It’s hard to know when you’ve actually arrived in Hong Kong. Is it the moment the vintage Star Ferry’s tyres cautiously nudge the jetty? Or is it perhaps the time when you step from the gangplank and onto solid, albeit reclaimed, land?
Or maybe you’re truly in Hong Kong the instant you leave the jetty and walk along the winding, enclosed skywalk that hangs above the island and ushers you outside. It’s 15 minutes since I left the gangplank and jetty behind, and I still haven’t actually touched Hong Kong soil.
Finally, some steps lead down to Connaught Road Central in the Central area, among the skyscrapers and suits. This is the heart of Hong Kong, a bustling business hub replete with office blocks that soar so high you need to arch your back to see their summits. They shine and glisten, signs of their modernity and worth. The present is everything: the past, both colonial and Oriental, seems a forgotten figure.
It’s all very impressive, but simply arriving in Hong Kong isn’t enough. If you’re looking for character and charm, you need to look a little harder. Central’s streets are full of Chinese and Westerners in sharp suits, talking numbers on their hands-free kits. Jaguars and BMWs drive by, with young affluent Chinese men sit in the back (if you can afford these wheels, you can afford a chauffeur). Occasionally the cars have to stop for the double-decker trams that still trundle along, one sign of yesterday that defiantly refuses to budge, even for a Ferrari. I’d already been warned not to expect much in the way of nostalgia from Hong Kong.
A friend who has lived there 10 years told me: ‘All the old buildings have gone now. The Governor’s Residence used to be a lovely building at The Peak, then they tore it down. Now there’s a stone at the top that effectively says “there used to be a lovely building here”.’
The Peak remains the best vantage point to view the phenomenal cityscape and Victoria Harbour. The tram, launched in 1888, takes visitors 373 metres up to one of the island’s highest points (before trams, the governor would reach the top in a sedan chair). At the peak, the views offer evidence that Hong Kong really is one of the most densely-populated places on earth.
With so little space and so much demand, it’s easy to see why so much of the old Hong Kong has made way for multi-storey behemoths. Despite the changes, some places still capture the imagination and act as reminders of bygone days.
Back at ground level, I wander to St John’s Cathedral. When this Anglican place of worship opened its doors in 1849, locals opined that it looked out of place. The same is certainly true today, but for wholly different reasons. Its timber doors came from the British warship HMS Tamar, which once protected Victoria Harbour, but aside from that it’s a rather plain cathedral, although the society weddings that are held here could be straight out of Cambridge or Canterbury.
Leaving the cathedral, I stroll into the neighbouring Hong Kong Park. Nestled in the heart of the business zone, it is a refreshingly open area, complete with waterfalls, fountains and flora.
Near the park’s northern perimeter I notice a large, white building. Once the residence of the commander of the British forces, it is now the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware. Colonial-style buildings and afternoon tea may conjure up images of cricket and jam scones, but tea is indisputably a Chinese commodity.
The Chinese have been sipping tea longer than anyone else, back as far as 3,000 years. Legend has it that the tradition began when Emperor Shennong was sitting outside and windswept leaves fell into his cup of hot water. Its appeal soon spread, and even now nearly every country calls the brew either ‘tea’ or ‘cha’ depending on which of the old trade routes it is located on.
Today, many of the rituals surrounding the drink remain, including the crackling tea of the Naxi people (the crackling comes from the addition of a white spirit), the three-course tea of the Bai people, where the bitter and sweet flavours represent the ups and downs of life, and the thrice-daily milk tea feasts of the Kazakh tribe.
Next door to the museum is the Lock Cha Tea Shop. Inside its teak doors, past a display of clay pots and scrolls bearing Chinese script, is where Hong Kong’s business community finds sanctuary from the stocks and shares. It seems incongruous to have such a tea shop in the heart of Hong Kong’s business district, but nothing encapsulates Chinese culture like this ancient drink.
I take a seat in the corner and order a pot of Anhui yellow tea, along with dumplings filled with black sesame and steamed sticky rice wrapped in a lotus leaf. The food is incidental though; tea takes top billing. And here it isn’t just poured, it’s presented. My waiter, Chan Ka Ho, is a master of his art. He may only be 20 but when it comes to tea, he’s something of a sommelier.
First, Chan Ka Ho takes one of the white porcelain cups and pours hot water in to cleanse it. The cup is then wiped and is ready to receive the tea leaves. Hot water, which has been kept at a steady temperature in a stainless steel kettle, is poured over the leaves, and a lid is placed on the cup.
We wait a moment, and then Chan Ka Ho delicately lifts the cup and tips it towards a transparent glass. He adjusts the cup’s lid, just enough for the tea to trickle out and into the glass. Tea has been served.
I nod in acknowledgement and sip the tea, which has a hint of caramel, subtle but slightly sweet. Chan Ka Ho bows and quietly moves away. Chan Ka Ho plays his part to perfection, and after six months of training at a special school, he knows the importance of such a ritual. He has studied the different types of leaves, the ambient temperature required and the various methods used for brewing.
It seems a strange career choice, given the fortunes his friends are out making in the adjacent office blocks, but Chan Ka Ho prefers his work, and knows it’s something of a dying trade. Once my meal is over, he tells me: ‘Most people in Hong Kong don’t have time to study how to make tea properly. My friends play computer games or go out and watch movies; they only drink normal tea or Coke.’
He says this with a resigned look, and sounds like someone who knows he’s making a last stand for a tradition he loves. As we chat a tea cake is brought in and placed on a table. The cake is a tightly-packed collection of leaves, and this one is something special, as is evident by the price tag of HK$100,000 (US$13,000). Created in the 1950s, this cake is the Chateau Mouton-Rothschild of the tea world, with the purest of flavours. Such cakes aren’t just for show; connoisseurs regularly buy them and then snap pieces off (7 gms to be precise) when they fancy a cuppa.
Chan Ka Ho carefully places the cake on a shelf, along with several others that are tied with string and wrapped in brown paper covers. As I head back out to squint at the gleaming skyscrapers, I get the impression that I may at last have arrived, and found the true flavor of, Hong Kong.
How to get there
Air Asia flies to Hong Kongfrom Bangkok, while Viva Macau has flights from Ho Chi Minh City, Tokyo and Jakarta. If you’re already in mainland China or Macau, ferries run regularly to and from the island throughout the day.
When to go
From October to May the temperature is pleasant, while from June to September temperatures can make things humid and harder to bear.
Where to stay
The Peninsula This world-famous spot Peninsula is Hong Kong’s only historic five-star hotel. Be sure to pop in for its famous afternoon tea in the lobby. Salisbury Road, Kowloon; 852/292 -2888; www.peninsula.com; doubles from HK$4,200. JW Marriott This 27-storey, five-star hotel comes with jaw-dropping views over the harbor. Pacific Place, 88 Queensway; 852/2810-8366; www.marriott.com; doubles from HK$3,600. Cosmic Guest House Budget hotels are hard to find in Hong Kong, but this one is in the heart of Kowloon and is clean and secure. 12/F, Block F1, Mirador Mansion, 54-64 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon; (852)2369-6669; www.cosmicguesthouse.com; doubles from HK$300.
Where to eat
Lock Cha Tea Shop High-quality tea in an elegant setting. Ground floor, The K.S. Lo Gallery, Hong Kong Park, Admiralty; dim sum and tea HK$200.
Where to shop
Wonderful Worlds of Whampoa More than 1.4 million sq ft and with over 300 shops, this is a retailing behemoth. Whampoa Garden, Hung Hom, Kowloon;/www.whampoaworld.com.
What to do
The Peak Climb aboard a creaking tram as it takes visitors up 373 metres to the island’s finest viewpoint. 33 Garden Road, Central; return tickets (adults) are HK$33 or HK$48 for the Sky Pass, which allows access to a viewing platform; (www.thepeak.com.hk).
Tea is the world’s second-most popular drink, after water.
Tea bags were invented by an American, Thomas Sullivan, in 1907. Connoisseurs have been deriding them ever since.
The appeal of a cuppa was summed up by English poet and essayist Samuel Johnson, who once wrote: ‘Tea amuses the evening, tea solaces the midnight, and tea welcomes the morning.’