‘Hong Kong is the most Chinese city on earth,’ says my old friend Jo McBride, who has lived there for more than 30 years. That may come as a surprise to those who knew the place as a resolutely British enclave of colonial officers, traders and bankers — of whom, long ago, I was one — and to more recent visitors reassured by the hands-off regime of Beijing’s stooges in the 15 years since they took over from our last governor, Lord Patten.
So hands-off, indeed, that most tourists still think of China as one destination and Hong Kong as another: a stateless stopover and giant shopping mall that constantly reinvents itself to the whims of global demand. If you’re really there just for handbags and gadgets at discount prices, you’ll barely need to step out of your hotel and you certainly won’t need a guidebook: fancy brand names are all around you. But (having paid the concierge to get you a visa) you might have more fun taking a day trip over what still feels like an international border to Shenzen to buy cheap fakes — and observing the stream of cash-rich mainlanders heading the other way to buy the real thing.
Of course shopping is essential to the Hong Kong experience. There’s a particular pleasure in having shirts and suits made to measure in 48 hours; on my most recent visit I tracked down my bargain-basement tailor from the 1980s, Paul Yui, now on the seventh floor of the Yip Fung Building in D’Aguilar Street (‘You put on weight?’ he greeted me, as ever). Even better, because you’d never do it at home and the difference in comfort is remarkable, is to have shoes or fancy evening slippers made at the little Mayer shop in the arcade of the Mandarin Hotel.
But try to squeeze the retail trail into small, targeted portions of your time. You need the rest for discovering the special Chinese character of the territory — and for its other quintessential activity, eating.
In one sense the Chinese-ness I’m trying to evoke is as pervasive, even in glossy shopping districts, as the logos of global brands — not only in an ever-present whiff of rotting food waste and wok oil but in Buddhist and Daoist paraphernalia. In mainland cities, religious observance was suppressed by decades of Maoist ‘anti-superstition’ campaigns, but Hong Kong’s gods and ancestors are venerated everywhere, as is the mystical geomancy of feng shui. Look closely and you’ll find even Wanchai’s topless bars have little altars in their vestibules.
More nightlife later; first some proper sightseeing. Begin by equipping yourself with an Octopus travel card, forerunner of London’s Oyster, which works on buses, trams and ferries as well as the super-efficient Mass Transit Railway. Having ticked off your shopping list by mid-morning, fortify yourself with an early dim sum lunch (no need to book) at the vast Metropol restaurant in United Centre above the Admiralty MTR station, picking all the steamed delicacies you can eat from trolleys wielded by no-nonsense waitresses. Then find the nearby tram stop, board the upper deck and preferably the front seat of a rattling tram heading for North Point, and stay on to the end of the line in Chun Yeung Street.
You’ll find yourself in the midst of a truly exotic Chinese food market. Another resident, Kate Senior, sends this dispatch: ‘Fascinating fish, dried curiosities and strange veg, no piles of toads in cages this time but the entire head of a cow in a plastic container on the pavement next to one full of tripe, and pigs’ heads being cleaned on the floor of a butcher’s shop.’
For the even more intrepid, the Sun Beam Chinese opera theatre is nearby, and if all that warm offal gets your juices flowing, a sustaining bowl of noodles can be had for small change at the Tiny Green Kitchen on North Point Street. Or if you’d rather purge the pungent odours from your nasal passages, take a fast MTR back to Admiralty and sample rare infusions in the calm of the Lok Cha Tea House (now under refurbishment, due to reopen next month) in Hong Kong Park.
That’s probably enough for one day, but here’s Jo McBride’s recommendation for the next. Once again, shop early for that must-have Rolex or Louis Vuitton item or velvet jacket from Shanghai Tang. Then stroll down to Outlying Islands Pier 6 on the Central waterfront with your Octopus card, and take the ferry for Mui Wo on Lantau Island. The slow boat — always best in a Chinese context — takes about an hour.
On the north side of the island, blasted out of the rocky shoreline, is the world-class Chep Lap Kok airport where you first arrived. On the south side, the timeless village life of fishermen and farmers goes on. Take Bus No. 4 over the hills to the beautiful beach at Tong Fuk, on which the chief hazard is the dung of water buffalo that once ploughed nearby paddy fields but now roam free. You can also reach Tong Fuk via the MTR to Tung Chung, near the airport, where a cable car will carry you up to the world’s largest seated Buddha — all very spectacular, but the ferry through Hong Kong harbour and among the outer islands (tiny Cheung Chau vaut le détour) is much more authentic. And Mui Wo offers a cluster of lively seafood eateries before you embark for Central again.
Alternative expeditions include, in spring and autumn, migratory bird-watching at the Mai Po nature reserve close to the mainland border, or on any clear day a panoramic hike round the eastern end of the Peak, beginning and ending at Wanchai Gap.
All this will give you a healthy appetite. A useful tip for visitors who want to sample good regional Chinese food without an interpreter is to rely on the long-established, mid-priced ‘Garden’ restaurant chain: moving eastwards (through the city, rather than across the gastronomic map) they include Shanghai Garden in Central, Sichuan Garden and Peking Garden in the Pacific Place complex close to Admiralty, and Hunan Garden in the up-and-coming Times Square area of Causeway Bay.
As for other evening appetites, those Wanchai and Kowloon girlie bars are shameless clip-joints, and have been ever since the present incumbents’ grandmothers were chirping ‘You buy me one more drink’ at drunken sailors half a century ago. Give them a wide berth, even if (perhaps especially if) you’ve had aphrodisiac mushrooms for dinner. The grander nightclubs of old, recalling the taxi-dancing ambience of 1930s Shanghai, were a more civilised and almost-respectable option — strange to recall that I once kept a bottle of Scotch with my name on it at the New Tonnochy Ballroom. But they seem to have fallen out of fashion or closed down, replaced by ‘exclusive’ karaoke hostess salons hidden on upper floors of commercial buildings. For those, I’m afraid, you really do need a native guide, preferably a hospitable one with a platinum credit card.
What to read on the plane out? Hong Kong has never quite fired literary imaginations like J.G. Ballard’s and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Shanghai or Graham Greene’s Saigon, but I recommend John Lanchester’s sweeping Fragrant Harbour, Timothy Mo’s domestic comedy The Monkey King and, from colonial days, Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil. On arrival, the serious tourist will also want to devote half a day (‘You can’t do it in less,’ says Jo McBride) to the Hong Kong Museum of History in Kowloon.
Finally, while you’re on that side of the harbour, you might like to explore the still-splendid Peninsula Hotel’s ‘Academy Programme’ of bespoke culinary and cultural tutorials. I see the menu includes a ‘Destiny Consultation’: I’m sure we all need one of those.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 26 January 2013