Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2008


I was born and have lived most of my life in Hong Kong, and whenever I travel to the other two members of the Nylonkong triumvirate I see immediate connections. But if you really want to compare the soul of Hong Kong to that of another Western place, it's not New York or London. It's Sicily, of all places. Like us, Sicilians are islanders — tough and maritime. They have known colonization, revolution and emigration. They have their cosa nostra, we have our triads. Both the Sicilians and the Cantonese are obsessed with seafood, smuggling, secrecy and saving money. O.K., Hong Kong isn't The Godfather, but pay attention as you work through our list below: There's a hint of Palermo in the hilly, narrow alleyways of old Central and in the shirtless, tattooed men lounging in Kowloon doorways. The city of Hong Kong may rub shoulders with New York and London, but its feet still dangle in the brackish water of a sultry, southern port.

1. Victoria Peak

If a single image could encapsulate Hong Kong, it would be the panorama from Victoria Peak. Looking down at the city from this famous vantage point, you'll see one of the finest harbors on Earth and a skyline so improbable, audacious and lofty that Manhattan's looks provincial by comparison. Beyond the mountains to the north of the city, the rest of China simmers and strains. Everything you've heard about Hong Kong's restlessness and energy is dramatically reaffirmed by the view from the Peak. Even the most cynical locals never tire of visiting. It reminds us why we live here.

You can reach the peak via the Peak Tram, the 120-year-old funicular railway that departs from its terminus on Garden Road (nearest MTR: Central). Plan to arrive a half-hour before sundown and watch as the city lights come on in their varicolored brilliance.

2. Lin Heung Tea House

Proletarian clientele vie for shabby seats at shared tables as ceiling fans whir and an ancient wall clock keeps time — rather pointlessly, given that it's forever 1962 at the Lin Heung ("Fragrant Lotus") Tea House. But if you're going to have dim sum only once during your stay in Hong Kong, this is the place. A decades-old parlor in Hong Kong's Central District, Lin Heung makes no concessions to modernity or to English speakers, so be prepared for pantomime or go with a Cantonese-speaking friend. But what Lin Heung does offer is a tasty and unmediated slice of Old Hong Kong. (Don't leave without trying the lotus paste buns or the glutinous rice dumplings.) The city's culinary and cultural authenticity are potently concentrated in a few surviving places like this. (Nearest MTR: Central)

3. Charter a Junk

Everyone thinks of Hong Kong as a city, but in fact it is a sprawling archipelago of 260 islands. If you never see their rugged coastlines or deserted coves, and if you are never buffeted by the salty sea wind as it blows full pelt across a surging prow, then you will not know very much of Hong Kong at all. To see the place as it must have appeared to generations of fishermen and pirates, hire a "junk" (the term formerly applied to traditional Chinese fishing boats now refers to any motorized pleasure vessel). Load a picnic and a cool-box of beer and wine, and set off through the scattered islets. Drop anchor somewhere remote and dive off the deck for a swim.

Eight-hour charters start at around at $490 from Traway; the website is in Chinese only, but staff speak English (852-2527-2513). Companies like Jaspas (852-2792-6001) and Saffron (852-2857-1311) charge considerably more, but provide better-looking craft and, in Jaspas' case, cold beverages, onboard lunch and waiter service. Get a group of friends and local colleagues together to share the cost. Junks will collect you from Central's Pier 9 (nearest MTR: Central) or Kowloon Public Pier (nearest MTR: Tsim Sha Tsui).

4. The Intercontinental's Infinity Pools

Having a soak at the Intercontinental on Kowloon, is not a cheap proposition, since you will either need to be a hotel guest (about $350 and up per night) or a day client of the spa (which costs about the same). But here's what you get in return: an impeccably landscaped, third-floor spa deck, located right on the edge of Victoria Harbor; three infinity pools maintained at different temperatures — cold, warm and hot — with water that appears to sluice magically into the sea; a front-row view of the Hong Kong skyline; the ministrations of "pool butlers," who soundlessly replenish drinks and supply facial mists; and a feeling of ineffable smugness as you gaze down upon the tourists, sweating it out on the harborside walk below. One of Hong Kong's most sublime secrets. (Nearest MTR: Tsim Sha Tsui)

5. Temple Street Night Market

This rowdy thoroughfare in central Kowloon starts at Temple Street's junction with Jordan Road, terminates five blocks north on Kansu Street and looks like every B-movie director's dream of Chinatown. Under the glare of bare light bulbs, hawkers flog everything from bizarre patent medicines to counterfeit watches. Prostitutes work the low-rise tenements, fortune-tellers cluster by the multistory car park and impoverished Chinese opera troupes busk for a few dollars just outside the public toilets. Outdoor food stalls display still-twitching, unnameable crustacea and old men and junkies gamble on games of Chinese chess in the concrete square outside the eponymous temple. Ghetto heaven. (Nearest MTR: Jordan or Yau Ma Tei)

6. Heli-Tour of Hong Kong

Although a graceless 28-story extension has ruined the once elegant and low-rise contours of the 80-year-old Peninsula Hotel on Salisbury Road, one can be marginally forgiving because the said carbuncle houses the China Clipper — a swanky lounge that recalls the pioneering days of Asian flight. From the Clipper, guests are escorted to a rooftop helipad and into choppers for jaw-dropping aerial tours of Hong Kong. Arranged either through the hotel or through the charter company Heliservices (852-2802-0200), the tours start at a minimum of $850 for a 15-minute whirl around Hong Kong Island, during which the buildings will look close enough to prod.

Try an appetite-whetting jaunt before returning for champagne and lunch at the hotel's magnificent signature restaurant, Gaddi's (852-2315-3171), or afternoon tea in the famously palatial lobby. You'll be feeling slightly giddy for a while to come. (Nearest MTR: Tsim Sha Tsui)

7. Cha Chan Teng

In the boom years of the 1960s and 1970s, Hong Kong people demanded increasingly sophisticated dining options to match their swelling pocketbooks, and what they got was the cha chan teng. Under names like "The Gloucester" and "The Cherikoff," these neighborhood restaurants attempted to present a reasonable simulacrum of Western-style cuisine but in practice served heavily syncretic fare. The likes of soya sauce chicken spaghetti or pork chop with applesauce and steamed rice became the stuff of fashionable Friday nights, washed down with things like yin-yang (coffee and tea, mixed in the same cup). Several cha chan teng have survived, serving the same kind of food, but now they're a cult thing — visited by young people looking for their childhoods in salads of tinned fruit cocktail and mayo, with side servings of irony and retro decor. Try Mido Café (nearest MTR: Yau Ma Tei) in Kowloon — much beloved by art directors for its well preserved '60s interior — or the perennially popular Tsui Wah (nearest MTR: Central) on Hong Kong Island.

8. Star Ferry

Reclamation has reduced the journey length of Hong Kong's iconic cross-harbor ferry to a mere seven or eight minutes these days. Board it anyway. It costs just $.28 each way for an upper-deck seat (avoid the even cheaper lower deck, unless you enjoy the press of humanity or the reek of unregulated marine diesel). On this engaging little ride, you'll sail past shipping vessels of all kinds and take in widescreen views of the Hong Kong Island coastline from Quarry Bay to Western. Try and catch a sailing just before 8 p.m. These boats stop mid-harbor for a few moments so that tourists can take pictures of the nightly Symphony of Lights show — an eye-watering, ecologically reckless son et lumière that incorporates lights, lasers, fireworks and 44 waterfront buildings on both Hong Kong and Kowloon.

9. Chungking Mansions

When the local tourism board refers to Hong Kong as "Asia's World City" it's referencing the well-ordered worldliness of big banks, fine hotels and a philharmonic — not the worldliness of Bangladeshi hash dealers and Nigerian men trading used PCs by the container load. But this other Hong Kong can be found on the Kowloon peninsula, in the great sleepless citadel known as Chungking Mansions. The complex of five 17-story towers is home to residential apartments, low-rent guesthouses and offices, money changers, restaurants and shops. Some 5,000 people live here, but the population swells daily by an extra estimated 10,000 multinational visitors, buying and selling everything from secondhand mobile phones to old clothing. According to one estimate, 20% of the mobile phones now in use in sub-Saharan Africa have passed through this high-rise souk. Go to the three-level arcade to see world trade in its rawest form, then finish up with a curry at one of the dozens of South Asian restaurants on the floors above. Brace yourself. (Nearest MTR: Tsim Sha Tsui)

10. Roof of the IFC Mall

The landscaped rooftop of Central's waterfront mall, the glitzy IFC, is ringed with posh bars and restaurants. However, the resort-style sofas, tables and armchairs placed right outside those establishments are for the use of the public, and the restaurant operators have no jurisdiction over them. This means that while places like H One and Red would prefer that you blow a ton of cash on their meals and drinks, you're perfectly entitled to bring your own if you're sitting outdoors. Stop off at the CitySuper deli on Level 1, pick up a $20 bottle of wine, a corkscrew and some cheese and olives — then head to the roof for a recession-busting, alfresco afternoon. Million-dollar views almost never come this reasonably priced. (Nearest MTR: Central)