In 1997, the British set sail from Victoria Harbor and Hong Kong became the new Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. Today it’s business as usual in the former colony. Beneath all of the ultra-modern clothes and haircuts and the glossy building exteriors, however beats the heart of old Hong Kong. CEOs head home to light joss sticks and pay homage to Buddha in front of ancestral shrines. The gliding junks and incense-clouded temples of Hong Kong’s past endure, somewhat obscured by McDonald’s golden arches and shelves upon shelves of Gap khakis.
My wife and I had the unique opportunity to grow up in Hong Kong during its rise as an “Asia Tiger”. During the 1970s and 1980s, Hong Kong evolved from a back water entreport into a global financial center to rival New York, London and Tokyo. Much has changed since we left for North America. Gone are the rickshaws that populated the Star Ferry and the abundant number of foreigners that gave Hong Kong a colonial, cosmopolitan feel. Much has changed. For instance, in place of the many British are now many tourists from Mainland China. Both most things remain the same – if not more abundant. Skyscrapers are even more prevalent as are the number of taxi cabs and . Domestic help from south east Asia countries such as Philippines and Indonesia appear more abundant than ever – particularly on Sundays in key parts of Central. And the pollution seems to keep growing at an ever increasing pace…However, going back to Hong Kong always gives my wife and me a sense of nostalgia. It is truly a unique place and I highly encourage you to visit if you ever find yourself in Asia. You will not be disappointed!
The city is definitely a must for anyone thinking about traveling to the region and is an ideal location to start any journey through southeast Asia. I personally lived there for over 13 years so I can recommend places to eat and things to see during your visit. I’ve included my pictures and descriptions of some of the sights that I was able to see during my visit from July 4 to July 12, 1999. Enjoy!
The Peak is one of my favorite places in Hong Kong because it is here where you can truly experience the sharp contrasts of city, harbor and green. The great vistas make it one of the most popular tourist destinations and the clean air makes it a novelty in a city full of smog and congestion! On a clear (aka rare) day, you can see Tsing Ma Bridge, Hong Kong Disneyland, Lamma Island and other outlying islands.
You can get here either by taking a bus or the Peak Tram from Central. I highly recommend the Peak Tram which has been providing unforgettable views since 1888. The cable pulled tram travels along a track so steep that nearby buildings appear to be tilting!
Western Market & Sheung Wan Fong
The Western Market, an Edwardian-style building originally called the Harbour Office, was built in 1906 and later became a food market before closing in 1988. Two years later, it was declared a historical monument, renovated and re-opened as the Western Market in 1991. Next to it is a compass-like piazza named Sheung Wan Fong. I encourage you to visit this market to see how people in Hong Kong bought meat before the advent of mass supermarkets. I remember coming here as a boy and seeing all the carcasses hanging from hooks and listening to the local butchers yell out the latest deals of the day. The smell of the place still lingers in my mind and if you ever get a chance to whiff the air you’ll know what I mean.
Man Mo Temple
One of the first traditional style temples built during the colonial era, Man Mo Temple’s magnificent external architecture reflects its historical roots. Inside, the air is thick with plumes of aromatic smoke from the coils and incense sticks that are said to carry prayers to the spirit world. Gold altars and red shrines pay homage to the Taoist gods of literature (“Man”) and war (“Mo”) – “Man” with his calligraphy brush and “Mo” with his sword. There is also a statue of Pau Kung, the god of justice, and another of Shing Wong, the god of the city. The plaques near the entrance give an interesting perspective on the history of the temple and its gods. The temple’s historical relics include a bronze bell dated 1847 and imperial sedan chairs made in 1862.
Avenue of the Stars
Located in Tsim Sha Tsui on Kowloon is Asia’s first Avenue of the Stars. Here you can see plaques honoring celebrities from the Hong Kong silver screen and those behind the camera.
Located next to the Kowloon-side Star Ferry is the clock tower. Part of the original Kowloon-Canton Railway Terminus, the clock tower was completed and came into operation in 1921. This is a landmark from the Age of Steam, a time when people spent days traveling across Europe and Asia.
Nothing demonstrates the pulsating growth of Hong Kong more than Victoria Harbor. As you can see in these pictures, Hong Kong has grown rapidly from a small island into a thriving metropolis with skyscrapers that rival New York and Tokyo.
In the first picture below, the Bank of China designed by I.M. Pei (of the Louvre museum fame) and the HSBC bank can clearly be seen. In addition, the following pictures show the Hong Kong convention center constructed for the handover ceremony of Hong Kong to China in June 1997.
View of the Hong Kong Convention Center.
Obelisk memorializing the handover of Hong Kong.
Wong Tai Sin Temple
This very large and active Taoist temple was built in 1973 and contains some sights that are very common in Chinese culture but may seem usual for people from the West. Aside from the people praying and giving offerings to the gods, there are galleries of fortune tellers, people shaking joss sticks for good luck and fortune telling, beautiful stone gardens carved in traditional Chinese style and numerous urns for burning incense. Below is a picture of Lauren having her fortune told by a local fortune teller. In addition, I’ve included pictures of numerous bas-reliefs of Kowloon (Nine Dragons) at the Wong Tai Sin Temple.
Longest Suspension Bridge In The World
This bridge that links Hong Kong Island to Lantau Island (site of the new airport and the giant Buddha statue) is reputed to be the longest in the world (take that San Francisco!!).
Longest Escalator In the World (Travelator)
At 800 meters long, this is the world’s longest covered escalator. It links Des Voeux Road Central near the harbor to Conduit Road (where I lived) in the Mid-Levels. The escalator is a convenient way to see the city hillside which contains great restaurants and shops. Traveling the entire length takes about 20 minutes. The escalator runs one-way downhill from 6 am to 10 am and then uphill from 10:20 am to midnight. This hillside escalator is known locally as a travelator. We took it many times to travel from Central to the Mid-Levels of Hong Kong Island in an effort to avoid the horrendous traffic.
Tiger Balm Gardens
Officially known as the Aw Boon Haw Gardens, these gardens are three hectares of grotesque sanctuary in appalingly bad taste but are a sight to behold. Aw Boon Haw made his fortune from the Tiger Balm cure everything medication and this was his gift to Hong Kong. Its meant to teach people about heaven and hell and famous Chinese religious beliefs. Unfortunately, its scheduled to be torn down before the beginning of the Millenium so if you want to see it you must hurry! Below I’m standing in front of a few murals depicting life in Hell. Not exactly the Sistine Chapel…
Ching Chung Koon Temple
Located on the north east side of the New Territories, this temple is a classic illustration of Chinese temple architecture. These pictures show the classic urns for incense burning, the furnaces for burning paper objects so that they can be used in the afterlife (e.g., money, cars, clothes, etc.), porcelain paintings, and tiled frescoes.
Above is a typical furnace used for burning offerings and all things made of paper including money, cars, houses, etc. Essentially anything you want to take to the after-life or sent to your ancestors in the after-life.
Yuen Yuen Institute
This Taoist temple complex pays homage to not just Taoism (ancestor worship), but Confucianism and Buddhism. The temple has a blend of Confucius, Buddha and Tao and contains several very Zen-like stone gardens. Coincidentally, we bumped into a business school classmate here, Anthony Soohoo!
If not for the amazing sights, you should at least head to Hong Kong for its culinary delights! Although we have lived in Hong Kong for many years and eaten many exotic Eastern and Western dishes, nothing was quite as unusual as pillow toast. This is a loaf of bread that is full of butter and toasted. The outside is hard but the inside tastes rather buttery and gooey. Definitely an interesting Eastern play on a very Western food!