After staying on Hong Kong island for a few days, we moved over to the Kowloon side to explore new territory.
If you’re looking to shop for jewelry or watches, Kowloon is the place to be: You can spend an entire day within just a few blocks of Nathan Road. Since we are not shoppers, we spent a 3 hours learning the fascinating history of the region at the Hong Kong Museum of History. A fascinating, if confusingly laid museum that begins with a bit of science (the geologic formation of the region,the climate that has shaped it and the flora and fauna that was native to it) before tracing its history from pre-historic times, through the Chinese Dynasties, the colonial period, to its transfer to China. While there is evidence that Homo Sapiens have lived in the region for more than 10,000 years, civilization arrived in form of the Yue culture about 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. These people integrated into and were eventually subsumed by the Hans by the Ming Dynasty. Their economy was based largely on farming, fishing, salt and ceramics production and trade, with some pearl diving and the growing of incense trees.
Then came a couple of big gaps in the museum’s coverage.
- It made numerous mentions that a Qing Dynasty emperor that ordered the evacuation of the entire coastal area but never explaining why. In any case, the order was rescinded eight years later.
- It also spoke of the creation of the Kowloon Walled City, but only partially explained why a wall was necessary. To protect the city from pirates? To control trade with the British? We never found out.
We did learn, however about the Opium Wars and how the wars led to the ceding of Hong Kong to the British; the history of the colonial era, including how Britain’s establishing it as a free port led to explosive growth; the governing institutions, educational system and infrastructure they created; the creation of huge trading and banking firms and the relative British and Chinese cultures that developed under British rule–including Britain’s barbarous trade in coolies and how the Hong Kong administration eventually stopped it.
The museum also educated us on the horrendous three years and eight months that Hong Kong endured under Japanese occupation, including the executions, treatment of POWs and the hyperinflation, economic depression, degradation of the educational system and the starvation that occurred. It detailed the great progress that was made after liberation and the role of multiple low-skill industries in spurring its growth into a global economic power (plastics, toys, flashlights, clocks and watches, cameras, etc.), although it curiously does not really explain how Hong Kong developed into the type of high-skill economy that has produced its current lifestyle.
The exhibits ended with descriptions of the type of natural disasters the region endures (typhoons, droughts and landslides) and the devastation they cause and then two very stilted short promotional films–one on idyllic Hong Kong made in the mid-1900s and another explaining the incredible benefits from reunification of Hong Kong into the mainland Chinese fatherland.
But for the relatively minor gaps and oversteps, it is a very interesting museum. Much larger and not quite as professional as the Macau museum, but well worth the time nonetheless.
We could have spent another few hours next door, at the Museum of Science. And, if we hadn’t just returned from the best Chinese art museum in the world (Taipei’s National Palace Museum and recently been to what is probably the second best in Beijing, we would have visited the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Or, if we wanted to go further inland into the New Territories, we could have visited the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, visited the remains of one of the region’s walled cities or gone for a hike.
These options notwithstanding, keeping occupied in Kowloon can require a bit of planning. Daytime options include:
- Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront, where you can cruise the lobbies of the luxury hotels, check out the waterfront views of Hong Kong Island, on walk the Avenue of Stars tribute to the city’s film stars and check out current exhibits at the Cultural Center;
- Get fitted for custom-made suits, where Tom got some suits on our previous visit. As his suit-wearing days are now long past, we didn’t explore this option this time.
- Browse the city’s various day markets. You can certainly visit markets such as the Jade Market (for Nephrite trinkets, although certainly not for artistically-designed and carved Jadeite sculptures), the ladies market for clothes, or any of dozens of other markets on streets throughout central Kowloon. Our favorites, however, are those that sell animals. The bird market, for example, offers an incredible range of birds (including a number which could not be legally sold in the U.S.) in addition to cages, accessories and all types of food, including bags of live grasshoppers, crickets and worms. The goldfish market had some wonderfully colored fish and we found a block of stores that specialized in everything from turtles to gerbils and adorable kittens and puppies. Flower Market Road, meanwhile, is the base for dozens of shops that sell everything to do with lowers, from seeds and bulbs to plants and cut flowers and pre-made arrangements.
- Visit any number of temples, such as the large and popular Wong Tai Sin Temple complex, although after four months of touring the most spectacular temples in the world, we were templed out. But if you run out of things to do in Kowloon, you can always visit a temple.
- Chill out in Kowloon Park or the Chi Lin Gardens, although nobody was particularly chilled on December 31, when the temperature reached 68 degrees F.
- Hop onto the Star Ferry for a return visit to Hong Kong Island for a mere 30 cents per ride, or visit any of the smaller neighboring islands.
Evening offers additional entertainment opportunities. Assuming there are no concerts or shows in town, you an check out the:
- Symphony of Lights is billed as a three times per week lights and laser extravaganza that plays out across the island’s skyline from over 40 buildings on both sides of the harbor. The esplanade along Kowloon’s waterfront was certainly crowded. It was entertaining, with flashing lights and some nicely coordinated lasers from a couple of the island’s towers. Nice, but hardly the spectacle that we anticipated.
- Temple Street Night Market, which is supposed to be the city’s biggest and best, was pretty disappointing the night we attended. Perhaps it was because it was a Monday, but the market was small (about three blocks) and the products were basically toys and trinkets. Nothing whatsoever of interest. This being said, the restaurant stalls were totally filled when we were there about 11:00.
Seeing in the New Year
0r, if you happen to be there on Western (as distinct from Chinese) New Year’s Eve, as we were, you can stake out a fireworks viewing location on the waterfront promenade, rent a $1,000 (U.S., not Hong Kong) hotel room, have a late dinner at at restaurant or lounge with a view, or as we did, join one of the hotel’s New Year Eve parties. Ours was at the Icon Hotel, where we were spending the night. (Click here to see more about the evening). Dinner consisted of:
- Appetizer plate: barbecued sucking pig, smoked egg with oolong tea leaves and black truffles, pan-fried king scallops with soma thus sauce and roasted eel with rose.
- Wok-fried king prawn with lobster sauce
- Double- boiled chicken broth and black truffle and matsutake mushrooms;
- Pan-seared Australian Wagyu beef;
- Shrimp wonton noodle soup;
- Baked Alaska;
- Petite Fours
The Waygu beef was the standout; perfectly prepared (medium rare),juicy and delicious. The Baked Alaska was the weakest; Neapolitan ice cream on cake, covered with meringue and briefly flamed. Joyce makes a much better one using brownies.) The prawn was the largest we have ever been served and was quite good, except for the minimally concentrated lobster sauce.
While the other dishes were generally good, the egg, scallop and chicken broth were the best among them. Dinner was accompanied by entertainment. The band played standard music that was intended to offend no one, although we have to say that two of the supporting singers (who took leads in some songs) had among the worst singing voices we have heard. Overall, the portion of entertainment in which a DJ mixed songs was probably the best.
After an evening of all-too-much eating and drinking, it was time time to retire to the hotel’s open-air pool deck to view, from what we had read on many web sites, were supposed to be a great fireworks display (https://newyearseveblog.com/new-years-eve-fireworks-hong-kong/, https://www.discoverhongkong.com/eng/see-do/events-festivals/highlight-events/countdown.jsp?page=1). We got less than we bargained for: an eight minute show that combined lasers with a few minutes of decent fireworks over the island’s skyline.
Then, while the party continued, we went straight to bed. Due to some very, very shortsighted scheduling, we had a 10:30 AM flight to Osaka on January 1 (the gateway to the last leg of our trip to the area around Kyoto). That meant we had to leave at 7:30. (That being said the airport express service we took to the airport made the morning as pain-free as possible, picking us up from our hotel, checking in and checking our bags at the city terminal and taking a smooth, comfortable train straight to the airport.)
Just as bad as our fireworks planning, scheduling such an early departure meant that we would have to miss the city’s New Year’s Day celebrations with a day filled with a big Dragon and Lion Dance Parade. We will have to plan better next year.
We came to Hong Kong with high expectations for its restaurants. We had some wonderful food in Beijing and Shanghai and expected nothing less from a dynamic, culturally diverse city like Hong Kong. Instead, the Chinese restaurants we visited, all of which were crowded, acted like it was a distasteful obligation to serve us. The food was okay, but totally uninspired; like the same old chefs had been preparing the same old recipes, from the same ingredients for the last 30 years. Dim sum, which is the local specialty, was somewhat better and the Kowloon restaurants we tried did offer some unusual (at least for us) dishes. Even these, however, were generally only average compared with some of the better dim sum restaurants we’ve been to in San Francisco and New York. We ate at the following:
- Lei Garden. Although lunch options included full meals, we found the dim sum options to be of greatest interest. We ordered six. The best were the steamed pork and mushroom dumplings. Steamed shrimp dumpling were merely average and soup dumplings with crab meat (in which we failed to find any crab, but did contain two baby shrimp) weren’t soup dumpling at all, but big blobs of dough (with a little seafood inside), in a bowl of decent (but not memorable) broth. Speaking of memorable, Tom’s second favorite dish was one he had not tried before–duck tongue in special soy sauce. The taste was pretty neutral, but it took a on the taste of the mild sauce-based sauce. The texture, once you got past the bone, was like a very soft cartridge. The barbequed spareribs with honey glaze were also good. Marinated sea blubber, another new dish for Tom, had the taste (which was very little) and texture (chewy with a bit of a crunch) similar to that of marinated jellyfish.
- Serenade. Another dim sum-style lunch consisting of five dishes. Our three favorite dishes were a whole abalone on a minced pork dumpling, the restaurant’s signature long and narrow fried shrimp spring roll and something the restaurant calls goldfish–fish shaped dumplings filled with shrimp and bamboo pith. Steamed shrimp, and bamboo shoot dumpling were pretty standard and their spare ribs with what was supposed to have been a sweet and sour sauce were downright disappointing.
- Peking Garden. We went for Peking Duck. the duck itself, was pretty good, albeit with less taste and more grease than those we had in Beijing. Our problems were two-fold: first we had to wait for almost one-hour for our duck, a dish that the duck restaurants in Peking came in 10 to 15 minutes; second, the "whole duck" that we (and most of the other tables whose duck carcasses we saw being returned to the kitchen), probably had about one-quarter of the meat left on them. Overall, not a particularly memorable experience.