Exploring Hong Kong, where do I start?
I love local events as they offer the perfect opportunity to explore a country’s culture, so when I read about the Mooncake festival I penciled it in to my imaginary near non-existent itinerary. A festival named after a cake – this I just HAD to attend! I had hoped to arrive in China by September to celebrate the festival, which is Chinese and also referred to the mid-autumn festival. However, when travelling things never go to plan and I ended up extending my stay in the Gili Islands and then landed myself in an Australian Hospital.
During my recovery in Perth where I was on 16 antibiotics a day, I remembered about the festival and learnt that it was being held the coming weekend. I was feeling lousy but knew that in a few days I’d be off the tablets and hopefully feeling a lot better. After seeing me struggle with the side effects of antibiotics, those nearest and dearest warned me not to go but my itchy feet got the better of me and I decided to book a last minute flight to Hong Kong, which was closer than China and just as good a place to experience the mid-autumn festival.
Luckily my health improved over the next couple of days and by the time I was in the air. Hong Kong is draw dropping. It’s not just the tall skyscrapers that wowed me but the sheer number of people packed into this high-rise city, filled with bright lights and continuous wafts of fabulously smelling food.
I checked myself into a small room in the notorious Chungking Masion on Nathan Road after being warned about it from others. You may ask why I chose to stay in a box so small I was unable to swing a cat, in the city’s most seedy rundown apartment block which wouldn’t look out of place in a Deli slum, but I was intrigued to find out what the fuss was about. Not quite the recovery my doctor had in mind, but it was an experience and in my eyes, life should be full of them.
Cebu Hostel (definitely not a hostel!) was actually quite nice. Yes my possessions stunk of smoke and curry, I was continuously asked if I wanted to trade goods in the corridor and there were some homeless chaps sleeping in the stairwell, but owner Mr Sing was exceptionally nice and surprisingly, I had some of the best nights sleep of my trip.
I wanted to celebrate the festival with locals, so I went on couchsurfing.org to see if anyone wanted to meet up. The next day I met Matthew, Shamraiz and Chloe (read her cool blog here!) at Match Box for a traditional Hong Kong style dinner, before joining a larger group of around ten to celebrate the festival. It was so nice to enjoy the festivities with locals plus a handful from elsewhere including Japan, China, Taiwan, Philppines and Singapore.
The mid-autumn festival is also called the mooncake festival as mooncakes are given to friends and family, similar to the way eggs are given at Easter. After purchasing six mooncakes, all in the name of “research” of course, I learnt that this Chinese pastry contains as much as double the recommended daily allowance of fat and calories! Based around family, the festival has three main concepts; thanksgiving, gathering and praying. In Hong Kong festivities such as the lantern display and dragon dance run at night. It’s tradition to join your family in the evening to watch the moon armed with lanterns and mooncakes. It was the first time I had been out until 3am alongside children of all ages and not a drop of alcohol in sight!
The dragon dance was particularly impressive, even though it took hours to get going after various blessings and incense burning. The atmosphere was incredible and there were nearly as many selfie sticks as people, another thing I love about Hong Kong (I’ve since considered starting a revolution to make selfie sticks socially acceptable in the UK – no?)
In Hong Kong, dining is done the proper way with photos before food being the main rule. There’s little concept of courses and everything is eaten in random order and shared. What’s more, tea houses and dessert cafés replace bars and pubs as the top spots to socialise with friends. I spent the next five days eating my way around Hong Kong; think chicken pie, fried toast, filled buns and as many carbs to last a life time – more in that in an upcoming post…
Apart from eating, my days were spent covering the main tourist trail with visits to Victoria Peak, the Avenue of Stars and a ride on the Star Ferry. I covered the whole city on foot with my favourite area being Mong Kok which is where I met up with Liz, a local couchsurfer who offered to show me around.
We strolled through the back streets of Mong Kok where I got a glimps of traditional local life, tasting some of the best street food and experiencing the enormity of Hong Kong shopping malls.
I also got my fortune told in a traditional Chinese temple which involved shaking some wooden sticks whilst kneeling down. The stick that fell out of the pot first was my fortune stick and read that my intended move to Australia would start out well but won’t be as good as expected – ooo eerr.
Liz was so good in answering my constant questions and I learnt so much about life in Hong Kong. I learnt that the groups of ladies that gather in the parks are Filipino who have been able to enter the country to work. Men are not so freely invited as they are considered more of a danger and women are needed as maids. During weekends the maids gather in the park as they have nowhere to go when their employer is at home. As most people in Hong Kong have a maid, their increasing number is becoming quite a problem, a little like the Chinese visitors who cross the boarder in their thousands to shop. Liz explained that while this is good for the economy, the cultural differences between the two can cause problems, for example, I noticed that people native to Hong Kong like to queue whilst the Chinese haven’t quite grasped the concept just yet.
I asked about the shop found on every street corner selling what I thought was dried fruit and sweet snacks. Liz showed me that they are in fact medicine shops selling traditional Chinese remedies like pigs kidneys, dried fish skin and all sorts of horrible sounding things. Whilst these traditional healing methods continue to be widely used, the younger generation are beginning to use more western-style medicine. I was tempted to swig a small bowl of intense herbal tea available to purchase in the street but I thought of better things to spend a dollar on – cake! Talking of cake, did you know that the majority of cakes and food is steamed as ovens are rarely used in Hong Kong because people believe it gives you cancer?
Hong Kong is pretty easy to get around, just pick up an octopus card and jump on the MTR, but I warn you now – you will get lost! I must have spent half my time wandering aimlessly telling myself I was not lost, I was simply “exploring”. Almost everything looks in close proximity but with a city this high there are countless subways, bridges, escalators and quite frankly it takes FOREVER to get anywhere.
It took me and my new couchsurfing buddie, Shamraiz, a good three hours round trip to reach the big Buddha on Lantau Island but the views were well worth it. Similar to the Oyster card in London, the Octopus card can also be used in shops like 711, one of the wonderful additions to the city’s transport system, one of the most efficient in the world.
By the first day I day I was utterly exhausted having met up with new local friends – I had become quite a socialite! I had joined up again with Shamraiz to take a walk around the city as we both were flying out the following day. After a few hours getting lost and almost dying in the 90% humidity I was craving some aircon – yes me + aircon!
In need of some air, albeit artificial, I suggested we go to the cinema situated in a nearby mall. I’m so glad we chose, Temporary Family, a Cantonese comedy with mandarin sub titles as it was the funniest film I had ever seen.
There were small English subtitles at the bottom which enabled me to experience the incredibly odd humour and understand the difference between their culture and mine. I was astonished to find jokes about pubic hair, glow-in-the-dark condoms and poo in a culture so reserved, where topics such as these are incredibly taboo. I can not describe the film, it was so different to anything I had ever seen and I spent the hour cringing in my seat. You must watch a local film whilst in Hong Kong!
There’s so much I could tell you about Hong Kong; how cosmetics and technology are king with the new iphone 6 going for sums of five figures on the black market, or how manners are just as important as appearance. Food was my main draw to the city – what else? – and it is also the reason I will return. That and the overwhelming city skyline with of all sorts of hidden suprises nestled underneath. A visit to Hong Kong is a must.
Living life, loving travel,