Lose yourself in the beautiful chaos that is Hong Kong.
A dozen dried squid in a glass jar. Wet and wiggly tofu sprinkled with bright orange sugar. The sweet-smelling breeze atop the hill where a 112-foot Buddha hangs out. These are the delights of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong can be a bit overwhelming at first: the sight of flashing neon signs piled on top of each other, the smell of the intense incense in the temples, the sound of haggling market vendors and the crazy jumble of pedestrian and car traffic (although the brightly colored buses and red taxis make it a bit more jolly). But once you go with the flow, you’ll embrace the beautiful, colorful chaos that is Hong Kong.
Historic Hong Kong
To fully appreciate what you’re experiencing here, it’s helpful to know a few important dates first. Up until the 1800s, Hong Kong was fully a part of China. After the Opium War in 1842, China ceded Hong Kong to Britain. In 1898, Hong Kong became a British colony with a lease of 99 years. That lease ended in 1997, when Hong Kong became what is known as a “special administrative region,” where Hong Kong citizens have certain rights that the rest of China does not. This status will end in 2047.
That history explains why Hong Kong has a distinct East-meets-West vibe. There are two official languages here: Chinese and English. Although to fully immerse yourself and impress the locals, you should know that Cantonese, not Mandarin, is the preferred language here.
Once it became a British colony, lots of changes were made, and you can still see some of that today. The name Victoria – for its harbor, peak and other landmarks – of course came from Queen Victoria. The town of Aberdeen and Aberdeen Street are named after the fourth Earl of Aberdeen. Pottinger Street is named after Hong Kong’s first British governor – and it happens to be one of the coolest streets you’ll ever see.
It’s also known as Stone Slabs Street, because it is made out of rough and bumpy stone slabs clumsily climbing up the side of a hill – an early British attempt to tame the wilds of Hong Kong. Today, it’s an Instagrammer’s and bride-to-be’s picturesque paradise.
Artsy Hong Kong
Now that you’re enriched with the background of Hong Kong, let’s fast-forward to what you’ll want to see today. As I mentioned, Hong Kong is beautifully colorful – from its historic junk boats and their square sails, to the plethora of Vegas-style neon signs crammed into the Ladies Market, to its larger-than-life Hollywood Road murals, which feature everything and everyone from koi fish to Marilyn Monroe.
If you follow the Hollywood Road street art, you’ll eventually find your way to the PMQ art center. PMQ stands for Police Married Quarters. Doesn’t sound very artsy, does it? Well, this site has a fascinating history. The original building on this spot was the first primary and secondary school providing Western education in Hong Kong. Sadly, that building was destroyed in WWII, then rebuilt as housing for policemen and their families.
Today, it’s a bustling center for the arts, with studios, classes, shops and funky exhibits and events happening year-round.
Other not-to-be-missed art stops include the Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts, which is inside a former police station; the Savannah College of Art and Design, which is inside a former magistrate building; and the brand-new Xiqu Centre, which includes an opera house, theaters, studios, seminar halls and a public atrium where people are encouraged to simply hang out. The curvy metal modern architecture is absolutely stunning. It is definitely a futuristic style, yet looks to the past for its main inspiration: the traditional Chinese lantern. Its entrance almost looks like curtains parting, so as soon as you enter the main atrium, you feel like the show has already begun.
Spiritual Hong Kong
Hong Kong’s temples are considered an art form too. Tin Hau Temple and Man Mo Temple, in the main section of the city, are beautiful with traditional low-rise ancient Chinese architecture, graceful swooping roofs that swing out to sharp points at the corner, curved tiles and all kinds of intricate shapes, floral motifs and wild beasts (especially the Chinese dragon). Inside, you’ll find shrines to the gods, the traditional Taoist square courtyard to let the rain in, and lots and lots (and lots!) of fragrant incense slowly burning away, carrying mortals’ wishes and messages to the heavens.
But these inner-city temples are just the beginning. Don’t you dare go to Hong Kong without venturing outside the main urban area. Hong Kong extends beyond its main peninsula to include a collection of more than 200 islands. A visit to Lantau Island and Ngong Ping Village is a must, and getting there is half the fun. You’ll ride a 30-minute cable car to the top of the mountain, and the views are incredible – especially beneath your feet, through the glass floor. Once at the top, you’ll get to sneak a peek at the stunning architecture of the Po Lin Monastery, but only from the outside. Visitors aren’t allowed inside because it is still a working monastery, considered to be one of Hong Kong’s most important Buddhist sanctums.
Next, you’ll wander up the side of the mountain through the Wisdom Path, a stroll marked with 30-foot-tall wooden monuments, or steles, inscribed with the Heart Sutra, a famous prayer revered by Confucians, Buddhists and Taoists. And last but not least, you’ll climb 268 steps to visit a 112-foot-tall giant bronze statue sitting on a lotus throne. Who might this giant be? The Tian Tan Buddha, also known as the Big Buddha. It is amazing to see in person. The Big Buddha took 12 years to complete, and his facial features, while massive, are appropriately gentle. He faces north, towards China, and his right hand is forever raised, to bless all below.
Once you’ve made it to the top, feel free to look north, south, east or west, enjoy the peace and serenity up here, and take a breather. Not just from all those steps, but from all that colorful chaos that is Hong Kong.
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