From the dramatic views – when atop a mountain or at a rooftop bar – to the grounded serenity of the temples and fishing villages or the clamour of Mong Kok’s markets, Hong Kong deserves its explorer’s greatest devotion.
First of all Hong Kong is a place of contrasts. It is a place where you can enjoy the city party scene (it is the city that never sleeps – as is every other city apparently) and then recover from the hangover on the beach. A hangover which is inevitable due to the combination of ladies night – the phenomenon where anything and everything in terms of alcoholic beverages is free for anyone female – and the heat which gives you a whole new perspective on it going straight to your head. But there is more to offer than just this city lifestyle. Surrounding islands are riddled with hiking trails, many of which I have completed in the three months that I have currently spent here. Whether it is to grace the Big Buddha or infinity pool at Lantau Island or reach the secluded beaches on Lamma Island, hiking is (for me) the ultimate relief from the fast pace of University life in the city. It is the ideal synthesis of the urban and natural landscape. And then there is the weather. The weather of Hong Kong deserves an article all to itself. The unbearable humidity with an average high of 87% from April to August is confronted by the refrigerator that is every shopping mall, hotel and basically every other enclosed space. Moreover, when the weather report reads rain you continue to pack your bag for the beach as you know it will be one five minute shower at most, but you also keep in mind that in one day it can go from twenty-eight to eighteen degrees. This means you must be prepared for a transition from bikinis to a coat, hat, scarf and gloves combination which for locals must be thick enough for a Siberian winter, even though eighteen degrees is a license to declare shorts and t-shirt weather in the UK.
The cultural kaleidoscope that is Hong Kong infuses every aspect of life and the food is no exception. My palate is constantly tantalised with traditional Chinese, Singaporean, Taiwanese, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese flavours to list only a few. Not in the way that Britain has adopted knock-off alternatives for double the price – forget your Friday night korma and opt for the savoury Sichuan spice over the UK’s saccharine interpretation. Imagine sushi rolled before your eyes (Hong Kong has forever ruined even Marks and Spencer’s ‘count on us’ version for me) and fiery, heart-warming noodle-soups still bubbling as they are served. Yet the best has to be the smorgasbord of fresh seafood at Po Toi Island, the dim sum BBQ pork buns at the world’s cheapest Michelin starred restaurant, Tim Ho Wan in Mong Kok. To top it off, there is steaming egg waffles, generously smeared with peanut butter, condensed milk and brown sugar hot off the street market iron presses, good enough to rival Southampton’s very own Sprinkles. Yes the claim has been made.
While you can have an itinerary as long as Hong Kong’s mid-level escalators (for reference: the longest in the world) I still believe that the best nights are those which are unplanned and at street level by which I mean right in the middle of the throng of the crowds. A perfect example of this is the night I stumbled upon the opening of a concept shop for the alternative consumer in Central abundant with free beer and the above-mentioned waffles, music and decent conversation – basically the best things in life as stated by yours truly. This was followed by a veritable mini concert in the streets of Lan Kwai Fong (LKF to those in the know – three letters which symbolise, also to those in the know, a 7/11 sponsored street carnival). Just a symbol of how ‘happening’ the city is. From the annual out-of-festival-season November festival Clockenflap (which has the city skyline across the water as its backdrop to an evening of both international and local bands) to the rooftop cinema screenings and the secret bunker parties which are named thus that I must not say anything further on the matter, these pockets of Western culture are of course not the whole picture but they play an equal role in making it the remarkable place I have come to know.
In a country that is perhaps increasingly struggling to retain its political identity, culturally speaking I feel that it should be celebrated for many things – not least its world class dim sum, devotion to horse racing (and karaoke), the most comprehensive and sanitary metro system that I have encountered, the unbeatable bargains and ridiculous but frankly impressive climate control. Demonstrating just how integrated I am I have already spent several Wednesday evenings squandering many a Hong Kong dollar at the Happy Valley Racecourse, and have even hired a private room for four hours non-stop of the belting of (mainly) 90s songs interrupted by the occasional Cantonese ballad. It is a country that drives on the left but has not quite made up its mind on what side to walk (making walking around an incredibly difficult task in a city populated by 7.188 million and meaning that if anything will be improved by my time living in Hong Kong, it will be my spatial awareness skills). Yet it is more importantly a country that has woven the threads of both Eastern and Western culture into its tapestry and quite successfully at that. More than this, the people of Hong Kong have, in the face of recent political concerns, remained strong with only the peaceful desire for freedom and democracy which speaks volumes for its nation and should be celebrated above anything else.
Despite Hong Kong rush hour making London seem like the remotest stretches of Svalbard and ‘rush’ characterising nearly every waking (and sleeping) hour; never being quite certain whether it is raining or simply a dripping air conditioning unit; and being the target of a Chinese camera lens on every street corner, it is safe to say that I love Hong Kong. So far the transition from tourist on vacation to resident (on vacation) has been most revealing. I do not believe that you can ever truly know Hong Kong – some may say it is a confusion but I prefer curiosity. The only way you can even hope to start to unravel such a mystery is through experimentation, and not just by following the traveller guide recommendations, but by walking its dynamic streets and ascending its remarkable peaks. And this is best served with the company of both open-minded exchange students and knowledgeable local students, such as I have experienced on my Erasmus year.