Hong Kong is where east meets west in an urban sprawl that brings out the best and worst of both cultures. Nightlife, mountains and where the only religion is money.
Hong Kong crows that it is Asia’s World City; it’s an appropriate label that for many people often translates into endless meetings and shopping excursions through towering offices and malls. Hong Kong, however, is not all neon-encrusted urban sprawl.
The majority of its three regions (Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories) and 262 outlying islands are covered with lush tropical foliage and rolling green mountains, whilst white sandy beaches (seriously) line many shores. Hong Kong may draw people for business and shopping, but it is among its cluttered, sloping streets and remote villages where Hong Kong happens.
Known as the nexus of eastern and western cultures, Hong Kong brings diverse traditions, landscapes and classes together in such close proximity that it often feels like you are careening between Wall Street and the Tsukiji Fish Market – with pit stops in the Amazon. A fifteen minute taxi ride can lead from an 88 story skyscraper, past a chauffeured Rolls Royce, around elderly women pushing trash carts, through an open wet-market and into a jungle.
Despite its cultural and geographic breadth, experiencing Hong Kong best occurs by feel. Since British urban planners didn’t do Hong Kong any favors in constructing logical city grids, maps only provide scant assistance around the twisting streets. The key is to pick an interesting area and start drifting.
On Hong Kong Island a large mountain range, covered in rich flora and spliced with hiking trails, literally and figuratively divides the Island. On the north side, high finance and organized commerce in glass skyscrapers shadows cluttered sidewalks and gritty markets, where women in flower shirts haggle over the same bins of fresh fish, dried sausages and underwear as they argued over the day before.
Surveying the endless and colorful buildings from Victoria’s Peak is like discovering a hastily designed Lego city built in a tropical forest. The south side’s proximity to nothing remotely associated with the north side’s sensory polluted landscape draws visitors for lazy afternoons – and many others for longer. Dense, green hills, concealing cascading streams and colonial mansions, bleed into fishing villages, craggy coves and crowded beaches.
Lying across Victoria Harbour from Hong Kong Island, Kowloon’s omnipresent neon signs and cement cracking jackhammers can make it seem like you are locked in a tin kaleidoscope that is being beaten with a sauce pan. History and culture are formally and informally on display in the museums, parks and throngs of window shoppers inch-worming along skinny sidewalks. The similarity of the soaring, brightly lit shops obscure all landmarks and can disorient even an old hand.
If kicking heels and brushing against shoulders is of interest, troll Kowloon’s numerous outdoor markets for bargain purchases and a new appreciation of personal space. Cantonese speakers may dominate these markets but haggling over prices reveals Hong Kong’s true language: money.
For a respite from Kowloon’s sensory intensity, move north into the New Territories. Hong Kong’s largest region abuts the Chinese mainland and contains a well mapped network of hiking trails that scale ridges and traverse old fishing villages. The rich fauna tapestry and lack of people makes it Hong Kong’s ‘green-region’ and provides a refreshing break. While trekking along the rolling mountains and cascading streams can lead to proclamations that ‘this doesn’t feel like Hong Kong’, one is never too far from the many concrete, crowded districts.
Most of Hong Kong’s outlying islands are uninhabited rocky atolls whose only purpose is to provide texture to the seascape and a home for the trash floating around the South China Sea.
However, some islands do sparkle. The presence of numerous artists and prohibition of cars on Lamma Island lend this eight-square-mile island a bohemian ambiance; it is perfect for a quick escape when life on Hong Kong Island or Kowloon begins to suffocate. Lantau Island’s southern beaches mix western restaurants, local villages and Hong Kong’s only, although unsanctioned, nude beach.
Hong Kong’s constant sensory pollution energizes and overwhelms. And therein lays the paradox – and attraction – of Hong Kong. Nights spent at clubs that pump to six a.m. can easily drift into days wandering cluttered villages, hiking mountains, or cooling off under a jungle waterfall. Hong Kong requires balance.