Hong Kong: An Island of a Thousand Faces
Updated: Sep 3, 2020
Hong Kong provides a rich and varied tapestry of everyday life with everything you could desire and more at your fingertips. If your preference lies with food, drink, shopping or even recreation then the island really does have something for you. The Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong or SAR as it is known is divided into eighteen thriving communities or districts. Each area has its own identity and differs in some way from its neighbour creating a really cosmopolitan feel to what is one of the most exciting places in the world to visit and to be a part of. If we take a trip on along the tram tracks we will pass through several of these communities, which may merit closer investigation. Some hold secrets while others display their wares more openly but all without exception have the ability to fascinate and amuse both the tourist and the local alike. The key to getting the best out of Hong Kong is keeping your eyes open. Remember to look up as well as down and take in all your surroundings and you will be rewarded by numerous sights that go unnoticed by the average visitor. Hong Kong has a public face and also a very private face, so with a little perseverance you can see both sides of this fascinating island.
The first place on our tour is the district of Wanchai along the northern side of the island. Wanchai is one of the earliest developed areas in Hong Kong and over the years has been the scene of some hugely ambitious and successful land reclamation programmes. The name Wanchai means ‘a small cove’ in Cantonese, and its origins can be traced back to the time when the area was once a thriving fishing community based around the Tai Wong Temple on Queen’s Road East. Those days are long gone and since 1921 around 36.4 hectares of land have been reclaimed from the sea in an area stretching from Causeway Bay in the east to Arsenal Street in the west, removing any trace of the cove from modern maps. The Lockehart, Stewart, Jaffe, Gloucester, Fleming and Hennessy Roads are all areas built on land reclaimed from the sea with the actual landfill used coming from the nearby Morrison Hill. This constant hunger for land has resulted in today’s Victoria Harbour being half as wide as it was in1840. It has also resulted in an increase in pollution levels as the harbour struggles to keep its water’s clean through the ever narrowing harbour opening.
Wanchai today encompasses the areas of Wanchai and Wanchai North, along with Causeway Bay, Happy Valley, Jardine’s Lookout, Stubbs Road, Wong Nai Chung Gap and Tai Hang. Wanchai itself has a population in excess of 200,000 in an area of just 976 hectares and is home to a wide variety of businesses along with some of the best shopping and entertainment on the island. The district boasts one of Hong Kong’s tallest skyscrapers, the Central Plaza, along with the impressive Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre and the modern Times Square shopping complex. All these landmarks coexist alongside some of the most interesting historical buildings on the island such as the Old Wanchai Post Office on Wanchai Gap Road. The Old Wanchai Post Office was built on the site of a public latrine in 1915. It finally ceased operation as a post office in 1991 and is now an Environmental Resource Centre. Sheltered under a mango tree and a camphor tree with its traditional Chinese roof tiles it is dwarfed beneath the nearby buildings. It really is a delightful old building that thankfully boasts a heritage status listing preserving its link to Hong Kong’s past. Unfortunately heritage has only recently been acknowledged in Hong Kong and much of the island’s history has been demolished and built upon in the ever increasing demand for space.
Another site worth visiting is the famous Lovers’ Rock on Bowen Road. The rock is known as Yan Yeun Sek, which translates from Cantonese as the ‘Marriage Fate Rock’. It is a huge 9 metre high rocky outcrop nestling against the beautiful Victoria Harbour scenery. The rock is believed to have magical powers for helping with romance and blessing happy marriages. It is home every August to the Maiden’s Festival when unmarried women come to seek good fortune and luck in finding a suitable husband. The rock is somewhat phallic in appearance, which probably accounts for its association with young lovers! You can actually get quite close to it on a flimsy platform and touch it for luck, while at the same time admiring the fantastic harbour views. Nearby you will also see bottles filled with water hanging from the tree on the other side of the path. This is another example of Cantonese feng shui superstition as water is thought to provide luck and prosperity. The rock is therefore regarded as a very lucky place and is very popular with young couples seeking a good start for their relationship or even single people seeking that someone special. There is also a temple nearby to place your offerings to the gods so just maybe you might come away with love and luck just around the corner!
Wanchai was at one time famous for sleazy bars and nightclubs with Spring Garden Lane and Ship Street notorious as the red light districts during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries respectively. The brothels here were called dai lum bah or big number houses as they all had large numbers on the buildings to identify that prostitutes were operating within. The sleazy side of Wanchai was popularised by many films and novels written about the area the most famous being Richard Mason’s The World of Suzie Wong. Wanchai has recently undergone much redevelopment and is moving more upmarket but the occasional girlie bar remains as a legacy to its reputation of being a sailor’s paradise in the 1950’s. Today’s bars are tame by comparison but still popular with tourists although they often charge hugely inflated bar prices so beware. You will also find tattoo parlours that were once frequented by the sailors such as the famous Ricky’s which is still doing business on the first floor at79, Lockhart Road.
On the outskirts of Wanchai lies the curiously named area of Happy Valley. It is curious because the name was originally used by the British Army in recognition of the large amount of cemeteries in the neighbourhood. The area saw a significant number of deaths amongst the first British settlers due to malaria and other sanitary related illnesses so very soon the name stuck as a peaceful resting place for the departed. Nowadays Happy Valley is famous the world over for its large racecourse which is extremely popular with residents and tourists alike. Horseracing is one of the few gambling activities allowed in the territory and is the most popular spectator sport here by a long way. Gambling in Hong Kong is limited to horse racing, a weekly lottery and some licensed mah-jong parlours with the more serious gamblers travelling to visit the casinos on the nearby island of Macau which in recent years has become the local equivalent of Las Vegas.
Happy Valley has had a public racetrack in its vicinity since 1846 although the Hong Kong Jockey Club, as we know it was not in existence until 1884. The racecourse has been modified over the years and with a major expansion and modernisation in 1994. Today it poses an impressive sight with the towering grandstands overlooking the finishing straight and the brightly lit concourse where patrons can enjoy beer, food and a spot of gambling. You can enjoy the view trackside or take a seat in the stand or even watch the race on the huge 20 x 5.8 metre video screen, which is extremely helpful when the horses disappear from view over the far side of the course. Gambling is big business here with more money being bet in a single night than some courses in the West receive in a whole year. The race season is from September through to June with races held every Wednesday night and occasionally at weekends. The first race starts at 7:30pm and entrance is only HK$10 and it is well worth attending just to soak up the atmosphere.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club paid for the nearby Hong Kong Stadium on Eastern Hospital Road in Causeway Bay donating it the community after its construction in 1994. The stadium is an imposing 40,000 seat sports arena that is home to the Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament and most of Hong Kong’s international football matches. The stadium is quite distinctive in its clamshell design and is currently the largest outdoor multi-purpose entertainment and sports venue in Hong Kong. There has been some controversy surrounding noise levels from the open air design so a new multi-purpose stadium at South Eastern Kowloon is being planned to replace the stadium. Plans were even discussed to reduce noise levels at live pop concerts at the Hong Kong Stadium by using headphones and by handing out gloves to the audience in order to soften the applause but thankfully this was rejected. The people at the stadium are really friendly and allow visitors to go on a stadium tour on non-match days for a nominal fee. You get to see behind the scenes and even walk pitch side which for a sports fan like myself is a real treat. I loved it when I visited there in 2005 and thought it was very clean and modern throughout.
The area of Causeway Bay was at one time divided by a creek known as the Bowrington canal, which flowed into the sea and was very popular place for fishing and swimming in the 1920’s. The creek became more polluted as time went by and was finally covered over in the 1970’s when the flyover connecting the Cross-Harbour tunnel was built. Causeway Bay or Tung Lo Wang in Cantonese translates as Copper Gong Bay and it is thought to get its name from a large copper gong found in the Tin Hau Temple on Temple Road. This is a beautiful and surprisingly peaceful temple surrounded by young banyan trees. It at one time boasted a prime location right on the water’s edge but due to land reclamation it is now several hundred metres further away from the sea.
Moving along from Wanchai on our way to Central we come to the district of Admiralty, which in recent years has become an extension of the busy Central and Western district. Admiralty gets its name as it was the location of Admiralty Dock, a naval dockyard that was lost in the land reclamation projects. Nowadays the Admiralty MTR station stands on the site of the old dockyard and interestingly enough you can still see a canon discovered during construction on display inside the station. Admiralty station is a busy thoroughfare for commuters as it connects the Hong Kong Island’s busy MTR line and the Kowloon Tsuen Wan Line so invariably it is quite crowded. The area around the MTR includes the Pacific Place and Queensway Plaza shopping complexes, Hong Kong Park and several exclusive hotels. The largest of these hotels is the 199 metre high, 511 room Conrad International Hotel which is situated on the top 22 floors of the Hotel Conrad Hong Kong tower with the lower floors being used as exclusive apartments. The building was completed in 1991 and features the world’s most expensive banyan tree within the outdoor plaza as during construction the structure had to be built around it due to the preservation order placed on the tree.
In the heart of Admiralty lies an oasis in the form of Hong Kong Park. Surrounded by towering skyscrapers this small park is often overlooked but for me it is one of my favourite places to visit. To the visitor and local alike it offers a peaceful setting and a chance to escape the busy streets of Central and Admiralty. The park is located along Cotton Tree Drive and is accessible from the escalators in Pacific Place. The park was opened to the public in 1991 and successfully combines modern architecture and natural landscape over an area of around 80,000 m². It has a beautifully landscaped lake, which is home to many colourful Koi Carp and is the focal point of the park along with the Edward Youde Aviary named after a former Governor of the island. The aviary is the largest in Hong Kong and open to the public allowing you to walk amongst the birds on raised platforms observing over 100 different species. The aviary has a stream running through the centre with the landscaped trees and surroundings looking particularly idyllic making it a very peaceful setting to shake off the stresses of the day.
Within Hong Kong Park you will find Flagstaff House and the Museum of Teaware, a visual arts centre, a viewing tower and a Tai Chi court where early morning practitioners come to develop their art. You will almost certainly also come across a bridal party having photos taken around the lake as the park is also home to a marriage registry office. It also holds special memories for myself and my wife as this is where we got married. The registry office is small and comfortable but the scenery in the park is fantastic which makes a great background for any wedding photographs.
Hong Kong Park is a remarkable place and worth a visit just to see the skyscrapers reflecting off the lake on a sunny day. Seldom anywhere in the world do man made structures and nature coexist in such a happy harmony as here. The beauty of the Bank of China Tower glittering in the sunlight is only eclipsed by the beauty of the lilies flowering on the lake within the park. Walk through the park and you could be many miles away from the busy metropolis of Central’s streets but in actual fact you are within walking distance of the heart of Hong Kong’s business district. Exit out of the back of the park and across the road and you will come to the entrance to another one of Hong Kong’s treasures the Peak Tram. The park is a beautiful place and centrally located so be sure to take time to visit and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere.
The areas of Admiralty and Central merge together somewhat nowadays but as its name suggests Central is the central hub of Hong Kong and home to many businesses and also home of the government headquarters. The original name of this area was Victoria which at one time was the capital of the colony. Nowadays it is commonly referred to as simply Central or Chung Wan in Cantonese, or the middle circuit to give it the correct translation. Central today is the commercial and financial hub of Hong Kong. It is an area which over the years it has gone through many changes and incarnations drastically changing the appearance of the district. Nowhere more than here on the island has heritage been more neglected with land reclamation, repeated demolition and construction of skyscrapers altering the landscape at a frightening pace. The area is pretty much unrecognisable from the 1970’s with disappointingly very little of the district’s past still intact. I have been a frequent visitor to Hong Kong over the last few years and every time I come here the skyline has changed and some new construction has been built or an old friend has disappeared from sight. It is frightening really and although it is this regeneration that gives Hong Kong its life sometimes I wish that the island would embrace its past as much as its future.
There are a few places of historic interest remaining but you have to have a keen eye and look closely to find them. One such place is the ornate Man Mo Temple on the corner of Ladder Street and Hollywood Road. This is a beautiful if not somewhat smoky temple originally constructed in 1847 that is a very popular place for tourists and worshipers alike. The temple is dedicated to the two deities Man Cheung, a Chinese statesman who is often depicted holding a brush and worshiped as the god of literature along with the red cheeked swordsman, Kwan Tai who is the god of war. Interestingly Kwan Tie is also worshiped as the god of merchants, the police and the god of secret societies such as the infamous Triads. This makes the Man Mo Temple a very interesting place, as at certain times of the year both the Police and Triad gang members may be seen worshipping side by side, particularly on his birthday which is celebrated each year on the 15th June.
Inside the temple shrine you will find statues of these and other deities, a large copper bell along with fragile wooden platforms used for transporting the deities during festival celebrations. The temple is dark illuminated only by candles and the shafts of light coming from outside. Hanging everywhere are coiled incense burners which create a very smoky atmosphere so be prepared to cough your way through the building. The burning incense indicates happiness, health and fortune and actually creates quite a mystically feel to the temple.
The Man Mo Temple is situated on the famous Hollywood Road which extends from Central Police Station right up to Queens Road West. Hollywood Road was the first official road to be completed on the colony and being at that time much closer to the coastline was often frequented by visiting foreign merchants and sailors. They would often bring antiques and valuables collected on their travels and trade them here. Today Hollywood Road retains some of that tradition as it is the home of a wide variety of antique and curiosity shops. There are many antique shops and market stalls in the area and bargains are to be found everywhere so it really is worth a visit even if you are just window shopping. The name of the road curiously doesn’t have anything to do with Hollywood in California but is reputed to have been named by Hong Kong’s second governor Sir John Davis after his family home back in England. Another source claims it is named after ‘holly wood’ trees that at one time grew in the area so the choice is yours.
Nearby is Upper Lascar Road or Cat Street as it is commonly known. The name does not refer to the number of cats in the vicinity but is in fact another link to Hong Kong’s past. Cat Street runs parallel to the northern end of Hollywood Road and was once reputed to be the place to find stolen property for sale. The Cantonese called thieves rats and the dealers who sold their ill gotten gains were referred to as cats, hence the name Cat Street. Nowadays the area is still home to a lot of antique shops but thankfully the Cat Street reference no longer applies. Another nearby street with an interesting name which many people overlook is the tiny Alexander Terrace found off Shelley Street in Central. The name itself is innocuous but take a closer look at the sign and you will see that it reads ‘Rednaxela’ presumably as the Chinese painter began painting the sign at the wrong end. Despite this mistake the sign remains and should be read from right to left to reveal the streets real identity. It is quite unusual and the most stolen street sign on the island although easily missed by the thousands of people who walk by it every day.
Another place of interest which goes largely unnoticed is Statue Square. Situated between Chater Road and Des Voeux Road in the heart of Central, this unimposing area is much different to the square as it stood half a century ago. Today you will see a solitary bronze statue of Sir Thomas Jackson who was the Chief Manager of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation in the nineteenth-century. Originally the square contained statues of Sir Thomas Jackson, Edward VII, Queen Alexandra, King George V and Queen Mary along with the focal point of the square, a huge statue of Queen Victoria cast in 1887 to commemorate her Golden Jubilee. During the occupation of Hong Kong by Japan in the Second World War all the statues including the two bronze lions in front of the HSBC building were sent to Japan to be melted down for scrap. After the war ended, the lions, Sir Thomas Jackson and Queen Victoria were rescued and returned to the island. You can see the statue of Queen Victoria today as she now stands proudly in Victoria Park close to the Causeway Bay Road entrance. The square itself was initially bordered by Victoria Harbour on its northern side but now after years of various land reclamation projects it lies further inland.
One of the most interesting streets in Central is Wellington Street, which runs straight from Wyndham Street to Queen's Road Central. The street is a mixture of old and new architecture and is one of the few places in Central that shows some of the areas heritage. Walk along the street dodging the traffic that uses this road as a short cut and you will see modern bars and restaurants alongside residential dwellings that date from pre war times. Remember as in all of Hong Kong to look up and you will see Hong Kong life as it used to be. A great deal of the tenements here are dilapidated and in poor condition but they still remain home to many people and offer a contrast to the modern skyscrapers that form the backbone of Central. Wellington Street is also the home of the famous Yung Kee restaurant, which is rightly famous for all its braised and roasted meats. The restaurant began life as a modest dai pai dong but today occupies a large site at 32-40 Wellington Street offering a premium restaurant and quality take out service. A visit to Wellington Street would not be complete without trying the roasted goose, barbequed pork or the roasted suckling pig from the extensive take away menu. All the meats are cooked to perfection and although not for the health conscious they are unashamedly delicious.
Another area which at one time was an exclusive hang-out for the expatriate population of Hong Kong is Lan Kwai Fong although nowadays it is pretty cosmopolitan and popular with the locals as well. Its name translated means ‘place of orchids’ and even today there are still some flower sellers around as a legacy to its past. It is situated just above the Central business district and comprises of an L-shaped cobbled-stone street that joins at both ends with D'Aguilar Street. Lan Kwai Fong is home to some of the trendiest bars and restaurants on the island. It is perhaps one of the most expensive areas to eat or drink but saying that it has a real social atmosphere and is very popular particularly on any special occasions such as Chinese New Year. The area was originally home to a wide variety of street vendors selling their wares and was also famous as the place to find a marriage arranger who would mediate between two families to ensure a good match and a peaceful start to married life. The marriage medium was known as a mui yan which is why the street was originally given the Cantonese name of Mui Yan Hong or medium person lane. Today the area is known as Lan Kwai Fong and is the place to be seen in Hong Kong.
In the 1980’s the area underwent a renaissance when a German-Canadian businessman Allan Zeman, a Canadian Richard Feldman and an American Karin Jaffe brought property in the area to convert into Western restaurants. Soon the area grew and became a meeting place for foreigners in Hong Kong. Today it is a busy and thriving area which comes alive after dark with many businesses owing their success to Allan Zeman, who has been affectionately christened locally as the father of Lan Kwai Fong. Try Tokio Joe for an excellent selection of sushi and sashimi, Indochine 1929 for some of the best Vietnamese food or Silk for some beautifully presented traditional Thai Cuisine. If you fancy a drink then you could no better than the stylish Twentyone-twentyone Bar at you guessed it 21, D’Aguilar Street.
Perhaps the area most famous for upmarket eateries is the SoHo district located in the Mid-levels. SoHo is named after its location as it can be found South of Hollywood Road in the area around Shelley Street, Staunton Street and Elgin Street. It is most easily accessed by the Central-Mid-Levels escalator and offers patrons a whole wealth of international cuisines to choose from. Like Lan Kwai Fong the menus are pricey by Hong Kong standards but generally pretty good. SoHo arrived in 1992 along with the escalator, before this time the area did not exist as the steep slopes made access very difficult. The area South of Hollywood Road was at that time just a residential area with none of the bars and restaurants that we see today.
After the frenetic pace of Lan Kwai Fong, SoHo is much more relaxed and laid back full of little intimate restaurants which in the not too distant past were residential properties. You will find florists, rice sellers, butchers, antique shops and a plethora of bars and restaurants suiting every taste and budget. There are more restaurants than cats here and hell there are loads of cats. This is their territory and they keep a watchful eye on you just in case a free meal maybe on the cards. The cats are not often wrong and the food is good here, you can choose from food all over the world and eat whatever you fancy. The more unusual choices range from Russian cuisine at Troika, Brazilian fare at Samba, a touch of Japanese at Nanbantei Yakitori, Egyptian Cuisine at Habibi or how about the North African delights of La Kasbah, probably not the place The Clash had in mind but good all the same.
One of the most interesting places to dine at in SoHo is the Peak Café Bar tucked away at 9-13 Shelley Street. This is a beautiful coffee bar restaurant where Chinese and colonial antiques sit side by side in an atmosphere combining the best of old and new Hong Kong. The restaurant started life on The Peak as its name suggests but now offers an oasis to tired shoppers in the heart of SoHo. The café has dark wooden booths with marble tables and beautifully curved dark bentwood chairs giving the place a feeling of luxury a throwback to the islands colonial past. Upstairs you will find an imposing teakwood bar which overlooks the street along with a huge decorated Chinese screen which dominates one side of the room. Walk into the dining room and you will be surprised to be in a light an airy room with its own small indoor garden complete with bamboo and a bubbling fountain. The kitchen here is open allowing you the chance to relax and watch the chefs at work. The food is pretty good offering anything from delicious coffee and pastry snacks through to a full meal. Try the beautifully aromatic pizzas from a stone oven, the roasted duck or if you have a sweet tooth the mango and papaya sundae.
The oldest area of urban Hong Kong is the Western District which incorporates Tai Ping Shan, Sai Ying Pun and Kennedy Town. This area of the island has changed the least in the last century and it still retains a feeling of what it must have been like to live in the old Hong Kong. New developments occur from time to time but the street layout remains pretty much the same as it was in the days of the earliest settlers. The area was at one time regarded as the unofficial Chinatown of Hong Kong and even today it is a predominately Chinese area. If you want to take a trip back in time and glimpse some of the trades and industries of Hong Kong’s past then you could do no better than walk through this area.
If you take the tram through Central to the Western Market interchange you will feel like you are being transported back in time. Close to the interchange you will see the famous 1906 red bricked Western Market building. Follow the tram tracks round past Honeymoon Dessert and along Connaught Road West and you will soon immersed in the sights and sounds of another Hong Kong. This is the area of the more traditional Hong Kong where you can find a wide variety of speciality shops selling Chinese preserved foods, medicine, furniture and Chinese art supplies.
The area most famous for preserved foods is Des Voeux Road West which is named after Sir William Des Voeux a governor in the late 1800’s. In the early days of British rule the road was directly adjacent the sea but after the completion of land reclamation work in 1904 it now remains several hundred metres away. The tram towards Kennedy Town travels directly along Des Voeux Road West giving it the local nickname of deen che lo or tram road. The area here has a pungent aroma all of its own, it is not altogether unpleasant but definitely unique. The aroma comes from the huge numbers of shops selling dried preserved foods. You will find anything from dried seafood to dried sausages, meat, mushrooms and mosses. The shops spill their wares out onto the pavement so it is really quite an adventure walking down the street seeing the huge array of dried foods on offer. The smell is quite overpowering at times but persevere and in the end you become accustomed or more likely numb to it. If you like this area then check out the nearby Wing Lok Street between Queen's Road and Des Voeux Road. This is a really colourful street offering a variety of Chinese medicine favourites such as ginseng and bird’s nest.
Along the Des Voeux Road West you will also find a wide variety of traditional Chinese shops selling paper goods and incense sticks for burning at funerals. Hong Kong was once the centre of manufacturing for sandalwood incense sticks. Nowadays production costs have increased and the vast majority comes from Macao or the mainland. You will also find an unusual shop called Wing Tak Hong which specialises in woven rattan baskets which at one time were seen all over Hong Kong. Sadly nowadays with the advent of modern materials these places are dying out fast. If you want an unusual souvenir and one that is well made and reasonably priced then this place is definitely worth a look. You can find it along Des Voeux Road West at the junction of Kwai Heung Street. Leading off Wing Lok Street and Des Voeux Road Central is Man Wa Lane or Chop Alley as it is known locally. The area is famous not for pork chops but for Chinese seals and rubber stamps called chops containing Chinese characters which are used on important documents to prove identity.
Another place of historical interest can be found near the intersection of Bonham Strand and Queen’s Road West in Sheung Wan. Possession Street marks the boundary of Queen's Road West and Queen's Road Central. It is here that the commander of the British Fleet James John Gordon Bremer planted its flag on the 26th January 1841, marking the beginning of the modern era of Hong Kong. The area was originally called Possession Cape but as the population grew and the area prospered a road was constructed which took the name Possession Street.
The Central and Western district although full of contrasts successful blends the old and the new together into a vibrant community. The district was around 12.4km² in size in with a population of around 261,884 according to the 2001 census. This however is dwarfed by the next region we shall look at the Southern District which is reported to have a land mass of 38.95 km² in size with a population of only 290,240.
The Southern District is the semi-rural side of Hong Kong and includes areas such as Aberdeen, Repulse Bay, Shek O and Stanley. It boasts some of the best natural scenery on the island with some beautiful beaches and Country Parks. A lot of the land is quite rural but the western half of the district is becoming more urbanised as the population of the island increases. One of the most popular areas with tourists in the region is Aberdeen which is home to Ocean Park and the famous Jumbo Floating Restaurant.
Ocean Park is a large sprawling theme park occupying the whole side of the peninsular. The park offers a landscaped garden along with a dinosaur trail where the dinosaurs roar and come to life. It also houses one of the world’s largest reef aquariums and an ocean theatre where you can watch dolphins and sea lions perform. Ocean park is also the home of two Giant Pandas Jia Jia who is the female and An An the male housed in a purpose built enclosure. The Pandas were a gift from the Central Government of China to the people of Hong Kong in 1999 and have proved to be one of the most popular exhibits in the park. The current pair are too old to breed so in the summer of 2007 another two Pandas were introduced as a gift from China to mark the 10th anniversary of the city's return to Chinese rule. These pandas were named Le Le and Ying Ying by the Hong Kong public which translated means ‘happiness’ and ‘abundance’. It is hoped that these Pandas will breed in captivity boosting the numbers of this endangered species. Pandas are one of the most expensive animals to keep in captivity as they require special housing and eat an almost exclusively vegetarian diet of bamboo. They can consume around 15 kilos of bamboo shoots a day so this can cause major problems.
Aside from animals Ocean Park also features an amusement park with two rollercoasters and loads of fun rides for the more adventurous. It also features a huge viewing platform that gives stunning panoramic views of the area at a height of 200 metres above sea level. There is also an excellent cable car that ascends 1.5km up the mountainside offering you dramatic views across Aberdeen including if you look carefully enough the famous Jumbo restaurant.
Viewed in the day time the Jumbo restaurant looks pretty innocuous and drab but at night it comes alive in a theatre of lights turning it into a floating palace. If you walk down Aberdeen Praya you will see a wharf advertising the restaurant and it is from here that you can take free ride across to the restaurant. It is worth taking a walk round the various boats moored here and looking out across the harbour At one time the waters were awash with Sampans and local boat people but nowadays their population is much diminished. Chances are at some point you may be accosted by a small boat or kaidos as they are known offering a tour of the harbour for a few dollars but feel free to barter and you may get a better deal. If you are a fan of the Bruce Lee movies then you may be interested to note that it is from here that martial arts hero Jim Kelly, was filmed boarding a small boat in the early scenes of Enter the Dragon.
The Jumbo Restaurant is actually one of three floating restaurants and although expensive by Hong Kong standards it is worth a visit just to see the garish decorations. Chinese murals, coloured dragons and gold and red paint abound with enough lighting to illuminate a small village. It cost a staggering HK$30 million to design and build taking around 4 years to complete. It was originally intended to be in the style of an ancient Chinese imperial palace complete with thrones, but today after several reincarnations it is a large entertainment complex. On the top deck is a restaurant and bar serving western style cuisine while the first deck offers a fine Chinese dining experience called Dragon Court. Elsewhere you can visit the Chinese Tea Garden or try the Cooking Academy, a culinary school taught by Jumbo’s chefs. Although over the top and pretty tacky and generally avoided by the locals it does have a certain appeal and is worth visiting for a night time photo opportunity a least. Incidentally there is also another Jumbo in Manila Bay in the Philippines called the Jumbo Kingdom Manila.
Aberdeen itself gets its name from George Hamilton, the fourth Earl of Aberdeen who was Foreign Secretary in 1843. In Cantonese the area is known as Shek Pai Wan which translates as Stone Sign Bay. It was here that the famous aromatic sandalwood incense sticks were first produced giving the area the original name of Heung Kong or Fragrant Harbour. Soon the name was adopted by the whole island and Aberdeen as we know it was born. The area has long been associated with the indigenous boat people; the Tankas and Hoklos that at one time fished and lived on the waters in large numbers. Nowadays only a few hundred remain but a harbour cruise will offer you the opportunity to observe the remaining community as they go about their daily lives just as their ancestors did over a hundred years ago.
One of the most beautiful areas in the Southern District is Repulse Bay. Despite its unusual name the area boasts some of the best beaches and most striking natural scenery on the island. It was named after HMS Repulse, a Royal Navy ship that defeated bands of pirates in the area in the mid-nineteenth century. It is known locally as Tsin Shui Wan or Shallow Water Bay and is hugely popular with visitors because of its sandy beaches and clean water. The area surrounding the beach was at one time very exclusive with many villas with beautiful gardens perched in the hillside. Today only a few of these villas remain having been replaced by high-rise apartments which command extremely high rents. Despite this the area is still beautiful and retains a lot of its old charm.
The area of Stanley itself is a firm favourite with tourists and the market itself remains endearing popular. One place worth taking the trouble to visit is Murray House. It is an imposing structure that was built initially in Central in 1843, for the British Army. In 1982 it was moved here stone by stone here to make way for the new the Bank of China Tower which now stands on the original location in Central. It was painstakingly restored eventually reopening to the public in 1999. The ground floor has an exhibition devoted to the history of Murray House, while the first and second floor offers some restaurants, with stunning views across Stanley and the bay area.
The Eastern District of Hong Kong is an area of Hong Kong that remains unfamiliar to many tourists. It is located along the north east side of the island and includes the areas of North Point Chai Wan, Quarry Bay before joining back to Causeway Bay. It was originally a backwater community of fishing villages but now is becoming densely populated with a combination of residential, industrial and shopping areas. Quarry Bay is often called Juk Yue Chung which translates as Arrow Fish Creek. This is a reference to an old stream near the Taikoo Docks where these carp-like fish flourished. Sadly the stream and the fish have long since gone but the name is still used by many of the older generations here. The modern name stems from the Hakka stonemasons who settled here soon after the arrival of the British opening quarries in the nearby hills.
The area of North Point is historically the home of the ‘Shanghainese’ not as you might expect immigrants from Shanghai but a term used by the Cantonese to refer to any immigrant from anywhere north of Hong Kong. The area is commonly referred to as Siu Sheung Hoi or Little Shanghai although the recent influx of members of the Indonesian community is making the area more cosmopolitan.
On the corner of King’s Road in North Point you will find the famous Sunbeam Theatre. It looks like any other theatre but it is actually the only theatre in Hong Kong which is suitable for staging Chinese Opera. It is extremely popular and although I have not been to see a performance I am assured it is very good. At the end of Shau Kei Wan Main Street East you will find the Eastern Terminus of the Hong Kong Tramways line. From here you can travel all along what was once the coastal line all the way to Kennedy Town for just HK$2 which must be one of the cheapest fares in the world. The ride may not be the most comfortable but the sights and sounds of Hong Kong more than make up for it.
One last area to cover in this chapter is the area of Kowloon which is situated just across the harbour and an area visited by many thousands of tourists every day. Kowloon has a different feel to mainland Hong Kong and although it is densely populated and very much in your face at times it still does have a certain charm. The name Kowloon pronounced Gau Lung in Cantonese means ‘nine dragons’ and refers to the mountains behind the peninsular which are thought to be home to these dragons.
Tsim Sha Tsui lies on the very tip of the Kowloon Peninsular just across the harbour from Central. It boasts a beautiful waterfront promenade from where you can enjoy the scenic view of the breathtaking Hong Kong skyline. Further inland you can explore the shopping arcades of Ocean Terminal, Ocean Centre and Harbour City or walk along the Golden Mile of Nathan Road where shops and consumerism is at its height. Hotels abound with some of the most luxurious and beautiful in Hong Kong situated here.
One of the most famous hotels in the whole of Hong Kong is the Peninsula Hotel on Middle Road just before the intersection with Nathan Road. It is a fine example of British colonial grandeur and opulence with neo-classical style interior decoration that has to be seen to be believed. You will find yourself knee deep in plush carpets and gold cherubs with ornate ceilings, pillars and pot plants. It may be over the top and expensive but afternoon tea served daily between 2-7pm is worth the effort. It costs around HK$165 for tea, miniature sandwiches, cakes, and desserts while being serenaded by a chamber quartet in surroundings reminiscent of the 1930’s. There is a dress code which is smart but casual and despite the prices it is also extremely popular so go early. My favourite part of the hotel has to be the male toilets on the 28th floor adjacent to the Felix restaurant as they are all glass and look out onto the city. You can stand and pee to your hearts content looking out to stunning views. It is a bit disconcerting at first but what a way to go! The ladies are just the same but in place of the urinals they have vanity mirrors for the ladies to adjust their make up while looking out onto Hong Kong harbour.
In direct contrast along 36-44 Nathan Road you will find the famous Chungking Mansions. Although it sounds rather grand it is a dingy labyrinth of curry houses, African bistros and clothing shops in what is basically a residential complex. Here you will find some of the best and cheapest food in Hong Kong. If you are not bothered about the surroundings and enjoy Indian and Nepalese food then these are the boys for you. Forget the opulence of the Peninsular Hotel but if you are prepared to rough it then you will get a good meal at a very cheap price.
Nathan Road itself is home to a wide variety of restaurants along with electrical retailers and clothing outlets all vying for your attention. It can be overwhelming especially for Westerners as you will be accosted after only a few steps by people selling you watches, cameras and DVD’s at seriously discounted prices. A simple shake of the head will normally get rid of most hawkers but after a while it does become a bit irritating. There are bargains to be had here but as I have said before if the price is unbelievable then it probably is a fake that will stop working once your plane leaves the runway. For any valuable purchase stick to the reputable stores and do your homework working out exactly what you are looking for and how much you would pay back home. Sometimes the prices for cameras look good but once you have a memory card and case added the price rises and what was once a bargain looks remarkable less like one by the time you walk out the door. There are serious bargains to be found but just shop around and compare prices and you will soon know if you are getting a good deal.
Nathan Road is named after former Governor Sir Matthew Nathan and runs in a straight line from the waterfront up to Boundary Street which marked the limit of the British colony. The road itself is pretty wide by Hong Kong standards and was nicknamed ‘Nathan’s Folly’ by the locals who could not see the need for such a wide road. Today it is one of the busiest roads in Hong Kong and is often called the Golden Mile due to amount of shop front neon signs in its vicinity and the amount of money spent there. Nathan Road is also famous as the home of Bruce Lee. Although born in San Francisco on the 27 November 1940, (the year of the dragon incidentally) he spent his childhood years at number 218 which has sadly been long replaced by a shopping centre. Although he was not born in Hong Kong Bruce Lee died here on July 20th, 1973 at the apartment of the actress Betty Ting Pei which is also here in Kowloon at number 67, Beacon Hill Road.
Continuing along Nathan Road you will come into the area of Yau Ma Tei. Which was one of the first areas to be built upon after the British acquired Kowloon in the 1860’s. The southern point of Yau Ma Tei is traditionally known as Kwun Chung but after the completion of the Jordan MTR Station, the area is commonly referred to as Jordan. You are now entering Kowloon’s famous market territory which is popular with tourists for the many bargains that are to be found here. Close to Kansu Street you will find the fascinating Jade Market where you can buy a variety of jade products to suit any product. Joining Kansu Street at the other end is the Famous Temple Street Night Market where you can shop and be entertained to your hearts content.
If you really want to appreciate all the markets that Kowloon has to offer then a trip to Mong Kok is necessary. Here you will find the Flower Market, Goldfish Market, Ladies Market and the Yeun Po Street Bird Garden. Mong Kok like a lot of Kowloon is one of the most densely populated places in the world where people live in extremely cramped and at times unsanitary conditions. It is known as the home of the Triads so you would expect the neighbourhood to be a threatening place but it is quite welcoming and the markets here are very good and pretty reasonable.
One of the most unusual places to visit in Kowloon is the Kowloon Walled City Park on the Tung Tau Tsuen Road. It is a modern Chinese garden built on the site of the old Walled City and was the only part of Hong Kong territory not ceded to the British in the treaties of 1860 and 1898. The walls were at one time 13 feet high and 15 feet wide enclosing an area of 5.5 acres with six watchtowers and four iron lined gateways making it a very secure place. During the Second World War the Japanese pulled down the walls using them to lengthen the runway at the old Kai Tak Airport. When the war ended the area became home to Triads, prostitutes, illegal immigrants and anyone wishing to hide themselves from the authorities. The city was eventually demolished in 1994 and then opened as a park in 1995.
The park itself is beautiful and tranquil and a contrast to its violent and criminal history. It is based on the Jiangnan garden style of the early Quing Dynasty using eight landscaped features which blend and compliment one another. The focal point of the garden is a fully restored Yamen building that would have been originally the site for settling cases and disputes in the city. Today it serves as an exhibition centre showing a photographic history of the city and the construction of the park along with some of the many relics found here. The park offers eight different walks with different views wherever you go. There are rock carvings, sculptures, gardens, ponds and pavilions and a welcome rest from the chaotic rush of Mong Kok.
From the quiet tranquillity of Hong Kong Park to the frenzied activity of Nathan Road Hong Kong is really a land of contrasts. The old and the new coexist side by side with many wonders waiting to be discovered. Skyscrapers come and go in the blink of an eye but still the place retains its magic and warmth. The districts of Hong Kong are like children all with distinct personalities. Some of the personalities you will like and grow to love while others you will dislike and be very wary of. Together they become a family and a very happy family where everyone is welcome irrespective of where they come from. Everyone has their favourites but for me it is the whole package that makes the island unmistakably Hong Kong. It is an island with a past but more importantly post 1997 it is also an island with a future.