Guide to Hong Kong: What to Expect

In all honesty, I didn’t know much about Hong Kong prior to going. Unfortunately, many Americans fall in the same boat. I don’t know about your schools, but mine never went into extensive depth about Asian culture or history in general. We especially did not devote much time to the small territory south of China.

Most of my knowledge about Asia has come through pop culture and current events. As a result, India, Japan and Korea were highest on my radar for places to visit, because of their reputations for being so culturally rich and diverse.

Although these countries are larger and more conventionally popular among travellers, Hong Kong provides lots of cultural bang for your buck. Despite my complete disinterest in commerce, banking or anything of the corporate financial realm, I found lots to enjoy in the bustling international hub.

You might be surprised at what you find in the city of over 7 million people.

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Kowloon skyline, seen from Mount Davis Battery

First, let’s start with a few highlights:

-Food

It’s easy to eat out in Hong Kong and spend lots. It’s also very easy to eat on a strict budget- even as a vegetarian or vegan. You just have to know where to look.

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Hawker cart of roasted chestnuts, eggs and sweet potatoes

Street food is a no brainer. Cheap, fast, accessible, and surprisingly full of veggies (sometimes). Small, local restaurants are also a good bet- but it helps if you speak Cantonese (or have a translator), as many small joints have no English-speaking staff or menu.

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Egg tart, $5 HKD (about $.90USD)

As for vegetarian restaurants, they’re everywhere. This trend is supported by Hong Kong’s large Buddhist population. At almost all veggie restaurants I ate at, the food was entirely dairy-free and mostly egg-free.

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Tofu dish from Happy Veggies (Causeway Bay)

Again, price ranges vary greatly. The best discount spot I found was actually an accident. I wandered upon it the first night I was in Hong Kong. It’s called Jade Vegetarian, on the infamous Portland St. in Kowloon. My congee and vegetables were cooked perfectly and not over-seasoned, but not dull either. The menu was all in English, and the staff was really friendly. They even gave me a bunch of free Buddhist texts as I left.

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Looking down from Queen of the East

Another must-visit (on the opposite end of the price spectrum) is Queen of the East in Causeway Bay. My waitress was super sweet and my rice-stuffed squash was fine, but the real standout is the view from 25 stories up. Although, the ambiance was killed a bit by the staff member I caught taking a picture of me while I was eating…

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HK-style french toast and yuengyuend (tea and coffee mix) at Mido Cafe

Lastly, I must include a place that is not vegetarian nor particularly healthy, but was hands-down my favorite dining spot in HK. It’s called Mido Cafe and it’s a quintessential Hong Kong “cha chaan teng“. It’s been there since the 1950’s and has preserved the same aesthetic from that time. You can find locals of all varieties at this place- the young and trendy, the old and traditional, families, business people. There are over 100 menu items to choose from, all showcasing the Hong Kong take on classic Western diner food. But the old-school vibes are this place’s claim to fame.

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Charming interior of Mido Cafe

-Art

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Street art in Causeway Bay

Upon first glance, Hong Kong does not seem to be an especially artistic place. Sure, the city is littered with traditional Chinese ornaments and full of very intricate temples. But the modern creative scene lies beneath the surface. You have to dig for it among the industrial architecture and utilitarian culture.

So dig I did. My findings were just a toe in the water and an incentive to venture back to Hong Kong with more time and a larger memory card.

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Sculptures by local artist working under the name Miss FAT (at JCCAC)

One cool space I checked out was Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre in Kowloon. The top 8 floors are filled with studio spaces, and the bottom floor houses a gallery, cafe and health food store. The space holds events, courses and exhibitions.

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Another piece featured in JCCAC

SoHo (yes, Hong Kong has one) is a district composed primarily of ex-pats and their “Western” influence. It’s not exactly a place I would spend a lot of time, as I tend to shun familiar cultural experiences when in a new place. (In other words, I didn’t come to Hong Kong to eat at overpriced, American-style diners with a bunch of white people).

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That being said, SoHo does have some pretty interesting street (or “street-style”) art- especially through the Central–Mid-Levels Escalators leading to it. Murals are juxtaposed with several foliage installations, giving the space some charm. SoHo is also supposed to have some cool galleries (like Osage), but I didn’t get to any.

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Sculpture outside of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre

The Hong Kong Cultural Centre on the bay of Kowloon has an exhibition gallery that was closed for renovation when I was there. I did, however, get to see several outdoor works on the centre’s grounds (which- I believe- are constantly being updated with new pieces).

-Scenery

Just like the art, the natural beauty of Hong Kong is not something you notice on first (or even third) glance. Once you see it, however, it’s striking.

The shot below is the bay of Lamma Island– a fishing village and tourist hotspot just 30 minutes away from Hong Kong Island by ferry. It’s not a place I would frequent, per se, but it was nice for a few hours… Particularly to provide a break from the hustle and bustle of the main island.

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A fishing village-turned-tourist excursion

There are several nature walks you can take there, and gorgeous beach views (if you can ignore Lamma Power Station in the background, that is).

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Tsim Sha Tsui Clock Tower- a landmark of the area

Hong Kong boasts an interesting mix of both Chinese and British influence, which is reflected in its design. The clock tower above is an monument of the more British variety. If you didn’t see characters on the building in the background, you could think this snap was from anywhere.

It’s actually right behind Victoria Harbour, the waterway which separates Kowloon from Hong Kong Island. Here, you can find boats of various sizes, varieties and colors amidst the spectacular, aquamarine seascape.

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Bay view at the West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade

Hong Kong has plenty of merit, but no destination comes without its difficulties.

Some slightly less pleasant things:

At sit-in restaurants, drink the tea because you’ll be charged for it either way. It gets placed on your table and added to the bill, regardless of whether you asked for it, drank it, or even like tea. Takeout/street food is one way you can avoid this one.

Bring your own napkins. Restaurants typically don’t provide them. It’s common for patrons to have a stash in their bag or pocket. You can pick up a pack at 7-11 (which are everywhere).

Bring your own TP. Lots of public restrooms don’t provide any paper products at all, so that pack of napkins will come in handy.

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Common Hong Kong bathroom stall

Be prepared to squat. In shops and restaurants there are often seated toilets, but most public ones I encountered were squatting only. This doesn’t bother me- in fact I embraced it. (Hey, it’s good for your health!) But I realize that some people might find this unappealing.

Learn a few key phrases (in Cantonese, not Mandarin, btw). Hello, goodbye, please and thank you are good places to start. Lots of signage in Hong Kong is in English, but most locals I encountered didn’t speak much, if any. It really makes it hard to get directions, identify food, be social. Plus, don’t you feel like a dick when you go to a country and don’t know ANY of the native tongue? I know I did. If you’re not cheap like me, invest in a local phone plan so you can use Google translate as well.

Get used to simple living. Hostels can be small and dingy (unless you’re spending big bucks). Hot shower water may be limited. Peace, quiet and personal space are not a given. Neither is the standard of cleanliness that you may maintain at home.

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Stairwell leading up to my hostel- this isn’t the worst of it

And the other stuff:

-Spirituality

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Buddhist shrine at Mount Davis Battery

Buddhism is the largest organized religion in Hong Kong, and over half of the population identifies with some religion. (Taoism and Confucianism are close followers). As a result, spiritual presence is everywhere- from longstanding temples to shrines and altars set up on the side of the road. Many restaurants and some stores are affiliated with Buddhism, and resources like texts and prayer beads can be found in most markets.

-Social/Political Activism

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I was impressed with the political presence I witnessed during the brief time I was in Hong Kong. I found myself in the middle of two different protests, which appeared to be associated with “Occupy Central“.

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Yellow umbrella rally in Kowloon

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In a place that has traditionally been pretty conservative, it was a surprise to see subtle rebellions littered around the city. I liked it, as it gave me a sense of connection with this place. Hong Kong residents were fighting the same fight I’ve fought, promoting the same ethics and values, trying to establish democracy and justice and equality.

I don’t know enough about Hong Kong’s government to speak much on the topic, but from what I’ve read there are a growing number of young, liberal activists.

 

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Hong Kong is full of quirks, like the Avenue of Comic Stars. You can find activities to suit any interest. The nature-lover, the shopaholic, the history nerd, or the anime junkie can all be satisfied. Foodies, yuppies, yuccies, hippies, “hipsters”, jocks, you name it. There’s something for you all.

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Have something to add to the list of suggestions (or precautions) for Hong Kong?