HONG KONG _ If you’re traveling to Asia for the first time, or just really like being in shopping malls, Hong Kong is the perfect gateway destination. The English language and signage are common, as are many Western comforts such as Starbucks, McDonald’s and taxi drivers who don’t care if they live through their shift.
It’s the spirit of Hong Kong that marks the city’s real attraction. Although it comprises an area one-fourth the size of Rhode Island and has little arable land and few natural resources, it’s one of the most prosperous areas in the world thanks to a laissez-faire government that addresses civic issues by letting developers build skyscrapers on top of them. Not surprisingly, this is a city filled with epic views. Here, in fact, is the view from the men’s room at The Peninsula, which a polite-but-ineffective sign warned me not to photograph.
A fella could just stand there for hours and hours.
Hong Kong’s skyline is one of the most striking in the world—a lie detector graph of towering structures, brutish by day and bejeweled at night. Its grandiosity is such that after seeing it you will never again view the establishing skyline shot of an NFL game from Buffalo, Cleveland or Green Bay without thinking, “How cute—someone tried to make a city there.”
If you’re thinking of going, it’s currently an interesting time to visit. Control of the islands and mainland peninsula was transferred peacefully from Great Britain to Communist China in 1997. The locals who chafed under Britain’s light, crony capitalist touch now chafe under China’s heavier, crony capitalist touch. That’s because China’s one country, two systems approach does not appear to be tenable.
One of those systems is capitalism, which produces an inordinate amount of shopping malls. The other system is communism, which is responsible for literally countless deaths of its own citizens, not to mention all the hipster T-shirts. Many in Hong Kong—particularly students—are demanding universal suffrage and the removal of Chinese-installed leaders, and they have taken to the streets to protest, which is kind of freaking the shit of out of everybody.
But don’t let a little thing like revolution lite spoil your good time. Hong Kong has plenty to offer the modern, moneyed, mall-abiding, selfie-sticked traveler, provided the government isn’t firing tear gas at its citizens during your stay, which is something you can check with the concierge about.
Getting around Hong Kong is easy. The Hong Kong airport is modern, clean, easy-to-navigate and makes American airports such as LAX look like that mall near your house no one goes to anymore. For about $12 USD the Airport Express train takes travelers from the airport to downtown in 24 minutes. The city has a subway line, escalators, trams, ferries, buses (both city and tour) and taxis. Fair warning: The taxi drivers can be less-than-scrupulous. We were swindled by a taxi driver at Victoria Peak.
Victoria Peak is a hill south of downtown that tectonic forces slowly, over the course of many centuries, pushed up and into a shopping mall that was already there.
I made our January 2015 trip on an injured foot, and rather than wait an hour in the tram line (where I’d run the risk of hearing myself complain), we took a taxi down the hill. As the taxi sped through the sharp turns down to the city, our cab driver (who had not turned on the meter) said the rate would be $25 American because, “that line for the tram looked really long, so this is fair.” We knew we were being had, but I didn’t mind, because every time an American journalist travels to a foreign country it’s imperative that he reports back on at least one thing that happened in a taxi, and now I had my story.
If you like seeing local sites, and if you’ve always wondered what it would be like to ride on a double-decker bus driven by Jeff Gordon, get yourself a pass for The Big Bus. Bonus: The streets are so tight you can literally look to your left and 20 feet away through an open window you can watch an authentic Hong Kong citizen trying to live his life while double-decker busses filled with foreigners zoom by.
The Big Bus people can also sell you passes for the Star Ferry, which runs back and forth between Hong Kong Island and mainland Kowloon directly across the harbor. The ferry’s lower deck offers passengers an educational lesson on the loudness of boat engines.
From world-class dining to the experimental eats to cheap, delicious street fare, Hong Kong is a bustling food city. Three places I recommend are Catch on Catchick, Tim Ho Wan and Sun Kee.
At Catch on Catchick we enjoyed the fresh oysters and fresh shrimp appetizers particularly. I’ve heard it said that travel reveals that food in other countries tastes fresher than ours in America. That take is mostly elitist, veiled anti-corporate-America bunk. If you shop correctly and dine at the right restaurants, you can eat delicious fresh food in any major or even middling city in America. But the freshness and taste at Catch on Catchick made me never want to eat another shrimp that didn’t look like it had been pulled straight from the ocean moments before appearing on my plate.
Tim Ho Wan is a one Michelin star dim sum chain restaurant, which are words that don’t normally go together. We made an expat friend who lives in Hong Kong, and we ate at the Tim Ho Wan at Olympian City Mall because he said it was the one with the shortest line. We waited about 20 minutes at 8 PM on a Saturday night. (A well-traveled sommelier told us to expect to wait much longer for Tim Ho Wan, and the restaurant’s other locations probably bear him out.) If you go, get the BBQ pork buns, and avoid the chicken feet. The chicken feet are tasty, but way too much work, like picking apart a crab only to be awarded with no crab meat. After a while you give up, and then you have to stare at a sad bowl of sad during the rest of your meal as you slowly entertain thoughts of vegetarianism.
Over on Kowloon we turned down a side street in the Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood, ducked into one of those tiny hallway maze of stores found at the base of Asian buildings and pulled up a plastic stool at one of ten or so plastic tables at hole-in-the-wall Sun Kee We’d heard great things about the pork neck served over cheesy Ramen noodles. I ordered the chicken wings in cheesy ramen. Each dish cost about $5. It’s only a matter of time until mainstream LA chefs find cheesy ramen, appropriate it and sell it for $15 a bowl, as they currently do with macaroni and cheese. And because I’m a ravenous idiot, I’ll probably buy it.
There are so many places to eat in Hong Kong it is hard to know where to start. Here’s a tip. Don’t use Yelp to look for food. Your best bet for finding great meals in Hong Kong is Open Rice. Trip Advisor is also good. So is my favorite app: asking people.
We stayed at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, which is not a typical traveler’s hotel, unless you routinely travel on your own gold-plated Tuesday zeppelin. The Mandarin is a deep-pockets business-friendly hotel and a friend to the rich and sometimes to the famous. (Princess Di stayed there.) The service, views and amenities are amazing. Because Mrs. Playboy.com is a travel journalist, we stayed free for two nights. As Ferris Bueller said, “If you have the means, I highly recommend it.” The highlight for Mr. Playboy.com was the epic breakfast buffet, which I will think about every time I pour almond milk into my Sustainable Bits ‘O Wheat-y Organic Health Chunks cereal every morning.
The Mandarin is in the Central District, which lived up to its name. Central has many hotels, bars and restaurants and shopping malls. It is located near the city’s main train station, a subway stop and the ferry. When we return, if we’re paying our own way, I could envision us staying in Central again or perhaps in the frenetic environs of Kowloon, as it has the added value of facing Hong Kong. Sadly, you can’t always see Hong Kong’s skyline when you’re in Hong Kong’s skyline. If you do stay in Hong Kong, take the ferry at least once across the water for the Symphony of Lights, where the buildings light up (and out) in time with music. If that sounds lame to you, remember that it does not sound lame to a great many women.
SHOULD YOU GO?
Yes, absolutely. Hong Kong is a series of shopping malls, construction sites and public works projects surrounded by sea and unspoiled wilderness, an arrangement that either protects the territory’s pristine natural setting or artificially inflates housing prices, depending who you ask. But as a visitor you don’t have to worry about all that. You get the best of all worlds—modern food and fun nightlife inside the city and activities and breathtaking views outside it.
If you’re married like I am, there’s plenty to do with your wife, lots of places to see, environments to interact with, delicious and wild things to eat and drink and various places to explore. If you’re single, there are many bars and busy places to meet people and international travelers looking to have a good time. Or you can always cruise the mall, which, if you leave your hotel, you’re probably already standing inside of.
Joe Donatelli is senior editor of Playboy.com. Twitter: @joedonatelli. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.