Growing up as an Chinese-American kid in the suburbs of New Jersey, I really didn't experience having a true cultural identity crisis. While I know that this is a very real internal conflict of first generation children whose parents immigrated here from the East, I'm lucky enough that the stereotypes exaggerated in shows like Fresh Off the Boat, are relatable enough that I can laugh at the jokes, but just distant enough that didn't have to suffer through similar types of bullying or feeling out of place as a child.
I think I've always embraced my ethnic background. Sure, growing up, I never loved spending Saturday mornings at Chinese school, and at one point, I became really interested in having colored contacts because I thought colored eyes were more exotic and beautiful. I mean, even now, I like to dye my hair every couple of months just to shake things up and refresh my look. But honestly, I love and respect where I come from, and I am very much grateful that I was raised to understand and communicate in a different language and to have strong, traditional values. But even with the old -school ways which my parents and grandparents never strayed far from, I was never reprimanded for forming my own beliefs growing up in a new generation.
Hong Kong is such a special place to me because my Dad was born there in the 60s, and my grandparents moved from China and lived in Hong Kong for a period of time before immigrating to New York in the 80s. All of the things that I knew and learned growing up, from the language and the food, to the values and the history, really didn't fully click until I visited in 2016, when I was 21. It was a short trip with 3 of my friends (not even my own family), but it was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life, and I knew one day I would be back.
I didn't think I would be back after only two and a half years, but I was very excited to visit again with Blake. I wanted to show him places I've been to before, have him experience real dim-sum (other than in Chinatown in the city), and for him to immerse himself in a culture that would really show him where I came from and who my identity is at the core. Of course, it would also give me the opportunity to practice my Cantonese a bit since the only time I can really use it these days is to speak with my grandparents.
We spent a total of about three and a half days in Hong Kong, though I highly recommend spending at least a full week to really see the city and soak in all of Hong Kong's wonders. Here is a list of my top things to see and eat in this incredible city!
THINGS TO DO
Visit Victoria Peak for the most magnificent views
Commonly known as just "The Peak", Victoria Peak is Hong Kong's number 1 tourist destination, and arguably one of my favorite views ever in my travels through Asia the last couple of years. Nothing quiet beats the experience of riding the city's oldest mode of transportation and seeing one of the greatest cities in the world from a bird's eye view. The Peak Tram has been operating since 1888, and it's history is one that is both fascinating and impressive to ready about. Initially built for the exclusive use of the British governor and residents of The Peak, the nearly 1 mile long railway is now used by millions every year to take locals and tourists up to one of Hong Kong Island's highest elevations for breathtaking views of the harbour and massive skyscrapers that light up the night.
This was actually my second visit to the Peak, the first being a very perfect mild January evening in '15. This time around, the weather didn't quite cooperate with us, and our first 30 minutes were quite disappointing because the rain and fog paid us a nice visit. Luckily, the skies cleared up by dusk, and everyone and their mother piled up to the viewing platform to snap away and admire the brightly lit buildings and flashing lights around the city and on the water.
Note: The Peak Tram operates from 7am to midnight daily, departing at 10 to 15-minute intervals from the lower Peak Tram terminus located on Garden Road in Central. Exact change is required if paying by cash and Octopus cards are accepted.
There is also the option to hike up and down from the top of the Peak, which I would have opted to do with better weather and less of a time restraint.
Soak in the views of Victoria Harbour
I will never forget the first time I took the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbor to get from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island. Oh, how I was mesmerized by the lights and grandeur of one of the most stunning skylines in the world. A 1 way ferry ticket on the Star Ferry costs less than 50 cents, and what a straight-up-bargain for one of Hong Kong's greatest attractions. While the best views of Hong Kong Island are best enjoyed on a boat ride, you can also admire it's beauty from the many lookout points in the south of Kowloon.
Take a day trip to Ngong Ping 360 and Tian Tian Buddha
My grandparents were/are Buddhists, though I never had a particularly religious upbringing. My parents would follow certain traditions that involved celebrations like weddings, birthdays, Chinese New Year, and we certainly have our own way of organizing funerals too. But throughout my life, I basically formed my own beliefs, and it’s pretty apparently that some of my core values mirror those of the generations before my own. Honestly, because I didn’t attend any religious schools or have parents who fully practiced the religion, I never grew up knowing much about Buddha or the foundations of Buddhism itself.
Blake and I visited our fair share of temples in Thailand, which is where we really knocked out most of the religious sites on our list. But when it came time to visit Hong Kong, visiting the famous Tian Tian Buddha was something I really wanted Blake to see. I visited Lantau Island for the first time during my first trip, but I didn't really mind coming back again. Lantau is Hong Kong’s largest island, and also a home to HK Disneyland, HK International Airport, and, which is the impressive Gondola lift built to increase tourism and bring crowds up to the high hills of the Ngong Ping area to see the Tian Tian Buddha.
The easiest and cheapest way to get to the Big Buddha is to take the MTR to the end of the Tung Chung Line, which is about a 45 minute ride from central Hong Kong. After leaving the station, there are signs pointing to Ngong Ping 360, where you can purchase tickets to take the 25-minute Gondola (one-way) ride up to the hilltops to the Ngong Ping area. At 3.5 miles, this cable car ride is easily the longest and most impressive rides I have taken. Before the gondola's construction in 2006, the only way to access the Buddha was was via a mountain road and bus service.
Weather was not quite on our side during our visit, but luckily the gondolas are fully covered and we brought an umbrella to climb the steps from the base of the Buddha to the top. I would reserve 3-4 hours to take the round-trip ride and for time to explore the Ngong Ping area, which includes of course, the Big Buddha and the Po Lin Monastery. There was even a fun ox sighting!
Click Ngong Ping 360 for more useful information for your trip planning!
Part it up in Lan Kwai Fong (also known as just "LKF")
Nightlife in Hong Kong is nothing short of a great time, and one of the liveliest square of streets is the famous Lan Kwai Fong area of Central, where locals and tourists from around the world gather and party from dusk til dawn. The only bar I visited prior was Stormies, a popular nautical-themed bar located at the top of D'Aguilar Street. This time around, we knocked out Grafitti and Tazmania Ballroom, and then headed to a popular club after to end the night. We didn't have an entire week to party it up in Hong Kong, where people work hard, but play even harder, so we made sure that we visited on a weekend and could pack it all in!
The best part of going out in Hong Kong was meeting up with one of Blake's trader friends from work who I had met back in NYC last December. Half-jokingly, we said that were were going to come visit him in Hong Kong, and less than 10 months later, we actually made it happen!
Take pictures at Choi Hung Estates
If you wanderlust as hard as I do, then you have probably seen this rainbow complex show up at some point on your Insta feed. The Choi Hung Estates has, in recent years, become a very popular spot for travel bloggers and photographers to visit because of it's striking and color backdrop. The complex is located in the Wong Tai Sin District of Kowloon and can be accessed fairly easily on the MTR or by an easy 15 minute taxi/Uber ride from TST area.
Choi Hung Estates is actually one of the oldest public housing estates in HK, which began construction in 1962 and was completed in 1964. It was built by the former Hong Kong Housing Authority and is now managed by the current Hong Kong Housing Authority. Because the estates is such a popular spot for photographers and amateur Instagrammers, I think Choi Hung Estates is actually giving the Housing Authority more exposure, which may benefit the community in the long run.
HONG KONG EATS
Hong Kong has some of the best food in the world, and similar to New York City, you can get almost anything your heart desires right outside your hotel door. While I stuck with more traditional Chinese food since I was only here for a few days and wanted the best of the best when it comes to Asian cuisine, Hong Kong is a food mecca and it's hard to be disappointed by anything you eat! Here's a list of restaurants and foods that I'm still drooling about to this day!
Kam's Roast Goose
I first saw a picture of a plate of Kam's roast goose or "seew gnaw" on my cousin Andrew's Snapchat when he visited Hong Kong with the family in August. I didn't know how popular it was until we actually decided to eat there on our first afternoon. It was a pleasant surprise to be able to try another one of Hong Kong's budget-friend,1 Michelin Star restaurants. I actually never was a fan of roast goose, even though I grew up eating it my entire life. However, I was intrigued because I told myself "it better be the best goose I've had in my life if it's Michelin rated".
Conveniently, Kam's was located just a 5 minute walk from our hotel in Wan Chai. We came only 30 minutes after it opened, but the line was already stretched half way down the block full of eager tourists holding their numbered sliver of paper, anxiously waiting for theirs to be called. Meanwhile, plenty of locals waited along the side walk for their take-out orders to be brought out.
We waited about 45 minutes in total and walked around the block to keep ourselves occupied as we waited. We were seated at a shared table of 6, and quickly placed out orders - 1 iced coffee, an order of roasted pork belly, 1/4 of a roast duck (upper half), and of course, a bowl of white rice. The food came out very quickly, as is expected at these fast-casual eateries. One bite of the pork and another of the goose, and it was very apparently why this place is Michelin Star rated and why the lines are indicative of the great food. We ended up ordering another 1/4 of a goose (this time the bottom half, since the upper was apparently sold out at this point even though it was only 12pm). The bottom quarter is a bit more fatty and still delicious, but we definitely preferred our first plate more. For just under $60USD for two people, we had a fabulous first meal in Hong Kong!
Ding Dim 1968
I actually grew up eating a lot of dim sum. In fact, I have very early memories of waiting at the local Chinese banquet restaurant in Brooklyn for our number to be called over the microphone so my family and grandparents could finally be seated for Sunday tea. Going to "yum cha" was never something I really enjoyed, and it wasn't until I visited Hong Kong for the first time that I really had a new appreciation for having experiences the dim sum tradition in my childhood.
The dim sum spots that I have visited in HK are actually not the cart-style that I am used to in the Chinatowns of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Instead, the restaurant has you mark a piece of paper how many order of each dish you would like. We visited Ding Dim 1986 in Central right when it opened, and had a delicious feast of soup dumplings, shrimp dumplings (har gaw), pork buns, and egg tarts (don tot). Everything was incredibly fast and came out super quickly. This place is quite small and definitely no frills, but the food is cheap, fresh, and SO delicious!
Chinese BBQ was always a staple in my diet growing up, and the Chinatowns in Manhattan and Brooklyn are littered with restaurants that have geese and pork lined up against the clear window so you can see the fresh meat from outside on the streets. From my experience, some of the best roasted meats I’ve ever had are from very cheap, and simple places.
Located in Central, Yak Lok, is a Michelin Guide recommended restaurant known serving up delicious bowls of noodle soup and hearty plates of roasted pork and goose. This place is simple, fast, and cheap, and gave Kam's a run for their money. Although I didn't think it was better than Kam's (even with no wait time), it does comes in at a close second and I would add it to the list of places to check out on Hong Kong Island.
This small bowl of wonton noodle soup was the best that I've had in my entire life. I didn't even know I was craving it until I slurped the whole thing down in a matter of 2 minutes. Mak's Noodles is a classy, traditional Cantonese restaurant in Central specializing in wonton noodles. Of course, the expectations were high, but they completely knocked it out of the park. Everything was incredibly fresh and made-to-order and we had our bowls within a minute of ordering!
Tsim Chai Kee
After we went to Mak's Noodles, we made the spontaneous and totally logical decision to hop across the street for another bowl of wonton noodle soup at Tsim Chai Kee. I mean seriously, how many Michelin Guide rated places are there on this tiny island? By the third bite of our second bowl of noodle soup within the half hour, we quickly realized that a second dinner wasn't really necessary (yet totally necessary). Tsim Chai Kee was so delicious, and the menu is quite simple. You can choose between 1-3 toppings for your noodle soup, which includes any combination of King prawn wontons, fresh fish balls, and fresh sliced beef. And if you're feeling guilty about the lack of greens in your meal like I did, there is a plate of vegetables available on the menu as well.
Matcha has been a staple for me and Blake over the last couple of months, and go through coconut milk and matcha powder at an astonishing rate. Our trip consisted of so much Thai iced tea and bubble tea that I think we really missed one of our classic favorites, and that is a yummy, refreshing glass of iced matcha. Luckily, we were able to satisfy the cravings and our sweet tooth at Via Tokyo, which serves up a large menu of Japanese desserts, including matcha, red bean, coconut, and other flavored ice cream and mochi! Walking in the heat in Hong Kong wasn't exactly comfortable, so any excuse to get sugared up in air conditioning is a good excuse.
My love and respect for Hong Kong is unlike any other place I have ever visited. I feel very much at peace and at home here, even though I was born in the states and never visited during my childhood or ever with my family. One day, I hope to visit with my parents and have my dad tell stories about his youth, I hope to bring my children here and have them experience the culture and food I grew up eating, and I hope to always remember and retell the stories that my grandparents have told me about Hong Kong before they made the big move to the United States and left everything they knew behind for a better life.
Until next time, Hong Kong. I'll see you soon.