by walking around, after a while you realize you have been in all of them more than once! The first thing we did was the most touristy one, which is the Peak Tram- that takes you up the Victoria Peak (I think it's called like this...) where you can have the best view on the Victoria Harbor:
Once we came back down, we walked through Soho and the Mid Levels, and found out that at the bottom of tall, corporate skyscrapers, the city was alive with markets, real traditional, real Asian, colorful-smelly-loud-slimy-strange-cool markets. Some of them sold all sorts of dried foods, from sea food to chickens to pork heads, to lizards- they are all ingredients for some legendary traditional Chinese soups that I am not sure I will ever want to try...
The second day, it was dedicated to Kowloon. This is a much less sophisticated area-while in Central, the crowd is characterized by high heels, expensive bags, suits and ties, and Westerners, here is much cheaper, much more Chinese. Our friend Edoardo (who lived there and LOVES HK) called it "The Dark Side", which is a funny way to describe it, but sometimes it fit perfectly!
Here I insisted in visiting the Bird, Flower and Gold Fish Market- and guess what- it was very similar to the one in Shanghai, with the only difference that it was clean, tidy, open air, and with hand sanitizers every 5 meters (OK they had SARS a few years ago, so they are a bit paranoid about this, but rightly so and are very well disciplined). They are Chinese after all, and they love their birds in the wooden cages, they love their exotic gold fish, and their crickets in their pockets.
In Kowloon, there are the famous "night markets"- which start at around 6 pm and go on until around midnight- I think they are totally overrated and not so interesting, but we walked through them nevertheless. At first I thought I wanted to sit down and eat at some local eatery- they seemed widely popular.. but I was soon discouraged by the look of many of them (ok, I know, I should have tried, but I just could not get myself to sit there..).
The food in Hong Kong is a big part of the whole social life. People eat out at all times, every day. There are all sorts of restaurants, from French to Italian to Vietnamese, Japanese, and Chinese- all the degrees of regional Chinese cooking. I had the best Beijing Duck of my life, as well as many other Chinese dishes which were quite awesome. So if you go to HK, make sure you dedicate part of your time to enjoy its F&B..
So yes, I am a fan. Hong Kong is one of the world's leading international finance center, yet its high-rises are literally rooted in tradition. Chinese customs are tamed by years of British colonization, which gives the city its sophistication and yet its local flare. It's fun and loud and modern and elegant, and I can't wait to be back (possibly at The Peninsula, next time :-)).