The Gateway to the East is a harbor town that glitters with the lights of international business. But to really understand Hong Kong, you have to meet it halfway.
DAY TWO Hong Kong island is just five minutes south of Kowloon by subway, but you wouldn’t know it from the rivalry between the residents; one Kowloonite cheerfully admits she behaves “as if the harbor were fllled with alligators.” Not being from around here, you have no such qualms, so you hop on the red line to Mong Kok to spend the day shopping. Here you find the China you were missing yesterday. Corridors of buildings covered with Cantonese signs extend in all directions, and the crowds are nearly impenetrable. Happily disoriented, you walk northeast until you begin to hear the chirping of unseen songbirds. You keep walking, and the din gets progressively louder, until you turn the corner and flnd Yuen Po Street Bird Garden (1), a multiblock pet bird market. While, regrettably, you have no space for a finch in your luggage, the traditional wooden birdcages— containing miniature porcelain water jugs and bowls for bird seed and water—are a steal at 60HKD (less than $10), so you pick one up.
Next, you walk back to Tung Choi Street to visit the famed Ladies Market (2).
The car-free bazaar hosts hawkers selling all manner of jade necklaces, knockoff purses and T-shirts bearing nonsensical English slogans (“Rock Serious Young Man Michael Jackson”). You settle on a gauzy gray scarf.
Feeling famished, you take the subway a few more stops to Kowloon City, where much of Hong Kong’s 30,000-strong Thai population lives. Exiting the station, you pass towering apartment buildings that look like computer motherboards made of air conditioner butts, clotheslines and half-open windows. Once the signs start to feature Thai letters alongside the Chinese characters, Wong Chun Chun Thai Restaurant (3) appears on a corner, promising sustenance. The stir-fried pork with basil leaves and mangoes and an iced rambutan drink with coconut are about as authentic as any this side of Bangkok—not to mention delicious—so you make short work of both.
Realizing you’re behind in your Chinese history, you head even farther out in Kowloon to Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden (4). Built without nails, the nunnery is a replica of the gardens and monasteries built between the seventh and 10th centuries, with four lotus pools in the front courtyard and a surrounding garden with a golden pagoda. Before long, you’re feeling as if you could give a class on Tang Dynasty architecture.
For dinner, you return to the 21st century by way of the 20th. The lobby of the Peninsula hotel on the southern coast of Kowloon practically glows with the marble floors and gilt curlicues of the British Empire, but down a back corridor you find a private elevator that will take you to the hotel’s 28th- floor postmodern, Philippe Starck–designed restaurant, Felix (5). Your windowfront perch—where you happily munch on a mixed grill of local seafood—offers one of the best panoramic views of Victoria Harbour you’ve seen yet.
Feeling as though you could stare at the water all night, you book one of the Peninsula’s suites downstairs. Drawing a bath in your corner window Jacuzzi, you watch the lights of ships sailing off into the moonlight until you head off to bed.
HARBOUR LIGHTS The view from
the Shangri-La at dusk.