Our first day in Hong Kong was a mega adjustment to time changes and jet lag. We had secured a studio apartment for two nights on the Hong Kong side of the harbour (known as Central) through AirBnB and arrived from the airport at 1:00am. After finally figuring out how the electonic door lock to the apartment worked, we managed to sort out the clothes we wanted to wear on our walking tour in the morning and got into bed. With the 12 hour time difference from Toronto and the excitement and anticipation of our trip, neither of us got much sleep on our first night. Just as our fatigued bodies finally fell into blissful sleep, the alarm blared to let us know it was time to get up and get ready for our day-long walking tour of Hong Kong and Kowloon Island.
We had scheduled to meet Karen and Geoff, our close friends from Orillia, Ontario who were travelling with us, as well as our tour guide Maggie, at 9:00am at Statue Square. Kim had mapped out the route on Google Maps and determined it was about a 20 minute walk from our apartment on Hollywood Road to the Square near Central Station. Since we only had limited data on our cell phone plan for this trip, we weren’t able to keep an online version of the route on our phone. Instead, we relied on instinct to guide us to our destination. This worked for the first few minutes, until we realized that there were many intersecting streets filled with throngs of people on their way to work. We needed to stop several times to read road signs and check out landmarks to try and figure out where we were. Each time we stopped, a kindly soul, sensing our helplessness, would ask us where we were going and offered updated directions and with that, hope that we would eventually reach our desired destination. The last long stretch took us along Tram Road (colloquially named such by the locals, as that is where the trams run) for about 10 minutes, passed Central Station and finally opened up into Statue Square, adorned with a massive, welcoming Christmas Tree at the entrance.
The Square comprises an expansive area bordered by Tram Road on the north side, the old Legislative Council Building to the east, the new (relatively) HSBC Building on the south side and the entrance to the metro on the west side. We spotted Karen and Geoff sitting on the raised edge of the rectangular manmade pond in the middle of the Square. As our guide had not arrived yet, we meandered around the Square admiring the large wall mural that stood in the middle of the pond. One edge of the Square was lined with miniature versions of the Christmas tree we had passed when we entered. Other trees, bushes and potted plants, including poinsettias of various colours, pervaded the surrounding area, creating a garden effect in the midst of the tile and stone.
Shortly after 9:00 am, our tour guide Maggie, arrived and introduced herself. Maggie was born in mainland China and came to Hong Kong as a young adult to study and work. She chose to stay in Hong Kong and now has a daughter in her early twenties who also lives here. Maggie and her daughter exemplify the interesting political and cultural dichotomy that is Hong Kong. Maggie embraces the Reunification of Hong Kong with China. Of particular importance to her is her sense of National identity that she says was lacking prior to reunification when Hong Kong was a British Colony. Her daughter on the other hand, having been born and raised in Hong Kong with its splendour and modern amenities, is less convinced that a return to China and more specifically, Communism, will provide a better future.
As we began our tour with Maggie, walking south through the Square towards the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) she explained to us the close relationship between the architecture of the downtown and Feng Shui. For example, the HSBC building was built to face the harbour - moving water is a symbol of the flow of wealth in Feng Shui. The water symbol is further exemplified in the floor of the bank lobby which is not smooth and flat like conventional floors, but has a gentle, rolling wave texture and appearance. The roof of the building has what appear to be two cannons installed, each pointing at the competing Bank of China building, to ward off negative Feng Shui directed at HSBC.
Leaving the HSBC and walking a short distance north along Garden Road, we reached St. John’s Cathedral, in the heart of the financial district and in full view of all of the major banks. The Cathedral, built in the mid 1800’s, is in direct contrast to the modern banking and office towers that surround it. It is also unique as it is purported to be the only property in Hong Kong that is still owned by Britain. It remains the oldest surviving Christian Church in the Far East.
From St. John’s Cathedral it was only a short walk to our next point of interest - the Central-Mid Levels Escalator - the World’s largest outdoor covered escalator measuring 800 metres in length. Interestingly, the escalator is only one-way, running either up or down depending on the time of day. The escalator runs downhill from 6am to 10am and uphill from 10am to midnight. The escalator rises 125 metres from the lowest to highest point. It provides an efficient way for residents on the north hill to commute to work in the morning and allows travel up the hill the rest of the day. While the escalator allows for convenient transport, it also provides an opportunity for visitors to eat and shop along the area with its multitude of restaurants, bars, and stores.
Since we had arrived before 10am and wanted to ride the escalator up the hill to Hollywood Road, we had to wait a few minutes before the change in direction. We took this opportunity to browse the old traditional street market at Queen’s Road Central. Our first stop in the market was a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) shop. This was the first of many that we would pass throughout the day. The outside of the shop featured a glass counter filled with dried roots, herbs, and other indescribable concoctions. Behind the counter on the back wall were countless wooden drawers stretching from floor to ceiling, also filled with herbs and traditional healing mysteries. The traditional healer behind the counter would pull items from the wooden drawers, and, using a mortar and pestle, grind the ingredients together to create a natural medicine for their clients.
Walking back through the market we stopped briefly at a small pastry shop to try a traditional egg custard tart. Because we had a planned breakfast stop at the Graham Street Market, we decided to share a tart amongst the four of us. This turned out to be a good idea, as the custard tart, while deliciously sweet and silky smooth, was also very rich.
After this short and decadent break, we made our way back to the Queen’s Road Central entrance to the escalator for our ride up to the Gage Street Wet Market (also known as the Graham Street Market). Since the temperature was starting to warm up, and we had already been walking for an hour and a half, it was relief to let the escalator do the walking for us.
Leaving the escalator and walking toward one of the oldest and most traditional markets in Hong Kong, we passed through the entrance of the Cage Street Wet Market headlong into a smorgasbord for the senses - sight, sound and smell. Stall after stall, bulging with specialty items like meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, eggs, rice, nuts flowers and plants. At late morning, the market was still busy with locals elbowing their way to into their favourite stalls amongst the smattering of tourists milling about. The meat and fish stalls were particularly interesting to us since every part of the carcass is on display including heads, feet, heart, lungs and stomachs. In one fish stall, a dozen fish were sliced open, exposing the organs, and, to show that they were fresh, the tiny hearts were still beating.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the various odours of the market, varying from pungent to fragrant, we were beginning to feel hungry and Maggie suggested that we stop at one of her favourite local cafés for something to eat. She took us a little further into the market and then led us into a tiny and crowded restaurant where we managed to find a table that the 5 of us squeezed around. The specialty of the restaurant was French Toast served with Almond Milk or Hong Kong Drink (half coffee and half tea). We shared a couple of orders of the French Toast which was warm and delicious. Kim and Karen each ordered the almond milk, which was served warm. Geoff and I ordered the Hong Kong Drink. I have to admit that I was a little apprehensive when I ordered it since I am an avid coffee lover, and the thought of diluting coffee with bitter tea seemed somewhat sinful. Surprisingly, the drink was quite pleasant and slightly sweeter than I expected, probably as a result of the condensed milk that is added to the mixture.
Feeling revitalized and energetic after our carbfest, we left the cafe and made our way to the other end of the market and headed up towards Hollywood Road. As it happened, Hollywood Road is where our apartment was located and, as we found out later, our tour would take us right past it. Our immediate destination was the Man Mo Temple on Hollywood road and to get to it, we needed to head a bit further north and then east. Walking north meant we were walking uphill and as a result, the east-west roads that we were crossing were typically terraced on the north side. When we reached Hollywood Road and started to head east, the north side of the road, for about 200 metres was protected by a stone wall around 3 metres high. What was particularly fascinating was that along the length of the wall, mature Banyan trees perched perilously on its top, their roots fully exposed and clinging to the sides of the wall from top to the bottom.
Hollywood Road was a demarcation point in colonial Hong Kong - the wealthy British colonists typically lived north of Hollywood Road on the hilltop overlooking the city and the harbour, while the Chinese descendants lived to the south of Hollywood Road. Looking up the hillside, expensive condos and free standing homes are visible above the treetops. As we continued our walk east along Hollywood Road, we stopped briefly as Maggie pointed out a tiny, outdoor barber stall in a small alleyway. The barber, an older gentleman was fussing over the head of a much younger man. The barber, Maggie told us, had owned this shop for more than 50 years and at age 87, he was still cutting hair every day with a steady hand and without the aid of eyeglasses.
A short distance past the barber stall we arrived at the famous Man Mo Temple named for the God of Literature (Man) and the God of War (Mo). This temple is significant because students from Hong Kong and mainland China come here to worship the gods and pray for success at school. Maggie came here as a student before each school year to ask for the gods to bless her and her school books. She later brought her daughter to seek the same blessings.
We were instructed by Maggie before we entered the temple to cross over the threshold, and not to step on it, as this was a sign of disrespect. Passing into the outer Annex, it took a few minutes to get used to the sudden and overwhelming aroma of burning incense emanating from every part of the temple. Large incense coils, shaped like inverted cones, hung from the ceiling. These were offerings to the gods and designed to smoulder for a full week before burning out. The passage from the outer annex to the main temple is signalled by making a donation and banging a gong 3 times. The temple itself is a large square room scattered with alters throughout. Each alter has the image of various gods and is filled with offerings of incense, fruit and paper symbolizing money. Hanging lanterns and burning candles glow through the wisps of smoking incense. In a small alcove on a side wall of the temple, hundreds of tiny photos blanket the wall. These are memorials to patrons who have died and whose families have made donations so they can be remembered on earth and carried to the afterlife. At the exit to the temple, and off to one side is a small incinerator where paper lotus flowers are burned as offerings to the gods.
It was only a short walk from the Man Mo temple to the Cat Street Market, just one street south of Hollywood Road (and one block from our apartment). The first stall that we stopped at in the market specialized in jade charms of the 12 Chinese Zodiac animals. Kim purchased her lucky charms for the Chinese Year of the Dog. As we walked further into the market we passed several TCM’s, one of them with a large display of dried deer fetuses and deer pistols (penis). Another stall featured Chinese lotus shoes which were worn by women who had undergone foot binding as part of the practice which signified beauty and wealth among some segments of the Chinese population. The practice of foot binding was done at an early age in order to limit the growth of the feet. As a result, the feet became disabled and were typically no longer than 3 to 4 inches. While the practice became unpopular over the centuries, it was not completely eradicated until the early 20th century.
The final stop on our morning walking tour was a local and very popular Dim Sum restaurant which Maggie says is one of her favourites in Hong Kong. The restaurant was very busy, with a long line when we got there just after 12:30pm. Maggie managed to get us through the queue and we were seated at a table in the centre of the very large restaurant. We asked her to choose the menu items and she ordered some of her favourite dishes including shrimp dumplings, pork belly, spring rolls, barbecued pork in dough and sticky rice. Geoff and I washed our meals down with local Chinese beer.
We left the restaurant and Maggie led us to a taxi stand where we were going to begin our afternoon outing that started with a trip to Victoria Peak and would later take us across the harbour to Kowloon Island. In total our morning walking tour lasted 4 1/2 hours, from 9am to 1:30pm. We covered several kilometres of south Hong Kong Island and managed to get a sample of the tastes, smells, sights and sounds of one of most renowned cities in the world.
Adventures in South East Asia - Hong Kong Part 2 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Hong Kong Part 3 & Onboard Azamara Day 1 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 2 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 3 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 4 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 5 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 6 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 7 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 8 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 9 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 10 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 11 - click here
Sharing Our Travel Dreams
Sharing our personal experiences onboard and on the road, along with tips and insight for creating memorable vacations.