02 Mar A Weekend In Hong Kong, an Urban Wilderness of Land & Sea
HIGH-RISE BUILDINGS came into view as the plane sailed through the warm and dusky Hong Kong sky. An indelible smile formed on my face as I thought about meeting Morgan, my oldest friend and soul brother, for a long weekend.
I watched the piercing icons of modernity branch through the golden evening haze. The stress of international travel vanished.
The trifles of daily life ebbed with the sun.
I was meeting my mate. Nothing else mattered.
By the end of the weekend, the both of us would come away with a better understanding of this otherworldly city, its complicated future, and the sincere, wonderful people who call it home.
Hong Kong is more than just a city.
It’s a part of China, but not — a vast assemblage of land and sea comprising over 250 islands and 7.5 million people.
Hong Kong has passed between British and Chinese hands for the last two-hundred years since China’s Qing Dynasty ceded the territory at the end of the First Opium War in 1842.
In 1997, the British transferred Hong Kong back to China. It’s now considered one of China’s special administrative regions, along with the nearby Macau, which was returned from Portugal to China in 1999.
Hong Kong maintains governing and economic systems separate from mainland China and akin to that of the west, operating under the principle of “one country, two systems.”
As mainland China holds the right to interpret Hong Kong Basic Law, the region’s constitutional document, the mainland is essentially free to do as it pleases. It did so in recent years by imposing new security laws.
However, many Hongkongers won’t easily hand over their way of life.
This gives it a unique distinction amongst any other city as a confluence of deep eastern roots and western style, government and culture.
From my brief and relatively surface level experience of Hong Kong, I felt an inherent sense that there’s nowhere else like this global melting pot that’s seeped in history and fiery passion.
Mo and I took the metro from the airport to where we’d stay in Tsim Sha Tsui on the Kowloon side of the harbor. It took no time at all to feel the energy of this city as we ambled around the densely packed district looking for our hostels.
As we got our bearings, we accidentally strolled through the Chungking Mansions, a dizzying structure that was originally supposed to be residential, although is now home to a myriad of shops, stalls, vendors and guesthouses of different ethnicities and cultures.
We found the building containing both of our separate hostels, another labyrinthian structure with eight or nine elevators on the same floor, all going to different quadrants.
After a bit of a disorienting touchdown, it was time to eat. On my first trip to Asia years ago, I read something along the lines of the advice:
On your first night in Japan, don’t look for the quintessential hole-in-the wall ramen shop with the secret code behind a tattered hanging curtain.
This has since guided my adventures when touching down in a foreign land.
The first meal doesn’t have to be perfect. You’re hungry. You’re tired. You don’t know where the hell you are or what you’re doing.
Just go anywhere that looks reasonable. If there’s people and the vibes are solid, I’m all in.
We found a low-key spot in TST and chowed down on noodles, fried rice and an assortment of crispy golden meats. About halfway through the meal, in a daze of joy and excitement, we stopped to recognize the moment.
Mo is currently traveling the world; we spent December ripping through Japan, the country I currently call home. When he left, we thought that would be it for — well, we didn’t know how long. It was a big, teary-eyed goodbye (just me).
Yet a month later our paths realigned, and we were chatting about life over roasted goose on the Kowloon Peninsula of Hong Kong.
How did this happen? Because, we thought, at this point in our journeys, garnering meaningful experiences is more important than anything else.
The people we’ve met together, the memories we’ve made, the ways our hearts have changed — these are all things to build upon for the rest of our lives.
You can’t go back and get these experiences again — not in the same way, at least.
The moment is now, and if you truly want to make it happen, there is a way. Mo worked and saved for years before his leap. I’m teaching English in Japan while pursuing my dreams.
There are home-stays, nonprofits and teaching opportunities which can be found through organizations like Worldpackers.
What we concluded, as we sipped tall Tsingtao beers and laughed amongst neighboring tables, is that we’re still the same dudes we’ve always been.
Seeing the world has guided us. But it hasn’t changed us into something we’re not. We haven’t necessarily “found ourselves.”
Rather, pursuing meaningful experiences has helped us realize who we truly are at our core. That’s the person we’ll continue to mold.
As you experience, you whittle away the boundaries of your soul: perhaps you take a chance and talk to that girl or guy or go on that adventure, emboldened by being in a new environment amongst a foreign language and people.
Maybe you go through something difficult and find the courage to handle the situation. This strengthens an essential pillar of your character. You then see more clearly: this is who I am.
This is what I can do.
Simultaneously, your horizons broaden. Things you thought were true no longer hold the same weight. Perhaps most importantly, you realize:
This is who I can be if I face the world.
Late winter, early spring.
This is one of the better times to visit Hong Kong, as the subtropical region is known for long, hot and rainy summers. After my winter living in Japan, I was ready for some short sleeves and cool nights.
The Saturday sun felt brilliant. We ventured into Central and began traversing the undulating cityscape of Hong Kong Island’s thriving hub.
With the most skyscrapers of any city in the world, you can appreciate Hong Kong’s dazzling scale as I did from flying up above.
Yet it’s from down below — walking the mountainous streets and observing the tree-like buildings of a vast wilderness, rising into the heavens — where the city’s magnitude left me truly speechless.
As we explored, I noticed the smell of incense in the air. Sticks burn slowly on street corners, from within open-windowed shops and from glistening temples and shrines.
The name Hong Kong derives from the Cantonese 香港 (heung gong), which literally means Fragrant Harbor. The region was ostensibly called Hong Kong since its major export for hundreds of years leading up to the 20th century was agarwood, a type of incense.
The delicate smoke wafts through the streets, congealing with the warm wind and the other sundry scents of a sprightly city.
Instead of metal dripping with New York style unidentified liquids, the scaffoldings holding up the city are all made of bamboo, which consistently made me smile.
For our first meal of the day we sat down at Leaf Desert, a dai pai dong which rests at the foot of a bar-lined, active road. Dai pai dong are iconic metallic outdoor food vendors, usually beneath open, green tin roofs.
They’re unassuming and lively, cheap, traditional and tasty. Dai pai dong sprang up in droves in the 1950s and ’60s. Yet they became restricted in the early ’70s due to their noise and dubious hygiene, and now there are less than 30 in the city.
The one woman running the show pushed me aside as I clearly stood in the trajectory of her flight path. I smiled. She sat us beneath the shady tin roof from where we admired the glistening day.
I slurped down beef and noodle soup; Mo had shrimp wonton soup.
Hong Kong’s known for its culinary scene: Michelin stars and all the sizzle. But the dai pai dong is the place to be — the steak, the soul.
We spent the rest of the day climbing through the residential hills above Central, taking in the jaw dropping landscape from a parking lot up in the mountain per the recommendation of a local on their way home.
The city’s like nowhere else: a melding of Jurassic Park scale mountain peaks, Halo-esque neon structures and a sea of soaring buildings that have this tropical, pastel-tinted, weathered charm.
The city’s sleek, vibrant in the dusk.
Yet at the same time it’s jungly and viridescent. Perhaps it’s the bamboo scaffolding and green awnings of the dai pai dong, the fruit stalls and the ubiquitous covered markets.
The traditional and modern is a combination that’s beautiful from any angle, whether in the hills, the harbor, or wandering between.
We headed back down, figuring we’d have one epic meal on this trip at a Hong Kong institution. We later found ourselves at a white-table clothed table in the large dining room of Luk Yu Tea House.
The servers did it all, from plating our food and refilling our cups, to bringing out several courses of hot towels and making snide comments as they passed; I think they liked us since we ordered frog.
“It’s better than beef!” one called out as he rolled by the table, as if frog’s some best kept secret. They were proud when we left not a scrap.
After much hot jasmine tea and delicious food, we happily sailed into the evening.
By day, we watched as a man did Tai Chi in the center of an amphitheater surrounded by verdant palm trees and shadows. By night, locals sipping soju and beers from 711 packed the same amphitheater, beating the steep prices of the local bars.
We joined the scene, sitting next to a man and woman from Shanghai. The man gave me some potato chips with a cheeky smile. They took the train, he said, yet they’re only allowed in Hong Kong for seven days.
“There’s no freedom!” he exclaimed with raised brows and an emphatic voice. Coming from practically anywhere else you can stay for three months, but not from the mainland.
It hurt them, but they were still here, living their life and getting out. The couple seemed happy; they chatted with other locals and held one another close. Yet I can only imagine.
We ended up on the crowded Peel Street, where droves of people flood the hill in merriment.
No matter where you go in this world, people have dealt with Covid in different ways. We were told how restaurants in Hong Kong had to close by 6pm. Many shut down completely, as they did around the world.
It’s so strange, what we’ve lived through.
Izakayas, bars, expats and locals. Everybody seemed hopeful that their city’s back. Mo and I were these exotic creatures, “tourists,” something people hadn’t seen in a long time.
Safe to say we had a few drinks poured for us in the name of Hong Kong hospitality, which left us feeling some type of way in the morning.
Back on the Kowloon side, the working class neighborhood of Sham Shui Po provides a worthy contrast to the glitzy, towering Central. Boulevards are wide with overhanging, battered signs that feel like originals from the ‘70s.
Electronics, old-school movies and games, second-hand clothes and troves of faded jewelry unfurl in every direction from the packed street markets.
Vendors serve boiled quail eggs and dark orange yams which roast in the streets, and butchers display heads of fish next to shops with hanging, colorful fruit. Imbued with sensory overload and a not unworthy hangover, we popped into the noodle shop Lau Sum Kee for lunch.
We sat at a short round table with a few other guests, a plate of bright green bok choy between us. In the evening as the sun went down, our energy and wits slowly returned.
From a Star Ferry sailing us across the harbor back to Hong Kong Island, we watched as the lights of the skyline awakened. The mountain backdrop turned from a pale silhouette into rigid darkness.
The lights of the gleaming city danced to the tune of the moon above. From this side, walking along the harbor, the buildings of Kowloon appeared as toys in a sandbox. Like they could be picked up, moved and changed.
At Tsim Chai Kee, we sipped hot broth with thin and chewy noodles topped with fish cake and wontons and beef, accompanied by a juice box of tea, seated again with others at our table.
That’s Hong Kong.
There’s so much to see: beaches and hikes, fishing villages and the vast New Territories. Yet the next day, I napped by the lapping bank of the harbor, basking in the sun.
That seemed like a fine way to spend the afternoon.
We went back to a dumpling shop for cold green bean noodles and charred soup dumplings. The owner recognized us and wore a big smile.
We sat in the street, watching the world go by while enjoying the subtly sweet, spicy scent of Fragrant Harbour, Hong Kong.