Heart of Hong Kong

Author: rob ingram
Photography: chris chen

Rudyard Kipling might have preferred the road to Mandalay, and Somerset Maugham the perfumed harbour of Singapore, but to China hands of the next generation, Hong Kong had it all. The evening junk cruise to Aberdeen's floating restaurants. Double-decker trams rattling through traditional Chinese neighbourhoods. The Bottoms Up club. Happy Valley racecourse. Six shirts for $30. But now there's a perception that Honkers is preoccupied with producing ever more cosmopolitan manifestations of itself. Its mystery and intrigue is now mostly about share deals and currency trading. When Hong Kong flights are called, it's departure time for thin, nervous people with thin, nervous luggage. Business suits and laptops rise en masse heading for the romance of the Orient fervently hoping their rooms will have carrier-grade networking equipment.

The good news, of course, is that nowhere on Earth defies generalisation as readily as Hong Kong. Look in the right places and its traditions and cultural depth are still to be found. And the best place to look is the Mongkok district in the pulsating heart of Kowloon Peninsula. Despite its finance and fashion, its trading and technology, its commerce and commodities, Hong Kong is not all about boulevards and avenues. It's about the alleyways that preserve its lifestyle, its history and its rich culture. What the laneways don't offer, however, is an escape from urban clamour. In the 80s, Mongkok had the dubious honour of being the most densely populated urban area in the world at around 130,000 people per square kilometre.

Today, Mongkok is a prime example of how the rest of Hong Kong could have been developed. While pleasantly gentrified with top hotels and fashionable shopping and dining options, it retains the essence of old Hong Kong - even mainland China - and provides an insight into traditional character, colour and lifestyle. In the wake of the 1949 revolution, millions of Chinese refugees crossed the border, and most settled in Kowloon. They brought with them their foods, festivals, religions and rituals and, sheltered in the alleys of Mongkok, these cultures have survived.

In the shadows of smart shopping arcades that are the natural habitat of the fashionista, locals beat drums and light firecrackers to scare away evil spirits. In streets lined with cosmopolitan restaurants, the dominant aroma is still deep-fried dough sticks and steamed cornbread cooked on the sidewalk. Lanterns  hang from bamboo poles, old women mumble mesmerising mantras, men mutter over mah-jong misfortunes, medicinal herbs bubble in earthenware pots. Here, in modern, high-pressure Hong Kong, a sign reads: "Spiral incense. Lasts 10 days. Long-term offering to the gods. Good luck, good health, good fortune".

But for all its manic activity, Mongkok is invigorating rather than exhausting. It's a bit like a bracing body surf through the cross-currents of the past and future. In the mid-20th century, the area became Kowloon's major business and shopping address and, even today, the signage above the older shops along Shanghai, Reclamation and Temple streets recall a period when the area was Chinese-only. Along Shanghai Street, shark fin and Chanel, ginseng and Giorgio Armani sell collagen cheek by exfoliated jowl. The 60s-style Highball Beauty Parlour still tattoos eyebrows on an elegant older clientele, while luxury spas re-energise life forces with cappuccino wraps.

Temple Street Night Market is one of the world's great free nights out. This is the Madison Avenue of designer fakes and the Yellow Brick Road of extreme eyewear, gaudy jewellery, Mao memorabilia, improbable sex toys, George Michael CDs, bad shoes and funky fashions sporting such enchanting slogans as 'Righteous Is Nice' and 'You Smile Make Me Happy'. If you're looking for bling without the sting, Temple Street is your patch. In particular, check out the stalls near Tin Hau Temple at Public Square Street.

Bargaining is vigorous, noisy and good-natured and, if you enter into the spirit of it, you can save a fortune, spend a fortune, even have your fortune told. At Palmistry Corner, palm, face and bone readings, dream interpretations and love matching are on offer, and pre-nuptial couples sit earnestly listening to the odds of a successful marriage. Twenty-dollar Prada bags come with a misspelt Certificate of Authenticity and official serial numbers that all seem to be 1234567890. But the best guarantee on Temple Street is that you'll come away with souvenirs you'll smile about forever.

Another compulsory attraction is the wet market around Nelson Street, where locals shop for whatever might make it into the wok that evening. Chooks squawk, fish flap, crabs wave like they're drowning, vegetables glisten and fruit, nuts, herbs and fungi exude aromas that make the senses reel. This is also home to the admirably named Yukee Food Company. I share its whimsy with a Hong Kong friend. He's only mildly amused, preferring the Lo Fat Dairy. A regular dairy, but owned by a gentleman named Lo Fat.

Also more of a stimulant for the senses than a shopping opportunity is the flower market along Prince Edward Road West, where stalls are ablaze with everything from single roses to bonsai trees. Stop to admire and you'll walk away with a complimentary orchid or perhaps a hibiscus behind your ear. Nearby is a bird market selling exotic birds, decorative teak cages and aviary essentials such as live grasshoppers. A homesick-looking galah touched my heartstrings, but it's probably as illegal to bring her home as it was to take her out in the first place.

Kansu Street is home to the Jade Market, paradise to anyone into precious stones. Bargains can be found, but few in the quality jade category. While prices reflect a market economy rather than ritzy arcade overheads, the dealers are as ruthless as they are toothless.

From around two, Mongkok's masses seem to ebb in the direction of the Nathan Road/Argyle Street intersection, the top boundary of the Ladies' Market. It was once confined to Tung Choi Street but now also embraces Fa Yuen and Sai Yeung Choi streets. It used to specialise in women's clothes, but these days there's budget apparel for both genders and all ages. Fashion is a language we all speak with varying degrees of eloquence and the Ladies' Market is pretty much the end of the rainbow for those who like to express themselves in vinyl and rayon. Clothes here used to come in two sizes - small and smaller - but traders now cater for western-sized tourists who flock here in their thousands. Cut-price sports shoes are a big item, and the discerning man may even snap up a smart belt embossed with 'C'mon Baby I Want To Be Your Man'.

Tung Choi Street remains the epicentre of clothing and accessories, while Sai Yeung Choi Street now attracts its own clientele seeking electronic goods. Phones, digital cameras and sound equipment can be found at staggering discounts, usually because they've been superseded. And while you'll drool at the prices, consider the wisdom of having local warranties.

It's hard to say what the real Hong Kong is anymore. Mongkok is what the leisure traveller wants Hong Kong to be: exotic, romantic, stimulating and rewarding. It's shopping bags over briefcases, discounts over dividends, indulgence over investment. Mongkok has its own Mass Transit Railway station and is also just a 15-minute walk from the Star Ferry if you feel the need to visit the fast-paced Hong Kong Island.

Sporadic towers of modern development have added a stratosphere of gentrification to Mongkok without disturbing the 'forest floor' of colour and tradition. The spectacular Langham Place complex rises 60 storeys out of the epicentre of Kowloon, embracing an office tower, 35 restaurants, a 200-shop mall interconnected by light-filled atriums, escalators and spiral walkways, and the excellent 665-room Langham Place Hotel. The hotel's restaurant, The Place, is tipped to become one of Hong Kong's great restaurants, its garden courtyard already the haunt of the social-page set.

Another feature of the hotel is the Chuan Spa, which offers a sense of serenity unimaginable from the maelstrom of activity on the streets below. But even in this temple of therapeutic indulgence, the pillars of Chinese medicine and wellbeing are still observed.

And, yes, in case you were worried, the hotel's ultra-sophisticated IT backbone offers high-speed broadband connection. Mongkok can satisfy us all.


Getting there
Virgin Atlantic has daily flights from Sydney to Hong Kong. To book, visit www.virginatlantic.com.au, call 1300 727 340 or your local travel agent.

Langham Place Hotel
This modern 42-level hotel has 665 rooms. Doubles from $377 a night. 555 Shanghai St, Mongkok, Kowloon, Hong Kong, +852 3552 3388, www.langhamplacehotels.com.

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