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Writer Amar Mistry’s university flatmate boasted that everything was better in his hometown of Hong Kong. After a week of eating, shopping and sightseeing, Amar finally understood the magic of the island off China’s southern coast.
Text : Amar Mistry
Country: Hong Kong, China

hen I was studying at university, my flatmate from Hong Kong, Lee, used to say everything was better in his home city, “even the McDonald’s.” He explained things were more modern, better quality and just better in almost every sense, “except for the air quality.”

Comparing Hong Kong to Nottingham, Robin Hood ’s old hunting ground where we were studying, wasn’t really fair. It did set me thinking, though: Was Hong Kong as magical as he described? Fast forward nine years, and I finally got the chance to find out.

I spent a week in the big city, touring with my old friend and other locals. I got to see all the top spots and understand what life was like in Hong Kong.

Jess, who is British-born and whose parents are from Hong Kong, says:

“I come to Hong Kong every few years. My mum has a lot of family here, so it’s nice to keep the connection. I like the weather, the shopping, but most of all the food. My friends here also like taking me clubbing and it’s nice to visit where my mum grew up.”

Hong Kong is made up of three areas: Kowloon, Hong Kong Island and the New Territories. Its tropical climate keeps temperatures averaging 20 degrees Celsius and very humid.

Hong Kong covers approximately 1,104 square kilometres and is about two-thirds the size of London. The population, however, is 7.2 million, making it one of the most densely populated cities in the developed world. The majority of people live in flats in high rises. I was amazed—almost the whole city is stacked with tall buildings. My friend lived on the 20th floor at his family home, typical of a family in Hong Kong.

Michael lives on floor 17 of a 35-floor building in the centre of the city.

“It’s really different from the UK. Our flat is used for family, not for hosting friends,” he said. “We have so many options; why would we cook? I live with my mum, sister, her husband and two kids, the nanny and two dogs!

It can get cramped sometimes, but it’s home for me. I have safe parking, plenty of space for my things—what more do I need? You say the views are awesome, but I’m used to them now—everybody that lives here grows up in a flat, it’s the way things are.”

As in any city, Hong Kong has different districts—tourist, shopping, food and business. With approximately 60 million tourists per year, Hong Kong boasts a number of attractions. My personal favourite was the Big Buddha, formally known as the Tian Tan Buddha. We took the cable car to a huge bronze Buddha surrounded by amazing views and other smaller statues. We saw roaming cows on the way and had to climb 268 steps to get to the top. Other notable sights were the Hong Kong beach and Victoria Peak, known simply as “the Peak”.

Jadav, a tourist from India, said: “I loved the tall buildings. Going to the Peak was exceptional! With so many people, the buildings have to be so high, very different to where I’m from.

“They are inventive with the space and it’s great to see how it all works so well. For me the view was the greatest, and I’d recommend seeing it at night to get a feel for how much life is in the city.”

Shopping and dining

Hong Kong is also a shopper’s paradise, with budget electronics and clothing markets to peruse. Bartering is common, and areas such as Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui are renowned for their wares. I picked up some power banks and small electronic accessories for much cheaper than back home in the UK. These malls are crowded but all items were well-organised by make and model. Chinese brands such as Xiaomi are taking not only Hong Kong but Asia by storm.

Visitors and residents are also spoiled for choice in one of the top destinations for foodies. With 61 Michelin restaurants (compared to 70 in London), and cuisine from across the world available, you’ll never get bored. Because dining out and hosting at restaurants is part of the local culture, service is geared towards groups, and service staff can become part of the experience. Many of the restaurants do not begin on the ground floor —you have to go into a building and take the lift up. It makes sense considering Hong Kong’s structure and keeps some spots hidden from tourists.

I ate everything from the traditional breakfast of sweet-filled toast, to Korean BBQ and even special fried chicken. It was a delight for the taste buds and with reasonable prices we were able to sample the best local dishes. My particular favourite was a rare home-cooked BBQ put on by my friend’s family with fresh caught seafood and authentic spiced hot pot.

Not in the tour guide

Some ‘ off the beaten path ’ things I enjoyed included the Chungking Mansions, a hugely diverse building block filled with South Asian immigrants peddling their wares. With restaurants, service shops, grocery stores, it is a micro-economy housed in one building. I had my hair cut by an older Pakistani gentleman, and we were offered phone cards, taxis and different luxury goods by the other stall owners. This place had more of an edge. So many hawkers made it a somewhat intimidating atmosphere, definitely different to the rest of Hong Kong, which tends to be a lot shinier.

The subway also deserves an honourable mention. It was always on time, very clean, well air-conditioned and most of the signs were in English, with handy arrows that showed where to stand when waiting. Easily navigable, this underground system was a very comfortable way to travel across the city.

Hong Kong history

The history of Hong Kong is unique. Originally owned by the Chinese, the city became a British territory after the Opium War of 1839. Later it was occupied by Japan during World War II before being returned to the British as part of a post-war settlement. The British influence is huge: you notice English everywhere.

In 1997 the city was handed back to the Chinese. Whilst Hong Kong is politically autonomous, Beijing has recently attempted to ensure it adheres to more of the rules the rest of China follows. With a wealthy population that enjoy their relatively Western freedom, some people are reluctant to go back to the stricter rules of the motherland. This has caused tension within the city with huge demonstrations and protests in parliament.

The main business sector is finance, and many companies use a Hong Kong location to access the vast and lucrative Chinese markets. Regulations are more liberal, and it is easier for foreign businesses to register there.

Suzannah, a British professional of Chinese heritage living and working in Hong Kong, is passionate about the subject.

“In my opinion those that protest against China are forgetting history,” she said. “We were always part of China and only temporarily ruled by the British. If we cut ties with China the economy would tank. People don’t understand what we gain from having these links. I mean, would half of these companies be here if it wasn’t for a presence with such good links in to the biggest marketplace on Earth? I don’t think so—I wish people were a little more considerate about what our proximity allows.”

My time in Hong Kong was filled with chats with locals that live here and experiencing their city through their eyes rather than with a guidebook. I thought it was a unique Asian city, still clinging onto its Western roots, if not by its politics then by its infrastructure and vibe. British and Chinese influences are easy to see and feel. Well-developed, safe and full of hidden gems, Hong Kong was a pleasure to visit and I look forward to returning.

Hong Kong Info Box

Population – 7,234,800

Average GDP per capita – $56,428

Number of skyscrapers in Hong Kong – 1,303

Currency – Hong Kong Dollar (HKD)

Temperature (degrees C) high/low – 29/16 July/January




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Hong Kong lives up to the hype


When I was at university, my flatmate from Hong Kong always said everything was better in his hometown. Recently I went to visit him for a week and was able to see all the top spots in Hong Kong and understand what life was really like there.

Hong Kong is made up of three areas: Kowloon, Hong Kong Island and the New Territories. It has a tropical climate with average temperatures of 20 degrees Celsius and is very humid. Hong Kong is about two-thirds the size of London but has 7.2 million residents. It is one of the most densely populated cities in the developed world.

Almost the whole city is stacked with tall buildings and the majority of people live in flats in high rises. I spoke to Michael who lives on floor 17 of a 35-floor building and he said “It’s really different from the UK. Our flat is used for family, not for hosting friends.” Dining out and hosting at restaurants is part of the local culture, so there are many options.

Hong Kong is also a shopper ‘s paradise. Areas such as Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui are renowned for their wares. The malls are crowded but all items are well-organised by make and model. Chinese brands such as Xiaomi are very popular in Hong Kong and in the rest of Asia.

While I was in Hong Kong, I chatted with locals and experienced the city through their eyes. I think it is a unique Asian city, with both British and Chinese influences. Hong Kong is well-developed, safe and full of hidden gems, and I look forward to returning.

 

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