Hong Kong is a city where high finance meets high fashion, and mega deals are closed in soaring skyscrapers. But if you look beyond the glass and steel, you’ll be greeted by the sights, sounds and smells of a different, more local world. It’s complex, it’s charming and, like its serious-faced citizens with their bursts of self-effacing humour, it’s full of surprises.
Start your day with a free Tai Chi class by the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront, where against the magnificent views of Victoria Harbour, the spritely Master Ng will show you how to 'Spread your wings like a stork' and 'Wave hands like clouds'. Tai Chi, or Shadow Boxing, is supposed to give you a sharper mind and a fitter heart. You have all day to find out if it does.
A buzzer sounds, you bolt for the gangplank. A whistle blows, the Star Ferry chugs forward. This vehicle carrying you belongs to a fleet of legendary ferries that plies passengers between Kowloon and Hong Kong. At only US$0.30, the ride, with its views of skyscrapers and tenements against a backdrop of jungle-clad hills, must be the world’s best-value cruise.
At the end of nine minutes, watch as a hemp rope is cast, then caught with a billhook, the way it was in 1888 when the first boat docked.
Take a cab to the Peak Terminus and let Hong Kong’s oldest thrill ride, the Peak Tram, whisk you to the highest point on the island. Choose a seat on the right side of the compartment (for better scenery), then brace yourself for the 552m ascent. On a clear day, the views from the summit are spectacular.
Stop for dim sum at Michelin-lauded Luk Yu Teahouse (24-25 Stanley Street). As you sip your tea, take in the Eastern art deco decor – ceiling fans, stained glass windows and wooden alcoves that evoke the setting of a murder mystery. In fact, a murder did take place. One morning in 2002, a property tycoon was killed at close-range, execution-style, amid all this 1930s elegance.
After lunch, it’s food of a different kind. Hop on the Midlevels Escalator, an 800m moving sidewalk zigzagging up the hillside, and partake of a movable feast of street life and history. You’ll pass open-air markets, on a street where florists and prostitutes used to hawk their wares.
Disembark and head for the majestic Man Mo Temple (124-126 Hollywood Rd). This Taoist institution was once a court of arbitration for local disputes. Roosters were beheaded as part of the accompanying rituals. Now it functions strictly as a place of worship where incense coils hang serene and photogenic in the afternoon light.
Cross the harbour (this time under it) on the fast, clean and punctual Mass Transit Railway, and alight at Tsim Sha Tsui for tea. Both ends of the market beckon. Will it be scones and Earl Grey at The Peninsula (Salisbury Rd)? Or beer and samosas across the road at Chungking Mansions (36-44 Nathan Rd), home to the city’s cheapest guesthouses?
Let the calorie surge buoy you to the top of Signal Hill where a handsome Edwardian-style tower stands. Cast your eyes on the horizon. If this was the 1900s, the ships in the harbour would be staring right back at you – the tower had a time ball which was dropped at precisely 13:00 every afternoon so seafarers could adjust their chronometers.
Then it’s on to the Museum of History (100 Chatham Rd South) for some context to your day’s impressions. Focus on the 'Hong Kong Story' exhibition, a vivid and memorable journey into the city’s historical and cultural past.
At dinner-time, fuel up on vegetarian Indian fare at Woodlands (UG fl, 16 & 17 Wing On Plaza, 62 Mody Rd), or splurge on modern Shanghainese creations at Michelin-starred Yè Shanghai (6th fl, Marco Polo Hotel, Canton Rd).
For after-dinner entertainment, stroll over to Phonograph (Shop A&B, 2 Austin Rd), a velvety cavern opening onto post-war residences, where artists go to lose themselves in the music and the shadows. Alternatively, there’s live jazz at the small but formidable Peel Fresco (49 Peel St); and sultry Sevva’s (25th fl Prince’s Bldg, 10 Chater Rd) has views of neon-clad skyscrapers that will take your breath away.
If you want to continue on, take a minibus to the Wholesale Fruit Market (corner of Shek Lung St and Reclamation St) in Yau Ma Tei. Every morning from 2:00 to 6:00, this historic market, dating from 1913, comes alive with trucks off-loading fresh fruits and workers manoeuvring piles of boxes.
Tai Chi works, doesn’t it?