The first time I flew in to Hong Kong I thought it was the middle of the day. We’d checked in to our hotel off Nathan Road in Kowloon and went for a walk. The city was alive with men and women in suits rushing to trains, hawkers flogging everything from watches to Armani – ‘made to order in two days from a reputable shop just around the corner’ – it was a kaleidoscope of colour.
It was exciting, it was alive and I was in love.
You couldn’t see the sky from the lights of Nathan Road, the tall buildings all trying to outdo each other with flashing billboards and people, people everywhere. I’d never seen so many.
And then I looked at my watch. It was 11.30 on a Tuesday night. What on earth were all these people doing at this hour and why did it feel like lunchtime?
Hong Kong was the place your parents went to in the eighties for a week of shopping, maybe a visit to Happy Valley or a trip over to Macau to try their luck in Asia’s answer to Las Vegas.
Later, as the Aussie dollar dropped, it became a stopover on the way to Europe for many Australians.
Today Hong Kong is going through somewhat of an identity crisis. Kowloon is still very much a Mecca for tourists and bargain hunters from all over the world, but Hong Kong island, back under Chinese rule since 1997 almost defiantly seems determined to stay as Little Britain.
Hong Kong is officially Hong Kong SAR – Special Administrative Region. It encompasses Hong Kong island and the Kowloon Peninsula – and p-l-e-a-s-e, don’t confuse the two.
Hong Kong island is home to the finance district, the best shopping centres and cool streets for eating and drinking such as SOHO and Lan Kwai Fong. It’s also where most of Kong Kong’s expatriates live. Kowloon (referred to as the dark side by many snobby islanders) is where most visitors stay, eat, drink, shop and play.
I said goodbye to Kowloon the moment I stepped aboard the Star Ferry to Hong Kong island and never really went back. 10 trips later and I am very much an island girl, only ever crossing to the ‘dark side’ to visit the best jeweler in Hong Kong, Rebacca Shop at the Ocean Centre.
It’s not that I don’t like Kowloon, it’s a great eye-opener for a first time visitor to Asia and it does have fantastic shopping, but with it comes loads of tourists and those peddling hawkers. And frankly, what need do any of us that call the Pacific home have for a three-piece ‘genuine’ Armani suit?
No, it’s definitely the island for me and here’s why, district by district.
Blind fold someone and drop them at the merger of Queens Road and Des Voeux in Central and they may well think they are in Manhattan. It’s all happening here with stockbrokers rushing through traffic, dog walkers with 10 miniature poodles or whippets on gold leads and the smell of terrific food, stale beer and cigarette smoke.
IFC (International Finance Centre) is a great place to start your shopping experience on the island. Department store Lane Crawford makes David Jones look positively primitive. All the designer stores are here along with a terrific gourmet supermarket (with gourmet prices) and a selection of cafés to have High Tea.
It’s all high heels and lipsticks at IFC, you wouldn’t be caught in comfy jeans and runners at this place and if you were – don’t expect to be served by the snooty sales staff.
Just back from Central Station (which at last count had 11 exits leading to 11 different shopping areas of Central) you’ll find Shanghai Tang on Duddell Street (www.shanghaitang.com). This gorgeous shop makes Asian fashion cool. With exquisite silks and suits, homeware and gifts, don’t forget your credit card when you wander in here. Beautiful bags and shoes, baby clothes, linen, wool coats and room scents. It’s chic and uber-stylish and you’re bound to find a better (and more welcome) souvenir here than anywhere else in Hong Kong.
Around the corner from Shanghai Tang in Wellington Street you’ll find Milan Station (www.milanstation.net). Now this place is a must-visit for those who love designer bags but not their designer price tags. All bags here are genuine – either second hand (in as-new condition) or unsold from previous seasons. Chanel, Gucci, Fendi, Prada, Louis Vuitton, they’re all here and waiting for a discerning shopper.
LKF (Lan Kwai Fong) & SOHO
Cocktail bars, wine bars, underground bars, pubs and clubs. Yep, LKF is the district to head to for a night out on the island. The younger expats tend to congregate here in their genuine Armani suits after a long day moving money around the world. You’ll find plenty of Poms, Aussies and South Africans drinking at Woolloomooloo (not the Sydney suburb, but steakhouse opposite the LKF Hotel) or meet the Swiss expat contingent at Feather Boa in SOHO.
All the bars seem to have cool names and matching interiors. They’re dark, discrete and oh-so-sophisticated. Head along Staunton Street or LKF itself and you really can’t go wrong. Mella, Bisous and Beirut are favourites for people-watching and sampling the extensive cocktail menus. In SOHO, no one’s drinking beer – it’s all about Chocolate Martinis and Fig Manhattans. Dress up and stay out late.
The Escalator Districts
If there’s a downside to Hong Kong it’s got to be the traffic. Narrow streets, millions of people and taxis and something unique for an Asian city – no bikes or scooters. Hong Kong island is the Naples of Asia – crazy drivers and road signs that appear to be there for the sole purpose of displaying the latest nightclub opening hours.
So in an effort to curb the traffic, the longest covered escalator in the world was opened in 1993. The escalator (which is not continuous, but linked by covered walk ways and overpasses) links Central to the Midlevels residential district. It operates one way only – downwards in the mornings so the locals can get to work, upwards from mid-morning to late at night so they can get home.
It’s about a 30-minute walk/ride from top to bottom, but you can and should spend a full day exploring the areas it passes.
You can start the escalator journey at Queens Road or at IFC, stopping along the way at Stanley Street with its hawker stalls and teahouses, Graham Street and the Hong Kong Market area, Hollywood Road and its art and antique shops, Staunton Street and its SOHO bars and restaurants and finally up to Conduit Street and the Mid-Levels residential area.
And the rest
Causeway Bay – home to Times Square shopping centre, the SOGO shopping centre and the Happy Valley Race Course.
Wan Chai – Bars and nightclubs – this place opens late, closes … um, never.
Sheung Wan – Home to the little known and less crowded Western Market. Great for picking up genuine designer fabrics direct from the factories in China. A must visit for any seamstress.
Aberdeen – Head here to board a floating restaurant or take a harbour tour.
Stanley – Home to the famous and crowded Stanley Market. It’s Kowloon on the island and if you’re not looking for average clothes, fake shoes and handbags, I’d probably skip it. The pub across the road however has water views and good food.
Hong Kong is easy to get to and easy to get around. Grab an Octopus Card on arrival at HKG airport and travel by train – everywhere. Three days in Hong Kong would be more than enough for your wallet and senses, but a week is recommended to ensure you come home full, hung-over and broke – but in the latest designer clothes and matching shoes and handbag.