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Hong Kong

You can still find bargains in one of the world's most expensive cities.

Hong Kong junk boat and cityscape, image
Photo caption
A colorful junk boat sails before the cityscape of Hong Kong.

At the deluxe hotel, the bill for breakfast—two eggs, juice and toast—was 285 Hong Kong dollars—that's almost U.S. $34. Gulp. I blinked at one item: U.S. $8 for three pieces of toast. Cold, meagerly buttered toast at that! Yes, madam, smiled the rather sweet waiter, the bill is correct. I clenched my teeth, paid it, and went over to catch the red double-decker bus up Nathan Road to the Jade Market.

The bus fare, in U.S. money, was 14 cents. At the market I bought eight nice pieces of hand-carved "jade" (actually serpentine and other stone) for $13.

For $8, the cost of the toast, I could have ridden the Star Ferry—still the world's best short boat ride—across Victoria Harbour more than thirty times.

These days Hong Kong is crazy-making. It is now ranked among the world's five most expensive cities, especially for hotel rooms and meals. Last year it attracted more than 10 million visitors. Daily life in San Francisco seems almost provincial when compared to the bustle and industry of Hong Kong—crowds of well-dressed pedestrians fast-walking along the sidewalks, an amazing number of them jabbering on cellular phones; careening buses and cars; and a frenzy of construction, with high-rise buildings that look new being torn down and replaced by others, and jackhammers pounding in the middle of the night.

Add to all this the political and social tension created by the approaching "changeover." Come July 1, 1997, Hong Kong won't be a British Crown Colony any more; it will belong to China.

Hong Kong may be hectic and overpriced, but it is also one of the most exciting cities on the planet. And that setting! Stunning office towers and gigantic apartment blocks sprawling across mountainous green islands rising out of the South China Sea. (There are 235 islands in Hong Kong and the New Territories.) If you dream of going in your lifetime, go now, because no one knows for certain what will happen after "changeover," least of all the Hong Kongers.

Despite the high prices for hotels, there are many wonderful things to do for a pittance-the 25-cent ride on the upper deck of the Star Ferry, for example, across the world's most amazing harbor-teeming with junks, freighters, cruise ships, dredgers, yachts, and many vessels you can't define. Or, for 14 cents, take a seat on the upper deck of a charming old wooden tram and go rattling along Hong Kong island. There's even the amazing free outdoor escalator—1,000 meters long—which carries residents from Hong Kong Central up the steep hills to Mid-Levels. For about $5 round trip, you can board a ferry for an hour-long voyage to one of the outlying islands, and spend an unusual day roaming the trails, beaches, temples, and markets of, say, Cheung Chau or Lamma.

All the fine cuisines of the world can be tasted in Hong Kong, for a price; however, you can also eat inexpensively in fast-food emporiums, bun shops, and the cafes of moderately priced hotels.

Most tourists still go to Hong Kong to shop, shop, shop, although in recent years the prices have soared, especially for big-ticket items like cameras, electronics, and precious jewels. As for name-brand clothing, you can do just as well at sales and factory outlets at home.

Nevertheless, my latest visit a few months ago was the same as always: I flew over toting a small carry-on bag and came home with checked luggage bulging with purchases from the street markets. I stayed in gorgeous deluxe hotels, then went out among the peddlers and quibbled over pennies. (In Hong Kong you can bargain over everything, even in department stores.) Armed with maps, books, and instructions from the Hong Kong Tourist Association (HKTA), I rode buses, subways, ferries, and trolleys, and pounded many miles of pavement. Often I was the only non-Chinese on a crowded street. I saw fruits, flowers, and fishes I never heard of. I occasionally stumbled into crusty old temples clouded with incense, clicking with joss sticks, offerings of chrysanthemums and oranges at the altars.

One arrives in Hong Kong stiff, red-eyed, and dehydrated after 14 hours buckled into a jumbo jet, streaking over the Alaska Range, the icefields of Siberia, the corrugations of Manchuria, the formidable sweep of China. The most unsettling moments of the flight come on that final terrifying approach at Kai Tak Airport, roaring down between the apartment blocks-you can even scrutinize the laundry strung at windows.

From all this I recovered nicely in the Roman-style rooftop pool and sauna of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Hong Kong Island, then retired to my harbor-view room to drink Chinese tea, nibble on the Mandarin's famed chocolate truffles, and open every one of the 21 little bottles and boxes of cosmetic items in the bathroom. (My strategy was three nights in Hong Kong Central, three across the harbor in Kowloon, on the mainland.)

All next day, I explored with the fine little book published by the HKTA, Central and Western District Walking Tour. It comes with a fold-out map and easy directions and takes you through the oldest sections of Hong Kong and some busy market streets. Costume jewelry shops line Wing Kut Street; East and West Li Yuen Streets have luggage, underwear, accessories, and handbags. (It was here I dropped $16 on a silver marcasite watch.) The old Western Market, built in 1906, looks like New Orleans, and has been restored to its old glory with marble floors and iron grillwork. Sheung Wan is a public market with whole floors devoted to fish, or fruit, or tiny restaurants.

Bonham Strand is lined with expensive pharmacies selling medicinal herbs, crushed pearls, ginseng, and, sadly, parts of wild animals from the world around--all to keep a believer's yin and yang in good balance. Des Voeux Road is devoted to dried foods, mostly sea creatures-sea horses, slugs, and crustaceans.

Stocking up for rituals, happy or sad? Along Queen's Road West are the wedding and funeral shops, the latter with paper offerings to be burnt for the departed-paper houses and servants, paper credit cards, computers, cellular phones, sunglasses, and Rolls Royces. It's a good place to buy sandalwood incense, or a pair of paper Reeboks for jogging through heaven.

When I climbed the steps into old Pak Shing Temple, there was some sort of ceremony in progress, with priests in red robes intoning and ringing bells and gongs. For a while I watched, amid the sweet smoke curling around the ancestor tablets, then went out to haggle in the antique stalls and curio shops along Hollywood Road, Ladder Street, and Cat Street. Late in the afternoon I wandered into Man Mo Temple to pay my respects to Man, God of Literature, and stayed until closing time beneath the great hanging coils of incense. ("Food for the gods," a Chinese friend told me. "They can smell, but they cannot taste.")

These days Stanley Market, in a seaside village on the south side of Hong Kong Island, gets a bad rap as a tourist trap. But I love to go just for the bus ride, with views of the steep rocky coastline and outlying islands-and I always find something to buy. Fare is $1 on the slow double-decker (45 minutes each way), $1.35 on the express (25 minutes); you can catch both at the Central bus station.

When you get to Stanley, follow the stream of shoppers down the hill into the warren of stalls and awnings. Here you'll find all manner of tourist goods-silk jackets, underwear, and linens from China; embroidered cottons from India; shirts and jeans; assorted tchotchkes, costume jewelry, watches, and leather. A few merchants will be indignant when you object to an outrageous price; others seem happy to give you big "discounts." Sometimes you turn a shadowy corner and find yourself in the glaring light of the sunlit hissing sea.

To experience a typical Chinese city market, ride the MTR (much like BART) to Tin Hau station in the North Point area of Hong Kong Island. This area is called "Little Fujian" after all the people from China's Fujian province who have settled here. At the corner of Electric Road and Mercury Street is the Causeway Bay market, housing purveyors of fish, produce, and poultry. There's not much you'll buy here; it's unlikely you'll slaughter and dress a duck in your hotel room, or subject the maids to the stink of durian. Prowl the nearby alleys and you'll see all manner of shops and stalls: this one has baskets of clucking white chickens with fluffy white head plumage and black faces; the next has tins of kerosene; the next has bullfrogs leaping in a net. My only purchase: a sack of dried ginger, a nice digestive.

Busy Kowloon, across the "fragrant harbor" from Hong Kong, is known for its specialty markets-for birds, goldfish, jade, electronics, etc.-all offering glimpses into the multi-layered culture of Hong Kong. All are easily accessible by foot or public transport; the HKTA can give you maps and directions. At the night market along Temple Street-mostly clothes and watches for men-you might catch a street performance of Chinese Opera, or see a traditional dentist at work.

A huge tent shelters some 450 stalls at the Jade Market, at Kansu and Battery streets in Yau Ma Tei district of Kowloon. Trying to buy gem-quality jade here is best left to the Chinese and dealers who know their jade and the complex bargaining routine. But the market is full of carved stone trinkets for about $1 or $2 apiece. You'll also find pearls, bone, amber, lapis, and Yixing teapots; bargaining is expected.

In your Hong Kong amblings, you soon notice that the residential alleyways are filled with the songs of birds-caged birds, their arias drifting through the laundry and scrawny plants on moldy cement balconies. The songsters are bought and sold at the Bird Market along Hong Lok, a dark and grungy alleyway in Mong Kok district. The customers seem to be mostly old men, who also bring their own caged birds and walk them up and down, showing them off to friends and other birds. Here you'll find galahs from Australia, superb starlings from East Africa, mynahs, parakeets, cockatiels-and assorted little birds that seem to be made of rainbows. The stalls are decked in new bamboo cages, and porcelain feeding dishes, like miniature Ming vases. There are packets of food, live crickets, grasshoppers, and even tiny green snakes.

Another minimalist pet favored by the Chinese are goldfish, which add to the fung shui, or harmonious balance, of a home or office. And Chinese goldfish are marvelous to behold-like rotund little Buddhas with flowing orange veils, or maybe pearly white dowagers wearing red plush velvet hats. Anyway, in the Goldfish Market (at Bute St. and Tung Choi) you'll see tanks full of strange swimmers, and plastic bags of shimmering fish stapled to the walls.

Get there at dawn if you want to see the unusual blossoms of Asia and the Orient at the Flower Market. From there you can walk through the clothing markets of Fa Yuen (from Prince Edward Road West to Mong Kok Road). The Ladies' Market, on Tung Choi street in Mong Kok, has inexpensive clothes, shoes, and accessories, and is open afternoons and early evenings. Mong Kok is where Hong Kongers shop, and very crowded on weekends.

Nuts for electronics? You might want to nose around the Computer Markets at Causeway Bay (Hong Kong) and Star House (Kowloon), but be careful. You don't want to bring home a software virus, and hardware might not work as well on American electric currents.

If big-city hustle begins to wear on you, you can venture out into the countryside of the New Territories. It's fun to go for a meal in one of the fishing villages. I particularly like Sai Kung, out in the green hills where the air is fresh, and one can stroll the waterfront promenade, watch the boats, select a fish from a tank, and have it cooked to order in a nearby restaurant. Another seafood market town is Lei Yue Mun, beyond the airport, where jets scream overhead and weathered old sampans ride in the calm bay.

After each exhausting day on public transport, searching out the markets and sparring with vendors, I loved returning to a deluxe hotel for recovery. More and more it seems to me that the great palaces of modern Asia are its grand hotels, with their shining marble, Eastern art, fountains, pools, flowers, and smiling service staff.

On Kowloon, I stayed at the venerable Peninsula, where I was greeted with a white silk box of chocolates (tied with a golden cord), two baskets of tropical fruits, an illustrated booklet explaining the strange ones (rambutan, mangosteen, star fruit), a tin of cookies, a silver finger bowl afloat with orchids, and a pot of dark China tea. The swimming pool has enormous glass walls overlooking the harbor, and a ladies' steam room with cold plunge pools.

The Peninsula is renowned for its afternoon tea, served with chamber music in the neoclassical lobby. Even if you can't afford to stay there, go for the Peninsula's fashionable tea scene.

The Peninsula dispatched me to the airport in the house's Rolls Royce. I noticed that people on the street were peering in to see what celebrity might be riding inside. What to do? Why, the appropriate thing; with a haughty toss of my head, I began to file my nails.

Photography by Iakov Kalinin/Shutterstock

This article was first published in November 1996. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.