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A Different View of Hong Kong

In Hong Kong you don’t take the tour bus to find good food. You don’t need to know where you’re going; you just press start.
-Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations

I planned this trip to be different in some ways. Hong Kong is still a familiar city to me, despite aesthetic changes over the years between my visits. On this short journey through Asia’s premier international city I experienced the familiar and the new.

Star Ferry

Familiar Star Ferry in Kowloon

Months ago my friend in Hanoi asked if I could meet her in Hong Kong–it would be her first time there and she knew that it wasn’t far from Taipei. I took this as an opportunity to not only see my friend but also as an excuse to return to a city I hadn’t seen in over seven years. Unfortunately, problems with my friend’s visa prevented her from traveling–it meant that I had to quickly come up with new plans for sightseeing in Hong Kong.Star Ferry View

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I escaped to Hong Kong often while I lived in Shenzhen–it was a mental rejuvenation trip of sorts to run from the chaotic mainland city to a more westernized city just a short distance away. As I didn’t have much money back then, I opted for cheaper meals and wandering through the streets of Central for most of those trips. I could only dream about fine dining in Hong Kong while earning a little more than $1,000 per month across the border.

Hong Kong Convention Centre

Hong Kong Convention Centre

This time around I had a healthy bank balance thanks to the relatively low cost of living in Taipei. I didn’t have to worry about budgeting as much (although I still thought about the cost of a lot of things because Hong Kong can be very expensive).

Despite not being able to see my friend from Vietnam, I was able to see a couple friends from New York who have been living in Hong Kong for about six years. I was also surprised to find a friend from Taipei was traveling around at the same time. I had a full day planned just to see my friends.

Hiking across Lamma Island

Lamma Island

Lamma Island

On the first day I met up with my Taipei friend and headed to Lamma Island on the ferry.

Sok Kwu Wan

Sok Kwu Wan, Lamma Island

The weather was nice as we arrived and we began hiking from Sok Kwu Wan Pier to Yung Shue Wan on the other side. We began our hike in the wrong direction–a matter that I noticed after checking my offline map with GPS after 15 minutes of walking. It turned out to be perfect timing for misdirection as a thunderstorm rolled in as we reached the line of restaurants on the water. We decided to sit down at LoSo Kitchen and have a local Hong Kong beer (one amber and one pale ale) while waiting out the storm.

hong kong beer

Hong Kong amber

The rain dissipated as we finished our beer and we decided to brave the uncertain weather for the hike–the woman running the restaurant said it was only an hour hike rather than the two hours I was previously told.

Lamma Island

Power plant near the beach at Lamma Island

It was an easy hike across Lamma Island–there was only one five-way intersection at which we were pointed in the wrong direction (along with four other tourists). Other than a few scenic spots, there’s not much to see along the trail. And the town around Yung Shue Wan was busy and foreigner-friendly (i.e., more western-style bars and restaurants). Rather than hang around for another drink or a light meal, we headed back to Kowloon to refresh ourselves for our respective evenings.Hong Kong night

Drinks, dinner, and comedy in Wanchai

Nearing dinner time, I headed out of my hotel, which was not the hotel I had thought it was. I thought I had stayed at a hotel called Evergreen the last few times I was in Hong Kong, so that’s what I booked. This was not the same hotel. Fortunately, it was decent for the price and location (next time I might stay farther outside Kowloon/Central).

I met m friends in Wanchai at The Optimist for happy hour drinks. For such an expensive city, Hong Kong has some great happy hour deals. There isn’t a set discount, but Optimist has a tiered menu of inexpensive drinks, like a bramble or margarita for HK$48 (about US$6). The atmosphere of the bar was lively and it got crowded just before my friends arrived–like so many newer bars and restaurants in Asia, it looked like all the other trendy joints in Manhattan or Brooklyn. We only stayed for a drink before heading to the 30th floor for Italian food at Pirata.

bramble cocktail

Bramble at The Optimist

This was better than the Italian food I had with my uncle years ago. It was so good I forgot to take any photos (also the restaurant was dark, which would’ve made it difficult). I was told that Pirata is owned by the same group that owns Optimist, which explains the decor. Unfortunately, we were not seated near the window for views of the city.

After dinner we headed to another bar for a comedy show featuring British comic Stephen K. Amos, who was quite entertaining. Certainly not an experience I had expected when I first planned the trip. The opening act was a Scottish comedian who spoke quickly with a thick accent, making it difficult to understand much of the act. It reminded me of the guy from Glasgow I met in Edinburgh years ago (I have no idea what that guy said).

Wandering around Stanley

Stanley Hong Kong

Stanley, Hong Kong

On the second full day, I headed to Stanley on the south side of Hong Kong Island. I had heard it was a nice area, but had never been there. I decided it was a better choice than attempting a hike of Dragon’s Back trail with potentially rainy weather. It was a long bus ride from Kowloon to Stanley, but the views from the winding roads in the hills of Hong Kong Island made it more worthwhile. Once I arrived, I didn’t know where to walk or what to see–I just wandered.Stanley Hong Kong

The street market was nice to walk through if I had been interested in buying souvenirs, and it led to the coast with rocks against the waves. From there I took the coastal walkway to Stanley Market and its more popular shops and restaurants as I searched for lunch.

smoked duck salad

Hami melon salad with smoked duck

That’s when I found Pinot Duck. It wasn’t nearly as crowded as the other restaurants in the area and the prices looked reasonable, plus I love duck. I ended up ordering Xinjiang hami melon salad with jasmine tea smoked duck. I was tempted to order more, but I decided it would be better to have something light and then go out again later. The hami melon was sweet to complement the savory flavor of the duck. There was also a slight citrus flavor to the salad dressing that held the opposing flavors together. After looking at what other customers ordered, I was tempted to eat more.

Instead of eating more, I wandered the streets some more and ended up at the Hong Kong Museum of Correctional Services. As it was free, I decided to take in the air conditioning for a bit. While not the most interesting museum, it did have quite a bit about Vietnamese refugees in the early 1990s.

streetcar Hong Kong

View from the streetcar

Back to Wanchai for drinks

On my ride back to Central Hong Kong, I decided to stop in Wanchai to search for some dinner and nightlife. I got off at the wrong stop from where I wanted to be, but ended up with a cheap happy hour of rum cocktails Rummin’ Tings. With the magic of Wi-Fi, I was able to locate the beer bar I had wanted to try, a bit farther away–I was told to take the streetcar (another first for me in the city and a cheap choice for transportation). Fortunately, The Roundhouse – Chicken + Beer (there are two) was not far from the stop as it started raining again.

Roundhouse Hong Kong

The Roundhouse

Roundhouse has a great selection of craft beer, both imported and domestic. Of course, I went with the domestic beer because craft beer in Hong Kong didn’t exist last time I was there. I tried Young Master Brewery’s Mandarin Citrus IPA and Kowloon Bay Brewery Nut Brown Ale and Imperial Stout. Neither Kowloon Bay beer was particularly good–the imperial stout tasted too light for such a strong beer and nut brown was alright, but lacked a bit of punch. The citrus IPA was a much better choice–it was a double IPA with more flavor, but it was still light enough match the day’s humidity.

Young Master Citrus IPA

Young Master Citrus IPA

I ended my trip with a ride back to Kowloon on the Star Ferry from Wanchai. As I stared at the lights of the city, I wondered how much more there was that I could enjoy in Hong Kong–the sights and sounds that I hadn’t previously experienced. As I have friends there, and it’s an inexpensive flight from Taipei, I will likely return to discover those new places, or just the ones that went unnoticed before.Hong Kong night

Have you returned to a place that was familiar just to seek out new experiences? How was it?

Protests and Police

“And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go”
-Bob Dylan, Desolation Row

On this Monday morning I’m still catching up on the chaos in Hong Kong. The Occupy Central and pro-democracy movements came together on September 28, marching through the business districts in Central. The peaceful protest even attempted to leave at least one lane of traffic open but couldn’t contain so many people who joined the march. Police took action later in the day, demanding that the protesters disperse or risk being fired upon. Then the tear gas was fired, and the police response was harsh. Foreign Policy has a more in depth explanation of what’s going on in Hong Kong.

As I browsed Twitter last night to read the accounts of the police response and view some of the photos, I remembered how many protests I witnessed during my time in Asia. While I was in Cambodia there were worker strikes and political protests in Phnom Penh, but all I saw of it was police in riot gear guarding main streets while I rode in my tuk-tuk on the way to the airport. That particular day was filled with violence in the streets of the capital. The majority of the protests in Cambodia were for an increase in the minimum wage for factory workers–many make less than $100 per month, and fashion retailers recently agreed to raise the minimum pay to about $100 per month.

Guess I won't have that relaxing walk through the park today

Police barricades in Peace Park, Taipei, Taiwan

When I reached Taiwan, the student movement had occupied and effectively shut down the government. I visited the protest site at the Executive Yuan only a couple days before the police “evicted” the students with water canons and batons. A couple weeks later I stumbled on a peaceful march near Peace Park, which was surrounded by temporary barbed-wire barricades. I again found myself in the middle of a protest while walking around at night not far from my apartment–a smaller march converged at a major intersection just a short walk from the government buildings and blocked traffic for about 20 minutes.

Protesters and TV news at the Executive Yuan in Taipei

The protests were quite organized and not too difficult to navigate through the crowds

I arrived in Korea a short time after the Suwol ferry accident, and encountered many small anti-government protests in relation to the accident. The government was blamed for a lack of oversight and enforcement of safety regulations. The ferry accident led to the prime minister’s resignation.

The protest in Seoul was small and surrounded by police

The protest in Seoul was small and surrounded by police

The protests were small and confined to parks, but there was always a large police presence. I lost count of the number of police buses parked along the roads–there were easily a hundred. These protests had a few dozen people, but there were hundreds of police to ensure that the protests didn’t get out of hand.

This seems necessary for a small protest

This seems necessary for a small protest

I have witnessed the protests and even some of the police responses to those protests, but I have no participated in the actions. As I am not a citizen or even long-term resident of any of these places, it was not my place to stand in solidarity with the protesters even though, for the most part, I supported their causes.

Have you ever encountered protests or political unrest while traveling? How did you handle the situation?

Overlooking Hong Kong

After more than a month in Taipei, I’ve had time to reflect on past travels and destinations. I’ve started looking into weekend trips out of the city (I’m heading to Hualien shortly), including possible trips to places I’ve already been just to visit friends. HK-from-victoria-peak

After my hike up Xiangshan to get a better view of Taipei, I thought about my two trips up Victoria Peak in Hong Kong. The major difference there is that I got to take a tram instead of hiking, but the view was equally amazing (and a little more crowded). The air was clearer on my second trip to the peak, which made for much better photos.

Victoria Peak is one of my favorite urban mountain views, but I never took in the view at night. What are some of the best urban views you’ve encountered?

Junk in the Harbor, Hong Kong

One of my favorite things to do in Hong Kong was walk along Victoria Harbour in Kowloon and watch the ships against the backdrop of Central. It was a great sight on clear days as well as the days when the clouds shrouded the mountains behind the skyscrapers.

A junk tour boat as seen from the Star Ferry

A junk tour boat as seen from the Star Ferry

Although more difficult to get a steady photo, I enjoyed taking pictures from the Star Ferry. A few of my photos are bit lopsided from the sway of the boat.

On a Cable Car to Buddha

hk_tiantan_stairsIt’s the second-biggest Buddha I’ve ever seen.

That was the thought I hadwhen I made my first trip to Lantau in Hong Kong with my parents (after numerous day and weekend trips China’s Special Administrative Region). We decided to take the Ngong Ping 360 cable car up to Po Lin monastery and the Giant Buddha.

After seeing so many temples in China, Thailand, and Malaysia, it takes a lot to impress me–and Po Lin wasn’t anything special. Yes, it’s a large seated Buddha on a lotus flower, but it’s not that interesting or even historic (it was built in 1993). It was a much better experience seeing the one in Leshan.hk_tiantan

Although the temple and statue weren’t great, the ride up was amazing. The Ngong Ping 360 cable car is an experience. I was wondering why a ticket would be so expensive, and I found out on the half-hour ride up the mountains. We were fortunate enough to have the clearest day I’ve ever seen in Hong Kong–it made the views of Lantau much better.

Lantau from Ngong Ping

Lantau from Ngong Ping

Below the cable car, we noticed a few hiking trails–with a few hikers risking the extended time in the sun and intense heat of August. I was tempted to return when the weather was cooler to enjoy a hike through the mountains of Hong Kong, but that may have to wait.

Chewing on Air

With the airpocalypse gripping Beijing and spreading eastward (even Japan is worried about its effects), I’m reminded about how bad the air pollution was when I lived in Shenzhen. After seeing photos posted on Twitter, I knew that even those awful days I experienced didn’t come close to the horrors of this past week.

View of Central Hong Kong from Kowloon on rather bad day

View of Central Hong Kong from Kowloon on rather bad day

In the last year I lived in China, I had a HEPA air filter and multiple snake plants (I’ve been told they are natural air purifiers). I witnessed days so bad that my throat burned and eyes watered. On the worst day, the Hong Kong news noted that people should avoid outdoor activities. In contrast, the local Shenzhen news claimed it was a great day to be outside. Fortunately, the Chinese media does not state such stupidity when referring to the air pollution today. I was even told by my students that it wasn’t smog, it was fog.

I hope that new pollution regulations are enforced not just in Beijing, but throughout China. It is a beautiful country, and I would hate to see it waste away into a brown cloud.

Hiding Beneath the Clouds

After contemplating my fortune when it comes to atmospheric elements and scenic photography, I remembered my first trip to Hong Kong.

The weather was absolutely miserable. It was late May and the humidity was unbearable. Being my first time in Hong Kong, my uncle decided he should show me around a bit. We ducked into stores and shopping centers to escape the brutal heat, but we were met with frigid air conditioning–it was so cold that my glasses fogged up immediately after stepping back outside.cloudy_hongkong

Despite the miserable weather, I managed to get some nice photos of Central Hong Kong hidden behind the clouds. I only had really nice weather in Hong Kong when my parents visited during my final year in China–even I was shocked by how nice it was.

HK at 15

July 1 marks 15 years since Hong Kong was returned to mainland China.

I wasn’t around long enough to notice the significant changes, and I’ll let the journalists and long-time expats focus on that. There’s plenty for those writers to discuss about economics and politics. Everything I noticed was the vast differences when I crossed the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen.central hong kong

Hong Kong was much more organized, efficient, and friendly. One of my friends commented that he was overwhelmed by the sight of so many foreigners–he was tempted to stare at them the way we were stared at in Shenzhen. Even though the streets were just as crowded as Shenzhen (sometimes more so), there was a greater comfort level in those crowds. And, of course, there was always HK Chief Executive Donald Tsang with his trademark bowtie–you can’t help but like a politician who always wears a bowtie.

The first few times I crossed into Hong Kong, I used the Luohu/Lowu border. On the Shenzhen side, it contains an enormous shopping mall that mostly sells knock-off products. The Hong Kong side has nothing except for the train station that took me to Tsim Sha Tsui. Probably the most striking difference at that border was that as soon as one crossed the physical border, the air conditioning got stronger. The Hong Kong side was definitely cooler.

hong kong

The Hong Kong skyline from Victoria Peak

I always found it a bit unusual that I had to pass through customs to enter the same country, albeit a Special Administrative Region as designated by the central government of China. One round trip to Hong Kong required four stamps in my passport–and the customs agents never wanted to coordinate their stamps and found it amusing to use completely empty pages rather than filling up already used pages. It’s all part of the “One Country, Two Systems” policy, which also applies to Macau (does that make it three systems?). This forced me to add extra pages in Bangkok during my second year.

Later on, I began crossing the border at Huanggang because it was slightly closer than Luohu. There were also a few times that I took the ferry from Shekou, but that was usually to go to the airport. When I moved to Nanshan, the trip was easier as I could take a 15-minute bus ride to Shenzhen Bay and another bus into Kowloon.

Lantau Hong Kong

Lantau from the Ngong Ping cable car

One constant at the borders was the unfriendly customs agents. They almost never spoke, even when a question was asked. Even when I brought back a Balinese statue that was the size of a small child, wrapped in paper to conceal it’s face, the officer (who looked rather confused) didn’t say a word.

Advantage Hong Kong

I spent almost four years as a expat in Shenzhen, China, which is not known for much other than its factories. It had some redeeming qualities, but lacked true character. However, it did have one advantage over any other Chinese city: it was right next to Hong Kong.

Victoria Harbor from the Star Ferry

Victoria Harbor from the Star Ferry

It was six months before my first trip to the former British colony. I was fortunate enough to have my uncle in Hong Kong for business a couple times a year, so I could stay with him at the InterContinental Hotel overlooking Victoria Harbor (and I got treated to some great food).

I also traveled around the city a few times with friends–it was a nice escape when the weekend weather was pleasant.

With everything I got to do in Hong Kong, I missed out on quite a bit–I mostly spent time wandering around Kowloon and Central. Before I headed off on my extended stay in China, I had no idea there was so much to do in Hong Kong. And I certainly wouldn’t mind spending a little more time there.