I (Merge) am fortunate to have visited Hong Kong many times. In fact, Al and I were last there in 2015 when we first spent a few days in Hong Kong, and then another few in Macau. However, in November 2023, I visited again for a couple of days during my marine journey on the MS Westerdam. Given my familiarity with this city, my plans were not ambitious. I just wanted to drop in again on some of my favourite spots, only to see what had changed since the last time I was here.
If you’re not familiar with the history of Hong Kong, it became a British colony in 1842 (following the First Opium War). Initially a small trading post, it developed into a bustling port city, playing a pivotal role in international trade. The influx of refugees during various periods, particularly during the Chinese Civil War and World War II, contributed to its diverse cultural fabric and population growth. Post-World War II, Hong Kong underwent an economic boom, transitioning from a manufacturing base to a financial and service-oriented economy, establishing its status as a global financial hub. In 1997, it became a Special Administrative Region of China, retaining its distinct legal and economic systems. More recently, it has encountered political and social challenges. But despite these issues, Hong Kong continues to hold a significant position on the global stage, distinguished by its unique blend of Eastern and Western influences.
The Hong Kong region comprises of Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsula, the New Territories, and over 260 outlying islands. But whenever I’ve visited, I’ve stayed within the Hong Kong and Kowloon areas. The MS Westerdam docked at the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal which is in Victoria Harbour on the Kowloon mainland. Getting around to all the other areas is very easy because Hong Kong has an excellent public transportation system with a subway (MTR), buses, and ferries.
My first stops on the Kowloon side in the Tsim Sha Tsui area were for nostalgic reasons. As a child, when we visited, my family always stayed at the Holiday Inn on Nathan Road, one of the main thoroughfares in the city. As I strolled past the hotel, I couldn’t resist going in. Even though the lobby has probably been renovated many times since I last stayed there, the happy memories were still there.
Speaking of renovations, just next door to the Holiday Inn is Chung King Mansions. Don’t let the word “mansions” fool you – five 17-storey interconnected blocks, constructed in 1961, known for its multicultural atmosphere and budget accommodations, and likely never been renovated even once in its 60+ year history. On the main floor, it houses a variety of small businesses, including low-cost goods and electronics, restaurants offering diverse cuisines, shops selling inexpensive merchandise, money changers, international phone card vendors, and other services catering to the needs of residents and visitors. The upper floors have low-cost rentals, and several budget guesthouses. As it is in close proximity to the Holiday Inn, I recall fond hours, as a child, wandering through the maze of narrow corridors and cluttered hallways. In the last couple of decades, this building has been a subject of interest for sociologists and filmmakers due to its unique cultural and social dynamics. It is often described as a microcosm of globalization, showcasing a blend of different cultures and ethnicities, primarily from Asia and Africa. And of course, the building’s relatively low rent and central location contribute to its diverse demographic makeup. This recent notoriety has also highlighted many safety issues and given it a controversial reputation. Overcrowding, fire safety, sanitation, electrical safety, maintenance, and possible criminal activity are just a few of the problems that have been highlighted. It certainly looks a lot seedier than I remember, but I must admit that I loved soaking up the sights, sounds, and smells as I wandered through the main floor for about 40 minutes.
Explorations in Kowloon complete, I hopped on the MTR system and made my way to Hong Kong Island, also known as the Central Business District (or CBD). On clear days, you can get great panoramas in all directions from The Peak, the highest vantage on Hong Kong Island, but there was low cloud and rain on both days that I was there, so I decided against making the trip to the top. But I couldn’t resist riding the Centrals-Mid-Levels escalator, for no other reason that “Just because”. If you don’t know, the Centrals-Mid-Levels escalator, constructed in 1993, is the longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world. Approximately 800m long, and climbing over 135m from bottom to top, it provides commuter access between the lower Central district and the residential areas in the Mid-Levels. Operating from early morning until midnight, it consists of a series of escalators and moving walkways, with entry and exit points at various intervals.
Since I was passing by Hollywood Road, I made a stop at another of my favourite destinations, the Man Mo Temple. This historical landmark was built in 1847 during the Qing Dynasty, and it is among the oldest Taoist temples in the city. It is still a practicing temple that reflects the ancient Chinese cultural values of literature and martial valour. Worshippers come to pray to the God of Literature (Man) and the God of War (Mo). Its interior is just as serene and beautiful, the lights are still dim, and the air is still as thick with incense as I remember from my last visit. Ornate carvings, ceramic figurines, and intricate decorations are always a surprise find in the surrounding modern urban environment.
Before I returned to the ship, as a nod to modern times, I decided to stop in at a local McDonalds restaurant on my way to see what menu adaptations were made for Hong Kong diners. I couldn’t resist trying a Sweet ‘n’ Spicy Crispy Thighs meal with a Brown Sugar Boba bubble tea. Unfortunately, the description was far more appealing than the taste.