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Few escape the city's high rises during a short stopover, but Nick Boulos stayed longer to discover Hong Kong's forgotten cities, ancient traditions and the best food on Earth
Nick Boulos | Issue 170 | September 2016
Sunday afternoon on the tiny island of Cheung Chau and the whole of Hong Kong, all seven million of them, were queuing on the corner of Church Road. Or at least that’s how it felt. The crowd throbbed towards the counter at Sun Chin Kee, a swelling mass of sweet-toothed dessert lovers hungry for a bowl of purple coconut glutinous pudding.
On the other side of the confectionery counter, hiding away in the kitchen and keeping a watchful eye on the next batch of green tea puddings, just as she has done for the past 70 years, was Mrs Lee. Hunched over slightly, she shuffled into view carrying a tray of freshly prepared turnip rice-cakes, looked over and beamed. “Try the red bean pudding. It’s my favourite,” she winked.
We’re all familiar with Hong Kong's sparkling skyline, its famous harbour criss-crossed with commuter ferries and junk boats with taut red sails. But for many, this unique archipelago city is nothing more than a brief resting spot on a journey to further flung corners.
Like Bangkok, Singapore and a cluster of other cities, Hong Kong is a stopover staple for those heading onwards to Australia or New Zealand. But those who stay a little longer to explore the harbour-side towers and hilly outskirts discover that Hong Kong is a rich destination in its own right – one that rewards those who linger.
Cheung Chau island (Dreamstime)
My first experience of this head-spinning city came a little over ten years ago. I was backpacking around Asia and passed through en route from Vietnam to mainland China.
But, like most people, I’ve seen only a small fraction of the 263 islands that collectively form the Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic, located on the south-eastern coast of China.
The majority of visitors see two, perhaps three, maybe even four islands of this former British-governed outpost, but my craving to go beyond the tourist trail brought me to Cheung Chau, situated a 50-minute ferry ride to the south-west of Hong Kong Island.
As one of the smallest inhabited islands, I presumed Cheung Chau was a quiet and sleepy place with dried seafood stalls and old ladies pulling along shopping trolleys with rattling wheels.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. The dried seafood stalls were in abundance (the salty whiff heavy in the air ensured their presence was felt) and a gaggle of old ladies were spotted among the throngs queuing for seafood shakes (and the obligatory slice of red bean pudding from Mrs Lee at Sun Chin Kee), but they were outnumbered by scores of others.
Most had come from the city for a day at the beach. Hong Kong may not strike you as a potential fly-and-flop destination, but there are no fewer than 40 public beaches dotted around the territory, most complete with lifeguards and shark nets to offer weary city folk a safe place to feel the sand between their toes.
Fishing boats in Cheung Chau (Dreamstime)
The crescent shaped Tung Wan Beach was a sea of parasols and blue-and-yellow umbrellas, families paddling and squealing in the shallows. A short walk away on the other side of a small headland was Kwun Yan Wan Beach,which was far more to my liking.
A small patch of custard-yellow sand, it was all but empty aside from a handful of long-haired windsurfers and their pet pooches waiting obediently on the shore. Along the lengthy promenade, which overlooked a large harbour filled with fishing boats of all sizes, were restaurants, cafés and souvenir shops. Most of the latter sold paraphernalia relating to the island’s famous annual bun festival, which takes place in April and honours a Taoist god called Pak Tai.
The focal point of the celebrations are the 20m-tall towers made of bamboo scaffolding and covered with hundreds of steamed white buns. The four-day celebrations see the devout climb the structures in a bid to retrieve a bun from as near the top as possible. Not just for something tasty to eat (the buns are readily available all year round on Cheung Chau) but for the blessing they believe the highest-placed buns bestow.
Back in Kowloon, I mused over the humorous mental image of people clambering up a rickety tower for a religious snack while savouring perfect parcels of a different kind. The dim sum at Tim Ho Wan is the stuff of legend.
The restaurant started modestly with a blink-andmiss- it shop in Mong Kok but it soon gained notoriety, and now has several branches dotted throughout the city and around the world. It’s been nicknamed ‘the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world’ yet remains no-frills, with waiters wearing lime-green polo shirts and ferrying large stacks of small, circular bamboo baskets around the dining room.
Over a feast of slightly sweet barbecued pork buns (just £1.95) and slices of spongy steamed egg cake (just £1.67), chef and owner Mak Kwai Pui spoke of his lifetime’s dalliance with dim sum.
“I’ve eaten it almost every day since I was a small boy. Sometimes I get bored of it and crave other food, but making good dim sum is a skill,” he said. “Learning to make a great dumpling takes years.”
A queue was beginning to form outside and the dining room was filled with families and groups of elderly locals in wheelchairs. Fine dining for the masses. “I wanted my food to be for everyone. We’re cheap but we still make a profit,” smiled Mak.
Dim Sum (Dreamstime)
Our cheap and very cheerful lunch gave us enough sustenance to explore a corner of Hong Kong few even know exist – or rather, existed. To the north-east is the Kowloon Walled City Park, a peaceful and beautifully designed garden about the size of four football pitches, built in the style of the early Qing Dynasty.
It is the former site of Kowloon Walled City, a diplomatic anomaly demolished in the 1990s. Originally built as a fortress to defend against the British in the mid-19th century, under British rule the city evolved into a semi-autonomous and forgotten metropolis of its very own.
Those imposing walls may have come down during the Second World War – the occupying Japanese used the stones to expand Hong Kong’s Kai Tak airport, just 1km away – which only served to invite more people in, refugees from both the Chinese mainland and the British, who were naturally drawn to this ungoverned patch.
By the 1960s, the population soared and so, too, did dozens of tower blocks, 14 storeys tall – about as high as they could go without being able to touch the wheels of aircraft on their final approach into Kai Tak. The 350 high-rise towers were crammed so closely together that residents could jump from one to the other.
Effectively left to rule themselves, the Walled City – by this point one of the most densely populated places on Earth – soon descended into a hive of opium dens, brothels and casinos, as well as housing an unusually high number of unlicensed dentists.
“My mum would get her teeth done there, but it wasn’t a place where you’d linger,” said guide Olivia as we strolled past the park’s pretty pavilions towards the only surviving remains of the city.
Sparrows fluttered between the heavy blocks, some of the stones were engraved with Chinese words and others cracked to reveal protruding rusty iron rods. One man who remembers the place well is Lam Law Ping. He still works nearby, selling plump fish balls, just as he once did in the Walled City itself.
“We were poor and you didn’t need an licence to work there,” he recounted. “There was no natural light and I remember all the wires hanging everywhere. Water would drip down and sparks would fly. No need for fireworks in the Walled City.”
Kowloon Walled City (Dreamstime)
Life must have seemed very different just a few short kilometres away during those years. Afternoon tea at The Peninsula, Hong Kong’s most historic and glamorous hotel, had been a daily tradition during British rule, and this little taste of home has evidently endured beyond the 1997 handover.
I breezed past the fleet of 14 Rolls-Royces parked outside and into its genteel marble lobby, where a queue of people were patiently waiting to nibble on delicate finger sandwiches and freshly-baked scones served by waiters in crisp white jackets.
Dusk had begun its daily descent and all of Hong Kong soon became a blaze of flashing colour. Chinese neon signs illuminated the central Nathan Road and the lights of Hong Kong Island danced across the waters of Victoria Harbour.
I stood transfixed on the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, much in the same way I had done a decade before, and savoured every twinkle of this 21st-century spectacle. It was this body of water that earned Hong Kong its name. Meaning ‘fragrant harbour’, it’s a reminder of a time when incense was shipped from here in great quantity.
I would be spending the next few days on the other side of the harbour. The extra days gave me more opportunity to explore Hong Kong Island, its ancient temples and modern skyscrapers, and the lively neighbourhoods of Wan Chai and Causeway Bay, but my favourite spot was far removed from the Hong Kong hustle.
Up on a high ridge on the island’s hushed south-eastern corner, glass and steel towers were replaced with emerald hills and sweeping bays where even the waves were quiet. I followed the 8.5km Dragon’s Back Trail as it made its way from the No. 9 bus stop on Shek O Road, undulating through a forest of blue butterflies and thin bamboo.
Large stone steps saw the trail rise steeply until the sandy path opened to reveal views of the verdant island, the village of Stanley below. I stood in blissful silence as millipedes scurried out of the sun while out-of-breath hikers nodded wearily as they continued onwards to surfers’ favourite Tai Long Wan bay.
My final port of call was an island that practically every visitor encounters. This familiarity isn’t necessarily to do with its pleasing terrain, century-old monastery or even its 34m-tall giant hilltop Buddha, but rather because Lantau – the largest island in Hong Kong – is also home to the international airport.
Lantau's Tian Tan Buddha (Dreamstime)
But having already ridden its famous cable car and ticked off the main sights on previous visits, I concentrated on its more out-of-the-way corners. That meant the fishing village of Tai O, a fishing community of 3,000 people living on stilt houses built over tidal flats.
It was early morning, long before the trickle of daytrippers were due to arrive. The lanes, lined with pungent dried seafood stalls, were near-empty except for the obligatory little old lady complete with squeaky shopping trolley. I had finally found the Hong Kong of yesteryear.
Tai O fishing village (Nick Boulos)
Spiralling coils of incense burned inside the small Hung Shing Temple, dedicated to the God of the Sea: an important place in these parts. Curiously, though, the adjoining temple was almost double in size.
The Kwan Tai Temple – built in the 15th century and paying homage of the God of War and Righteousness – is for those who face physical danger. Policemen are regular visitors and martial arts star Jackie Chan has been known to stop by.
But while fishing remains at the very heart of this community, Tai O, like so many other such places, is struggling to adapt to modern demands and temptations.
“Tai O used to be home to more than 30,000 people,” said guide Vivian over a bowl of bean curd pudding at a waterside café. “Fishing no longer offers the stable income it once did. Many of the houses here don’t have air-conditioning and the younger generations are drawn by the bright lights of the city, but places like this will always be the beating heart of Hong Kong.”
Somewhere beyond the encircling mountains, just a few miles away, was the airport. Its existence was confirmed by the metronomic aircraft that arched across the sky as they gained altitude, a constant reminder that Lantau was to be my last stop in Hong Kong, just as it is for most visitors.
My days on the islands — more a long layover than a short stopover – had come to an end. With a little extra time, what is ssusually a small aside proved to be the biggest of adventures.
The author travelled courtesy of the Hong Kong Tourist Board (020 73215380, discoverhongkong.com), while a number of tour operators offer similarly tailored city-break packages.
Main Image: Hong Kong (Dreamstime)
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