“This is our ninth time here!” exclaims Jean Richards while her husband Peter nods sagely in silent agreement. We’re seated in the club level of Hotel Jen, Hong Kong, overlooking the bustling expanse of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour. Around us, guests chat and gather over breakfast – it’s 8:30am and the city is about to dial up its daily level of frenetic energy to a heart thumping eleven.
It’s November 8, the day after the 2016 US Presidential election. Jean and Peter and I mutually agree to grumble over the rise of Trumpism before moving onto far happier topics.
Hailing from the state of Maine in the United States, both are retired journalists and antique aficionados who now spend their time travelling around the world. From Maine to the Pearl of the Orient isn’t exactly a short journey so I ask them why they keep coming back.
“Oh it’s everything about the place,” says Peter, “The neighbourhood is just the best in Hong Kong. It’s not like the other parts of the island – you’re staying right in the heart of a real working neighbourhood. There’s nothing else like it.”
“And the staff,” says Jean, “we’ve come to know them all so well.”
The fourth person in our party is yet to speak – a suave and laidback gentleman that seems more than happy to take a back seat in the conversation. I turn to him, thinking he’s travelling with Jean and Peter.
“Oh no … I’m just the General Manager – I’m David (Preisig).” They’re always here,” he says tongue-in-cheek looking askance at them over the rim of his tortoise shell prescriptions, “Who are they again?”
David’s dry humour serves as a cue for the three to start riffing amongst themselves but not for my benefit. It’s reaffirmation of their shared familiarity, of old friends comfortable in each other’s company.
Jean briefly detaches herself from the conversation to provide me with a robust “must see” list while I’m visiting. I tell Jean I’ve only got a day. She says that will have to do. Hastily scribbled notes in hand, I say my farewells and head out.
Hong Kong local bites
Hotel Jen is situated in the still solidly working-class neighbourhood of Shek Tong Tsui. Its colourful history includes two stints as Hong Kong’s go to red light district until the Chinese “banned” such activities following WWII.
Very close to the hotel you’ll find the relatively new HKU MTR station which provides a quick ride to most of the island’s visitor offerings. You don’t have to travel far for good local bites though. Just behind the Hotel at 8-12 South Lane, you’ll find Cobohouse by 2am Desserts, the Hong Kong address of award-winning Singaporean Pastry Chef, Janice Wong. Wong’s signature style of boldly imagined dessert dining is fully on show, along with the inclusion of new savoury dishes. Try the dessert degustation menu for a seasonal pairing of sweet treats and fulsome wines.
Further down South Lane and around the corner to Yat Fu Lane, which is also undergoing something of a renovation, you’ll find a series of three glaringly red-signed Hunan eateries side by side. I step into Jiang’s Hunan Chef for a spicy lunchtime hotpot of beef with bitter gourd and chilli, served in a clay-brown pot with rice. I’m the only Westerner – around me locals and students share tables, busily chatting and pouring rounds of fresh and free green tea from the thermoses on every table.
After dessert followed by lunch although you may want to reverse that order (just saying), take the MTR from HKU station to Sheung Wan station and leave by exit E2. Detailed I know but stay with me, walk up Wellington Street and turn right onto Aberdeen, and you’re on course to explore the mildly historical (in a colonial sense) and artistic hub, PMQ.
Formerly the site of Hong Kong’s first government Central School in the 1800s and the ex-Hollywood Rd Police Married Headquarters (hence the modern initials), the white and blue, wonderfully renovated modernist structure now houses over 100 design galleries, shops, bookstores and office units filled with original art, fashion and design from Hong Kong’s healthy creative scene.
At any one time you’ll find numerous pop-up shops and exhibitions – I take the time to wander through a selection of Beatles memorabilia and explore the nooks and crannies amongst the two, seven story buildings. Buying a perfectly fitted baseball cap from the proudly Hong Kong fashion house, Goods of Desire, I step out feeling – as my new cap proudly proclaims – like A Hong Kong Classic.
Budding urban archaeologists will enjoy the underground walk-in tour showing off the old bones of the original Central School, which was destroyed during the Japanese in WWII.
No one does urban decay like Hong Kong. I’m not talking about things falling apart, no – it’s more the graceful ageing of structures when they’re inhabited by generation upon generation of a city’s denizens, used to the fullest extent of their life as they crumble around their inhabitants. Such is Sheung Wan. The tightly stacked buildings are an urban photographer’s playground – a cascading, chaotic mix of yellowish bamboo scaffolding, air conditioning units in various states of disrepair, makeshift awnings outside dried seafood vendors, traditional medicine stores and the chipped tile facades of dim sum boltholes. There’s nowhere else quite like it.
All the pretty lights – Hong Kong by night
To experience Hong Kong’s nighttime splendour and capture that idyllic evening picture, head to Victoria Peak. Take the Peak Tram from the Garden Rd Lower Terminus up the mountain; a round trip will cost you 88HKD (approx. $11 USD). Get there well before sunset and take the time to explore the Victoria Peak Garden. Make sure to grab a view of the city at 8pm, when both sides of Victoria Harbour light up in neon yellows, pinks, reds and laser-greens. It’s all part of the city’s nightly “Symphony of Lights”, a free light show using the city’s skyline as its backdrop and stage.
After a day of constant movement, I head back to Hotel Jen for a well-earned rest. Wandering past reception I grab a bottle of water from the free drinks fridge on the front counter.
“Hey! Nice hat!” the concierge quips from behind the counter. I nod and smile – A Hong Kong classic indeed.