I lived in New York. This should be easy, I thought.
But as I soon realized, I knew very little about this shiny east-meets-west city — and was probably less equipped than ever to take Hong Kong in after three months of extreme chillaxing in Honolulu.
We landed in Hong Kong last Tuesday night, and after 16 hours of travel, it was amazing to see a friendly face. We were staying with our wonderful friend from college, Fareesa, who has made quite a nice life for herself after moving to Hong Kong three years ago.
But we weren’t just crashing at her place. Girl has taken care of us. She gave us her bed, stocked the fridge with food even though she herself never eats in, welcomed us with this amazing sign…
…and prepared edited guides and lists of things to do, complete with highlighted maps and a Blackberry to use during our stay. It was incredible. I know friends help friends out, but this was above and beyond.
As I’ve said before, visiting friends abroad is never a bad decision. Fareesa has been one of the most thoughtful and generous hosts we’ve ever had. She’s such a happy, social and fun person that it was fantastic to have quality time to catch up. We felt so lucky to finally spend time with her on her new home turf and have her as a source for exploration.
And as we realized, Hong Kong — without knowing the hidden gems — comes off as just a crazy busy city with nightlife and restaurants. Little did we know just how much there was to do besides drink and dine. (I’ll detail specifics — food, activities, etc. — in upcoming posts.)
But what’s Hong Kong like at a glance?
Well, Hong Kong Island — Hong Kong is comprised of more than 200 islands and its namesake is the one everyone thinks of — has all the elements of New York, London and China in a more amped-up, hodgepodge mix. One minute you’ll see British expats in slick suits pounding away on their Blackberrys; the next, a quiet Chinese fisherman, eating a snack by Victoria Harbour.
It’s a jarring, but not unpleasant, mix of old and new. And in all the glitz of finance and fashion, it’s nice to be reminded that this place isn’t just an expat’s playground.
Though, sometimes it’s hard to see beyond the glossy veneer. Hong Kong can be a male expat playground, to the point that there’s a distinct air of machismo in the city that I didn’t love. Of course there are powerful females in Hong Kong, but the guy-girl ratio is so staggering that their presence is definitely marginalized. With so many men in finance, it doesn’t take long to learn that money rules. And rent may be the highest in the world in Hong Kong, but it’s very easy to live a nice life because everything else is so cheap — pressed laundry, foot massages, the works.
Fareesa explained to me that many people in Hong Kong get “Peter Pan Syndrome”: It’s so easy to stay young and so hard to grow up. Check out the weekly crowds spilling out onto the streets around Lan Kwai Fong — the nightlife center — on Friday and Saturday nights, and you’ll understand. Whether they’re 45 or 25, expats (and non-Chinese) in Hong Kong work hard and play even harder.
Regular Friday night in Lan Kwai Fong.
But that’s just one side of the city, and if it’s the only side you see, you’re really missing out. The most surprising thing about Hong Kong is that it’s a place of variety. As much as you can party and eat fancy meals, you can get out of Central, the main urban area, and see beautiful mountains and beaches, serene fishing villages, and a lot fewer people. I’ve never really been to a place where there’s that much of…everything. Every day we spent in the city has been so different and that’s what has made a week — more than the average tourist spends here — the perfect amount of time to understand how the city operates. It’s a diverse and fascinating place.
As for me, Hawaii has turned me soft. Now I get overwhelmed, anxious and downright claustrophobic in big cities. Hawaii couldn’t have been more different of a place and we were a little shaken when we first arrived in Hong Kong. Everything is so intense here that we felt like we were moving in slow motion compared to everyone else. And the first few days — paired with the unbearable heat, humidity and pollution, which I know, I know, I have to get used to in Asia’s muggy season — were exhausting.
But we knew the rest of our Asia trip would be a whole lot more zen, so we rolled with the punches. We hiked through the humidity, we sampled super local food, we partied until 5am — we did as the Honkies do. I would’ve hated the city if we didn’t know anyone, but because we did, it made a world of a difference and, in the end, changed my perception of Hong Kong.
It may not be for me long-term, but I absolutely recommend a visit, and I’ll show you how to make your visit worthwhile over the next few posts with tips and suggestions to get the most authentic experience.
For now, some photos to help you visualize:
The escalators built in the middle of the city make navigating the uphills much easier. With a hop-on, hop-off system, it’s an awesome way to get around — and avoid congestion on street level.
Faithful tour guide and host.
The IFC building, which Batman stood atop in The Dark Knight.
$15 foot massages? Yes, please!
Golden retriever puppies at a Kowloon pet store. Maybe the highlight of Hong Kong (for me).
Meeting up in Sheung Wan — Hong Kong’s version of Brooklyn — with my friend and old co-worker, Gillian, who moved here from New York in March.
IFC Mall madness.
*Thanks to Fareesa for some of these photos!