A few hours after reluctantly leaving Singapore, we arrived in Hong Kong. It felt cold, even though it was probably a bit warmer than home. The world’s #4 ranked airport also didn’t seem that mind-blowing, after having just spent time in Changi. Overall, I looked forward to visiting Hong Kong for the first time but didn’t feel the same level of excitement. In fact, I never had the dying urge to visit this Special Administrative Region of China, during or after it was a British colony. This was strange because there were a few facts that should’ve put HK in an important spot on my world map.
1. Global City. Hong Kong is one of the few Alpha+ Global Cities. The New York Times coined the term “Nylonkong” to put HK at the same level of global importance as New York and London. Not that I care so much about economics, but being one of the world’s centers means diversity, convenience and access. The most awesome ideas come in and out of here, the best and newest are offered here, etc. I love big cities and HK certainly is among the biggest of big cities.
2. Skyscrapers. Tall buildings are awesome because (a) they allow a lot of people to efficiently use a limited amount of land, (b) unique architectural designs give life and identity to a city, (c) they encompass engineering and technological marvels. Now, while Hong Kong may not have the world’s tallest building, it’s got a higher skyscraper density than anywhere else. Here’s a perspective: I work in Four Embarcadero Center, San Francisco’s 10th tallest building. In Hong Kong, 151 office and residential towers stand taller than it. Chances are, a random HK resident lives on a higher floor than the highest floor a random American has ever even been on.
These gigantic residential structures were everywhere in Hong Kong.
3. Pop culture. Hong Kong dominated the universe of Chinese movies, music, comic books, etc. China is just getting started these days, and Taiwan doesn’t do much outside music and talk shows. In other words, a large portion of actors, singers, and imaginary characters that I ever looked up to were from Hong Kong: Jackie Chan started me on (watching) martial arts, a good portion of jokes among my school mates referenced Stephen Chow, and Jacky Leung was the one who got Jay Chou into pop music. Without HK, I would’ve grown up less of a Chinese (and much more heavily influenced by the Japanese and American cultures).
With those thoughts, we went through the airport’s body temperature check point and got an HK stamp on our passports. Having our Octopus Cards ready (thanks Elyse), we took the Airport Express to Kowloon. The Airport Express, like the Narita Express in Tokyo, was a very comfortable fast train connecting the airport to downtown with very limited stops. It was even better than Narita because, on the way out, you could check your baggage with your airline at the departing station, without having to drag them onto the train or carry them into the airport.
Sparkling clean and comfortable train seats.
From the Kowloon Station, we took a shuttle bus to the hotel area. This was our “Hello Hong Kong” moment, realizing how in at least one aspect it was just like New York – cars measured following distances in feet instead of car lengths, and drivers applied every throttle and every brake with assertiveness. Moreover, even when it was a large bus in an underground garage, turns were executed with plenty of centripetal force. Not for those with motion sickness or faint of heart!
Then we checked into InterContinental Hong Kong, in Tsim Sha Tsui (TST). Three noteworthy mentions about this hotel: (1) it was the only hotel in TST that was right on the harbour, facing the amazing Hong Kong skyline; (2) Jay Chou filmed his music video for a song (給我一首歌的時間) here, in the presidential suite; (3) our friends were having their wedding reception here tomorrow. We fancied the idea of splurging to stay where Jay did, but then again we didn’t have a Jay budget. The cheapest room here was already over $400 USD per night. Two of the restaurants at the hotel totaled 3 Michelin stars. Parked cars at the main entrance often averaged more than $100k USD. The service was also over the top, to the extent that the lady who checked us in at the lobby also took us upstairs, opened our room doors, and walked us in to make sure the room suited our needs. The room itself? It was larger than my old apartment in Manhattan.
By the time we got settled, we were ready for dinner. Took a brief walk around TST and ended up at an Indian restaurant. This part of town was certainly very crowded, with narrow streets between gigantic buildings. Businesses stacked themselves vertically, some high up into the skyscrapers, some deep into multiple levels of basement. We saw a sign for this restaurant, turned the street corner, went through a small medicine shop, asked the building manager, and took an old school elevator up to find it. It probably wasn’t a huge deal, but the elevator was more primitive than the one in my old apartment building in Queens. We were kind of afraid of getting our fingers chopped off by the manual gate.
Max occupancy: 6 people or 800 pounds (note that the average weight per person is only 133lbs). “Exceeding the limit will pose a risk to your life.”
The food was good, though pretty similar to the north Indian food that we could get in the U.S., so nothing too exciting.
We rushed to finish dinner so we could catch the 8PM A Symphony of Lights. On the Guinness World Records as the world’s “largest permanent light and sound show”, this was an incredible orchestra with 44 buildings on both sides of the Victoria Harbour blasting LEDs, search lights, and laser to music. We stood next to the hotel, on the Avenue of Stars, and watched the HK Island half of the show.
In the middle is the Bank of China tower, the most iconic building in Hong Kong for the past 24 years.
It turned out to be a somewhat confusing thing to watch. It took place within one of the world’s most amazing skylines, which had plenty of lights with or without that show. It could be hard to figure out where to look at times – there were plenty of lights that constantly remained on, or regularly went on and off, that were not part of the show at all. For example, there was a gigantic LED billboard that took up an entire side of a building, that happened to be brighter than any part of the show because it emitted light directly across the harbour rather than upward. For the duration of the show, David Beckham stripped down to his H&M underwear a few dozen times. And that, really, was something we could do without.