First published in Sawubona Magazine – July 2019 edition
Twenty years ago and before, at a time when an incursion into the Mainland was too forbidding for most, Hong Kong offered a précised and sanitised ‘Chinese experience’. For travellers and traders alike it was a window to China. This view of things is now a footnote in history, completely outdated, redundant: the world has shrunk and liberalised China is on our doorstep, readily accessible. The territory’s days as a cheap destination are similarly long gone – the shopping’s still good, but don’t expect the fabled knock-down prices of the past, and as for the rest – food, accommodation, entertainment – you’ll by and large be paying top dollar. But despite these changes, or maybe because of them, Hong Kong is a sexier and more rollicking ride than ever before. Its essence, as a confluence of East and West, continues to define its course, but not in any cartoonish sense. Instead it has evolved into an established hybrid, both reflective and independent of its progenitors – an inimitable, compelling amalgam of cool sophistication, warm hospitality, and vibrant energy. The place just keeps raising its (gripping!) game. For a visitor with a few days to fill there’s little to beat it.
Your lodgings can make or break a trip, so ensure the former with an astute selection. You’ll struggle to find a better choice than the Island Shangri-La, the pre-eminent scion of a home-grown group, and the epitome of unpretentious refinement. The typical benefits of a great hotel are superbly delivered – large rooms, lavish breakfasts, premium facilities, with the skyscraper-surrounded pool-deck a splendid highlight, especially in a city known for having more of them than any other in the world – but it’s with the finer touches that the hotel really excels: from the traditional welcome tea on arrival, beautifully presented in an insulated tea caddy, and the uber-comfortable mattresses and linen, developed by Simmon’s and Frette specifically for Shangri-La, to the day-of-the-week inscribed carpets in the lifts, and the L’Occitane and Acqua di Parma toiletries, they amplify the accommodation to an indulgent celebration. The hotel houses eight restaurants on site, including the Michelin-starred Summer Palace, but it’s Restaurant Petrus that’s perhaps the star attraction. Set on the 56th floor, in elegant, conducive surroundings (the ceiling frescoes and piano-accompanied strings live large), with breathtaking views over Victoria Harbour, the place offers classical fine dining, fine wining fare, but with just enough of an edge to stir the imagination. Sample the green pea tart with yoghurt, meringue and coriander for dessert.
Island Shangri-La, Pacific Place, Supreme Court Rd, Central, Hong Kong
+852 2877 3838
Taxis are plentiful and relatively affordable, but it’s often quicker and more convenient, especially when crossing from island to mainland and vice-versa, to use Hong Kong’s outstanding public transport system, one of the most effective and user-friendly worldwide, encompassing buses, trains, trams, and ferries. The Octopus card, which you should definitely invest in on arrival, is probably the world’s leading fare collection and contactless smartcard payment system (and the model upon which London’s Oyster card was based), allows you to breeze on and off for the duration of your visit without worrying about buying individual tickets.
Hong Kong is intense. Visually spectacular, with a compact frame of sea, city, and mountain, and densely constituted, with its bustling population of enterprising people on the go, there is no shortage of things to see and do. In geography there are some resonating parallels with Cape Town. Victoria Peak, like Table Mountain, offers a spectacular vantage point from which to view and contemplate the city, and indeed the whole of Hong Kong Island on the walks around its circumference. It’s accessible by foot for the fit and energetic, or otherwise by tram. The Southern District, like our Southern Peninsula, is dotted with picturesque day-tripping towns – Aberdeen, Stanley and Repulse Bay notably – all easily accessible via the excellent public transport network. Aberdeen in particular is something unique. Historically the channel separating its settlements was home to a floating village of fisherfolk. The boats remain, a ragtag but impressive fleet numbering in the hundreds and bearing testimony to this heritage, although fewer and fewer people still reside aboard permanently. The area is also renowned for its cheap and cheerful fish ball noodles – test your chopsticks technique on the rendition at Nam Kee Noodle on Main Road.
The Peak Tram Lower Terminus, Garden Road, Central, Hong Kong
+852 2522 0922
Exchange Square Bus Terminus, Ground floor, Exchange Square, 8 Connaught Place,
Central (Bus 70 to Aberdeen, from Aberdeen Bus 73 to Stanley via Repulse Bay)
Nam Kee Noodle, Shop 1-3, G/F, 208 Aberdeen Main Rd, Aberdeen
+852 2552 2731
A dark passage, a nondescript staircase, and an unmarked door. This is the low-key entranceway to Stockton, one of Hong Kong’s coolest bars – a pre-emptive measure maybe against intrusion by the roving bands of Jack the Lads from neighbouring Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong’s notorious party district. Or other random arrivals. If you’re not in the know, clearly you shouldn’t be here. Named for Hunter Stockton Thompson, reporter, writer, reveller, the place is inspired by literary themes and influences, from its seasonal cocktail menu, the latest being a dive into Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (featuring drinks such as “The Berry Picker”), to its eclectic collection of vintage furniture and decorations, allusions to a private library or a reading room. You get the sense that everything here has been well thought-out and deeply considered: it’s a place of substance for people of substance. There are intimate crevices and alcoves, a thronging bar, a “secret” cigar den (known as the “Rake Room”), a discerning selection of fine liquors, a toilet with a two-way mirror (!!), and a menu featuring unusual delicacies like duck scotch eggs and cauliflower fritters. Treat yourself to an exceptional Old Fashioned, hit repeat, and spend a rewarding evening at this superb, atmospheric venue.
Stockton, 32 Wyndham Street, Central, Hong Kong
+852 2898 3788
You can get the best of pretty much anything you want in Hong Kong, but it’s always a good idea to eat local. The speciality here is Cantonese, the style of Chinese cuisine most internationally prevalent: chow mein, sweet and sour pork, and dim sum being typical dishes. There’s a gaping chasm though between what you get at your local Chinese, and the finer exponents available in situ. Duddell’s, an eatery-cum-art-gallery in the heart of Central on the island, gives you exactly that, the finer if not finest exponents of the style, but with a modern interpretation. Their dim sum is off-the-scale, the scallop dumplings with caviar and asparagus good enough to break the gauge, whilst their use of non-traditional ingredients such as Wagyu beef and ibérico pork exemplifies Hong Kong’s flair and individuality. Other highlights include the a double-boiled mushroom, bamboo and cabbage soup, shrimp spring rolls wrapped in rice sheets, a vegetarian ensemble of asparagus, mushrooms, lily buds and black truffles, and their signature chicken dish: marinated, air dried and then deep fried. The best approach though might be to explore their unlimited Weekend Salon Brunch, with an option for free-flow Veuve. Go hungry (and thirsty)!
Duddell’s, Level 3, Shanghai Tang Mansion, 1 Duddell Street, Central
+852 2525 9191
Over the bay, in Kowloon, you’ll find the pinnacle of an unpretentious, uniquely Hong Kongese speciality being served from a tiny, humble outlet. Whilst the physical structure belies the presence of something special, the constant queues give it away. Mammy Pancake serves egg waffles, a base batter of eggs, sugar, flour and evaporated milk, supplemented with various other ingredients, such as chocolate, peanut butter, and banana, according to taste, prepared on a waffle iron which moulds interconnected little pods (which you break off and eat by hand), and served in a brown bag. Simple and delicious. Try it as a breakfast snack, or at any time of the day.
Mammy Pancake, G/F, Carnarvon Mansion, 8-12 Carnarvon Road, Tsim Sha Tsui