Hong Kong is a city of contrasts, both clashing and complementary. Viewed from a helicopter looping over sparkling highrises, it’s the stunning architecture and lush landscape that hit you. Up on The Peak it’s the beauty of the waterfront where the traditional Star Ferry boats plough back and forth across Victoria Harbour. And down at street level in the heat it’s the clamour and vitality of its seven million citizens rushing about their business as streets teem with workers and shoppers, builders balance on seven storeys of bamboo scaffolding and the steamy dim sum shops overflow with chatter.
As a guest of the Hong Kong Tourism Board, the tone of our trip was set when we were collected from the airport in a dark green Rolls-Royce from the fleet at The Peninsula, where we were lucky enough to be staying. Opened in 1928, it’s been a byword for elegance and luxury ever since with its amazing views across Victoria Harbour to the classic Hong Kong skyline. With a spa, swimming pool, a choice of restaurants and nothing’s-a-problem staff, if you can stretch to five-star opulence, “the Grande Dame of the Far East” is the best there is. If you can’t, Hong Kong has 56,000 hotel rooms, from hostels to high end, so don’t let being on a budget stop you experiencing one of the world’s most exciting cities, not least because public transport – from the trams to the MTR underground to the Star Ferry – is cheap and efficient too.
Whether you’re high end or high street, you’ll be eating dim sum – “touch the heart” in Cantonese – the steamed dumplings that are integral to Hong Kong. With The Peninsula serving up 300-500 a day, where better to learn how to make them? The Peninsula’s dim sum expert Li Po Kin led us through an hour’s fumbling with translucent pastry and slippery shrimp to amass around ten shrimp and green chive dumplings each. Not pretty, but they tasted delicious and won us a certificate from the endlessly patient Li. Later we were treated to the professional gourmet version in Spring Moon, the hotel’s Shanghainese art deco restaurant as part of the hotel’s culinary journey experience, with a course at each of the hotel’s restaurants – from Alaskan king crab leg in the elegantly colonnaded lobby, through quintessential Cantonese sauteed grouper with black truffle in Spring Moon, to Brittany langoustines in Gaddi’s, rounded off with yuza and almond cake at Felix, the Philippe Starck-designed rooftop bar and restaurant, for a sweet finish with wraparound views.
It wasn’t all food – although you’d never go hungry in Hong Kong with street stops everywhere and if you’re brave, a love it or hate it durian fruit from a stall – however it was time to head up Victoria Peak. Back in 1888 the governor charged Scots engineers with building a funicular railway up to the top and the seven-minute journey gives a sense of the steep terrain on which Hong Kong is built. Once at the Sky Terrace, take the ultimate selfie with the entire city below you.
Back down at street level, Alexandra Unrein of Wanderlust Walks, (www.wanderlustwalks.com) led us on a fascinating tour focusing on street art and culture. An explosion of art and graffiti has seen artists use alleyways and buildings as a canvas, and the entertaining and knowledgeable Unrein showed us artworks in Central and Sai Ying Pun, including Korean artist Xeva’s Bruce Lee and Matt Gondek’s deconstructed exploding Mickey Mouse and the results of the annual HKWALLS street art festivals held in May.
After dropping in to PMQ, the former Police Married Quarters, where Hong Kong’s young and upcoming artists showcase their work, and which is also home to Michelin-star chef Jason Atherton’s Aberdeen Street Social, it was on down the cascading granite steps of Ladder Street, to the Man Mo Temple. This 19th century Taoist shrine to the civil and literature god Man Tai and the martial god Mo Tai is filled with smoke drifting from massive spiralling incense coils hanging from the ceiling, and fruit and money piled up next to the gods from students hopeful for success in exams, and police and triads hoping for success in their opposing struggle.
Nearby was one of Hong Kong’s hippest food hangouts, Little Bao (66 Staunton Street, Central, www.little-bao.com), in SoHo, where May Chow, aka Asia’s Best Female Chef last year, serves up an innovative twist on traditional bao, or Chinese buns. Filled with pork belly and Szechuan fried chicken, they were so delicious we managed to miss the departure of our traditional junk for a sail around the harbour watching Hong Kong’s new Symphony of Lights. No problem, we hopped on the Aqua Luna (www.aqualuna.com.hk), another crimson-sailed traditional junk instead, and spent the next 45 minutes lolling around the upper deck sofas watching the lights play out across the waterfront.
Next day Hong Kong designer Douglas Young of lifestyle brand Goods of Desire took us to his studio at the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, an old factory on Pak Tin Street in Kowloon. The man behind quirky designs, from Suzie Wong wallets to tees with a cheeky twist on traditional, he led us around the working class Sham Shui Po district where haberdashers jostle pawnshops and “foot” massage parlours, and Young gets much of his inspiration.
Another Sham Shui Po highlight is Renee So’s tofu shop (the Kung Wo Beancurd Factory, 118 Pei Ho Street) where the soya is boiled in the back and served in the front. Former finance worker Renee, who returned to the family soy business, tells us over bowls of silky tofu and sugar: “This shop represents the grassroots working class Hong Kong. It’s a very different lifestyle from Central, everyone knows each other. This is real life, this is why the tourists come.”
Another family-run Kowloon establishment doing brisk business when we visit is the Leung Tim Choppers Factory, a kitchen utensils maker whose weighted stainless steel cleavers are a cut above. Bristling with blades, knives and choppers, it can service all of your cooking/martial arts needs, while less adventurous cooks like me will be delighted with a carp mould for their salmon mousse.
Also in Sham Shui Po is one of the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurants, Tim Ho Wan (www.timhowan.hk), opened a decade ago by former Four Seasons Hotel dim sum chefs and now with 50 branches worldwide. Outwardly unremarkable, save the massive queues, inside it’s a noisy, steamy delight where waiters deliver towers of baskets stacked with shrimp wrapped in bean curd skin, baked buns with BBQ pork, intriguing pan fried-turnip cake and steamed chicken feet with black bean sauce. A Michelin feast for less than a tenner. And should you tire of Cantonese fare, drop into Paper Moon, at Ocean Terminal next to the Star Ferry, for a little taste of Milan with a panoramic harbour view.
Finally, for one last thrill, we took a helicopter trip from The Peninsula’s own helipad, swinging out over the harbour for a stunning view of the city then on over the 80 square mile island, peering down at seaside villages and lush green hillsides. A privileged bird’s eye view of the endlessly fascinating city that, like the dim sum, had touched our hearts.
Rooms at The Peninsula Hong Kong start from HK$ 3,980 a night (£380), peninsula.com/hongkong.
Hong Kong Tourism Board, visit DiscoverHongKong.com.uk.
Cathay Pacific offers a choice of three routes between the UK and Hong Kong, and on to over 190 destinations. These include five flights daily from Heathrow, and daily flights from Gatwick and Manchester airports. Visit www.cathaypacific.co.uk or call 0800 917 8260. Sale until 8 October: economy return flights to Hong Kong from Gatwick from £479; Manchester from £479; Heathrow from £509.
Dim Sum at Tim Ho Wan, 9-11 Fuk Wing St, Sham Shui Po (+852 2788 1226).
Little Bao, 66 Staunton Street, Central www.little-bao.com.
Kung Wo Beancurd Factory, 118 Pei Ho Street, Sham Shui Po.
Leung Tim Choppers Factory, G/F, 221 Cheung Sha Wan Road, Sham Shui Po.
Paper Moon, www.papermoonrestaurants.com