Hong Kong: a city of skyscrapers and endless shopping possibilities. A place where every square metre comes at an exorbitant price and where a constant stream of pedestrians is battling to cross the road 24 hours a day.
People looking for Asian mystic and traditions have no place in Hong Kong. Or do they? I wanted to know if there were was still such a thing as “Hong Kong culture” and if there were still any Hong Kong traditions left in what is known as one of the most modern Asian metropolises. I’m glad to say there are!
The most popular traditions of Hong Kong
1. Yum Cha
Ah, dim sum, you small bite-sized portions of heaven! Served in a steamer basket, these truly tasty dishes are usually served for breakfast or lunch. Early morning the elderly come together in one of the many teahouses to celebrate the tradition of “yum cha”. They drink tea, have a few dim sum, read the morning paper and socialize. You should definitely join them in one of the many dim sum parlours around Hong Kong!
Order at the counter or wait for the rolling cart to pass. One bamboo steamer usually holds 3 or 4 items of the same, so going for dim sum is nicer if you are a small group, that way you can share and sample more dishes.
The dim sum are traditionally accompanied by tea. Again, you’ll be spoilt for choice, but jasmine tea or black tea seems to be the most popular choices.
If you are overwhelmed by it all, it might be a good idea to go on a Hong Kong food tour first.
2. Tai chi in the park
I had a go at Tai Chi once, on a forlorn evening in Belgium. I was a bit baffled by it all and didn’t really get it, but let’s face it, maybe a cold classroom wasn’t the best place to try it out. I was looking forward to a second chance in Hong Kong.
In case you’ve never heard of it, Tai Chi is a Chinese form of martial arts that consists of very slow movements and deep breathings, ideal for meditation purposes and loosening up. The tourist board of Hong Kong organizes sessions for westerners several times a week, which is probably a great place to join in, but I preferred to see the locals “at work”. Watching them move around graciously in Kowloon Park or near Victoria Harbour, accompanied by soothing, meditative music, became part of my morning ritual.
It was great to see that amidst the chaos, there were people taking time to greet the day, to wake up mindfully, loosening up the limbs at the same time!
3. Observe traditional Hong Kong in the small temples
The most famous temples of Hong Kong (Wong Tai Sin, Man Mo, Chi Lin, …) aren’t always a haven of serenity. As beautiful as they might be, they are usually pretty crowded with snapping travellers.
There are however a few places that see very little visitors. Take the off-the-beaten path in Hong Kong and head for Tai Ping Shan street, in the Sheung Wan area. It is home to a few small temples like the Kwun Yam Temple, and ancestral halls where the hanging incense coils and lack of people add to the mystical and mesmerising atmosphere.
The Pak Tai Temple in the district of Wan Chai and the nearby small pagoda are definitely worth the detour too! Take a while to observe the rituals performed by the locals: the offerings, incense burning, fortune tellers, … it’s all very intriguing!
4. Roam the wet markets
No shortage of markets in Hong Kong! From birds to goldfish markets, from clothes to Mao-memorabilia, you can find everything and more in this vibrant city! But my favourite places were the wet markets where the fresh produce is sold. It’s a pretty bloody affair of pork hooks and cut-off fish heads, but definitely interesting to see where the local housewives shop for food!
There are a lot of wet markets in Hong Kong; I particularly enjoyed strolling around Sham Shui Po, Graham Street and Cheung Yeung Street, where the tram passes in the middle of the market. Late afternoon it’s one of the busiest spots in Hong Kong! Traditional Hong Kong at its best!
5.The stilt houses of Tai O
Lantau island is famous for the Big Buddha and the Lantau Peak hike, but take some time to check out the fishing village of Tai O, on the west coast of Lantau island. A few streets lined with dry seafood shops lead you to the heart of the village: the stilt houses. Seeing these precarious and dilapidated houses built on the water is a great change from the madness of modern Hong Kong! Get comfortable at one of the waterfront cafés and take it all in! You can even rent a small boat which will allow you to see the stilt houses from the water.
While there, don’t forget to take a look at the Tai O Market, where locals come to do their daily shop. Live seafood tanks, dried seafood, shrimp paste, vegetables and a few unrecognizable items make for a pleasant stroll.
Tai O is very popular with visitors, so it might be a good idea to go early in the morning to avoid the crowds.
6. Filipino Sunday
If you are in Hong Kong on a Sunday, you might wonder what all these women are doing having a picnic in the park, on an underpass and even below bridges. This is how the Filipino domestic helpers make the most of their weekly day off. They take over every public space that can hold a group of people and enjoy an array of dishes, the latest gossip and each other’s company. They are very eager to share, even with curious strangers like me who was wondering what was going on!
I was glad to see that a lot of Hong Kong traditions have survived in such a modern metropolis. Have you been to Hong Kong? Which did you enjoy the most: traditional Hong Kong or the modern side of the city?