Hong Kong reopens: New and shiny, nostalgic and timeless, the city is back
21 Mar 2023
The Straits Times
HONG KONG – Finally, Hong Kong has emerged from its three-year isolation after the global pandemic.
Travellers, now returning, will discover a city both new and nostalgic.
My first and last impressions from a recent trip are of a still-radiant cityscape: beginning with the illuminated skyline glimpsed from The Peak on my first evening and ending with the novel multimedia show at Disneyland’s revamped fairy-tale castle five nights later.
In between, I spy “Northern Lights” swirling in the sky, seemingly teleported from the Arctic Circle. This is a large-scale pop-up installation in the experiential West Kowloon Cultural District.
Bright lights are a hopeful sign of Hong Kong’s allure despite four dark years that spanned the pandemic and also the protests in 2019 that deterred travellers.
Glitzy Hong Kong also prizes the past.
West Kowloon, for instance, faces the future and the past. It showcases avant-garde culture while also housing street artisans who produce fermented beancurd, sandalwood fans and chopping boards.
Then there are rustic-hip places such as Cheung Chau island, ideal for a day trip.
Here are seven immersive experiences for travellers who can explore Hong Kong afresh – and maskless. The city ended its mask mandate on March 1 after dismantling most of its Covid-19 rules earlier.
1. Epic skyline, success story
The skyscrapers of Hong Kong’s skyline are encircled by verdant mountains and Victoria Harbour.
This epic skyline embodies the success and romance of Hong Kong. Its vertical silhouette, now studded with new additions like the M+ museum, ranks among the globe’s most riveting skylines found in skyscraper-infatuated cities like Manhattan, Tokyo and Dubai.
For the dreamiest panorama of the metropolis, head skyward towards The Peak. It is the loftiest point on Hong Kong island at 552m.
The Peak was favoured by the colonial British who sought a cooler clime wherever they planted outposts. Bankers, celebrities and Chinese multi-millionaires now set up home there.
Look out for the media facade of the new M+ museum (str.sg/iZSm). Embedded with thousands of LED lights, the massive screen is a colour-changing canvas.
Another landmark is the 108-storey International Commerce Centre, the tallest building in Hong Kong at 484m. The Bank of China Tower, designed by architect I.M. Pei, appears crystalline with triangular glass facets.
Also admire the city from the waterfront Avenue of Stars, the beloved Star Ferry, and stratospheric-level bars such as Ozone. Perched on the 118th floor of the International Finance Centre, Ozone is the world’s highest bar.
Check out lists of Top 10 vistas of the skyline and harbour, such as the Hong Kong Tourism Board’s compilation (str.sg/iZSs).
Time your visit to The Peak at the golden hour, just before sunset. Stay on for the night illumination, when the skyline is at its most mesmerising.
Book the Peak Tram Sky Pass (str.sg/iZSe) online. It includes a six-minute steep, scenic ride on an upgraded sixth-generation tram, plus entry to the observation deck Sky Terrace 428 for sky-high views.
For adults, a pass combining a return tram trip with Sky Terrace viewing access costs HK$148 (S$25).
Try to go on a clear day. Check the weather on the Hong Kong Observatory website (str.sg/iZSn) or download its app.
2. Arts and culture of global significance
New arts venues sprouted during the pandemic. These include the feted Hong Kong Palace Museum that displays Chinese culture through an interactive lens, and the M+ museum of global visual culture.
In a world first, a trove of 900 rare objects from Beijing’s Palace Museum are on long-term loan at the Hong Kong Palace Museum (str.sg/iZSh). Head for the standout gallery From Dawn To Dusk: Life In The Forbidden City (str.sg/iZS7).
Enter a realm where Chinese New Year is celebrated with little imperial sons. Imagine an annual tea party in the Palace of Double Brilliance, where Emperor Qianlong composed poems with clever officials.
I love the Dreamscape multimedia installation, inspired by the emperor’s poem Dream, which he wrote after the devastating loss of his wife, Empress Xiao Xian Chun. We recline on a cushioned platform, lost in time, as illusory images of the star-crossed royal lovers and lines of calligraphy are projected on the ceiling.
M+ (str.sg/iZS8) is dedicated to contemporary visual culture which encompasses art, moving images, industrial design and more. The focus is on work made in and around Hong Kong, including Singapore.
Refreshingly, there is a model of the retro Singapore Conference Hall and a futuristic exhibit of Permeable Lattice City (str.sg/iZSX), an urban concept proposed by home-grown architecture firm Woha.
I like the many outside-the-box acquisitions that tell less obvious stories of the region, such as a small wall of handwritten Post-It notes from a post-earthquake planning project that involved Indonesian locals.
Also on the radar are Hong Kong’s plastic industry, tuk-tuk manufacturing and Dyson’s early pink vacuum cleaner that had a Japanese investor.
“We should care about the narrative of Asia,” says M+ design and architecture curator Shirley Surya, who grew up in Singapore.
New York-based ARTnews magazine has touted M+ as a destination for international art lovers, like Tate Modern in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Catch special shows such as a major Yayoi Kusama retrospective (str.sg/iZSB), which is running until May 14.
M+ and the Hong Kong Palace Museum, along with performance venue Xiqu Centre which celebrates Chinese opera, are flagships in the lively West Kowloon Cultural District.
The precinct itself is a showcase of transformation. It clusters the arts, retail, dining, hotels, offices and a harbour-front promenade on 40ha of reclaimed scrubland.
Here, enjoy a day or an evening at the Art Park (str.sg/iZS2) for the views, dining and experiential art. I catch the “Northern Lights” pop-up there. While it has ended its run, the Art Park has events galore plus dining spots with a glittering waterfront view.
Beyond mega-museums, there are intimate spaces such as Arte M Hong Kong (str.sg/iZS6), which has created four light-and-sound rooms. I escape into an iridescent Avatar-like jungle populated by lions and giraffes, and sit on a “beach” under the Aurora Borealis.
There are other places to check out, such as jellyfish museum Cube O Discovery Park and Cup Noodles Museum Hong Kong.
3. West Kowloon walking tour: Artisans and street life
It is a walk down memory lane in the blue-collar Yau Ma Tei district. The artisans here still produce Chinese weighing scales, chopping boards and preserved food – all the tools and tastes of traditional daily life.
At Liu Ma Kee (str.sg/iZSL), which specialises in fermented bean curd, I check out the range that includes plum-infused and spicy varieties, which will appeal to Singaporeans.
The no-frills shop has been at the same address since 1905. But it is on trend.
I choose the creamy “carbonara” sauce (HK$50) that the owner’s wife, Madam May Tsui, 62, created for their spaghetti-loving son when he was little. It can be stir-fried with garlic for pasta and baked into cheesecake. “Spread it on bread with sugar,” she suggests.
Nearby, Mrs Ho, 75, manages Lee Wo Steelyard (345 Shanghai Street, Yau Ma Tei), which peddles hand-crafted Chinese weighing scales made of bone, wood and steel.
Her wares go to restaurant kitchens, traditional Chinese medicine shops, goldsmiths and chic homes, she says from her hole-in-the-wall nook that spills haphazardly onto the pavement.
In the past, illegal street vendors would also replenish their scales and weights after police raids.
“The craftsmanship is fine. The scales will never go haywire,’’ she says in Cantonese.
Later, we enter a shop filled with exquisite sandalwood fans and marvel at the variety of cleavers at another store.
We also stroll through the Yau Ma Tei Wholesale Fruit Market (202 Reclamation Street), once a hot spot for gangsters and drug dealers.
Today, it is a cornucopia of luscious fruit from across the world, including Tasmanian cherries, Korean grapes, avocados, golden dragon fruit and small piles of durians.
I buy a punnet of fragrant strawberries (HK$50) produced by young Nara farmers in tones of white, pink and red.
Globally, people rediscovered cool enclaves at home during the pandemic. With three prolonged years of closed borders, Hong Kongers had comparatively more time to develop domestic tourism, and travellers should reap the new fruit.
My walking tour was customised by Walk in Hong Kong (walkin.hk), which focuses on the lesser-seen sides of Hong Kong. Its style is “fun, informative and celebratory of the city’s tales, past and present, in all their gritty, quirky glory”, according to its website.
Various operators also offer neighbourhood jaunts, such as a foodie excursion in Sham Shui Po (str.sg/iZSb). Or discover places on your own (str.sg/iZSE).
4. Cheung Chau island: Rustic-hip respite
Be like a Hong Konger. Hop onto a ferry to experience the unrushed island life here, which harmonises the trendy and the timeless.
Bakeries reminiscent of Old Hong Kong produce sweet and fluffy Lucky Buns. These steamed white rice-flour buns are stamped with the red Cantonese characters “ping on” (safety).
The Kwok Kam Kee Cake Shop (46 Pak She Street, Cheung Chau; www.kwokkamkee.com) sells the buns with a choice of sesame, lotus paste or red bean filling, among other classic baked goods.
You may encounter second-generation owner Martin Kwok, 41, who ditched his bright future at a financial institution to take over the family business.
His father was ready to close the cake shop for good, but his son had developed a deep connection to Cheung Chau where he grew up.
The younger Mr Kwok started to diversify the business, selling frozen dimsum and desserts to supermarkets. The Lucky Buns are also available on the website.
He notes that the rest of the island has been transforming as well, with hip cafes and boutiques springing up alongside curry-fishball stalls and Cantonese-style restaurants that serve inexpensive fresh-caught seafood.
Elsewhere on the island, there are rock carvings, clams to be picked on the beach, and the Cheung Po Tsai Cave that was likely the hiding place for a 19th-century pirate’s loot.
My sweetest moments are on the gentle 20-minute trek to a hilly high point at the North Lookout Pavilion. The metropolis feels distant when I am up here looking at the horizon, cooled by a perpetual breeze and soothed by a muted soundscape of waves.
Ferries depart for Cheung Chau island (str.sg/iZSa) from Central Pier No. 5, which is accessible from the MTR Hong Kong Station. The ferry ride is 35 to 60 minutes.
Legend has it that the island was plague-infested a century ago and Lucky Buns were offered to appease the gods.
This evolved into the annual four-day Bun Carnival. The highlight is a bun tower, which brave souls climb and compete to snatch buns. The Bun Carnival (str.sg/iZSR) returns this year from April 16 to May 27 after the pandemic hiatus.
Plan a day trip or book an overnight stay in Airbnb lodgings.
5. A shopper’s world: From “retailtainment” to indie shops
Hong Kong is a shopper’s paradise that seemingly has it all. Discover indie shops and haggle at street bazaars, linger in mega-malls and spend the day at “retailtainment” complexes – sometimes all in the same locale.
The Central Market (str.sg/iZSD), circa 1842, was originally a wet market that has been revitalised as a hip heritage place for dining, shopping and work.
The airy four-storey complex is now an Instagram haven with its nostalgic sweeping staircases and comfortable benches crafted from chopping boards.
It is filled with shops purveying local brands, cafes and trendy food stalls selling egg puffs, fried chicken and other street snacks. I like Slowood (www.slowood.hk), a chic zero-waste store supplying organic food and lifestyle goods. I buy scented wood strips for my home.
K11 Musea (www.k11musea.com) is a museum-worthy luxury mall in the artsy Victoria Dockside, once a gritty freight and logistics hub.
Architecturally imaginative, the facade’s fluid lines echo its waterfront setting while its atrium looks somewhat galactic. Shop, dine, play and admire art in this sustainable complex that is also dotted with gardens and an urban farm.
The biggest mall of all is Harbour City (str.sg/iZSz), where nearly 300 shops have been busy opening or expanding during the pandemic. These include the Hermes and Ferragamo flagships, and mid-priced brands.
Harbour City is a destination on its own with an observation deck, art gallery, three hotels and a cruise terminal under one roof. More than 90 restaurants have harbour views and special concepts.
Since December, the mall has been rolling out tourist-exclusive gifts and privileges (str.sg/iZSK) to welcome visitors. These include a pouch with a Hong Kong map design and four felt pens. Present your passport at the information counter at level 2 to redeem the gifts.
Also explore around the malls, which are often set in buzzy prime zones. After visiting the Central Market, for instance, I relish my evening alone, stepping on and off the world’s longest outdoor escalator at the Mid-Levels into the lively streets below.
6. Chinese culinary universe
Hong Kong may be small, but its culinary universe is vast. Menus of all genres abound in this foodie capital, but plan to savour some Chinese cuisine during your stay, especially Cantonese delicacies.
The Chinese Library and Chineselogy are a pair of new restaurants with imaginative menus.
At The Chinese Library (www.chineselibrary.com.hk), its jade-wall interiors modern yet redolent of bygone days, regional Chinese dishes with contemporary plating arrive at my table.
I enjoy a pair of succulent squid-ink dumplings nestled in rich lobster bisque and topped with ginger foam. Also lovely are the razor clams laced with charred Sichuan pepper.
Chef Junno Li was inspired by his 20 years of culinary expeditions in Chinese provinces – including Guangdong, Hunan and Sichuan – which use very diverse ingredients and techniques.
Also delighting the senses is Chineselogy (www.chinesology.com), which customises a 15-course tasting menu and cocktails for our media group.
Some dishes are as theatrical as the decor of Chineselogy. Candied, crispy lotus root, presented like a glistening sculpture, is a vegetarian rendition of sweet-and-spicy Sichuan thin-sliced roast beef.
Most beguiling of all is the tea-smoked chicken. Each locally raised chicken weighs “2 catty and 12 taels”, according to the menu notes. The bird goes into Chef Saito Chau’s customised air-drying cabinet that replicates the weather of northern China, and is then smoked with osmanthus and oolong tea leaves.
There are also good-value Cantonese seafood joints, such as Hong Kee Restaurant (43 Pak She Street; tel: +852-2981-9916) on Cheung Chau island.
We order 14 dishes for the dozen diners at our table. Good eats include stir-fried clams with black bean sauce, steamed red snapper, and mantis shrimp simply fried with salt and pepper.
Our lunch bill: HK$2,500, inclusive of several bottles of beer. The restaurant is frequented by locals, who say prices can be two or three times lower than at Sai Kung peninsula (str.sg/iZS9), another rustic spot known for its popular seafood restaurants, quaint fishing villages and hiking trails.
In most locales, there are Hong Kong desserts for supper or any time.
Look for roast goose joints too. I pack boxes of Chinese sausages (lap cheong) from Ser Wong Fun restaurant to bring home, and also artisanal bars from Conspiracy Chocolate (str.sg/iZSC).
Look out for trendy tea shops with a Hong Kong twist. The new Tea Moment (str.sg/iZSy) in Harbour City serves Hong Kong spherical egg waffles alongside hot and cold drinks, such as an energising concoction of baby chrysanthemum and wolfberry.
7. Hong Kong Disneyland, happy again
The Happiest Place On Earth just got happier. Hong Kong Disneyland introduced new experiences throughout the pandemic.
The new Momentous show is a 20-minute night-time extravaganza that wraps the revamped fairy-tale Castle Of Magical Dreams with multimedia magic, from pyrotechnics to projection mapping of 40 Disney and Pixar stories.
It is Instagram overload with all that iridescence. Though the theme of cherishing every moment with loved ones is very Disney-esque, I reckon it is timely after the world’s extended bout of Covid-19.
Try the new interactive ride, Ant-Man And The Wasp: Nano Battle!. We shoot swarmbots with Emp Blasters alongside the two tiny superheroes.
Look out for the Hong Kong-specific Marvel character, Leslie Lam, the chief engineer of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Science & Technology Pavilion. She is played by local actress Jessica Hsuan.
All this novelty is part of a multi-year expansion that will also see the opening of the World Of Frozen in the second half of 2023. One highlight will be the first Frozen-themed coaster, Wandering Oaken’s Sliding Sleighs.
This year is Disney’s 100th anniversary. Starting in March, Mickey Mouse and friends will dress up in celebratory outfits. The statues of dream-makers Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse, will be set up in October.
Christmas is a signature season with “snowfall”, tree lighting and carols from November to December. Christmas-themed food and merchandise abound too.
For priority access to popular rides and shows, consider the Disney Premier Access (str.sg/iZSF).
Hong Kong ended its mask mandate on March 1. Masks are no longer required both indoors and outdoors, including on public transport. But for now, travellers need to do a self-administered antigen rapid test within 24 hours of their flight to Hong Kong. For more information, go to the Hong Kong Tourism Board site (str.sg/iZSv).
Hello Hong Kong tourist campaign
Over a million gifts have been prepared to welcome international visitors to Hong Kong, one of the last destinations to reopen. These include cash vouchers for restaurants, shops or attractions. For details, go to str.sg/iZTk
Singapore travel deals have also been created with partners such as Chan Brothers travel agency. Go to str.sg/iZcy
Where to stay
I stay at the new Hotel Alexandra (str.sg/iZTJ) on the North Point waterfront. While the maximalist hotel is designed like a little Versailles with gilt and chandeliers everywhere, my room on the 30th floor is done up in soothing neutrals and I have a harbour view.
A check of third-party booking sites show that rooms start at $165 for April, though rates will be dynamic.
The hotel is a short walk from the Fortress Hill MTR station. It is set in a local neighbourhood, so I pop into the streets for breakfast. Choices include roast goose, congee and cuppas from The Coffee Academics.
- The writer and executive photojournalist Kelvin Chng were hosted by the Hong Kong Tourism Board.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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