Welcome to Part 2 of my 1Up Abroad travel blog about my solo week in Hong Kong. If you’re feeling out of place because you haven’t read the first part then you can always go back to where it all began. Otherwise, join me as I decide to actually spend a full day in Hong Kong. More specifically, the Kowloon side.
If I was going to brave the density of Mong Kok and the craziness of the markets, I was going to need the strength of a warrior. And despite having practiced Tae Kwon Do for a couple of years I am no warrior. But I know I guy who is, so I started off my Friday with a visit to martial arts legend Bruce Lee. Or at least a statue of him (the fact that he’s been dead for a while negates any actual hanging out). Normally the statues of him and other Eastern stars live on the Avenue of Stars at the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade. But they’re refurbishing the area, so they’re hiding up near one of the walkways of East Tsim Sha Tsui station, and just a block away from my hotel. Despite the temporary home the setup is actually really nice. The statues looked at home without losing some waterfront views, and there was even a guy decked out in Bruce’s famous yellow jumpsuit sitting around, although he didn’t quite have the same physique as Lee. Most of the other stars represented at the temporary ‘Garden of Stars’ were of Chinese fame, but it’s worth the trip for Bruce alone.
Next was a fifteen minute train ride (with a changeover that was ridiculously fluid, got off one train and there the next was literally waiting as I got off) out to the Kowloon Walled City park. The reason why I was making an effort to go to this particular park was because I find the history of the Walled City incredibly fascinating. I won’t go too in depth (because this isn’t a history blog) but basically the city was a near lawlass mess of homes stacked on homes, with unlicensed dentists, wells because there was no legitimate water supply, and all measures of debauchery (which is one of my favourite words to say aloud) before Hong Kong, Britain and China decided to just knock the whole place down and start again. It’s kind of a dystopic cyberpunk dream come to life – thus explaining my interest.
It’s actually a really nice park, and I suspect that’s what the primary objective was in building it. There’s plenty of greenery to enjoy, a bicycle track to peddle around and room for the various citizens to Tai Chi it up like they do in every park. Hong Kong do some really wonderful parks in general actually, Kowloon Park is well worth spending some time relaxing inside and that’s bang in the middle of Tsim Sha Tsui, as well as the Nan Lian Garden which I’ll be talking about in a later piece. But as a historical location, the Kowloon Walled City park was pretty eh. It started off ‘well’ enough – though with the remains of a stone sign and gate and not with one of those aforementioned wells – but it ended up being a pretty base level history of the city.
There was very little presented here I didn’t already know or couldn’t find with a quick Google, bar a decent little miniature display of how the Walled City looked in its prime, and some older history of the area I wasn’t aware of. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t really worth the trip out just for it. It does lie on the same train line as Nan Lian and the Chi Lin Nunnery, so treating it as a stop on the way to those would lessen the blow. Turns out for a better experience I have to head back to Japan – Kawasaki for whatever reason decided to build a replica of some of the living conditions inside the Walled City at their headquarters for people to enjoy. Not that I need a reason to go back to Japan, but it would have been great if it was in the actual city it happened in. I’m not sure if maybe the Hong Kong Government are a little less than keen to really celebrate the concept, but as a tourist and on and off again history enthusiast I would have loved something like that to properly explore, of at least a little more dedicated to its infamous history. What historical remains were there though was great to see, and it’d serve as a great taster to someone unfamiliar with what went down there.
What wasn’t a disappointment though was the Bird Garden in Mong Kok. I was expecting to treat it as a cute little sidetrack adventure along with the Flower market before delving into the heart of the district, but it ended up being one of the highlights. Old men were walking around with their little birds chirping away in cages – all a uniform shape and yellowy-orange or brownish-orange colour – talking with other old men while the birds chirped away at each other. One half of the area was basically a market, with hundreds of different birds with price tags waiting to go to the right new owner along with other assorted accessories for the men to pimp their cages out, and the other half was for the men to hang their cages up on trees or sit them on benches while people walked past.
It probably doesn’t sound like a riveting time, but it was totally worth the slight walking detour to see, especially if you like birds. They weren’t just typical petstore birds either, they had a Macaw and other more exotic birds if you were willing to make it rain paper. There was a constant buzz with all the birds singing away and ended up being far more interesting than it sounded. The detour also took me through two and a bit blocks of the flower market. If you like flowers, it’s a fun little strip to walk down, and while if you’re a prototypical guy whose interest in flowers goes as far as the girl you’re interested in it probably isn’t worth heading out for alone, you walk through it to get to the Bird Garden so it’s a nice enough walk. It certainly smelled nice enough.
Mong Kok as a whole was a great area to explore. Going in I was expecting what I had seen in the movie ‘one Nite in Mong Kok’, and although I didn’t end up befriending a bubbly but street savy Chinese prostitute who looks like Cecilia Cheung, there was still plenty to see and it never felt unsafe (mind you I did so mostly in the middle of the day, so take that as you will). Really it felt like a more interesting version of Tsim Sha Tsui. Taller buildings, more signage and more importantly less hawkers trying to get you in to buy a custom suit. All of the above are positives in my book, especially when day became night and the neon began to glow.
The Ladies Market and Temple Street Night Markets I feel can be lumped together. Now I can’t really tell the difference between the quality of genuine fake handbags and watches, but most of the stock between these two markets were interchangeable. The Ladies Market was a bit more dense, but the main advantage of the Night Market was that there was a lot more food surrounding the area for you to consume. That’s not the say you’d go hungry at the Ladies Market, but the various street food vendors and shopfronts littering the surrounding Temple Street area felt like a part of the broader market.
In reality the Ladies Market just felt like a more condensed and narrow version of the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne. You’d see the typical souvenirs, city speific T-shirts and cheap toys. It’s well worth visiting, but unless you’re after a watch, handbag or the things mentioned above, you’re really just going for the atmosphere – which as long as you don’t mind being stuck in crowds you’ll enjoy (and if that’s the case…what the hell are you doing in Hong Kong?). Though as someone who keeps an eye on the Lego scene I found their imitation Lego set hilariously on point with the real things. Obviously the brand was different, but these were some real genuine fakes. Some people will walk out with bags full, but even if you don’t it’s a part of the Mong Kok world really.
I was keeping an eye out for any NBA jerseys while I was there. I’d be fine with rocking a genuine fake Hong Kong market jersey if the price was right, but only one place was showing off any stock. Wall to wall jerseys (and yes there was a John Wall jersey there) certainly stopped me in my tracks, though the guy made little effort to pounce on my curiosity. Unfortunately they had no Anthony Davis or Demarcus Cousin jerseys, and the Steph Curry jersey they had wasn’t in my size (shocker). So I didn’t get to try my hand at the traditional haggle, which would have been necessary since he quoted me around $270 HKD or $500 for two (which equates to roughly $58 and $100 – you can get better deals for basically the same fakes back in Launceston). That wasn’t the last I’d see of basketball though, walking around Mong Kok that night I ran across an outdoor court where people were playing. It wasn’t quite Brooklyn or Rucker Park but I’ll watch just about any level of basketball, and I love the thought of playing of an evening in the middle of a city like that.
I’ll be honest, at this point of the trip I’m basically navigating through Tsim Sha Tsui by the store signage hanging from the buildings rather the various street and alley names. It doesn’t always work… I thought I was near my hotel until I turned a corner and saw giant flashing sign saying “Sex Toys L2”. That’s when I knew I had taken a wrong turn or two. The funny thing? I was actually only a block away from my hotel, I just had taken the long way round. I was still doing this to the last night, but I begun to learn where I was going by then.
There is certainly the odd advantage to being a solo traveller, and it extends beyond the fact you don’t have to accommodate other people into your random plans to suddenly head down a street for three blocks because it looks interesting. My plan for that night was to enjoy the Symphony of Lights show and then wander the Temple Street Night Market, and on that night I ended up chatting with two separate people from out of nowhere (and these random chats became something of a recurring pattern of the trip). Both of these only really happened because I (and they) were running solo at the time. The first was as I was waiting for the light show on the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade, when a lady came up to me appropros of nothing and asked if I was there on my own.
Are your red flags going up too? We’ve all heard the stories: Women preying on men dumb enough to walk the streets alone at night, and here I was in short sleeves, practically asking for it. Turns out she was on holiday from the Philippines visiting a cousin, but was out on her own that night and when she saw another random person on their own, thought she’d come say hello and have some company while watching the light show over Victoria Harbour.
I’m awkward enough around new people in general, and I’ll be honest I was kind of on edge the whole time we hung out. Mainly because I spent the whole time trying to work out what was actually going on. Now I’m capable of reading, but I am illiterate when it comes to flirting. A girl can hold up a sign saying that she ‘likes me’ and I’d be wondering “but does she ‘like me’ like me?”. I wasn’t sure if she was just being friendly, was maybe trying her luck at a heck of a ‘guess how we met’ story, or was maybe just looking for a bit of fun – either with or without me paying. Of course I had read just before the trip that some Filipinos would work in Hong Kong and go find guys to make a bit of extra money on the side with through some ‘adult happenings’. So we chatted for a bit while we waited for the show, and some of the conversation was perfectly innocent “Have you been to Victoria Peak yet” type stuff, and others raised the flag a little higher (“Where abouts are you staying? What are you up to after the show?”).
After the show was done, she ended up asking if I was still heading out to the night market, then waved goodbye and we went our separate ways. I think she was just being genuinely friendly with no ulterior motive (which is great), but there’s always the chance she felt I was a lost cause. Did she figure when I said I had just finished university I wouldn’t have the money, or was I just not interesting enough to push the night any further? I wouldn’t blame her whatever her final thoughts ended up being but it worked out well enough for me, because then I could just go about the night without trying to connect the dots.
The second random friend I ended up making was over dinner (it’s not what you think…). After exploring the Temple Street Night Markets I was on the hunt for some food, and after sampling some street food – some roast duck and beef on skewers that the guy kept warning me was ‘really spicy’ so I didn’t try them until I was out of his sight in case my claims that I could handle them backfired spectacularly (it wasn’t ‘that’ spicy all things considered) – I found a little noodle joint and had some shrimp wanton soup that tickled my fancy. There was a vertiable host of places to pick from around Temple Street, but here I was at this one.
As I waited for my serving to be brought out, the guy across from me was trying to figure out what was in one of the containers on the table. As he went to taste test it I mentioned to him that it seemed the waiter was trying to translate it on the phone for him (I was right, go me!) and he straight away asked if I was Australian, thus answering long-standing question of “is my accent obvious?”. We ended up talking in between scooping our dinner into our mouths (I swear every question was asked as the other was in mid bite/slurp). He was from Fiji and really nice, although it was kind of awkward talking from across several tables in the middle of a restaurant, even if there was only another couple in there.
Despite the fact those kinds of conversations and encounters drain me socially (an introverted writer? No way!) I was glad for the experience. Being on my own for a week with no chance of randomly bumping into someone I know (which is basically mandatory if you go outside back home) I do tend to miss being able to just talk. The first two days were filled with conversation, and it seemed every other day I was making a new friend, be it traveller or local. And it was really only possible by stepping out and seeing the world for myself. Not to say the group experience is bad by any means – my best memories of Japan heavily involve the people I was there with – but I know I wouldn’t of ended up talking to these people unless I was there on my own. Just like being able to explore the laneways and “non-tourist streets” by yourself let you see parts of the city you might not otherwise, you never know what you’re missing out on.
So I survived Mong Kok, but my daytrip to Macau didn’t go quite as smoothly. What went on in the Vegas of the East? Find out in Part 3 of 1Up Abroad Hong Kong!