Large cities are often lazily described as concrete jungles, but few come as close to embodying this term as Hong Kong. Whereas other cities simply have heaps of roads and skyscrapers, Hong Kong’s cityscape aggressively encroaches on actual jungle and manages to outdo it for intensity.
I still struggle to fathom just how built-up the city is. The roads on Hong Kong Island are like rollercoasters—winding up and down the mountains, weaving in and out of buildings, and splitting and merging at every turn. Then there are the buildings which resemble trees more than anywhere else in the world thanks to their outrageous height-to-footprint ratio.
Coming from a city which has one of the best New Year’s Eve celebrations, I was keen to see how it’s done in Hong Kong. Being one of the more famous NYE fireworks displays, I had high hopes and was not disappointed. But Sydney is still better tbh…
Levels and depth make any performance pop, and fireworks are no different. Hong Kong’s skyscrapers therefore make a perfect background to the NYE celebrations, especially due to their lights. Decent and accessible vantage points can be found along the harbour foreshore one either side. The Kowloon side fills up relatively quickly because you get the backdrop of Hong Kong Island’s lit-up buildings. Meanwhile, the Hong Kong Island side only gets a view of the International Commerce Centre (the tallest building in the city), which is lit up with a pretty cool series of animations.
We went to Tamar Park on the Hong Kong Island side after dark and still found it easy to get a spot—in total contrast to Sydney where the best vantage points are full by mid-morning and many more have police barricades to regulate crowds. The foreshore has a strange public architecture, with a series of undulating platforms along the water’s edge. We were a little bit back, which meant this blocked our view of the water but we still had a full view of not only the fireworks but the Kowloon skyline too.
Much like other cities, having a picnic is the way to go. There’s no shortage of places to buy packaged or takeaway food around the city, but there weren’t actually any food stands at the park itself. However, this might be different for other locations. Unlike other cities, there is plenty of room to spread out and even lie down.
In terms of atmosphere it’s much more family-friendly than the Sydney New Year’s Eves I’m used to. Nobody is drunk, there are no drugs, no loud music, no dancing—it would seem there’s even no fun! But that’s not true. Clubbing is fun, but so is hanging out at a chill café. The comparison between Sydney and Hong Kong is the same.
Few major cities have iconic waterfronts, yet Hong Kong squanders its own. Where there should be buildings and public spaces are instead large highways and empty lots. The handful of construction sites, does give me hope, however.
The most iconic photo of Hong Kong is the view from Victoria Peak. Everyone’s seen this image countless times, but it’s for good reason. In person, the lookout is a rare vantage point for an untamed city set upon a rugged harbour side. It’s from here you can fully appreciate the way each minuscule plot of land has been used to it full extent by building vertically.
At the peak you’ll be funneled into a shopping centre where you’ll have to pay to visit the observation deck. But if you exit and walk around the corner you’ll get more or less the same view free of charge, and with fewer tourists jostling to stand at the edge.
The peak can be reached by a heritage tram which goes directly up the mountain. While it’s a cool ride, expect to have to line up around the block and across the road. The wait takes forever and is probably not worth it.
From Victoria Peak you can also better appreciate the role of feng shui in defining the skyline. The angular Bank of China Tower was built by the local subsidiary of the mainland’s state-owned bank of the same name in the lead up to Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty from the UK to the PRC. Whereas feng shui had been eradicated during the Cultural Revolution due to being considered liberal superstition, the practice remained significant in Hong Kong. The Bank of China’s decision to construct a tower that flaunted the rules of feng shui was a first for a major building in Hong Kong, making the development extremely controversial because of the negative energy it was said to generate.
A few years prior, the British-Hong Kongese bank HSBC constructed its own tower that went to great lengths to harmonise its surroundings according to feng shui. Strategically located opposite Statue Square, the inland building has an unobstructed view of the harbour, excellent according to feng shui principles.
After the Bank of China Tower was opened, incidents such as economic downturn and the governor’s passing were attributed to the new skyscraper’s negative energy. In response, the HSBC building oriented its service cranes towards the tower as if they were cannons, in order to compensate for its poor feng shui.
Feng shui is often associated with wealth and prosperity, something which Hong Kong’s high-rollers have no qualms flaunting. Hong Kong has the highest density of Rolls-Royces in the world. Supercars are everywhere too, and it’s the only place I’ve seen the new Maybach (and I saw several of them at that). There’s a hint of futurism in this mix too, with seemingly every second car being a Tesla. I couldn’t think of a more suitable car for Hong Kong’s steep, winding roads.
I don’t know how to feel about the contrast between the gritty streets and luxurious skyscrapers. As a traveller, it means a vibrant hustle and bustle along with stunning retreats up above. But in reality it’s indicative of the divergent living standards in the city.
Over in Kowloon is the shopping district of Mong Kok, where colourful shop signs hang over the roads. Visiting at night ensures you can see the neon lights reflect off of every passing car. This area is pretty walkable if you don’t mind crowds and has an almost iconic aesthetic. It’s also home to the Ladies’ Market, a 1km stretch of canvas stalls that feels more like South East Asia.
Every second shop in Mong Kok is one of those ominous-looking pharmacies or dental clinics that you always see in photos of Hong Kong. Between these are supposedly Triad-run massage parlours and bars. Guiness World Records claims that it’s the busiest district in the world, whatever that means. But there’s no denying the extreme density and quantity of both buildings and humans.
Much of Kowloon is much more walkable than the island. The terrain is flat and the narrow roads form a predictable grid with plenty of pedestrian crossings. It’s a great place to wander on foot and get lost in the swaths of people and the blur of neon signs. This is the Hong Kong of pre-2000s films—the gritty, chaotic and extremely vibrant city which is neither East nor West but an idiosyncratic combination of both.
Chunking Mansions is a building in central Kowloon home to many migrant businesses and apartments. It’s become notorious for crime and is probably the place most associated with Hong Kong’s working class.
The interior is dreary and decrepit. Wandering through the dimly-lit aisles, you pass shops full of African and South Asian migrant workers selling everything from saris to samosas. Up above, people share cramped quarters while just across the harbour are some of the most expensive penthouses and mansions in the world.
This is not unique to Hong Kong, with many cities having mansions overlooking slums. But something about Chungking Mansions just completely belies Hong Kong’s reputation as a modern and prosperous outpost in East Asia, as if the rest of the world has been deceived at the expensive of those whose labour makes the city tick.
Despite this, it’s still possible to have world-class experiences for very little money. Dumpling restaurant Tim Ho Wan is a Hong Kong institution, renowned for being the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world. There are several locations around the city and abroad and the one we visited really lived up to the hype.
Hopping between these opposing foreshores is extremely easy. Established in the 1800s, Hong Kong’s iconic Star Ferries depart approximately every 10 minutes. Although the trip is brief, you’ll be treated to some of the vest views of either side of the city. Crossing the harbour really is being in the thick of this metropolis, and that’s coming from a ferry-hardened Sydneysider. (Yes that’s unfortunately the ridiculous term for someone from Sydney)
Back on the island are the Mid-Levels escalators, a necessary but seemingly extravagant piece of infrastructure which epitomises the extremes of the city. Traversing the hilly terrain can be difficult on foot, while dense land use and the reign of cars over public thoroughfares further hinder walking. Thus an elaborate series of escalators has been installed to whisk you up to the Mid-Levels with ease.
Along the passageway created by the escalators are tiny shops and hole-in-the-wall bars crammed beneath skyscrapers. They’re the perfect example of how even extravagant metropolises can spawn quaint little pockets.
Weaving between the skyscrapers and above gritty alleys malan kwai kes it a great vantage point from which to experience intensity of the city, and it’s also pretty convenient! However I’m still torn as to whether this is a pedestrian-friendly solution—yes it’s effective but it feels like an afterthought placed on top of a well-established urban layout.
Once you’ve walked up all the escalators, you end up in the Mid-Levels. Here Hong Kong’s signature density is aggressively unyielding to the tumultuous topography beneath. Roads radiate along every possible axis from any given point. It’s all a bit much honestly.
Going from point A to point B involves ducking over and under bridges and squeezing between skyscrapers. The roads look precarious but taxis will fly up and down them all day long. You really need to check the map on your phone as the roads and footpaths are too unpredictable to rely on if you just want to follow your nose.
Just as extreme as the contrast between rich and poor in Hong Kong is the contrast between urban and rural. Catching a bus through the Aberdeen Tunnel on Hong Kong Island will take you from the hustle and bustle of Central to the quaint beach towns which dot the island’s outward-facing coastline. One such town is Stanley, which is home to markets and a picturesque promenade.
Stanley’s a pretty town, but this façade is pretty thin. The town is surprisingly touristy, the markets mainly selling souvenirs and the restaurants selling overpriced, reheated fish & chips. It’s best to go for the visuals and not the rest of the experience, however other towns might be better in that respect.
Towns such as Stanley evoke the history of Hong Kong. The countless bays and harbours that line the islands have long encouraged maritime industries such as shipping, fishing and even smuggling. Hong Kong’s strategic position among world trade routes plus unfettered access to significant bodies of water have only contributed to this history, turning Hong Kong into the international trade centre it is today. While Stanley is kitsch and touristy, the geography remains unchanged.
In so many ways—culturally, politically, economically and geographically—Hong Kong has long been at a crossroads. But the city has embraced this predicament, fusing East with West, tradition with modernity, rich with poor and urban with rural. Rather than a bundle of contradictions, Hong Kong is a vibrant metropolis whose nuanced diversity can only be understood in person.
It’s one of the few places where Chinese New Year and Western New Year are celebrated with similar fervor. A place where banks compete in ancient auspicious traditions to ensure their prosperity. In the harbour, traditional junks sail past some of the tallest, most luxurious and most high-tech skyscrapers in the world.
It’s not surprising that Hong Kong is such a globally-significant city. What is, is how the city has managed to embrace change without abandoning the past.