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Hong Kong for the holidays

hk-ramble_1

When I moved to Indonesia last May, I promised my parents I would be back for Christmas. But it was a strange feeling to return to a place where I’d lived for nearly 20 years. Apart from a high-rise hotel taking shape on the Kowloon waterfront, and a handful of other construction sites, it appeared that my hometown had barely changed at all. A familiar routine kicked in soon after arrival: there was an appointment with my childhood dentist – who once gave me a (painless) root canal after I fractured a front tooth falling down the stairs – and then I picked up a Christmas turkey at the usual place. The waiter with thick-rimmed glasses who’d handed me the box of turkey a year ago recognised me at once.

Bama tagged along at my mother’s invitation, and I took him to try Spanish cuisine for the first time at a cosy restaurant in Wan Chai. We feasted on smaller versions of Basque pintxos, bite-size potato omelettes with a spear of grilled guindilla pepper, and the classic comfort food huevos rotos (“broken eggs” over fried potatoes), which swapped out ham for mushroom and truffle shavings. A gregarious American business traveller was seated at the table behind us, and he sought sympathy from the French maître d’ after bombarding her with questions about how and why she’d landed in Hong Kong. “It’s my first time in Asia,” he said. “I wanted to bring my parents along but they couldn’t come at the last minute. It’s lonely being by yourself at Christmas.”

Down the same street, my favourite Indonesian donut brand had just opened its first branch in Hong Kong. On our second day there, Bama and I had spotted it through the window of a passing bus, and the familiar sight of the illuminated lettering and peacock logo had taken us by complete surprise. I eventually bought a dozen for my sweet-toothed family members.

A postcard-perfect view from the Peak

A postcard-perfect view from the Peak

The skyscrapers of Kowloon, with Ma On Shan's distinctive saddle just over the ridge

The skyscrapers of Kowloon, with Ma On Shan’s distinctive saddle just over the ridge

Harbour traffic

Harbour traffic

A resort-style pool for apartment-dwellers

A resort-style pool for apartment-dwellers

Victoria Harbour's western approaches

Victoria Harbour’s western approaches

Looking towards the tip of Kowloon

Looking towards the tip of Kowloon

Where two jungles meet

Where two jungles meet

Admiring the view from Lugard Road

Admiring the view from Lugard Road

A pseudo-Mediterranean mansion

A pseudo-Mediterranean mansion

The entire break was a period of nonstop eating, especially since an uncle and his family had just flown in from Toronto for the holidays. Christmas Eve meant a 10-course banquet at a Shanghainese restaurant, the one my grandparents had a penchant for visiting whenever special guests were in town. It was classic déjà vu – I’d dined here on a brief weekend trip in the middle of November, and the dishes chosen were practically the same. Two nights later my relatives would join us again for delicate slices of Peking duck, spicy Sichuan-style chicken, and other treats at a nearby venue my family had frequented ever since I was a child.

The day before we left, the thick clouds and winter haze finally lifted, revealing skies painted a glorious shade of blue. Bama and I decided to retrace some of our footsteps from January 2012, when we first met up in Hong Kong for a whistle-stop tour to see the highlights. He still laughs about it now, saying that he had to run just to keep up with me. It’s a sentiment shared by Jeff and Kristi from Planet Bell, who had the same experience when they stopped by a couple years back.

This time we headed to the Peak for a two-hour ramble, first to the lookouts along the morning trail (also known as the Peak Circle Walk), then a narrow road that led onwards and upwards, past some of Hong Kong’s most expensive real estate. Our goal was Victoria Peak Garden, site of the Governor’s summer residence in early colonial times and a magnet for families picnicking with their dogs, not to mention young couples in full garb for pre-wedding photos. We walked past the gate lodge – a whitewashed relic from 1902 that looked straight out of London – and discovered lawns dotted with flower beds and cast-iron gazebos. On the granite platform where the Governor’s mansion once stood, a simple pavilion afforded a sweeping vista over the hills and smokestacks of Lamma Island.

Vertical city

Vertical city

The Peak's not-so-secret garden

The Peak’s not-so-secret garden

Soon-to-be newlyweds with a posse of photographers

Soon-to-be newlyweds with a posse of photographers

Gazebos near the summit

Gazebos near the summit

Taking refuge from the midday sun

Taking refuge from the midday sun

Lamma Island and beyond

Lamma Island and beyond

Hibiscus blossoms at Victoria Peak Garden

Hibiscus blossoms at Victoria Peak Garden

The original gate lodge from 1902

The original gate lodge from 1902

We descended back to town on a double-decker bus, and just like that cool January evening in 2012, made a beeline for a Japanese restaurant to wolf down plates of conveyor belt sushi. I’d enjoyed it several times in Jakarta, but my favourite item (scallop) was never available, while gunkan maki topped with buttery uni (sea urchin roe) proved equally elusive. By the time we finished our late lunch there was only one thing left to do: hop aboard the Star Ferry to Kowloon.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I crossed the gangplank to find a seat on the upper deck, with the waves rolling audibly beneath my feet. I’ll never forget that moonlit night in my early teens, when we hitched a ride in our best clothes to attend a classical music concert at the Cultural Centre – that peach-coloured monolith behind the old clock tower at the tip of Kowloon. But the journey has become significantly shorter than it was in those days, thanks to the past decade or so of land reclamation.

We disembarked on the other side, leaving the crowds at the ferry terminal to find locals and tourists alike filling the benches built into the promenade, as a stream of ships went to and fro across the waters – pleasure yachts, tugboats, barges, and a variety of vessels that offered hour-long harbour cruises. Bama and I stood marveling at the scene, with its backdrop of forested hills and a legion of glass-and-steel skyscrapers that glimmered in the late afternoon light. Although I’d spent most of my life in Hong Kong, this was one view that would never grow old.

Aboard the Star Ferry to Kowloon

Aboard the Star Ferry to Kowloon

The beloved ferries have been plying these waters since 1888

The beloved ferries have been plying these waters since 1888

Duk Ling, one of Hong Kong's few remaining Chinese junks

Duk Ling, one of Hong Kong’s few remaining Chinese junks

The neighborhood of Fortress Hill, down the slope from my old school

The neighborhood of Fortress Hill, down the slope from my old school

Manhattan on the South China Sea

Manhattan on the South China Sea

Looking westward, the mountains of Lantau island are visible in the distance

Looking westward, the mountains of Lantau island are visible in the distance

I.M. Pei's Bank of China Tower (centre) remains an architectural icon

I.M. Pei’s Bank of China Tower (centre) remains an architectural icon

Harbour scenes just before sunset, with Duk Ling on the left

Harbour scenes just before sunset, with Duk Ling on the left

42 Comments Post a comment
  1. My friends no longer live in Hong Kong so I don’t stop there any more on my way to Italy. I will miss my visits.
    Happy new year. I hope you have a happy and healthy 2017.

    January 1, 2017
    • Thank you, Debra. It’s a shame your friends have moved away – I do recall your posts about exploring the city and visiting the China Club. Happy New Year to you too! I wish you good health and plenty of wonderful trips in the months ahead.

      January 2, 2017
  2. Hahaha James… I don’t know that the logo of the donut is a peacock. Just notice it.. 😀
    BTW, how do you adjust your walking speed in Indonesia, James? People here usually walks slowly and takes all spaces in on the sidewalk. Sometimes it makes me so frustrated.. hahaha

    January 1, 2017
    • Well Riyanti… the peacock was one of the first things that stood out for me! The truth is I don’t adjust – even though it is so hot and humid. I think people in Indonesia are the slowest walkers I’ve ever come across… it makes me frustrated almost every day! 😛

      January 2, 2017
  3. RA #

    Beautiful photos, James!

    January 1, 2017
  4. What I love most about Hong Kong is the availability of picturesque hiking trails minutes away from the city center — important to burn the fat from all those dinners. Thanks for taking me again to Lugard Road, James. Going there during daytime was so different from my first time back in 2012, although the three towers — Bank of China tower, Two IFC and ICC — remained a familiar sight.

    Also thanks for taking me to that Spanish restaurant. I finally understood why you raved about pintxos — and now I can’t wait to taste the real ones in Spain! Since you’re back in Jakarta it’s sambal and santan again now. 🙂

    January 1, 2017
    • You’re more than welcome, Bama! Next time we will have to revisit Lugard Road at sundown – it is a magical sight to see all the lights flicker on below. I am curious about the Spanish restaurants here in Jakarta but I will try not to go with high expectations. 😀

      January 2, 2017
  5. Superb photos of this very vertical city! And I like the contrast between the two jungles. What a fine and fun trip you and Bama had! Best wishes for the best of new years to you both.

    January 1, 2017
    • Much appreciated, Marilyn! It was fun but far too short, though we both gained a couple of kilos from all that eating. Wishing you a happy new year with many more adventures to come!

      January 2, 2017
  6. I’m going to be honest… I’ve never really wanted to visit Hong Kong. BEFORE seeing these photos. But honestly your photos and words about your home place have invited me to see the city in a whole new light. Thank you for sharing and I hope to read more about the city on your blog! While you are traveling, I wanted to let you know that I am hosting a travel gear giveaway! I’m trying to let all my fellow travel bloggers know about it (and its unlimited entries) so that they can have a chance to win! Here’s the link! http://thestudenttraveler.org/nalgene-travel-gear-giveaway/

    January 2, 2017
    • Thanks in turn for the wonderful comment – I’m glad this post changed your perception about my hometown! Hong Kong has a reputation for being purely about shopping and eating, but it packs in a lot of culture and unexpected natural beauty in a very small place. I’ll have to take a look at your travel gear giveaway – thanks for letting me know!

      January 2, 2017
      • Thank you! I’ll be changing it to international today so you can go ahead and enter! (I don’t know why I didn’t do that before!)

        January 2, 2017
  7. Lovely to read this after I had an unexpected enjoyable visit. Your ferry across to Kowloon reminded me of coming in the opposite direction when I heard an old familiar language I hadn’t heard in years — Swahili!

    January 2, 2017
    • Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Swahili in Hong Kong – but then again parts of Kowloon (especially Tsim Sha Tsui) have grown very multicultural.

      January 2, 2017
      • They were there on business from Tanzania. I had to turn around and speak to them.

        January 3, 2017
  8. Amazing article

    January 2, 2017
    • Thanks for dropping by. 🙂

      January 2, 2017
  9. Beautiful pics, really nice to educate folks who never been there…

    January 2, 2017
    • Much appreciated – I’m glad you enjoyed them.

      January 2, 2017
  10. Wonderful photos James. I can tell you love this city, and I can see why. I don’t know if I ever mentioned that I spent five weeks in HK in 1978 and just loved everything about it. My stay included a visit to Cheung Chau and Lantau Islands.
    Alison

    January 2, 2017
    • Thank you so much, Alison. I think you wrote about that in a comment some time ago – it would be fascinating to go back and see how much it has changed, though sadly I won’t be there to show you and Don around!
      James

      January 2, 2017
  11. Cuaca di Hongkong nampaknya lagi bagus ya James, pas kamu pulang ke sana. Fotonya terlihat bagus-bagus dan jelas. Keren 🙂

    January 2, 2017
    • Iya Bart, tapi cuma satu hari. 🙂 Selebihnya mendung dan agak berkabut.

      January 2, 2017
      • Berarti waktu motret hari itu, dirimu beruntung James. Hongkong terlihat bagus dan menyenangkan. Berapa perkiraan suhu udara kemarin itu?

        January 3, 2017
      • Kira-kira antara 18-21 derajat Celsius, malam itu suhunya turun sampai 12 derajat Celsius. Pas balik Jakarta, langsung kerasa panas dan lembab… 😛

        January 4, 2017
      • Iya, beda jauh banget sama Jakarta 🙂

        January 5, 2017
  12. Adam Morris #

    I’ve always heard hong kong is hot an humid… those photos make it look quite pleasant and joyful!

    January 3, 2017
    • It gets very hot and humid in the summer months, but winters are typically cool and dry – in other words, perfect weather for a walk or day hike!

      January 4, 2017
  13. I cannot wait to go to HK! This post just makes me more impatient!

    January 4, 2017
    • I’m sure you’ll enjoy it – fingers crossed you’ll get there soon!

      January 4, 2017
  14. I enjoyed watching your pictures, James. And your story reminds me of my family and hometown 🙂
    That Lugard Road is a typical place I love.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

    January 4, 2017
    • I would say most people who go to the Peak miss out on Lugard Road because they either don’t know about it or are too lazy to walk. Great thing is, that means it never gets too crowded even on weekends and holidays. 🙂

      Makasih Nugie, Selamat Natal dan Tahun Baru juga!

      January 4, 2017
  15. Home for the holidays … it sounds trite but it’s such a comfort (for me at least) to truly go home that one time a year to be with extended family. This holiday season was tough for us; we did all gather, but it’ll be the last time in our house of 20 years and our town of a quarter century! How nice that you (and Bama) could enjoy family time and familiar surroundings at the end of the year. Happy 2017 to you!

    January 4, 2017
    • My time with family was far too short – work deadlines meant that we had to return to Jakarta a couple of days before New Year’s Eve. I can’t imagine saying goodbye to a house (and a town) where you lived for so long. But then again, it’s very exciting to see you move cross-country to Houston. Thanks Lex, a belated happy new year to you too!

      January 8, 2017
  16. Your hometown is one of the world’s great cities and I can see why you’d miss it. Although I am sure Jakarta has its charms, you can’t go for hikes atop mountains or take ferries across that harbor.

    I’ve been training 5 days a week since our walking tour so I’ll be ready when we meet again.

    January 10, 2017
    • That’s true, Jeff – Hong Kong is much easier to navigate, plus the great outdoors is a whole lot closer. I do appreciate it more now that I no longer live there. At the same time it’s great being in the capital of such a huge country. Bali is only an hour and a half by plane, and there are so many other places nearby that I’d love to see.

      Ha, if I visit you in Bangkok you may well be the one doing the speedwalking!

      January 11, 2017
  17. It sounds like the ferry to Kowloon was your favourite part, bringing back fond memories and at the same time, realising how much Hong Kong has progressed but also stayed the same. Spectacular sunset views and the fading light makes the city look like such a dreamy place (coupled with the quality of the air…).

    Nice to hear there is such a variety of food in Hong Kong. While I hear the dim sum there is the best in the world, I’m guessing the newer outlets like that Indonesian donut outlet and Spanish food are popular with the younger generation and visitors these days. Mix of the old and new… Hope to visit Hong Kong for myself some day 🙂

    January 31, 2017
    • The diversity in Hong Kong’s dining scene is truly impressive. Aside from all sorts of Asian and regional Chinese cuisine, you can find Swiss, Portuguese, German, French, Moroccan, Greek, Lebanese, Mexican, Peruvian, and even Scandinavian eateries – that kind of variety is one of the things I miss about my hometown. Spanish food (especially tapas) seems to be all the rage nowadays, and we’ve seen a flurry of new restaurants popping up in the past two years.

      The Star Ferry ride and a walk around the Peak are both must-dos while in Hong Kong… fingers crossed you’ll get there soon. 🙂

      February 3, 2017
      • Hong Kong sounds like Melbourne, where you can also get a variety of cuisine. And Melbourne served the world’s best paella according to the news, haha.

        I really want to see the Harbour, with the ships against the city skyline. One day 🙂

        February 3, 2017
  18. Beautiful photos!

    February 19, 2017

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