National Day is celebrated every year on October 1st in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau. It marks the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Chinese people celebrate this holiday by spending time with their families, while everyone else just enjoys the badass fireworks show; second only to that of Chinese New Year in scale. As it turned out, an old friend of mine from Belfast was going to be in town over the weekend and was free to hang out. So I decided to spend the weekend doing a bunch of stuff around Hong Kong and eating loads of food. Woo China!
On Friday we met bright and early to explore Wong Tai Sin Temple; a famous shrine and tourist attraction in North Kowloon. My friend Daniel arrived before I did and asked me to see what price I would be offered by the incense sellers outside the MTR station. Daniel is Chinese and was curious as to whether these particular merchants apply a dirty foreigner tax. I approached one of them and asked for the price, initially in Cantonese and then again in English when it became clear he couldn’t understand me at all. 20 HKD for a packet, I was told. I then noticed that this man was missing his left hand. Fair play to him. However, when I started walking away the man began to follow me, shouting at me angrily in Cantonese, and then bashing me on the shoulder with something. I turned around to see that he was attempting to grab my attention by hitting me repeatedly with his hand-stump. My first new experience of the day!
Daniel was right, the foreigner tax is very real. He was initially offered 10 HKD per packet and haggled them down to 16 HKD for two packets. Oh well. The temple was strange; I liked the impressive bronze animal-face statues and the traditional music, but it didn’t feel particularly ancient or spiritual. However, the juxtaposition between the temple and the surrounding dull high-rise apartment buildings was typically jarring for Hong Kong. The whole place felt oddly familiar. We slightly humiliated ourselves with the incense sticks; I couldn’t get mine to burn properly, while Daniel set his bundle on fire somehow. After we stuck them in the sand at the front of the shrine, mine were not smoking at all, and Daniel’s were immediately removed and extinguished by the staff. Whoops. Finally, we wondered around the garden out the back. It was real pretty! Check it out.
Next stop was Apliu street market in Sham Shui Po; a huge flea market mainly selling electronics, but you can get all kinds of things there. I was looking for a new pair of sleep phones (like a sweatband with little flat wireless speakers over each ear) to replace my broken ones, but I couldn’t find any. They’re quite a niche product I guess, and none of the market sellers really understood what I was asking for anyway. I mainly enjoyed watching Daniel aggressively haggle down the prices of stuff, sometimes just for fun. Daniel is from Mainland China so speaks Mandarin, which is understood and spoken by many here. Luckily we had just learned about numbers in my Chinese class the previous day, so I was able to follow the negotiations in real time!
For lunch, we ate at Tim Ho Wan; a dim sum place known for being the “cheapest Michelin star restaurant in the world”. We went very early and didn’t have to wait at all. Lucky – seeing long queues outside famous eateries is a regular occurrence in Hong Kong. Their dim sum is lovely; we paid around 80 HKD each for a spread of eight dishes, from chicken feet to custard slices, and of course, their famous roasted bbq pork bun. I had been told the pork bun was good, so my expectations were high, and still I was not disappointed. A beautifully flavoured roasted bun, crisp and sweet on the outside with a softer, almost shortbread-like filling, surrounding hot bbq pork bursting with flavour. Oh man, they were good. The best food I’ve eaten in Hong Kong so far. The rest of the dim sum was nice but honestly, I’m not sure why Tim Ho Wan gets all the dim sum hype around here because I’ve had better. You should still go if you get the chance, and try the roasted pork bun. Maybe I should go back myself and just order 10 orders of pork bun mmmm…..
Next stop was the Ladies Market; a huge street market in Mong Kok specialising in women’s clothing and accessories, but like most markets in Hong Kong, you can buy all kinds of stuff there. The more markets I visit here, the more obvious it is that they all get their stock from the same suppliers. There are always half a dozen t-shirt stalls selling the same awful selection of I am Lost in Hong Kong shirts, arranged in exactly the same pattern along the walls. There’s always the headphone and speaker stalls selling the same models, the stalls with the little minion dolls, handbag stalls, phone case stalls… It all just ends up repeating itself. Still, it’s cool to slowly wander up and down, listening to the tourists haggle over fake Polo shirts and Beats headphones.
Next on the itinerary was the Hong Kong Science Museum. I was worried it would be one of those things that you think looks cool but it turns out it’s only meant to be for kids and you realise too late and you’re already getting weird looks and it’s too awkward to leave right away but you’re the only person there who isn’t a parent or a small child. At least it was free entry for students so basically, we yolo’ed it and just went in. Turns out it is basically for kids but who cares. Almost all of the exhibits are interactive and it’s actually a really cool place. They did well at making things both entertaining and educational. However, it’s aimed at a much younger crowd than sarcastic university students. The thing we found strange was the number of exhibits teaching about construction safety; Hong Kong must have some big plans for itself if it’s trying to raise an army of construction workers.
Before we set off for the last stop of the day, we had to return to Daniel’s hotel to get changed. We were heading off to Ozone Bar, the highest bar in the world! Which has a dress code that forbids guys from wearing open shoes, shorts, or sleeveless shirts. We changed into our fancy clothes that covered our disgusting male skin and were now ready to enter the bar. If only we could find it. It took almost two hours of wandering around and frustrated Google Maps searches before we found it. The bar is on the 118th floor of the fancy Ritz Carlton hotel, atop the International Commerce Centre in West Kowloon. There were even fancy people in white gloves opening doors for us and pressing the lift buttons. We felt like royalty. You have to take two separate lifts to get up, the first of which caused my ears to pop.
We were greeted at the door (lift?) by a friendly woman who showed us to our seats and reminded us not to sit at the tables because they were for the important people. We chose to sit outside, in a strange open-top terrace separated from the outside by a glass wall. We arrived early when it was still light out, but the visibility was very poor and you couldn’t see much. A friendly Portuguese waiter handed us a menu. Prices range from 95 HKD (£9.50) for a soft drink, 100 HKD for a bottle or half-pint of beer, 145 HKD for a mocktail or 165 HKD + for a proper cocktail. Not including 10% service charge. I ordered a half-pint of draught beer and Daniel had a pink martini. The drinks were lovely, of course, and you’re really paying for the view, but wow it was expensive. At least we got free popcorn. Once the sun set and the foggy daylight was replaced by a stunning view over Victoria Harbour all lit up, the atmosphere of the bar came alive. Daniel really loved that place; the music, staff, decorations and even the clientele created a real aura of upper-class elegance. It felt like a fancy bar from a movie. I liked it. Check it out.
Saturday morning was spent with a group of people from my university as part of this Chinese language buddy program I’m taking part in. We basically meet up every now and then with our ‘buddy’ who is a native Mandarin speaker. She then teaches us some cool new vocab words and gets us talking in Mandarin a bit. The plan was to go hiking in Sai Kung, but seeing as there was a massive thunderstorm going on, the plan was changed at the last minute to just dim sum breakfast. At a seafood restaurant apparently. Okay.
It turned out to be a seafood restaurant that sells dim sum in the morning. The coolest thing about it was that it was outside – street-food style – covered by a roof. This meant we were eating dim sum in the middle of a thunderstorm, with heavy rain crashing down on the roof above us and the ground all around us, flashes of lightning illuminating the restaurant like a curious giant’s camera flash, followed by roaring, furious thunder, bouncing off the tall buildings and echoing like the rumbling bowels of Satan. The most atmospheric breakfast I’ve ever had.
We also went to this cafe afterwards and had coffee and pineapple buns with butter – a traditional Hong Kong treat. Pineapple buns are Hong Kong’s version of melon bread (or melon pan, メロンパン） a popular Japanese bakery thingy. Despite the names, there is no pineapple or melon inside – it’s like a sweet soft bread with a cookie-like coating. Pretty nice, although we received the last of a batch and so ours were cold.
Saturday night was the main event! The fireworks! A group of my friends from campus came with me to meet Daniel at a Japanese curry place for dinner beforehand. It was pretty good curry – plus you could get a drink and a dessert added to your meal for like £1.80 – not each, that’s the price to add both. The dessert was a really nice ice cream thing with cereal at the bottom. Good stuff.
Our plan was to watch the fireworks from the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, near the Avenue of Stars on the north side of the harbour. We decided this because it was most convenient for us – even though we had been told that some people go there five hours early to reserve their place. I was told there would be too many people. As we approached the promenade 30 minutes before the fireworks, I realised I should have listened to that advice. There were too many people. At the end of a road that approaches the promenade, we spotted a row of police officers holding up a rope and letting people through. We ran towards it to make sure we got under before they lowered it. One of our group of six went in, I moved to follow them when a policewoman put her hand on my shoulder to stop me and began lowering the rope. I darted to the side, ducked down and just about slipped under, followed quickly by another member of our group, before they lowered the rope and stopped allowing people through. “Our friends are there, when will they get through?“, we asked a police officer. “Just one minute.“, he answered with authority.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? FIND OUT IN PART 2!