I’d always wanted to visit Hong Kong. Something about the coupling of its unique history and importance as a global financial hub intrigued me. Surprisingly, the Hong Kong Express plane we were on from Chiang Mai had craft beer available on its in-flight menu, which I took to be a good sign. Off the plane and through immigration we quickly boarded an express train direct to the Kowloon neighbourhood, where our Airbnb was located.
Hong Kong is a harbour archipelago made up of a peninsula and multiple islands. Hong Kong Island is home to the main part of the Financial District and has a more western feel to it. Kowloon is on the peninsula across from Hong Kong Island and has more of a Cantonese feel. Although Hong Kong, and Kowloon in particular, is one of the most densely populated areas of the planet, the territory in general is actually very hilly and has large forested areas, especially in the ‘New Territories’ to the north that directly border China proper. There are also multiple smaller islands around the harbour, some of which are vehicle-free and very low-key.
We knew going in that space was going to be very limited in our Airbnb, but it really hit home when we were getting ourselves checked in. Getting out of the train station we found the block of identical apartment buildings we were looking for but struggled to determine exactly which door of which building we needed. Luckily a couple of ladies offered to help and got us where we needed to be. Opening the door to the apartment proper, we found a room that was exactly as wide as the double bed it housed, and about 16 feet long. It had a miniature bathroom in the corner next to the door, which was literally a water closet. You could shower, use the toilet, and wash your hands all at the same time!
Getting out to explore the city the next day, we found the humidity to be absolutely intense. I wouldn’t be outside more than a minute and I’d start sweating. A few minutes would result in a shirt heavy with sweat. It was punishing!
Our first order of business was to sort out our visa for China so that we could spend some time visiting Janan’s brother Ashraf and his partner Aneta in Shenzhen, the Chinese city directly across from Hong Kong. We were going to apply for these before we left home, but weren’t guaranteed to get our passports back before we had to leave. We knew we could apply from Hong Kong with a pretty quick turn around time, so that was our plan. We’d read it would take about a week to get them, so we booked ourselves in Hong Kong for a week as a result.
Monday morning we headed down to the Forever Bright Trading offices, a visa broker we found online with pretty good reviews. Reaching the office, we found a general sense of pandemonium. There were dozens of people packed into a tiny reception area, all trying to get their visas, with varying degrees of language barrier and complexity in individual situations. We waited in a quasi-line and made our way to the front in about 25 minutes. After explaining our situation, what we needed, and reassuring the lady that we did indeed plan on spending a month in Shenzhen, she suggested we get a ‘group visa’ as there were two of us. This would mean we’d have to enter and exit China together, but that wouldn’t be a problem for us. Although we’d anticipated having to wait 4 days before we could pick it up, she told us to come back that afternoon and it’d be ready to go. After planning our time in Hong Kong entirely around an expected week of wait time, we ended up getting our visa in about 6 hours!
More exploring of the city produced many malls, and we discovered that Hong Kong is truly a shopper’s paradise. There were more luxury brand stores than we’d ever seen before, located altogether in mega-malls that stretched for blocks. Definitely a bastion of retail capitalism!
Being so close to Ashraf & Aneta also meant that Ashraf was also able to come over and visit us after work one evening. He took us to check out one of the market areas in our neighbourhood, which was made up of block after block of tented stalls selling everything and anything you could think of. We also walked by some street karaoke and tented booths of fortune tellers, both of which are apparently quite popular. After some thorough exploring, we chose a local street food stall/restaurant and sat down to enjoy a smorgasbord of local delicacies, many of which proved to be very delicious. After that it was off to one of Hong Kong’s best known craft beer bars, TAP – The Ale Project. TAP was setup by the team behind Young Master, one of Hong Kong’s preeminent craft brewers. As I understand it, when they first opened their brewery, they found that they also needed a quality outlet for many of their more unique offerings, and thus TAP was born. The first beer that I tried was an oak-infused rye ale that was incredibly reminiscent of a beer put out by Forked River when I started working there. That made for a nice bit of reminiscing as we settled in. They had a fantastic tap list, made up of beer from other brewers in the region as well, and I had a very enjoyable time working my way through the line up.
Oddly enough, one of my favourite things about Kowloon was walking through it at night. I had this image seared in my brain of the damp, dimly lit alleyways of Hong Kong, inevitably behind a restaurant of some kind, from the many Kungfu movies I enjoyed as a kid. The reality did not disappoint. I felt as though we might run into Jackie Chan at any moment. My inner child was quite satisfied!
Despite all of these exciting experiences, we had arrived in Hong Kong at a tumultuous time. A few days after settling in, mass protests, involving up to ⅓ of the territory’s population (depending on which source you choose to believe) had broken out in response to the now infamous extradition bill that would allow Hong Kongers to be sent to the mainland for trial in what is seen by many as the highly political judicial system of China proper (conviction rates are apparently around 99%). This limited our ability to explore some parts of the city, as we didnt want to get caught up in things given we were intending to head to China in just a few days. We watched much of the protests on television though. It was apparent to us that many of the young protesters are extremely worried about the future of their city and truly see their actions as a last ditch attempt to maintain the unique situation they’ve been in since the British returned Hong Kong to China in 1997 (referred to as One Country, Two Systems). At the time, the protests were primarily focused around the Legislative Council building (the ruling authority for the territory) in the Central neighbourhood of Hong Kong Island. Between this, and largely rainy weather, our exploration of greater Hong Kong was somewhat limited. We did however, make it over to Hong Kong Island for some exploring after the protests subsided on our last full day in town. We found more great food and beer, and enjoyed exploring the hub of the financial district. The prices of everything were definitely much less appealing though!