I was living in Japan as a Rotary exchange student in 1997 when the British lease of Hong Kong expired.  Watching the celebrations on television, I longed to visit and see Hong Kong for myself.  These people knew how to party, I thought.  What’s more, they lived in a beautiful tropical city, sitting right on the water, with some of the tallest and narrowest buildings I had ever seen.  Fourteen years later, I finally made it, and Hong Kong did not disappoint.

Hong Kong has a lot of immigrants who come for a wide strata of economic opportunity – from housekeeping to banking.  People come heavily from SE Asia and the English-speaking world.  This melting pot of people was immediately apparent to me because Hong Kong is the only country I have been where people drive on the left, but don’t necessarily walk on the left.  I’m never quite sure what side of the street to gravitate to here – my guess is people just walk on whatever side they’re used to.  In New York, speed and position on the sidewalk are important, so I try to walk in step wherever I am.

Much about Hong Kong is very familiar to me – yet even the challenges seem somewhat easier here.  Many people speak English, and you can certainly get by without speaking Cantonese (our British friends who live here have never learned; one told us that with his Mandarin and English he has never once needed to use Cantonese in his five years spent here).  Like in most parts of Asia, signs are in English and Chinese.  For me, having both sets of writing juxtaposed has provided an opportunity for review and new knowledge.  My Chinese character reading, developed when I studied Japanese in high school and college, has grown rusty (decayed or rotten even), but as I discovered when I visited mainland China four years ago, I can still read characters I can’t pronounce.

Hong Kong is a great place to travel with a child.  People are eager to engage children, safe high chairs are widely available at restaurants, and there is a lot for a curious toddler to watch.  The only real negative is the Darwinistic-type approach most people take to getting on subways and anything that requires queuing; upon entering the subway at Disneyland, there were people literally stepping over Jude’s stroller to get in front of me.  I have experience with this strategy in Japan (NOT New York), and without a child this is tolerable, but with a child you can’t be afraid to stick out your elbows and make yourself a little wider and a little sharper so you can get where you need to go.  Do as the locals do – otherwise, the subway doors might shut in front of you!

Hong Kong is obsessed with cleanliness.  There is hand sanitizer in many public places, admonishing you to use it, and there were even signs at the airport describing the importance of hand washing.  When we were at HK Disneyland, a local woman was very distressed that Jude was putting his fingers in his mouth.  (I wasn’t happy about it, but I was surely not distressed.)  She was about to physically remove his fingers when I jumped in and did it myself.

Here are a few selections from our adventures (after our first day) in Hong Kong, and nearby Macau.

1 – Morning Market.
We stumbled upon streets of vendors in a morning market on our way to the main financial district, Central.  Here we saw people trimming leafy green vegetables, one by one, with small knives as they pulled each one out of a woven basket; butchers cutting meat; a variety of fresh tofu adorned with the merchant’s logo; and fish mongers with the day’s catch.  This was an interesting scene on rather steep streets closed off to cars.

Away from the food stalls, we bought Jude a little red “Hong Kong taxi” as a memento.

Spicy Sichuan noodles from a street vendor

2 – Mong Kok.
We went to the Mong Kok neighborhood of Kowloon after sunset to check out the night markets and eat street food.  The scene was hopping and the dumplings were delicious.  Our friend Joe and Patrick had spicy Sichuan noodles so hot that they both dripped with sweat while slurping them down (neither finished his generous paper bowl full of the noodles).  They ordered them medium, two levels behind the spiciest noodles you can order (hot and hottest).  Both guys have a good spice tolerance, but these noodles were so hot that I thought I might have to open Jude’s bottle and offer them some milk.  Luckily Patrick still thinks these noodles were one of the best things he ate in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong light show

3 – The view of Hong Kong Island from Kowloon.
The view of Hong Kong Island and Harbor from the 118th floor of the International Commerce Centre gives you a real appreciation for the beauty of the HK skyline.  This building is in Kowloon and houses many financial firms; it was completed last year.  (According to our friend and host Rahul, the 118th floor, though the official floor number, is not technically correct, and is an overstatement.  The Chinese typically do not use the number four on any designation of floors.  So there are no fourth, fourteenth, forty through forty-nine, etc. floors in the building.)  We did not notice whether or not all these floors were missing in ICC, but our ears sure did pop in the elevator on the way down.

We also had a special dinner at Hutong in Kowloon which offers a great view of the skyline and was perfect for watching the free light show on display each evening.  Various buildings across the HK skyline light up the sky, and the last part of the show is what I can only describe as a dramatic green laser battle.

Our lunch spot on Lamma Island

4 – Lamma Island.
We had a delicious seafood lunch on Lamma Island, about an hour from Hong Kong by boat, in a restaurant that was part of a row of shacks on the harbor.   You review your lunch options from the open water tanks, and let the wait staff know how you’d like your seafood cooked (or not cooked).  Although I didn’t try one, I was intrigued by the look of the black, white, and blue crustacean (kind of looked like a lobster) and was offered as sashimi (sliced raw) or with cheese.  Hmmm.

Ruins of St. Paul's, Macau

5 – Macau.
We squeezed into a ferry and spent a day in Macau.  (The ferries leave from Hong Kong Harbor every 15 minutes, but each one was packed.)  Macau is a formerly Portuguese colony, and all the street signs are in Portuguese and Chinese.  Today it is most famous for the gambling opportunities it affords – it has double the number of casinos as Vegas, we were told by our American friend, and gambling expert, Doug – but we steered clear and walked the streets to see the old Portuguese architecture.  The most interesting is a church of which only the façade remains.

After a nice “Macanese” lunch – Portuguese food with influences from other formerly Portuguese colonies and China (the “African chicken” and olive oil clams were best) – we got caught in a rainstorm for which we were unprepared.  It was a holiday long weekend and the streets were jammed.  We were with our friends Doug and Tracy and their fifteen-month-old, and pushing two strollers through cobblestone streets in the rain, weaving in and out of crowds, was a formidable challenge.  We then discovered we couldn’t walk to the ferry terminal except on a winding road with no shoulder or by bushwhacking down a forested hill; cabs were scarce as they always seem to be when it’s raining.  We almost always prefer to walk, but eventually we admitted defeat and went to a hotel where we got the next cab after it arrived to drop off someone staying at the hotel.  (Travel tip – we should have sought out a hotel earlier – hotels are excellent places to get cabs.)

All Hong Kong and Macau pictures: here

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