While Shanghai has started to dip it’s toes into the concept of Christmas – with ostentatious festive displays in every mall and Mariah Carey on repeat in Starbucks as of November 1st – the adopted traditions have only been around for a few years and feel relatively superficial. Christmas isn’t a national holiday here and barely registered on the radar of our colleagues (everyone is too busy looking forward to Chinese New Year, which will fall in mid-February 2018). Being a big fan of Christmastime (not just the day, but those preceding days where everyone starts to relax into a mulled stupor of glühwein, baileys and mince pies), I wanted a refresher of something traditional.
“Where to find some authentic British Christmas cheer?”, we pondered, “without resorting to a long-haul in economy class… perhaps a former British colony in Southeastern China?” And so the weekend before the big day, we nipped over for our first visit to Hong Kong.
We arrived in the early afternoon (HK is a 3 hour flight from Shanghai) and after lunch we wandered around the Causeway Bay area (where there also happens to be excellent shopping) before taking in the sunset from the rooftop of our hotel. I’d been told by friends to expect a cramped and crowded place, so it was nice to have an unobstructed view of the harbour at dusk.
Street Art in Soho
Our first morning dawned chilly and overcast scuppering our original plan to climb Victoria Peak, so instead we caught the metro to Sheung Wen, Soho district.
When we arrived at 10am-ish, aside from the trash collectors, we had the place to ourselves. This was great for taking photos, but finding somewhere open for breakfast was impossible! It dawned on us that it was Sunday, and we had a flash-back to Sundays in England where shops don’t stir for blood nor money before 11am. It was strange for us to be in China and yet not come across little street-food stalls selling scallion pancakes or congee! We found a coffee shop that did bagels and then spent a few hours exploring the street art in the neighbourhood.
I’d read a little about HKs street art and was excited to check it out. We didn’t have to try very hard to find what we were looking for; right opposite the place we got coffee was a queue of 8 or 10 Asian girls queuing to have their photo taken against the Instagram-worthy wall opposite.
We spent the rest of the morning, and some of the afternoon, strolling up and down the steep streets and narrow alleyways – each of which in turn revealed street-art, graffiti and paste-ups – some were glaring and obviously commercial (commissioned by the owners of the wall) while others were more subtle. I took a raft of photos, a sample of which you can see in the slideshow below.
Street-art aside, Soho – so called because it is South of Hollywood Road – was a cool place to explore. Once the city began to stir and the window shutters were rolled back we found stylish restaurants, coffee shops, wine bars and fashion boutiques.
The whole area is packed like a proverbial sardine tin; buildings have been assembled one-on-top-of-the-other like lego bricks and they are often as colourful, albeit slapdash and shabby. Some streets had advertisement signs bracketing every inch of second-floor wall space, vying for attention, while below throngs of people and boxy red taxis navigated the narrow streets. In some areas we found raised pedestrian walkways, above the streets themselves, which had the effect of making the dense space even more concentrated. Above, only slivers of sky were visible.
Nestled down one of the streets we found a Christmas market… although unfortunately no mulled wine!
We had heard that the view from Victoria Peak – named after Queen Victora and 552m above sea level – was a great way to get your bearings and take in the city as a whole. Those who feel energetic and have a bit of time can walk up to the top – a steep hike which takes you through a shady rain-forest and past exclusive, isolated houses (HKs costliest real estate); however, if energy and time are not on your side then – like us – you can take the tram.
The Peak Tram was designed by a couple of British engineers in the 1880’s. They were told by everyone it was an impossible feat – justifiably, given the logistics of the journey – but they managed to prove all those people wrong; the tram has been running continuously ever since (apparently only World War 2 and a freak mudslide have ever disrupted the journey). Our bodies sunk back into the polished wooden seats as the carriage was hauled upwards at a seriously steep gradient. It felt a little like the stomach-churning pull up towards the peak of a rollercoaster and I was relieved when – after about 5-or-10 minutes – we reached the top.
Exiting the tram we entered ‘Peak Tower’, an anvil shaped observation point that for some reason also contained a Madam Tussaud’s and a Forest Gump themed shrimp restaurant. We resisted those temptations (!) and headed up to the panoramic viewing platform: Sky Terrace 428. From here you can see right out over HKs harbour and epic skyscrapers and across to Kowloon. You can also see the tram clanking up and down the hill below. I try not to use words like ‘breathtaking’, but I’m struggling to think of a better word – living in Shanghai you get used to skyscrapers and spectacular skylines, but this was nonetheless very impressive.
Like the Victoria Tram, the white-and-green (and undoubtedly British-looking) Star Ferry fleet is iconic of HK. Residents have been shuttled between HK island and Kowloon on the astral-named boats for over 120 years; indeed, until 1978 when the Cross-Harbour Tunnel opened, it was the only way to cross the harbour.
The interior of the ferry was beautiful; polished redwood floors and a star pattern stamped into each seat. The crossing from Kowloon to Central only cost us a couple of dollars each (about 20p), and offered another great perspective of the city as well as a step back in time.
And finally, food…
As an international trade city, Hong Kong has on offer pretty much any kind of food, to suit any taste and budget. For lunch you could enjoy a sandwich and afternoon tea in a 5-star Victorian hotel overlooking the bay (though you may need to get permission from your bank manager), or alternatively you could grab some noodles from a cupboard-sized restaurant under a footbridge. There is a huge variety of international cuisine here, and we indulged our nostalgia at a couple of British celebrity chef restaurants.
The true Hong Kong experience wouldn’t be complete without dim sum (or diǎnxīn – snacks). When you eat dim sum you typically order several different dishes (tapas-style), which tend to be buns or dumplings, stuffed with sweet or savory fillings and then steamed, baked or fried. You then dip in Chinese vinegar, soy or simply enjoy them as they come. Apparently Hong Kong has the cheapest Michelin Star awarded restaurant in the world, a dim sum eatery situated in a secluded part of a train station. It isn’t much to look at but the queues for tables were enormous whenever we went. Fortunately they did take away so we skipped the queue and ordered their speciality dish: BBQ pork baked buns….
These were delicious; light, fluffy and ever so slightly crispy baked dough with a filling of succulent barbecued pork in a sweet/sour barbecue sauce. We could just about see why people seemed prepared to wait for hours for a table!
We visited one of HK’s branches of Lady M, an American cake maker that specialises in mille crêpe (cakes made up of alternating layers of paper-thin crepe and sweet cream). We aren’t necessarily cake people but one of these cafes recently opened up in one of the more upmarket malls in Shanghai; at peak fad, the queues for a crêpe cakes topped 8 hours. 8 hours! For a cake! The supply/demand shortfall led to some entrepreneurial sorts flying to HK to smuggle these cakes back into Shanghai and sell them at an outrageous profit to people who were prepared to pay to avoid the queue. The government consequently had to ban the smuggling of cakes into mainland China, making it perhaps the most first-world crime of which i’ve ever heard!
It was a relatively significant time for us to visit HK, as 2017 marked the 20th anniversary of the transfer of sovereignty from the UK to China – an event known as “the Handover” internationally and “the Return” in China – ending over a century of British rule.
HK’s growth from a natural port to a global financial centre came largely under British governance and the city still has an undeniable British feel to it; there are streets named after British prime ministers, lots of options for afternoon tea and – perhaps most important – Marks & Spencers. Negotiations between the PRC and Thatcher’s government, initiated in 1982, were protracted and complex but finally a solution was reached. The territory was to be reintegrated into China using a formula of ‘One Country, Two Systems’; meaning that HK would be Chinese from 1997, but with economic, political and judicial freedoms for the next 50 years.
There are now more than 1 million people from mainland China living in HK and the Kowloon Peninsula and to the untrained eye and ear it may look for all intents and purposes like a Chinese Tier 1 city; however, it is very different to any other we’ve visited. For a start, Hong Kong did not adopt the simplified Chinese characters, choosing to use traditional characters which lots of Chinese cannot read, and audio announcements like those at the airport are normally given in 3 languages; first in Cantonese, then English and finally Mandarin Chinese (it seemed like people typically spoke Cantonese or English by choice; when we tried to speak a little mandarin to people it didn’t get us very far!). HK also has it’s own currency – the HK Dollar and surprisingly the mobile payment services of WeChat and Alipay which are ubiquitous on mainland China hadn’t taken hold here – it was a little strange carrying cash around!
We only dipped in to HK for a short 3-day stay but we found the cultural contrasts between British, Chinese and Cantonese fascinating, particularly from the perspective of a couple of Brits living in China.