The Hong Kong You Don’t Know

Photo: Matthew Fulco

The former British Crown Colony offers much more to visitors than just shopping and dim sum.

As I prepared for my first Hong Kong visit in October 2005, I asked my ESL students in Taipei for advice on how I should spend my time there. Most of them had been to Hong Kong at least once.

“Go shopping,” said one student, who had taken the English name of “Gucci.” Label-conscious Gucci was no outlier either. Shopping turned out to be the main reason my students – mostly working professionals in their 20s and 30s – traveled to Hong Kong.

They shopped in Japan too, but Hong Kong was closer, cheaper, and shared – at least in theory – a common language with Taiwan in Mandarin Chinese. In practice, Cantonese was then and remains today Hong Kong’s dominant language.

I took my students’ advice. I bought clothing, trinkets, and a canvas ink painting of an archaic Hong Kong harbor scene. But it was the bustling city streets that intrigued me. Though brimming with human and vehicular traffic, the scene was orderly. My hotel was in Wan Chai, an old neighborhood packed with hole-in-the wall eateries, electronics shops, office towers, and seedy bars. Glimmering steel and glass skyscrapers sat beside aged concrete low-rises. It felt like Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen in the early 1990s – gritty, but on the cusp of a facelift.

The highlight of the trip should have been Victoria Peak, with its resplendent views of the skyline set against the maritime traffic of Victoria Harbor and lush mountains. But when I arrived at the summit, I could barely see the skyscrapers of the Central business district. Thick smog had shrouded the scene.

I then overheard two men expressing disappointment about the obscured view in standard Mandarin. Thrilled to hear a foreign language I could partially understand, I decided to make conversation. The two men told me they were from Sichuan Province, visiting Hong Kong for the first time with a tour group. They graciously praised my uneven Chinese as we chatted about our communication travails with locals.

A few days later I returned to Taipei, having barely ventured beyond Hong Kong Island’s downtown. The city’s dramatic scenery stuck in my mind, even though I had only seen it clearly at street level. I couldn’t say I had done much on the trip besides eat, shop, and gawk at buildings too tall for earthquake-prone Taiwan.

Thirteen years and eight visits later, I better appreciate Hong Kong’s charms. Like Taipei, its dense urban districts are just a small part of the city’s territory. A vast, luxuriant countryside lies in the New Territories and the outlying islands. There are dozens of hiking trails, idyllic beaches, and even a few campsites. With the advent of Airbnb’s home-sharing rentals, you can spend your Hong Kong sojourn surrounded by nature if you want.

Back on Hong Kong Island, the options for conspicuous consumption have evolved. If you don’t care about buying big-ticket luxury brands, you can still enjoy world-class food and drink, and not just in the Michelin-starred sense.

In recent years, the city’s administrators have also made an effort to highlight quirky historical attractions that illustrate both Hong Kong’s British colonial legacy and its enduring connection to the rest of Greater China.

On the trail of Sun Yat-sen

As a free port, Hong Kong’s historical embrace of capitalism has been unflagging, even amidst a Communist revolution on the Chinese mainland. After Beijing launched economic reforms, Hong Kong became a fundraising hub for Chinese corporate giants, from massive state-owned banks to internet colossus Tencent.

Those firms sprang from a resurgent China more powerful than it has been in a millennium. The situation today could not be more different than in the twilight of the 19th century, when a young doctor from Guangdong named Sun Yat-sen used Hong Kong as a political fundraising center.

Sun sought to overthrow the sclerotic Qing dynasty, whose corruption, weakness, and refusal to enact political and economic reforms had pushed China to the brink of collapse. He was a shrewd strategist, positioning himself as the leader of China’s majority ethnic group, the Han, who account for about 90% of the population. The Manchus who conquered the Ming Dynasty in 1644 and ruled as the Qing Dynasty are considered an alien race by Han purists.

So persistent was Ming loyalism that the Qing failed to extinguish it in 267 years of continuous rule. “To restore the Chinese nation, we must drive the barbarian Manchus back to the Changbai Mountains,” Sun once said.

In Hong Kong amidst fellow Cantonese, Sun found abundant capital for his revolution. Sometimes he solicited funding directly from wealthy business elites. In other cases, he resorted to more creative techniques, like “revolutionary bonds.” Sun promised to buy these bonds back from the bondholders at many times their original selling price.

Sun did not start out as a revolutionary. He originally fled to Hong Kong in 1883 to escape the ossified traditions of his home village in Guangdong. In 1884, Sun converted to Christianity. He later enrolled in Hong Kong’s College of Medicine for Chinese, where students received Western medical training in English. No such school existed in mainland China at the time. He graduated in 1892.

“Sun Yat-sen’s years in Hong Kong were formative for his career as a revolutionary and political philosopher,” says a tour guide at the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Museum in Hong Kong. Compared to the destitute mainland, Hong Kong in the late nineteenth century was cosmopolitan, liberal, and modern, she notes. In the freewheeling colony, Sun steadily built support for the Qing dynasty’s overthrow among fellow radicals and other sympathizers. Prior to his expulsion from the territory in 1895 at the request of the Qing dynasty authorities, “Hong Kong was Sun’s most important revolutionary base,” the tour guide says.

The Sun Yat-sen Museum itself is a rare example of an intact former British colonial residence. Most were razed long ago. After Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, the territory’s government spent tens of millions of dollars to restore the structure and make it into a museum.

A statue of Sun Yat-sen at the Sun Yat-sen Museum in Hong Kong. Photo: Matthew Fulco

Currently, the museum offers weekly English-language tours on Sunday afternoon and Mandarin tours on Saturday afternoon. For history buffs or anyone interested in Sun Yat-sen, the tour is a must. It brings to life Sun’s historical significance and his Hong Kong years in a way that just perusing the documents, garments, and other objects on display cannot.

Less impressive is the Sun Yat-sen Historical Trail, set up in 1996 to mark key locations Sun frequented in the Central and Western districts. The trail aims to let visitors retrace Sun’s steps. The problem is that the original structures are long gone, replaced by upmarket residences, boutiques, and cafes. It’s hard to picture Sun and his colleagues plotting revolution on a breezy terrace, sipping single-origin cold-drip coffee or craft beer.

The best of both worlds

Travel writer Pico Iyer describes Hong Kong as “a dream of Manhattan, arising from the South China Sea.” If Hong Kong Island resembles the borough of Manhattan, then the New Territories and outlying islands are like Long Island, whose halcyon seascapes are a world away from the city that never sleeps.

Hiking is one of the best ways to appreciate the beauty of Hong Kong’s countryside. The trails are easy to access, of varying difficulty levels, and well-marked in both Chinese and English. Best of all, you can reach many trails by public transport within 90 minutes from the center of Hong Kong Island, where many tourists stay. If you depart at 9 a.m., it’s possible to complete even a long hike by late afternoon and be back in the city by dinnertime.

A view of Hong Kong Island from a hiking trail in Lantau. Photo: Matthew Fulco

Many novice Hong Kong hikers start with the Dragon’s Back trail on southern Hong Kong Island. It’s easy to reach, steep enough to provide a bit of vigorous exercise and is visually impressive. There probably isn’t a better trail in Hong Kong for enjoying varied maritime scenes: the Shek O beach, Tai Tam reservoir, Stanley peninsula, Tai Long Wan beach, and what Beijing sees as its very own backyard lake, the South China Sea.

“The Dragon’s Back is perfect for beginners,” says Li Chen, a freelance photographer and avid hiker who moved to Hong Kong six years ago from Liaoning Province. “It’s steep for the first 15-20 minutes, but not much after that. It’s only eight kilometers, so you don’t need too much stamina to complete it.”

More ambitious hikers should try the 12-kilometer Tai Long Wan Trail in the eastern New Territories. I say “ambitious” because the trail is remote, winding, steep in places, and time consuming. The pristine seascapes of Sai Wan and Tai Long Wan along the way are mesmerizing. You’ll want to admire them from afar, and then walk along the beaches, which you can have to yourself on weekdays. Altogether, the hike can take eight hours at a leisurely pace. To finish by sundown, set out by 8 a.m.

The Tai Long Wan Trail has plenty of wildlife too. When I hiked it, I passed by wild cattle and a large troupe of monkeys. “Usually, the monkeys are pretty chill,” Li says. “But one charged at me once when I tried to take its photo.”

Hikers who tackle the 12-kilometer Tai Long Wan Trail are rewarded with gorgeous seascapes. Photo: Matthew Fulco

After a day of hiking, some visitors to Hong Kong may want to take the night off. But for those with ample energy reserves, the Wan Chai neighborhood has a few of Greater China’s best watering holes. “Wan Chai has gentrified quite a lot over the past few years,” says Karin Crawford, a communications executive who recently moved to the area with her husband. “It’s now got great restaurants, cafes, and bars.”

Not everyone is happy about that. Some Hong Kong residents lament what they see as thoughtless development in Wan Chai. Derrick Chang, a public school teacher, says that developers turned Wan Chai’s oldest pedestrian street into a soulless promenade of luxury retailers and overpriced eateries.

“It’s a tourist trap,” he says. “It adds nothing to Hong Kong culture.”

For a more appealing side of Wan Chai, try the rooftop bar in the Woolloomooloo Steakhouse, located in a tall office tower on Hennessy Road. On a clear day, the vistas of eastern Hong Kong Island and Victoria Harbor from the restaurant’s rooftop are stellar.

The drinks are surprisingly good too. I recommend the Singapore Sling, which the bar claims is based on the original recipe from the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. That’s hard to verify, but Woolloomooloo makes the drink well, with just enough unsweetened pineapple juice to make it refreshing without being too sweet.

For a nightcap or two, head to Japanese master bartender Masahiko Endo’s Mizunara Library, a speakeasy tucked away in a commercial building on eastern Lockhart Road. The building itself isn’t hard to find, but there’s no indication either at the entrance or in the lobby that the bar exists. Don’t be deterred. Take the elevator to the fourth floor. The elevator opens onto a large wooden door marked “Mizunara Library.”

In the Japanese cocktail-making tradition, Mizunara focuses on precision, balance, and aesthetics. Drinks look as good as they taste. And the atmosphere is serious. It’s not a place to slam tequila shots or guzzle pints. The white-jacketed Endo stands near the center of the bar, flanked by two local staff members dressed entirely in black. He chats happily with patrons, but you may prefer to just sit back and admire his work.

Of the drinks I tried, the Hyuganatsu Orange Gimlet was the best. Hyuganatsu is a delicate citrus fruit found only on the Japanese island of Kyushu. It makes an ideal substitute for lime, blending seamlessly with the yuzu, ginger, and sansho pepper-infused Kinobi Dry Gin that Endo uses.

Of course, superior cocktails made by a Japanese mixologist come at a price. There’s a minimum order of 400 Hong Kong dollars (about NT$1,500) and it’s easy to spend twice that. Some individual drinks are 200 Hong Kong dollars.

“That’s Hong Kong,” says photographer Li. “Capitalism is always running wild here.”