It sounds odd, but the best thing first-time visitors to Hong Kong discover is that it's Chinese after all. Despite more than 150 years of British rule, life for the Chinese majority has always followed the mainland pattern: food from teeming markets and street stalls; cramped housing and packed public transport; a polytheistic religion celebrated in the home and in smokey temples; intense, stylistic festivals and deep-rooted cultural entertainment. You need have no fear that a visit is somehow second-best to seeing the rest of China.
A tricky one to call, given what lies in wait in the notorious mansion blocks along Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui. To be fair, they've smartened up their act a little in the last few years. But even after the "improvements", too many Hong Kong guest houses are still shoe-boxed sized, with paper- thin walls and a turnover of undesirables that's fast and furious.The best advice is to spend as much as you possibly can afford on your accommodation; look on it as extra health insurance.
Dim sum - bamboo baskets of bite-sized morsels - are served in most Cantonese restaurants from breakfast onwards. Negotiating a table is an art ; if you've ever been in a rugby scrum you'll have some idea of the technique. After that, it's a matter of flagging down the trolleys being pushed around the restaurant, peering at the contents and pointing. And hoping. Yes, those are braised chicken feet, that's stuffed tripe, and this is a curried whelk to be going on with. If the waiting staff take pity on you, you'll eventually by channelled the more mainstream stuff, like pork and prawn dumplings, steamed buns, spring rolls and fried beancurd. Drink the tea you'll be brought; someone will keep filling up the pot.
Every Hong Kong market challenges the squeamish with the locals' insistence on the freshest food, killed to order and carried off wriggling. At Sheung Shui, nearest town to the old Chinese border, the fetid market alleys were where I did my daily shopping. After fondling the silky, purple aubergines, buying plump tomatoes, and picking up bak choy (Chinese cabbage) and bunches of coriander it was decision, decisions - would it be a visit to frog- lady, who cuts live frogs in two for a living; or to pigeon-lady (wrings their necks and then plucks furiously), or perhaps snake-man (skins them alive). Or maybe just a cup of tea and some toast.
Bargain of the Trip
The public transport system is incredibly good value, costing just a few pence to ride the clackety trams or cross-harbour ferries, not much more to use the sleek MTR rapid-rail network. Not that you'd want to do anything foolish like try to get on during rush hour, or on a public holiday, when the entire six-million strong population decides that a nice tram ride is just the ticket.
At the fishing village of Lei Yue Mun you peruse the line of seafood tanks, point to your chosen swimming dinner, which is promptly bludgeoned and cooked. All a bit brutal perhaps for western sensibilities, but that's not the mistake. Always ask the price of the fish before they clunk it on the head. I rather liked the look of the shiny yellow-and-blue one. It was tasty, too. And the fried rice and beer to go with it was an undeniable bargain, at around pounds 4. But pounds 65 for a fish supper?
From the deck of the Star Ferry, crossing from Tsim Shu Tsui, viewing the futuristic skyline of Hong Kong Island is a thrill every time. First impressions are of an organic mass of concrete and glass, stretching back from the water to the encroaching green hills behind. Closer up, the slabs and towers slowly reveal themselves, slotted into every nook and cranny, each outdoing its neighbour in height and design.
Hong Kong is the spiritual home of esoteric information. Take taxis. You need to know whether you're Hong Kong-side (island) or Kowloon-side (mainland) if you're flagging one down; whether or not it's a race day (so that's why I couldn't get a taxi) or about to pour down (ditto); and preferably the name of your destination in Cantonese (few taxi drivers speak serviceable English). And that's just transport. But most of all, you need to know where the nearest air-conditioned shopping centre is, so you can cool off, go to the loo (generally spotless) and idle away time watching the musical fountains.
8 Jules Brown wrote "The Rough Guide to Hong Kong". For the latest developments in travel, subscribe to the free newsletter "Rough News", published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.
The Hong Kong Hotel Association (00-552/2383 8380) has a reservations office at the airport and will only book you into registered, mid-range hotels. An Airbus from the airport takes you directly to Nathan Road, where hawkers brandishing cards will do their best to lure into their guest house - treat all names ("Harbour View", "Chungking Hilton", etc) extreme suspicion.
Dim Sum is usually served from around 7am-5pm; get there around noon, before the lunch rush, for the best food.
Sheung Shui (and its market) is on the Kowloon - Canton Railway (KCR) line, around 45 minutes from central Kowloon. Buy an MTR Stored Value Ticket, which is valid on the KCR as well as the MTR (Mass Transit Railway). Trams operate only on Hong Kong Island. Best ferry ride is the TSim Shai Tsui - Central Star Ferry ride, a seven-minute crossing.
For up-to-date transport information call the MTR Hotline (00852/2750 0170) or the KCR (00-852/2602 7799).
To reach Lei Yue Mun, take the MTR to Sai Wan Ho, a ferry from there to Sam Ka Tsuen and then a sampan across to the fishing village.