From goldfish feng shui to a journey by junk, Harriet O'Brien samples hustle and bustle

Friday lunchtime and office workers stream out of high-rise buildings into a maze of lanes. Men in suits dive down narrow alleyways and head past stores festooned with paper lanterns to take seats at tiny plastic tables outside dai pai dong food stalls. Occasionally, incense sticks are lit at small red shrines dotted along the thin thoroughfares. Meanwhile, women in neatly tailored skirts and blouses join queues crowding into dim sum restaurants where the air reverberates with chatter and the clatter of servers pulling trolleys of dumplings. Elsewhere, the aromas of fish, ginger, fried black beans and more accompany blasts of steamy warm air from noodle eateries. The energy, the smells, the vibrant jumble are pure Hong Kong.

Of all the colourful areas across the islands and chunk of mainland peninsula that make up Hong Kong, the web of the Central Market area on Hong Kong Island offers, on a weekday, perhaps the greatest sensory profusion. You can’t but be bemused by the kaleidoscope of activity, the collision of tradition and shiny modernity. The world’s longest escalator system cuts an 800m swathe between buildings, through the middle of the neighbourhood.

As you join others travelling upwards (the mechanical stairs move in one direction, reversing to take commuters downwards at rush hour at the start of the working day) you catch sight of poles of laundry strung from windows 20 storeys or so up, of tall buildings partly clad in bamboo scaffolding (so much better than metal, I am told – the raw material for struts being specially nurtured in mainland China). And you look down over a tangle of street advertisements in Chinese and somewhat bewildering English: “Part Massage Centre” announces one; “Everyday Fun Laundry” another. At a small café I stop to sample a glass of iced yun yong, a Hong Kong speciality of mixed milky tea and coffee. As if evoking the highly charged scene around, its hybrid flavour is at once surprising, piquant, intense.

The day had begun rather more calmly with a morning amble through Hong Kong Island’s Victoria Park. Elderly men and women were being tenderly escorted into this green haven by younger relatives. Others had arrived earlier and formed several t’ai chi groups, slowly stretching in unison, their deep concentration almost palpable. Joggers meantime rigorously followed one-way signs around a track through the vegetation. Midway across the park, a team of pink-and-white clad women rehearsed their syncopated dance routine for a upcoming festival parade while nearby a middle-aged couple silently practised tango steps.

For another take on morning Hong Kong, I took the clean, efficient MTR subway line (you can even use your mobile phone underground) under the harbour waters dividing Hong Kong Island from the peninsula, making for Prince Edward station in Kowloon. Nearby, the flower market was in full swing. Oriental lilies, big-headed hydrangeas, bonsai trees and several varieties of orchid lined the pavement. A shopper remarked to me how flowers and greenery are particularly important attributes in most homes – in the densely packed urban areas of Hong Kong the majority of people live high up in small spaces and have no access to a garden.

At the end of the road I watched an old gentleman carrying a small bird in a bamboo cage into the adjacent Bird Garden. Settling on a bench beside another elderly bird aficionado, he started to feed his charge with grasshoppers, which were dexterously dispensed through the cage bars with chopsticks. It was a social, morning activity. Behind him lay the bird market which resounded with the liquid calls of larks and tiny yellow-breasted songbirds.

From fowl to fish: a short walk further south is the goldfish market. The range of shapes and colours along this street of glass-fronted shops is fantastic. Plastic bags of individual fish are strung up outside doorways, while on the pavement tanks filled with assorted white, orange, black, frilly finned, fan-tailed (and more) fish offer a sort of pick-your-own arrangement whereby you choose your purchase and then catch it with a small net. There is great significance, I was told, in making the selection. The keeping of goldfish is part of the feng shui of a home. Based on a series of complex calculations, not least your (Chinese) star sign, a feng shui master will advise you as to the quantity, size and colour fish you need, as well as the position of the tank – which should be kept filled with running water. It is, literally, a fluid arrangement, with the feng shui requirements changing every year.

To sample more of traditional Hong Kong life, that afternoon I took a harbour tour in a former fishing junk complete with fan-like saffron coloured sails and creaking wooden hull. Duk Ling, meaning “Clever Duck”, is said to be the last authentic junk in Hong Kong and was built more than 50 years ago. It is a surreal experience to glide along in a vessel from a bygone era looking out, to either side, at the striking, contemporary skylines of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.

Yet in this place of fusion culture even the state-of-the-art modernity has a traditional twist, with much of Hong Kong’s high-rise architecture honouring feng shui traditions. Norman Foster’s HSBC headquarters, which stands nearby, has especially good feng shui –partly on account of its position and the way that energy flows through its enormous atrium.

Back on land I moved up a social gear or two, into the world of the Tai Tai, the Hong Kong equivalent of Ladies Who Lunch. Or in this case take tea. Offering another neat synthesis of old and new, MingCha in the Wan Chai area of Hong Kong Island is a teahouse serving the finest of infusions in a contemporary-chic setting. Sitting up at an elegant black-and-white counter I had a tasting session, sampling smooth oolong, green, and white teas in doll-size cups. It was tempting to try more, but for an appointment at a private dining club.

Club Qing, in the busy Central district, defines itself as a “speakeasy”, a description that sounds at odds with gourmet living. However, Hong Kong “speakeasies” (of which there are an increasingly number) have become something of an institution. Effectively intimate, fine-dining restaurants, they serve multi-course set menus to a discerning clientele. They are usually tucked away – in Club Qing’s case on the 10th floor of an unremarkable building – and they have no licence so you need to bring your own wine or beer. But Andy Lam, chef of Club Qing, would much rather you didn’t. He serves exquisite Cantonese dishes (with, inevitably, a modern twist) that are designed to explore a great palate of tastes particularly when punctuated by the cleansing taking of tea. Meantime you feel you’re in a period piece. The décor of this small restaurant is of rosewood furniture, panelling and fretwork. The antique world it evokes plays on that sense of tradition which, for all the sky-rise hi-tech living of this hybrid place, remains at the heart of Hong Kong.

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