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Year Of The Monkey 2013: Kowloonatics

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to the best skyline on the entire fucking planet.September 14-18, 2013

As far as I can make out, these days the travel writing on this site falls into one of two categories. We either liveblog about a place while we’re there, or we make lots of notes at the time and then take over half a year to convert them into something readable. This is an example of the latter. Sorry about that.

Hong Kong! The Funnest Place On EarthTM! My first ever visit was in 1993, and since then I've been popping back regular as clockwork once every four years. It's true that I also transited through its airport in 2011 and 2012 on the way to Perth and Tokyo respectively, but I’m pretty sure those don’t count. Though to be frank our 2009 visit wasn't much better, given that it was just a couple of days at the end of our epic eclipse tour of China, and that I spent most of it on the toilet. 

But now it's September 2013 (yes, now, it's a literary device, shut up) and we're back. The Belated Birthday Girl and I have a full twelve days to play with, and have chosen to spread them over three different parts of the territory. STRUCTURE! Four days in Kowloon, the bit that borders onto mainland China: four days on Hong Kong itself: and four days on Lantau Island, as part of a general campaign to look at some of the other offshore bits. It’s a carefully planned-out itinerary, and it’s hard to see how anything can go wrong with it. FORESHADOWING!

Our flight is with Cathay Pacific, who are still my favourite long-haul airline. (That was definite back in September 2013: just over a month later, Emirates would have a damn good try at persuading me otherwise.) I can’t quite bring myself to concentrate on a full-length in-flight movie, preferring to gorge on short chunks of telly – by the time we're back in England, I’ll have got through two-thirds of Season 5 of Parks And Recreation. Once we’ve landed in Hong Kong, it takes us a while to work out the possible transport options open to us, but we eventually plump for a ticket on the Airport Express train bundled with a three-day pass on the MTR transport system. Useful tip: that three day pass covers up to the end of the day that you buy it, plus three full days after that. Closer to four days, really, which is nice.

Our hotel for the Kowloon leg of the trip is the Silka Seaview, about five minutes walk away from Yau Ma Tei station and within spitting distance of the main drag of Nathan Road. (Though to be fair, the amount of actual gobbing you see in the streets has dropped dramatically from the old days.) It’s actually not a bad location at all, and we even have a bit of a view from our 15th floor room – a small sliver of harbour to justify the hotel name, and a distant glimpse of the Symphony Of Lights show which is happening just as we enter the room for the first time. We’re also just next door to the Temple Street Night Market, a glorious mess of tat stalls, street karaoke, fortune tellers, and at least one cart selling nothing but dildos.

Wong Tai Sin: disco lights not pictured.With eight years having elapsed since our last major stay in Hong Kong, what’s changed since then? Well, it has to be said that the Chinese influence that’s been growing since the 1997 handover is continuing to be felt. After a short amount of time on the streets, we realise that the English language isn’t as pervasive as it was when I first came here in 1993. With that in mind, we leap onto the Silka Seaview’s wifi to see if there are any audio crash courses in Cantonese we can download. Omniglot’s audio is a bit fuzzy, but there are some useful phrases in there, and it has the wit to include ‘my hovercraft is full of eels’ as one of them. MyLanguages has much better sound quality, but its phrases seem a little too specific for comfort. “We are Americans.” “You will not be harmed.” “Stop or I will shoot.” As The BBG points out, doesn’t this imply that America has plans to invade a Cantonese-speaking country at some point? And how many of those are there?

Still, there’s sightseeing to be done. Having split our hotels into Kowloon and Island bases, we decide to try and stick to the Kowloon side of the harbour as much as possible, apart from the occasional MTR journey where it’s easier to change trains at Central and double back over the harbour. For example, we have to do that to get to Sky 100, which is the main new building that's sprung up since our last visit, and a rare example of publically accessible high-rise architecture on Kowloon. Time your visit right, and you can see some glorious views of the sun going down over Victoria Harbour from 393 metres above sea level.

You don't need to be that high up to see some extraordinary sights, though. For example, venturing further east on the MTR Kwun Tong line than we normally would takes you to Wong Tai Sin, location of the Wong Tai Sin temple and garden. Temples in Hong Kong tend to either be tiny wee places or industrial-sized, and Wong Tai Sin is definitely a full-blown prayeroplex. There's plenty to explore in the grounds - some lovely gardens, and a huge parade of fortune tellers - but curiously, we can't find the most famous part of the complex. In 2011, Wong Tai Sin opened a prayer room with a $100 entry fee, which rewards you with an LED disco lightshow whenever you offer a prayer. There are no English signposts telling you where it is, but it's still listed as a major feature on the temple's Chinese language website, so it's possible they're trying to dissuade Western tourists from coming along just to giggle at it. If you fail to track it down, console yourself with a walk around the nearby Kowloon Walled City, which is delightfully atmospheric even if you go there during a huge thunderstorm like we do.

Staying Kowloonside means that we can also explore the New Territories, the northernmost regions of Hong Kong that tourists tend to forget about. We had a wonderful stroke of luck early on in the holiday - to be exact, as we were walking out of the airport - where a quick pitstop at the tourist information stand led to us picking up a booklet of Hong Kong walking tour routes. (I can't remember the exact name of the booklet, unfortunately, but its contents are all available online on the Discover Hong Kong website.) We've followed a number of its suggested walks, but the Ping Shan Heritage Trail walk route is probably the best one. Head out to Tin Shui Wai MTR station, and from there you can spend a couple of hours strolling around a beautifully preserved collection of temples and ancestral halls, with the neighbouring Kun Ting Study Hall and Ching Shu Hin guesthouse standing out as joint highlights. Once you're done there, exploit your all-day travel pass to the fullest by heading back to the Hang Mei Tsuen station and riding round the area on the rather fine light rail network. You can jump off briefly at Tuen Mun Ferry Pier for some pretty seaside views, before heading back to Tin Shui Wai to get the MTR home again.

Angelababy, you're a special ladyAs usual, food's going to be a major part of the coverage of this trip, and The Belated Birthday Girl (this site's de facto nosh correspondent) has had a large amount of input into the next few paragraphs. Of course, if I hadn't been travelling with her, I probably wouldn't have gone near a vegetarian restaurant like Three Virtues in the first place. Located in the JD Mall on Nathan Road near Jordan station, it proves to be the perfect pitstop for our first night of exploring after a twelve hour flight. Our guide books suggest that some veggie restaurants in HK may not necessarily live up to the name, but Three Virtues appears to be the real deal, with some imaginative items on the menu - vegetarian shark fin dumplings, or sweet & sour monkey king mushrooms with strawberries.

One good thing about eating out in Hong Kong is that it's easy enough to do it on the cheap: however, posh blowouts are also available if you want them. Nanhai No. 1 is a fancy 30th floor joint near the top of the iSquare mall, which sounds romantic until you get out onto their balcony and discover how strong the winds are at that altitude. You can't argue with the views, and the food is nice enough but expensive for what you get. We have a combination of prawn dumplings, chicken with mango, prawns with chili and bean curd rolls: none of them include rice, and there don't seem to be any options for additional carbs on the menu, so the end result is a little unsatisfactory.

That's not true for the other restaurant we visit in iSquare, though. On paper, Baby Café sounds like a terrible idea: a small chain of diners owned by singer/actress/model/whatever Angelababy, with her face plastered all over them. You'd assume all the energy went into the branding, and none into the food. You would be utterly, utterly wrong. The menu is an unusual fusion of Japanese and Western cuisine, and works incredibly well. We have carrot soup, mango salad, pumpkin and seafood risotti, with a bonus crumble thrown in for afters without warning, and ice tea to finish: the whole meal costs less than a single course at Nanhai No. 1. And the décor works: a stylish black and white theme throughout, and all those pictures of Angelababy's mush aren't exactly going to put you off your food.

Finally, a couple of suggestions for breakfast. Silka Seaview's breakfast offering is nothing special, so we generally eat out at the beginning of the day. On the ground floor of the JD Mall we find a branch of Toast Box, which serves up traditional Singapore style toast and egg options. While over in Mongkok, you could do a lot worse than Shui Wah, which has a whole array of breakfast set menus available. Choose whether you want to go for one of the Western sets with the usual not-quite-right sausages and eggs, or a more local one with fishy noodle soup - either way, the result is a very typical HK experience, and better than just wussing out and getting coffee and toast from a chain caff.

This is not a chawade!We have breakfast in Mongkok on a couple of occasions, for movie-related reasons - either as a prelude to hitting the local DVD discount stores, or fuelling up before a visit to the Broadway Cinema. "The vibrating seats are ready for choosing in House 1-3," boasts the website: however, we're in House 5, a tiny room virtually on the roof of the building. Serves us right for wanting to see a Japanese film rather than a local one: but, you know, we have to, it's Miike. Shield of Straw is one of Takashi Miike's more blatantly commercial offerings, and has a magnificent high-concept premise. The murderer of a child is being transported by police to his trial in Tokyo: however, the child's granddad has offered an insane amount of money to anyone willing to bump off the murderer before he gets to court. Chaos, inevitably, ensues. However, the way in which that chaos develops runs counter to expectations: the action starts off big with someone attempting a ramraid on the police convoy with a lorryload of nitroglycerine, and gradually gets smaller and more personal until it's a battle of wits between four people. You can tell Miike realises it's nonsense, and he plays it for all he's worth anyway: like most of his current movies, it's just too damn long, but there are enough entertaining moments scattered throughout to make it worthwhile.

Rest assured, there will be other movies covered in Year Of The Monkey 2013, and they'll be ones that were made in Hong Kong (for better or worse). Even if the territory's current role in world cinema is a bit fuzzy, its place in film history is assured, largely down to one man: Bruce Lee. On the 40th anniversary of his death, the Hong Kong Heritage Museum in Shatin has built the celebration the man deserves with Bruce Lee: Kung Fu - Art - Life, an exhibition running there until July 2018 (so you've got no excuse for missing it). The Heritage Museum expects this to be a huge long-term draw, so be warned that tickets for this exhibit are for a timed entry and exit slot: we don't spot that detail, so end up being chucked out before we've had chance to examine the final display room. What we see is rather fine, though: a large selection of photos and clips from the whole of his career, including some lovely rare ones from his days as a child actor, as well as extraordinary footage from some dancing roles he had early on. The associated memorabilia is similarly wide-ranging, with some jaw-dropping exhibits showing how his work on The Green Hornet was repackaged after his death to bump up Kato from a supporting role to the star. There's an accompanying documentary film showing in another part of the gallery, The Brilliant Life Of Bruce Lee, which repeats some of the material from the exhibition in an clumsily-edited form but is still worth a watch. If you're lucky, you'll see it like we did with an audience of pensioners, who make an unholy racket whenever an old movie star appears on screen.

There's enough good stuff inside the rest of the Hong Kong Heritage Museum to make it worth an all-day visit. (Useful tip to maximise your time there: don't walk from Shatin station, it'll take you forever. Che Kung Temple MTR is basically just across the river from it. Yes, this is a tip borne out from bitter experience.) The museum has a mixture of permanent and temporary exhibits, so if you go there now you won't see all the things we saw back in September 2013. You should find that TT Tsui's Gallery of Chinese Art is still there, a magnificent collection of antiquities that's exactly what you'd expect a Chinese museum to be like. But by now you've missed the sprawling retrospective dedicated to fashion designer Eddie Lau. If he was just one of Hong Kong's most influential designers, representing his territory on the catwalks of the world whilst also creating the uniforms for its national airline, this exhibit would be impressive enough. But he also had a long-term collaboration with singer Anita Mui, coming up with a huge variety of looks to justify her nickname 'The Ever-Changing Anita Mui'. About half of the floorspace in this exhibit is given over to the dresses he made for Anita before her tragically premature death in 2003, and they're a wonder to behold. Still, you've missed them now, so tough.

With a packed four days worth of culture and sightseeing under our belts, we leave the Silka Seaview at this point and take the MTR over to the Island for our next batch of fun. Somewhere in the distance, there is a low ominous rumble. We ignore it for now.

To be continued

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