Hong Kong: Asia’s Art Capital

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When Hong Kong emerged as Asia’s art capital in 2012, some eyebrows were raised. What does a city of bankers and office workers really know about art?

But the ball had started rolling. The lively Chinese metropolis had already been branded Asia’s World City. since 2001. Under its hard and lustrous capitalist shell, it is also known for its vibrant culture of rich Cantonese traditions, a prolific film industry, as well as venerated, ancient Feng Shui practices. Once home to the now demolished Kowloon Walled City, Hong Kong’s “dark” and seductive side has captured the imagination of artists around the globe.

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However, Hong Kong’s rise to the top of the art world meant that it had to cast off the pessimism that has haunted it in the last decades. For a start, this historical port city appeared to be more preoccupied with its past glory than with its future potential. Cynics easily dismissed it as merely a money-making machine and a point of transit with no distinct cultural identity. To add insult to injury, professor Ackbar Abbas had famously warned about the death of Hong Kong after the 1997 handover to China. 

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But despite the voices of doubt, Hong Kong in the recent years has proved that it is has what it takes, as it successfully transformed into an exciting art hub and the place to be for creative souls.

And, surprisingly, its money-making capacity served as the catalyst. 

Being a vibrant entrepôt for trade between China and the world, a former colony with long-standing relationships with the West, as well as one of the most iconic vertical cities in the world were all determinants of its artistic proliferation.  

In the years that followed since the Sino-British Joint Declaration there has been an ongoing discourse about Hong Kong Culture and Identity that inevitably derived from the unique political status as “One Country-Two Systems”.  It triggered a process of awakening and self-reflection as well as  a wave of handover angst. In this climate of alertness, the interest in self expression increased, and a new creative vibe took over the city.

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But perhaps the major driving force behind this success has been China’s growing appetite for art, which lead to important investments by new and already established art collectors. As a result, the funding for arts in Hong Kong has nearly doubled since 2008, making Hong Kong the most important arts capital after London and New York.

Events, Galleries and Institutions: In the recent years, Art Basel Hong Kong and its edgier peer, Art Central  placed the city  right in the centre of the international arts scene. With annual shows running yearly and featuring more than 3000 artists, they showcase art from the most established art galleries in Asia and the globe.The brand new M Plus, Hong Kong’s new museum for visual culture that is destined to open in 2019, already presents diverse programmes and “nomadic” exhibitions such as the M Plus Rover, a travelling creative studio that tours at secondary schools and community places.

In addition to these major events, a plethora of local galleries enrich the city’s diverse art scene. Experimental contemporary art space Para Site was founded 1996, preceding Hong Kong’s handover to China, and has since served as one of the most important independent art institutions in Asia. Gallery 10 Chancery Lane showcases work from South East Asia’s emerging artists including Cambodia and Vietnam, and supports established and emerging artists from around the world. 

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What’s more, the city became a hotspot for important foreign galleries that wish to expand globally,such as the White Cube galleries that since 2012 founded its first non UK branch in Hong Kong Central, and has hosted major exhibitions including Damien Hirst and Gilbert&George.

The cultural institution Tai Kwun which is housed in the former Central Police Station, one of Hong Kong’s most iconic colonial buildings, aims to serve as “a cultural brand for Hong Kong”, and is planning to host contemporary art exhibitions, heritage and leisure programmes.

Street Art and Public Art: In a climate of unprecedented proliferation of creative ideas, local and international street artists scramble to put their mark on Hong Kong. Recent projects include transforming a worn-down dirty building in Sham Shui Po into a rainbow-coloured three dimensional work of art by Madrid based Spanish artist Okuda, as well as eye-catching graffiti brightening up the streets at the annual graffiti festival Hong Kong Walls. Portuguese artist Alexandre Farto transformed a moving tram into a work of art in his work Debris .

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Public Art Hong Kong (PAHK) is a leading public art promoting organisation which strives to make public art accessible to all, while its vision is  to enhance the quality of life of the people in Hong Kong by bringing excellent contemporary art that offers impactful experiences to the people and the cityscape.”  It promotes several temporary and ongoing projects in collaboration with the Hong Kong Arts Centre.

Being such an important part of the city life, the Hong Kong public art scene has proved that it has the maturity and confidence to embrace challenges. From a giant inflatable rubber duck floating in the Harbour by Dutch artist Florentijin Hofman, to  Anthony Gormley’s rooftop sculptures, Hong Kong welcomes bold projects.

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In 2016’s Event Horizon, Gromley installed 31 “naked” men sculptures on rooftops in Central, often letting passerby people to think that they were humans attempting suicide. Even though the exhibition was no doubt controversial, it was the most extensive public art installation ever seen in the city.

Hong Kong is not only a famous tourist destination and a dynamic architectural hotspot, but a culturally rich and diverse Asian city, whose art scene is enriched and organic. 

To those who love the city, Hong Kong is a time capsule that is transforming into a large, vibrant and colourful art piece.  All eyes are on Hong Kong hoping to see more exciting cutting edge art originating in this unique Chinese city.

Keep your calendar open: From January to December there is always something cooking in Hong Kong, and that’s not just the treats for the Hungry Ghost

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From Hungry Ghost to Chinese New Year and Dragon Boat there is always a reason to celebrate in Hong Kong. Unlike the Western religious celebrations, the Chinese festivals are rife with colour, dance, music and shared excitement, while they faithfully preserve the ancient beliefs that generated them. In this part of the world, it is all about fierce dragon parades, romantic lanterns, festive cakes, joyful music and a great vibe, as families and friends all get together to honour the remarkable Chinese traditions.

Here are the major annual Chinese festivals that have crowned Hong Kong empress of Chinese Culture and its fascinating centuries-old customs and beliefs.

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The Big Festival: Lunar New Year or Spring Festival is Hong Kong’s biggest, happiest and most glamorous annual extravaganza, which has been rightly described by Forbes as “Thanksgiving, Christmas and Western New Year’s all rolled into one glorious occasion”. It is certainly a lot louder and busier than Christmas, with people celebrating en masse outdoors in the beats of the carnival and the dragon dances, instead of quietly curled up by the fireplace. It is the time of the year for Chinese people to visit home and reunite with their families, and then take to the streets to enjoy the traditional Chinese performances and the magnificent fireworks. Even though as a tourist you are often advised against travelling in China during this particular period of time, it is a once-in lifetime experience if you are feeling intrepid enough to join in this absolutely massive celebration. Colorful Dragon dances and carnival processions, exuberant flower markets, festive horse-racing events and the world’s most jaw-dropping fireworks displays over Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour iconic skyline,are some of the major highlights of this endless party that in total lasts for about 23 days .

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The Romantic Festival: From ancient Greece to the Aztec Empire, nearly every culture has practiced lunar worship, acknowledging the powerful impact that the Earth’s only satellite has on every living creature on our planet. And thus it is no coincidence that the Chinese Moon festival takes place during Autumn, when the moon is closer to the Earth creating a “supermoon” phenomenon. Once a harvest festival dating back to the Tang dynasty that worshipped the powerful harvest moon on the 15th day of the 8th month, it was also considered to be a symbol of female energy as this was personified in the Moon Goddess of Immortality,Chang’e. With all the Moon bathing, the candles and Chinese lantern displays it is undoubtedly the most romantic and quaint event of the year. Other highlights of this beautiful celebration include carnivals, a fire dragon dance and gorging on scrumptious mooncakes.

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The Sporty Festival: Dragon Boat Festival: Also known as Tueng Ng Festival, Hong Kong’s Dragon Boat Festival is the Summer’s most anticipated cultural highlight. It takes place near the Summer solstice, on the 5th day of the 5th Lunar Month, and it is scattered all around Hong Kong.  There are different theories regarding the origins of this centuries- old festival, one of the most interesting being that the festival originated from the ancient Chinese Dragon Worship. The most prevalent theory has however been that the custom was created to honour the prolific ancient Chinese poet Qu Yuan, who drowned himself after being banned from court. The boat paddling, is symbolically performed to distract fish from eating his dead body, and for the same reason, people also throw Zongji-rice dumplings-in the water. (It is perfectly normal, however, if in the spirit of the festivities you enjoy the delicious Zongji yourself.) In Hong Kong the races have gradually become really competitive as the racing tradition has been passed from generation to generation. The festival is rife with traditional Chinese imagery: Colourful boats with dragon heads and tails decorated with flowers paddling in the beat of the drum, the cheering of Zongji-appreciating crowds, and a unique carnival vibe, all make the Dragon Boat Festival one of the most iconic Chinese celebrations of the year. Every year the event attracts thousands of visitors and more than 140 participating teams, while its reputation has spread around the world, with its most famous siblings being the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival in New York, and the London Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival.

And the Spooky One:  In Hong Kong and in China in general, commemorating the dead an important part of life. Instead of flowers, it is not uncommon to bring fruits, meat, snacks and drinks to the grave of the deceased, as well as to burn incense and paper money or anything else a person can use in the other world.  The Hungry Ghost Festival that takes place every September in Hong Kong is meant to appease the spirits of the dead that roam the earth for a whole month, (the entire seventh month of the lunar calendar.) Bearing fascinating similarities with the Mexican Dia de los Muertos,(which is also related to All-Saints and Halloween) the Hungry Ghost Festival has ancient Chinese roots that reflect the worldwide belief that during certain months of the year the spirits can access our world, and so it is important to make sure our ancestors and malignant spirits don’t get hungry or angry.

The Festival takes place all over the city with paper money and incense burning on pavements and corners of residential buildings, accompanied with lighted candles and food offerings, that eerily remind us that we might not be able to see them but they are among us. Some of the Chinese superstitions to keep the ghosts away and to avoid attracting malevolent spirits include advising people to not cry, whistle, or hold and open umbrella.

 

The Ding Ding Tram Is Proof that Hong Kong Heritage Matters

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When in October 2015 a government proposal to scrap the Hong Kong tram in order to ease traffic congestion was put on table, the public reaction was overwhelming. For many Hong Kongers the Tramways-otherwise affectionately known as the Ding Ding- has been an integral part of the city’s history and just like the Star Ferry and the Peak Tram it belongs to a cultural heritage without which the city would be poorer.

But the tram is not only a charming British hangover that reflects the city’s past. It has traditionally been the most affordable and most environmentally friendly means of transport. Furthermore, its existence as a cultural symbol of Hong Kong has great emotional value for a large part of the local population that do not want to see rapid modernisation and technological innovation destroy the few remaining historical treasures of the city.

In a world that changes with whirlwind speeds, there are still some things that remind us that we sometimes need to slow down and reflect on who we are. Ding Ding is just that, a dear reflection of the Hong Kong’s identity.

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Brief History: The tram was first introduced in 1904 by the British Hong Kong Tramway Electric Company and twenty six single deck trams were imported from England. At the time the trams offered first class and third class seating. A few years later they were replaced by the iconic double deckers we all know, that until today belong to the few remaining double-decker trams in the world. For many older Hong Kongers the tram was the very first transport they ever used and they hold fond memories of those early rides. Unlike bus conductors, the tram conductors were nicer to the people, allowing them to jam in.

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and the Peak Tram-Chatham Path

By the mid 1950s the number of tramcars increased to 146 and they were completely remodelled.The 1950s antique tram 120 is still in use today and it passes through Shau Kei Wan, Happy Valley and Kennedy Town. The 1970s introduced major changes to the tram service.  The tram panels were rented out for advertising purposes, a practice that has since rendered them the chicest and most fashionable means for eye-catching advertising in Hong Kong. Furthermore, female conductors appeared, and class distinction in trams was abolished.

Today,the tram fleet consist of 163 tramcars, two of which are antiques. It is not uncommon to see fully painted ads on trams bodies, a practice that brings life and colour in the busy streets, and attracts art lovers and creative spirits from around the world. The antique tram no 28 is unique with a rare open balcony design and light bulbs that make it glitter at night,  and it is used exclusively for city tours, parties and promotional events.

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So, what are you waiting for? Hop on! The trams, being slower than other means of transport such as the MTR, are less busy and are one of the best ways to see Hong Kong.

The service is pretty straightforward, it goes East and West on the Hong Kong Island, and runs along some of the best parts of the city such as the historic Sheung Wan, the business centre in Central and the commercial Causeway Bay. The passenger can get a good idea of the different aspects and dynamics of the city on a single tram ride. If possible, grab a seat at the front row of the upper deck for breathtaking views of the imposing architecture and the fascinating street life.

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Today there are no tram conductors but your Octopus Card will grant you unlimited use of all Hong Kong’s transport, and you can also use coins. A four day pass is also available that allows you to hop on and off as much as you like.

Taking Tram Journey to a whole new level: Realising the trams immense cultural value, gave birth to a number of different services and creative ideas. The TramOramic Tour is a comfortable and stylish way to see the city on an open top 1920s tram and offers plenty of spectacular 360° snapshot opportunities. It also provides seven thematic journeys including Colonial, Art, Foodies, Shopping and Nature, where passengers get to choose their own itinerary based on their specific preferences and interests. 

Party On a Tram?  One thing that Hong Kongers know how to do well is party. You can party everywhere in Hong Kong, in the streets, at the beach, on a junk boat, on a helicopter and why not, on a vintage open-top double-decker tramcar! This is probably one of the most romantic ways to experience the legendary Hong Kong night lights and the city’s extraordinary festive vibe. Enjoy fine champagne and the city’s balmy nights, as the tram trundles through the bustling streets. Bespoke tram parties and events are available.

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And the most famous Tram of all: The Peak Tram funicular that carries passengers from Central to the Victoria Peak was built in 1881, and it was the first tram in Hong Kong. It was constructed to speed residential development on the hills as well as serve the privileged residents of the Peak,which before that were carried on the mountain by local bearers on sedan chairs. However it was considered a revolutionary form of transport in Asia, and for many today it is the city’s emblem.

Once you are at the Peak take some time to visit  the Peak Galleria where the Hong Kong Trams Station Museum displays valuable Tram memorabilia  including rare old photos and route maps.

I originally wrote this travel guide for Mavel

From traditional Kung Fu to the Triad Gun Fu, the Hong Kong film has shaped Hong Kong Identity

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Hong Kong film is an integral part of the city’s cultural identity. The city’s dramatic cityscape provides is an ideal backdrop for fast-paced action and urban cool.

In one sense Hong Kong resembles a large film-set or a large China-town that encompasses several different micro-worlds in physical proximity.

Like a three dimensional  vertical metropolis, Hong Kong has been a source of inspiration for movie makers around the world. Watching films like Blade Runner or Ghost in the Shell  you cannot help identifying various aspects and corners of Hong Kong. It is the epitome of the Asian futuristic metropolis.

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During its early years, the critical factor behind its flourishing success was colonial Hong Kong’s more liberal stance towards martial arts.  The city welcomed numerous talented artists and teachers, who were not allowed to practice their art in the Mainland. In Hong Kong there was no shortage of talent, and there was the freedom to put it to work.

The Kung Fu Tradition in the Spotlight with Enter the Dragon: The famous statue of  Bruce Lee on the Kowloon waterfront blends in with the iconic skyline of Hong Kong Island and becomes part of the city’s narrative. Lee was the kung fu genius who put Hong Kong on the radar with Enter the Dragon (1973), which was one of the most classic-and according to some the greatest- martial arts film ever made.

The Kung Fu genre was the basis upon which the Hong Kong Film industry confidence was built. Not only did it introduce a relatively unexplored genre that shed light on the thousand year old Chinese martial arts traditions, but it was also a tool of empowerment.

It introduced the Chinese hero who stands up to the Western imperialists, a storyline that became a popular theme used until today in the new “nostalgic” martial arts films like Ip Man and its sequels. The foreign official in these films is depicted being the Chinese “Gweilo” , the foreign devil. Narrow minded, unrefined and coarse, the “Gweilo” understands very little of the Confucian principles of peace, dignity and respect that underlies the behaviour of the Chinese hero.

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Jackie Chan has been Hong Kong’s unofficial tourism ambassador

Enter the Dragon showed the world that Hong Kong is more than a British colony, and even though its heritage is no doubt predominantly Cantonese, it is a unique place where cultures, stories and identities meet. In the years that followed its release and the death of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, a talented martial artist, comedian and stuntman reached stardom with comedic kung fu films like Drunken Master and Project A.

The importance of these Kung Fu icons should not be overlooked. They are regarded as legitimate-albeit unofficial- cultural ambassadors of the city and its heritage.  Jackie Chan’s documentary “Jackie Chan’s Hong Kong” is a great example of this.

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Young and Dangerous is the ultimate 90s hit

The Years of Transformation and The Birth of the Triad Film. During the 1980s, as the city frantically speed up its vertical expansion, the Hong Kong Film Industry reached its most prolific period. 

However, with the impending 1997 Handover to China, the awkward Gweilo character was already becoming outdated. The action had shifted to the Triad underworld and its constant battle for power and resources in a complex city-labyrinth that never sleeps. The thin line that separates the policeman and the triad member is a popular theme in these films, that aims to show that there can be goodness in a scoundrel, and evil in a man of law.

John Woo became the pioneer with iconic gangster melodramas such as “For a Better Tomorrow” and “The Killer”  that replaced Kung Fu action with fast-paced gun play-otherwise known as Gun Fu- in the street of Hong Kong. In the 1990’s ‘Young and Dangerous” films made it cool to be a young and hip Hong Kong gang member and combined action with light comedy. 

Even though these first triad films were initially heavily influenced by similar Hollywood classics, they didn’t stray from their cultural origins. Johnnie To’s Election (2005) is one of the most honest depictions of the Triad world, and for some it is considered the Godfather of Asia. American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino was heavily influenced by Ringo Lam’s “City on Fire” (1987) when making Reservoir Dogs, while Martin Scorsese’s “the Departed” is the american version of Andrew Lau’s intense cop drama “Infernal Affairs”.

The Triad/Underworld killer became something of a cult figure in Hong Kong film, and a quintessential figure. For example, Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels is a film with stylised parallel story telling, that is more about social alienation in a modern metropolis than a gangster film. However, one of the main characters is a paid killer and member of the underworld. The plot develops mainly at night in the dark alleys and narrow spaces of a complex and claustrophobic city, in the heart of Hong Kong. In a very similar style, the famous Chungking Express by the same director explores the ideas of love and alienation by featuring an underworld killer-a woman this time-  being the mystery woman with which a  lonely policeman,falls in love.

The heart of Hong Kong’s cultural identity and heritage lies in its film industry. Film lovers can only hope that Hong Kong will remain a vibrant art capital that uses film as the vehicle to express the unique imagery, energy and spirit of a truly historical city.

I originally wrote this blog post for Mavel

You don’t need Bear Grylls’ endurance to enjoy Hong Kong’s gorgeous outdoors (and you can still be in time for mojitos at night)

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Don’t let the towering skyscrapers fool you. Hong Kong has mountains, sandy beaches, trekking trails, waterfalls and practically everything you expect to find in any other Southeast asian country that is known for its wild, unspoilt landscape. With 40% of Hong Kong reserved as parkland and 80% of its total area green, it is one of the greenest places on our planet, and is home to a diverse landscape that offers nature lovers endless opportunities to enjoy the outdoors.

For families, Hong Kong is an ideal destination to enjoy nature in one of its large and perfectly preserved country parks, or spend your day soaking up the sun at the beach, while at night you can still return to the top notch food, shopping and entertainment options that the city offers. It is a city that has it all, so why not enjoy it all on your holidays?

Read on to discover the top outdoor activities in Hong Kong for families and for those who are looking for easy, enjoyable hikes through the countryside’s most scenic parts.

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Take a Trail or a enjoy a relaxed stroll in Nature: With Dragon’s Back named as Asia’s Best Urban Hiking Trail by TIME magazine and the MacLehose Trail as one of the world’s best hikes by National Geographic, hiking is one of the top activities to enjoy in Hong Kong. Even though the famous mountain peaks are often considered tough treks, there are great alternatives that do not require too much physical strain. And the best part is that you don’t need to travel far to discover emerald hills, shady trails and secret waterfalls.

The Victoria Peak Circle Trail, that runs around the Peak, Hong Kong’s number one attraction, is a gentle 3.5 km hike that allows you to enjoy jaw-dropping ,panoramic views of one of the world’s most jaw-beautiful harbours. To take the trail, simply hop on the Victoria Peak Tram to the Peak, and take the Lugard Road near the Peak Tower. 

To completely escape the cityscape, The Hong Kong Wetland Ecotourism Park in Northwest New Territories is a fantastic place to watch Hong Kong’s native flora and fauna, including birds, butterflies and dragonflies. The park is designed as a hands-on interactive experience in the ecosystem and includes themed exhibition areas, indoor play areas and a cafe. It is ideal for families with small kids.

For a more fearless adventure, the Monkey Mountain in ShaTin’s Kam Shan Country Park will bring you close to 70% of Hong Kong’s Rhesus Macaques population, most of which are descendants of a few pets that were released the 1920s. When close to the animals, pay attention to the signs and do not feed the monkeys or carry food with you, as these sweet creatures can become aggressive. The Kam Shan Country Park facilities include a morning walkers’s area, jogging trails, as well as special barbecue and picnic areas. If on that day you are feeling particularly brave and feel like having an intensive hike with a historic twist, you can head for the Smugglers Pass Trail in Kam Shan, a 6km long trail along steep hills and slopes which is found between two major hiking trails, Wilson and MacLehose. The Smugglers Pass served as an important defence position during the Second World War and thus there are some major wartime ruins such as British military bunkers and trenches still standing among the ridge.

 

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Lamma Island

Visit the gorgeous isles: Hong Kong Island’s’s dense urbanisation often makes visitors forget they are on an island ,but a short ride towards the south reveals a completely different landscape.  The gorgeous Big Wave Bay Beach at Shek O is small oasis that is popular with windsurfers as well as hikers that finish the scenic Dragon’s Back trail. There are easier ways to get there too via MTR and bus, and of course by taxi.

Less than 30 minutes away from Central, the tranquil Lamma Island is one of Hong Kong’s most laid back, picturesque destinations. Being free of cars and public transport and relatively empty makes it ideal for family walks, bike trips and day adventures. The Lamma Island Family Trail is an easy hike in nature that traverses the island and walks you along its beautiful coast past white sand beaches, Buddhist temples and breezy pavilions as well as interesting historic landmarks, such as the  Kamikazee Cave, a spot of strategic importance for the Japanese during the Second World War. The trail starts at the ferry pier of Yung Shue Wan village at the northwest part of the island and finishes at the quiet traditional fishing village of Sok Kwu Wan, with its quaint junk boats and array of waterfront seafood restaurants. Do not leave Lamma without tasting its famous fresh and delicious seafood in one of its well known restaurants, such as Lamma Rainbow.  If you are in Hong Kong this November do not miss the  Lamma Fun Day beach music festival, a fun charity event that has run for sixteen years, and is very popular with music lovers and families.

Shek-O beach …very nice on a sunny weekend!

Shek-O Beach

Another great island destination for a relaxed day trip is Cheung Chau. This island may be tiny and more “modernised” than Lamma, but it offers interesting attractions, such as the colourful 1783 Pak Tai Temple, which is also famous for its April Bun Festival, as well as the Cheung Po Tsai “Pirate” Cave. Cheung Chau is certainly the best way to slow down and have a lazy day outdoors and away from the hustle and bustle of the Hong Kong city. With fresh seafood in every corner, make sure to go there hungry!

I originally wrote this travel guide for Mavel, a blog that is no longer available

Hong Kong, A Food Mecca For Every Self-Respecting Foodie

Hong kong streets/Image: Hong Kong - November 2011© MojoBaron/Flickr

Hong Kong streets/Image: Hong Kong – November 2011© MojoBaron/Flickr

Other than being an exciting global city, Hong Kong is also a foodie’s paradise. It’s not just the number and quality of high-end restaurants in almost every corner of the city, but also the dazzling selection of local and international flavors that satisfies even the most demanding taste buds. So whether you’re in the city for a short break or on a long culinary mission, you should definitely skip your hotel’s all-inclusive buffet meals, and instead, explore the numerous gastronomic treats that Hong Kong has to offer.

Here’s a quick introduction to Hong Kong’s essential food map.

Fiery flavors. From trendy Korean eateries and super spicy Sichuan cuisine to  real mexican tacos  (to wash down with Cuban cocktails at Mamasita’s Cantina), Hong Kong has something spicy for those of us who like it hot.

Michelin stars everywhere. There are around 60 Michelin Star restaurants in the city for the year 2017. Considering how small Hong Kong is, this clearly shows that food is a serious business in this city. And the best thing is the MS list doesn’t include only upscale restaurants, such as the exquisite Four Seasons Lung King Heen, Umberto Bombana’s vero Italiano Otto e Mezzo or Shikon’s famous Sushi. The world’s first  Michelin Starred Street food Stall is the latest innovation in a city where street food is little short of sacred.

Street Food Hong Kong Style © David Guyler/Flickr

Street Food Hong Kong Style © David Guyler/Flickr

And speaking of the devil… Nothing beats a good food truck or a quaint food stall. I personally feel instantly happy when I see one, it just adds so much color and life to a city. Street food, found in the local food stalls otherwise known as dai pai dong  is an important element of the Hong Kong spirit and a must-try for every serious culinary tourist. Some of the delicious local treats include Hong Kong-style curry fish balls, egg waffles, egg tarts, and pork ramen. For more adventurous foodies, stinky tofu is another Hong Kong classic.

Traditional Chinese Dim Sum Tea Houses. Dim Sum, the local version of brunch-like tapas, is at the heart of the Cantonese culinary culture. You can enjoy dim sum like the locals do, traditionally as a morning tea gathering, or during any time of the day, you crave a fluffy white bun and a hot cup of tea. Dim sum signature dishes include steam pork buns, shrimp and pork dumplings, and delicious rice rolls filled with pork, beef, and vegetables. Located right in the middle of the high-end Central, Luk Yu Tea House has been a dim sum hotspot since colonial times and has still preserved its colonial-style design and retro charm.

Image: Fresh BBQ pork noodles© Ernesto Andrade/Flickr

Image: Fresh BBQ pork noodles© Ernesto Andrade/Flickr

Hong Kong native Cha Chaan Teng. Since the 60s the Cha Chaan Tengs in Hong Kong have been serving the Chinese version of western food at reasonable prices. Nowadays, they are more of a cult thing, but they are still the best way to get a feel for the city’s cultural identity and culinary history. Famous Cha Chaan Teng such as the Australian Dairy Company and Capital Cafe serve generous portions of comfort food like scrambled eggs with rich buttery thick toast and milk tea.  Don’t miss Honolulu Coffee Shop’s famous egg tarts, while retro Mido Cafe will take you for a trip down the memory lane to Hong Kong in the 60s.

You can always rest your tired feet in the Bing Sutt Starbucks. The traditional Bing Sutt restaurant has been something between the basic dai pai dong and the more upmarket Cha Chaan Teng. In the 50s a Bing Sutt was basically the standard Chinese diner serving Chinese Western food classics. A wave of nostalgia in Hong Kong has revived the interest for Bing Sutts, with Starbucks opening the world’s first Bing Sutt Starbucks in Duddell Street. If you’re in Central, you can enjoy Starbucks coffee with a twist, in a 60s cult ambiance of tile floors, green-metal-frame windows, old fans, and vintage wall posters.

Image: Hong Kong Duddell Street Starbucks© tszchungwing/Flickr

Image: Hong Kong Duddell Street Starbucks© tszchungwing/Flickr

Hong Kong, Asia’s Perfect Example of Feng Shui

The Star Ferry has been one of Hong Kong's Feng Shui hotspots/ Image: Silver Star Hong Kong©Bernard Spragg. NZ/Flickr

The Star Ferry has been one of Hong Kong’s Feng Shui hotspots/ Image: Silver Star Hong Kong©Bernard Spragg. NZ/Flickr

With the Year of the Rooster already starting on a rough patch in the Western world, Chinese astrology and Feng Shui are always interesting to follow. As someone who has lived in the “West” most of her life, I was always intrigued by the idea that there’s another way to explain the world, other than our western dualism of good versus evil ,or Christianity’s belief in one higher force that in the end restores the moral order in our world. The Chinese school of thought focuses on a holistic understanding of one’s self and one’s surroundings, and the art Feng Shui and Chinese astrology have been important parts of this idea.

View of the Harbour from the Peak/ Image: The Peak©Eugene Lim/Flickr

View of the Harbour from the Peak/ Image: The Peak©Eugene Lim/Flickr

I first became aware of the importance of Feng Shui while I was travelling in Hong Kong, and I felt amazingly strong and euphoric walking down Victoria Harbour’s Tsim Sha Tsui promenade. I later discovered that this was not incidental: Hong Kong is amongst the most important Feng Shui cities in the world, as it has mountains behind and waters in front.

Here’s what you need to know about this ancient art that has blossomed in a futuristic city.

  • The Chinese Feng Shui (literally meaning Wind and Water) is based on the idea that the energy (chi) of our environment affects the energy of our lives and, subsequently, our health, success, and well-being. When the five natural elements (fire, air, water, wood, metal) around us are balanced, we too are balanced and feel harmonious and happy.

    Chinese Astrology Symbols © GanMed64/Flickr

    Chinese Astrology Symbols © GanMed64/Flickr

  •  Hong Kong’s notable Feng Shui buildings include the HSBC tower whose entrance is guarded by two bronze lion statues, as well as buildings with gaping voids in the middle, also known as dragon holes.
  • Hong Kong’s prosperity has been attributed to its good Feng Shui, but there are great examples of Feng Shui in the West. Think about the most prosperous and culturally rich and diverse cities that you know such as New York, London, Melbourne and Paris. They all have a strong element of water, sea or river, that has energised them and helped them flourish and become global cities.

    Rivers were sacred in ancient Athens/Image: Ancient Athens - Reconstruction 1©Patrick Gray/Flickr

    Rivers were sacred in ancient Athens/Image: Ancient Athens – Reconstruction 1©Patrick Gray/Flickr

  • From the druids to the ancient Greeks, the “West” was also familiar with the importance of the natural elements in life. But in our journey to modernity and to fully embracing logical thought, we lost the connection with this ancient knowledge. In my native Athens our government buried the city’s sacred rivers-which were worshipped as Gods by the ancients– in order to built highways. Athens never came anywhere close to becoming the great city it was known to be in antiquity and in the recent years it has been brought to its knees by poverty and austerity.
  • Being one of the most densely populated cities in the world is not an obstacle to Hong Kong’s good Feng Shui. Energy does not get stale here, but moves effectively and fast. The city’s highways are its “rivers” while its high-rises are the “mountains” that move the energy and bring luck and prosperity, according to the laws of ancient Chinese wisdom.

    Hong Kong's famous elevated walkways/Image: Street bridge walkway, HK © faungg's photos/Flickr

    Hong Kong’s famous elevated walkways/Image: Street bridge walkway, HK © faungg’s photos/Flickr

  • When it comes to big cities in many parts of the world we tend to see the things in a black-and-white scope. Most of us believe that megacities are crowded, polluted and bad for us. In this sense it might appear as a paradox that 70 percent of Hong Kong is countryside, country parks, and protected green areas. Nature feeds the megacity with plenty of Feng Shui  energy.
  • Hong Kong doesn’t only have Feng Shui skyscrapers but also has fantastic Feng Shui spots for nature lovers. Its world-famous Peak is a great spot to feel the city’s great energy, and enjoy breathtaking views of the iconic Victoria Harbour. There are several nature trails for hiking lovers nearby. Asia’s best urban hike, Dragon’s Back, is another idea for those looking for a more intense and memorable hike.

    Dragon's Back hike, Hong Kong © Rick McCharles/Flickr

    Dragon’s Back hike, Hong Kong © Rick McCharles/Flickr

  • The famous Victoria Harbour and the Star Ferry are what has been described as Hong Kong’s Feng Shui  centre of the city. An integral part of the city’s history and cultural heritage, the Star Ferry has never had any difficulty winning the hearts of the people, and it has been described the perfect combination of the five natural “chi” elements.

Cultural Talk: There can only be one Hong Kong

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Lately I have been following closely the debate surrounding the Hong Kong Occupy Central movement. Labeled as a struggle against China’s anti-democratic administration by the western media it has gained popular support in the western world as a fight for freedom.

It drew the attention not only of the media but of the international watchdogs, who quickly seized the opportunity to lecture the Chinese about democracy and begin to suggest various democracy monitoring mechanisms. I am not going to quote all the reasons why democracy is one of the most abused words masking western political hypocrisy or why permitting third parties to interfere and stick the democracy-meter in your mouth is a bad, bad idea. As a Greek and national of a country that in the last years has been shaken with tear gassed demonstrations, illegal taxation and vast unpunished political corruption and still this country is democratic, I feel like today’s sense of democracy leaves a lot to be desired.

But in any case the young Hong Kongnese have their cause and what motivates them night after night to take the streets is basically the desire to be free to denounce the alignment with China’s administration and policies. In every relationship, after all, a person has the right to voice their desires and intention and act upon them.

What however remains a question is after a hypothetical “divorce”, what would the new alignment be, since the UK has long now resigned from its former active role . To fully answer this question one must examine the identity of the Hong Kongnese people, who they are and who they identify with most.

To me the Hong Kongnese identity can be compared to that of an adopted child that is taken from its biological mother at a very young age and raised by a another mother. The child’s uniqueness, charisma and beauty is a combination of its upbringing (thanks to the foreign mother) and its natural charisma (thanks to the biological mother.) You cannot isolate either side to describe her. A grown up now, she is trying to get used to her birth mother’s ways and realizes that their newly found co-existence is much harder than she had expected.

Behind Hong Kong’s uniqueness there are some interesting facts . Here are few that culturally underlie the debate about Hong Kong:

Hong Kong was Chinese territory taken by the British
. Described as scattered fishing villages before its occupation by the imperialists, it was Chinese soil built and developed by the British. As a British crown colony needless to say it also did not enjoy democracy at a time where colonialism was still in effect.

Hong Kong was a gateway and entrepot to China before its opening up by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. The special interest the West had in Hong Kong was closely linked to its proximity to China and the trade potential attached to it.

After China’s opening up Shanghai has been gradually replacing Hong Kong’s role as an international port. The dynamics between the relationship of the mainlanders and the Hong Kongnese have rapidly changed. Now it is the mainlanders that are financially ahead and are calling the shots. This has been a huge blow on native Hong Kongers sense of self and pride.

Desired by both “mothers” Hong kong has been also neglected by both. When leaving in 1997, The British failed to supply the Hong Kongnese with full British citizenship as perhaps they ought to have done to support their growing feelings of identity loss. At the same time the Chinese have been gradually trying to rapidly integrate Hong Kong to what it has been interpreted as erosion of identity.

Hong Kong is a small place and China does not pretend to care about Hong Kong’s identity. Neither China was ever obliged to be oversensitive about an ex British colony.

However it should.

Hong Kong is a unique place built from scratch as a hybrid identity city state. It has been the ground for bold urban architectural experimentation: highrises and skyscrapers built on the steep and hilly topography of Hong Kong island, elevated roadways and a record of escalators, as well as sights skillfully integrating nature and hyper urbanism. Hong Kong’s international airport is one of the busiest airports in Asia built on large artificial land that was created by leveling two islands.

Even though the population is in majority ethnic Chinese, it has been home to different nationalities that prospered in different trades. It prides itself on a variety of authentic international cuisine available and high standard English speaking touristic services. It is a truly global city and a jewel to be carefully preserved by the Chinese.

But mostly for all the above it is a true piece of history. It is a reference to the past and a leap to the future. And for the Chinese who have invested millions in creating replica European cities like Venice or Paris, Hong Kong is the real thing. In fact there cannot be a second Hong Kong. But what will keep the flame alive is proudly declaring a Hong Kong identity that deserves to be voiced and preserved.

Hong Kong’s value as a unique historic global city and cultural investment will only increase with time if China allows it. It is loved by millions around the world, Chinese or not. It is a symbol, and just like everything precious there is a duty attached to it to protect and preserve.

Hong Kong: The Perfect Hybrid Place

Since I first visited Hong Kong back in 2008, I felt like a part of me did a quantum jump and stayed there permanently. Despite my aspirations, it only remained in that parallel universe and did not extend in the Universe I live now: I visit Hong Kong as a tourist, always trying to grasp the essence of its magic.

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For me, Hong Kong’s success lies in its hybrid character: Once a British colony it has been a famous mix of British and Chinese Cultures and later attracted a variety of ethnicities and populations, creating a mosaic of colors, tastes and images. It has been famously branded an Asia World City because of that vibrant, multicultural character. If there is a word that comes in mind when I think of Hong Kong, that word is definitely potential. Walking the steep hilly streets and slopes of the Hong Kong Island you can feel that potential and the energy that comes from its unique landscape and architectural unconventionality. (One of its quirks being the world’s longest outdoor escalator, Central-Mid-Levels, that carries you to the higher levels of the island so you don’t have to climb the steep hill)

Central-Mid-Levels Escalator

Central-Mid-Levels Escalator

Hong Kong residents take pride in the fact that its unique energy comes from using Feng Shui -the Chinese geomancy-, which has shaped the architecture and lifestyle of the city in accordance with the principles of energy flow, health and prosperity. In this sense Hong Kong is futuristic. Not because of its jaw dropping skyline and aesthetics of hyper capitalism, these are only by products of its positive energy flow. It is rather by creating potential and enabling opportunity that it has liberated itself from strong national and political elements.

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When I first stood at Tsim Sha Tsui gazing at Hong Kong Island, an afternoon six years ago, I felt free and overwhelmed by a sudden feeling of potential. It is that rare feeling that comes to you not so often when you feel like new horizons open in front of you, truly a sense of empowerment. You are suddenly inspired, injected with “life shots” as you grow and you expand and feel limitless. It is a feeling similar to falling in love for the first time.

This is more affordable

This is more affordable

That night I was going to sleep in a hostel in Tsim Sha Tsui and a box room that had no windows or natural light. (Very typical is the city’s lack of residential space where people are vertically squashed in overpriced tiny apartments). Even that did not disturb my sense of freedom. Life in Hong Kong is outside and is calling for you to live it, young, free and adventurous.

View from the Peak

View from the Peak

Maybe I will always be in love with Hong Kong and perhaps just like a high school crush it will always be there, beckoning from another universe like another self. Or perhaps I will only be nostalgic of that early summer afternoon I stood in Victoria Harbour gazing at Hong Kong Island, South China Sea between us, Life in front of us to be conquered and lived to its full potential with no regrets, doubts or second thoughts.

View from Victoria Harbour

View from Victoria Harbour