Sino The Times
It was always the same story. “Everyone with a window seat would be pressed against the glass. The buildings were so close, you could wave at the people doing their washing up. Even the pilots took it as test of skill and balls. Landing at Kai Tak was the biggest thrill in international air travel.” Except sitting next to Gerard Depardieu, probably.
I missed the boat on the joys of entering old, pre-handover Hong Kong. So I come into the city on an actual boat. The Turbojet skims and skips past jagged out-crops, whilst around me the locals snooze, snack and gossip. I flew in to the new, disappointingly safe but wonderously airy Hong Kong International Airport, a few days ago. Then immediately was whisked off to Macau, so I haven’t actually seen the famous harbour yet. It is with an air of yes, I’ll admit, excitement, utterly in contrast to the blasé commuters, that I peer round to the front of the boat, as it turns right and the western harbour front of Kowloon presents itself. Arriving by sea into major cities is fast becoming a romantic memory or the preserve of cruise liners, but this moment lives up to any I may have imagined. Hectic, humid, a vortex of angles and vistas, I escape the throbbing district of Sheung Wan – on the actual island – and, heavy with luggage, take a taxi the long way around to Tsim Sha Tsui, on the northern side of Victoria Harbour. Lucky cabbie meets naive Englishman.
Upon entering the Intercontinental’s open lobby, my trip formally begins. Framing the sci-fi free-standing check-in desk and a low-set lounge bar is one of those breath-taking sights that make you wish you’d trained as a cinematographer and had cameras in your eyes. A triple height wall of glass displays the gleaming might of Hong Kong island’s face to the world, Skyscrapers, cranes, boats, corporate logos, flags, sails, water, sunlight, sparkle, metal, heat, wealth. The lot.
Shown to my marigold silken harbour front room, this staggering view is now presented in wide angle. The InterContinental is a stalwart, having been bought for $241million back in 2001 from Regency Hotels, one that literally defines the term ‘full service.’ You could bring your family here for a week and happily never need to make any other arrangements. They’re pumping yet more money into a new upgrade, too. I’m taken on a tour by their PR representative, American Southern belle, Carole Klein. We whiz through the eight (count them) restaurants, including the best steakhouse in HK, a family dining buffet, the Michellin-starred Cantonese Yan Toh Heen and the Hong Kong branch of Nobu. Jewel in their culinary crown is Alain Ducasse’s planted flag in the region, Spoon.
After a sublime meal there, cooked and served by authentically suave Frenchmen, such as sommelier Nicolas Deneux, I’m swept into the Presidential Suite. Unlike most big rooms that take the moniker, this one has aspirations to hold office. Not only the largest suite in the city, it is also recognised as Asia’s most spectacular. This 7,000 square foot glass duplex with a personal butler on call around-the-clock has five bedrooms, dining room, private study and a gym to keep the most trigger-happy security detail content. A 2,500 square foot rooftop terrace with an infinity swimming pool provides a nice spot to watch the nightly Symphony of Lights display.
Bill Clinton likes it and I don’t blame him. This is a big hotel with a big footprint and it more than holds it own against its snobbier neighbour across the street, the Peninsular. The old market leader still has some kudos, as the crowds who gawp at the helicopters regularly landing on the roof high over Salisbury Road will attest. I pay a visit to its famous bar, Felix as well as newer claimants to the cool crown, including the shimmering Ozone Bar at the Ritz Carlton – perched on the 119th floor, the highest bar in the Asia, no less and probably one of the priciest.
Being on the Kowloon side affords a trip to the shopping and markets of Mong Kok, the next day. Open markets and food stalls are the main attraction. Each street of the grid system literally boasts it’s own function. The Ladies market, the Goldfish market, the Flower market and the Bird market are among the plethora. The summer ensures the mercury reaches 34°C regularly, so the bright tunnels that lead to the highly efficient MTR subway are the place to be. Yes, an underground system that’s savagely effcient, air conditioned, reasonably priced, mobile-device friendly and paid for. Mmmmm.
The subway malls and interconnecting passages are awash with happy shoppers. On a bustling, bright Saturday, it becomes apparent that the Chinese have swapped Mao for Mamon. They are laden with brand name bags from the underground stores and long surface streets such as Canton and Nathan Road. Canton Road itself boasts four Dolce and Gabbana stores within half a mile. And there are regularly queues outside all of them. Hong Kong is where you come to shop for everything, high end or low end. Whilst the island itself has been carved over the last 15 years into a glittering central business district for the 21st Century, Kowloon remains pleasingly grimy, colourful and chaotic. This is the cinematic Hong Kong and I love it. An Asian New York, if there was a street called Replicant Market, the Blade Runner comparison would be complete. A dystopia of live fauna in baskets and tanks on the streets, awaiting their demise, sweaty men in vests, wielding knives and welding cogs, laundry slung between neon signage, of sharp suited and keen-eyed men who may or may not have nefarious connections. This will change, because Hong Kong exists at an intersection. British meets Asian. Communist meets Capitalist. Old meets New. Spiritual meets Commercial.
Already, there is a firm plan to construct a 60,000 square foot Norman Foster-designed art space and museum on the west side of the district. With white-hot property prices and a burgeoning middle class hungry to compete culturally with the West, something’s gotta give. Already, the region has, commercially at any rate, established itself as the centre of the global art market and is challenging for the wine title, too. Such appetites will eventually see the eating up of the unpolished and the quotidian.
You see it in the architecture. The old colonial faded grandeur and the flaked and burnished 60’s concrete is giving way to a bolder, aspirational aesthetic.
Whilst it owes something to the phallic-centric towers that dominate the new global powerhouses, it also features something less empirical. Feng Shui has become a dominant force in commercial Hong Kong property. A power wielded by a small cadre of masters, these Jedi of home/office improvement charge up to $100,000 USD for consultations. Not that it’s always been popular. The Maoists were suspicious of it. Even in the 19th Century, the pre-Boxer British missionaries were complaining of the chaos this system wrought on good Christian order and symmetry. It is illegal in mainland China today to register feng shui consultation as a business and similarly, advertising feng shui practice is banned. What Bejing makes of entire towers and hotels being orientated to let energy properly flow correctly under their own watch, is anyone’s guess.
That’s not to say the new Hong Kong eschews all symmetry. If some of the bamboo, mirror and a rock in the corner schtick can leave the European craving some Euclidean simplicity, then a Star Ferry ride over the bay to Central on the island is required. Located amongst the emphatic glass and concrete scribble of Admiralty and in full view of the People’s Republic’s brand new government edifice, The Upper House is possibly one of the world’s most restful and sublime boutique hotels. Sister to Beijing property, The Opposite House, this hymn to serenity takes up the top floors of an 80’s office block. The region’s star architect, Andre Fu, has combined Eastern materials and textures with – dare I say it – Western harmony and space. Creating an upward journey, the 117 rooms, including 21 suites and two penthouses, are, by Hong Kong standards, massive and stunning, paneled in light woods and furnished in soft greys and biscuity creams. In my suite, each of the three rooms has a window built into a 90 degree corner, each one overlooking a different brilliant vista of the harbour or the island. Notably, there is no mini-bar. Upper House rooms have a Maxi-bar. 400 thread count Egyptian cotton & luxury down bedding ensures my devotion to my lie in.
A free-standing bath has its own vista of tower blocks and hillsides – this is the best bathroom I’ve ever had the pleasure of washing in whilst covering destinations – and the lounge area is as groovy, relaxed and refined as any high end traveller could wish to find themselves. The staff are delightfully unobtrusive, yet friendly and with chef Gray Kunz’s restaurant and bar, Cafe Gray, they have one of the best restaurants with the most luxuriant views. Delicate flavours built around simple local produce makes for harmonious dining. One day, I have the beginnings of a tropical fever. Normally, this would spell disaster on a trip like this. But at Upper House, it just gives me an excuse to lounge in my room. It was that good. Pestilence has never felt so good. But at some point, one needs to see the local colour.
I take a traditional junk, the Aqua Luna, from the Central ferry pier. This red-sailed, 70 year-old pleasure rambles across the harbour, to Kowloon and back, whilst serving stiff drinks and offering a respite from a modernity that seems inexorable. It plonks me back, mildly pissed yet fully refreshed, so that I can visit the quadrangle of Earthly delights that is Lang Kwai Fong. This little block of streets in Hong Kong’s own SoHo (south of Hollywood Road) was the epicenter for the bacchanalian debauchery of the pre-hand over years. Many who were there have reported that in the 70’s and 80’s, when up to 200,000 Brits worked, rested and played very hard indeed, one could go into any bar in the area, ask for ANYTHING and within 20 minutes receive it. I have to report that those days are long gone. It’s a great place to come for a full night out with the young folk, but the colonial seediness has been swept away. Many will not mourn it’s passing. I might just. After you’ve attempted and failed to cross the road and found the only way across a dual carriage way is through a traversing shopping mall, filled to the gills with big brand homogeny, you may long for a degenerate and linen-wrapped rumpled Englishman, propping up a sticky bar, selling something wrong in Lang Kwai Fong.
And talking of authentic, let’s chat chow. With Michelin muscling in on the ratings of Cantonese restaurants, the question has to be asked – what comprises the real deal? The high end is sublime, of course. The middle is harder to pin down. But I will give you a tip here: luxury food will can soon jade the palette. You’re in Hong Kong. Be brave. After the Joel Roubechons and the Aquas, you’ll crave street food. If you’re not up for surprises, track down a Mak’s. There’s a few around the city. A third generation, family run noodle and wonton joint, they use duck eggs in their dough mix and whole shrimp in wonton.
The stock is sublime. For 3 quid, you’ll get a braised beef noodle soup that even the New York Times has raved about. As they say, how many wonton restaurants have their own Wikipedia entry? There’s mercifully even a branch at the Peak, the mountainous tourist spot that has inspiring views of Central, the harbour and Kowloon from 400 meters up. Western fast food chains and consumer brands sit beneath Terry Farrell’s wok-shaped viewing tower, keeping the locals and tourists happy, but it was the smack of Mak’s honest broth that made my journey back on the packed Peak Tram so comfortable.
I get to return to Mong Kok, as I spend my last nights at the Langham Place Hotel. Considered one the best 5 star spots in the region, it rose out of a $10 billion HKD re-development plan and it is the incongruity of a handsomely slick 42-floor tower amongst the squat streets it dominates which illustrates the roadmap of progress. The old airport’s flight path defined the 16-storey limit of Kowloon’s buildings in the past. Now, there’s profit and necessity driving the skyline upwards. The exciting cultural clash is something I discuss with the hotel’s Director of PR Ainslie Cheung. The groomed Asian businessman visage gives way to something more earthy, when a broad Manchester cackle and wink accompanies his largesse. Opulent surroundings for a proper geezer.
As we dine at the hotel’s very fine Michelin two-star Ming Court, amid glittering antiquities and Chinese object d’art, Ainslie ruminates on the difficulties of balancing huge growth with cultural respect.
“Outsiders see Hong Kong’s history as something charming and maybe romantic. Trying to promote modernity in this context is tricky. Not everyone loves the colonial past. The locals see a better future for themselves. They’re hungry. As someone born in Glasgow and raised in Manchester, I really like the old things. But if you grew up here, it’s different. We lose. But we gain more. It’s progress”. The Ming Court’s menu is an edible manifestation of this. Tsang Chiu King marries Chinese principles with modern gastronomy to theatrical effect. When it works, such as a delicate mushroom infused consumme, served in a transparent teapot or pan-fried chicken skin, filled with minced chicken and black truffles, accompanied with sliced pumpkin, it’s the tasty shock of the new.
Langham Place has certainly put itself at the epicentre of a new Chinese cultural revolution – the cult of the individual. The hotel has a collection of more than 1,500 pieces of contemporary Chinese art, which includes pieces by noted artists Wang Guangyi, Yue Minjun and Jiang Shuo. Going from the bustle outside to a calm visual exploration of the growing pangs as Capitalism finds room in the gaps of Communism’s edifice is a fascinating experience. This is crux of Hong Kong. In the marriage of convenience that is the status quo up to 2047, when China will gain full control, it’s hard to tell if the tail is wagging the dog. Is Hong Kong becoming more Chinese, or vice versa? The belief is that the genetic splice will successfully live beyond the laboratory and become a dominant species.
Aesthetically refreshed, I head to the excellent roof top pool and spa. I realize that Langham Place exemplifies the dichotomy of the Special Administrative Region’s exciting future.
The contrast of airy luxury living, set against an older version of compacted urban density is no more clearly visible than here, 300 feet up. This is the nearest I’ll ever get to the experience of coming down in a 747 towards Kai Tak, peering in to those apartment windows, wondering how such an improbable and vibrant collision of a city ever came into existence and crossing my fingers that the landing is smooth.