I Heart My City: Daisann’s Hong Kong

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Award-winning journalist and frequent National Geographic Traveler contributor Daisann McLane (on Twitter @Daisann_McLane) began her love affair with Hong Kong back in 2001, on assignment for The New York Times. She returned to the city again and again over the ensuing years, eventually settling there full-time in 2010. “As a New Yorker, I fell in love with Hong Kong easily, because the two cities have a similar density and energy,” McLane says.

Soon after her move, she launched Little Adventures in Hong Kong, a bespoke food- and walking-tour company. “[I wanted to help] other people do what it had taken me years of experience as a travel writer to learn: Figure out the city. Understand its culture. Discover real Hong Kong food,” she says.

McLane now heads a team of seven distinguished local foodies and journalists­­, a “hive mind” of experts who ensure her guests are plugged into Hong Kong like an insider. Here she shares a few of her favorite things about the city she’s proud to call her second home.

Hong Kong Is My City

When someone comes to visit me, the first place I take them is for a ride on one of the city’s historic tram cars. It’s worth spending a day hopping on and off to explore the entire length of the line, but if pressed for time, I would at least take the tram from the skyscraper­-filled downtown out to the dried seafood and herbal markets in Sheung Wan. It’s a way to see both old and new Hong Kong in a short hop.

October through April is the best time to visit my city because it’s cooler and drier.

You can see my city best from the open, unused waterfront dockyards in Kennedy Town. Go during sunset for the chill local vibe.

Locals know to skip The Big Buddha and touristy cable cars and check out Cheung Chau island instead.

The LockCha teahouse, located in the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Wareis the place to buy authentic souvenirs, including fine Chinese teas and surprisingly affordable fine porcelain tea sets.

In the past, notable people like political leader Ho Chi Minh, novelist José Rizal, and writer Eileen Chang have called my city home.

My city’s best museum is the Tenement Museum at the Mei Ho House­ because it is actually an old public housing estate where you can experience how locals once lived.

If there’s one thing you should know about getting around my city, it’s to buy a reusable electronic Octopus Card, which will not only gain you access to any form of public transport—from ferries to buses to light-rail—it can also work as cash in a 7-Eleven or Starbucks.

The best place to spend time outdoors in my city is to discover Hong Kong’s superb network of hiking trails and wilderness parks. Trek to deserted beaches like Tai Long Wan and you’ll swear you are in Thailand.

My city really knows how to celebrate Christmas because our shopping malls and commercial areas are even more elaborately decorated than New York City’s! Revelers and carolers flock to downtown streets and count down to midnight on Christmas Eve.

You can tell if someone is from my city if they speak Cantonese. It’s Hong Kong’s marvelous, expressive lingua franca, the Italian to mainland China’s German ­­and, with eight tones, one of the most difficult languages to master in the world.

For a fancy night out, I indulge in my city’s latest craze—super-cool craft-cocktail bars like The Chinnery or Butler.

Just outside my city, you can visit Macau. Skip the gambling areas and head straight to chilled-out Coloane Island, where you can stay at a luxury hilltop hotel or, for local flavor, in the Three Lamps District. Don’t miss the delicious Burmese noodle shops in the latter.

My city is known for being cold and brusque, but it’s reallygam ching”—­­sentimental and warm with incredible loyalty. A Hong Kong friend is a true one.

The best outdoor market in my city is the open-air “wet” market in Shau Kei Wan. It’s strictly business and very local. I also love wandering the old wholesale fruit market in Yau Ma Tei in Kowloon, which comes to life only after midnight.

Any trade coffeeshop (we call them cha chaan tengs), such as Sheung Wan’s For Keeis my favorite place to grab breakfast, and Sun Hing dim sum in Kennedy Town is the spot for late­-night eats. We’re talking really late at night, as it opens at 3 a.m.

To find out what’s going on at night and on the weekends, read HK Magazine for English speakers, and Ming Pao for Chinese speakers.

When I’m feeling cash­ strapped, I pick up a bottle or two of craft beer, hop the bus to Shek O beach, and sit seaside. (In Hong Kong, you always feel cash ­strapped. It’s the most expensive city in Asia.)

To escape the crowds, I hop on a ferry to a nearby island or go hiking in the New Territories around Fanling or through ancient Chinese villages.

The dish that represents my city best is roast pork or wonton noodles, and milk tea is my city’s signature drink. Sample them at Mak An Kee on Wing Kut Street and the Kam Wah coffee shop in Wan Chai, respectively.

Occupy Hong Kong could only have happened in my city. For 79 days, spearheaded by Hong Kong students, hundreds of thousands of citizens peacefully took over a whole section of town to show their support for full electoral democracy in the city. They created a huge carefree space of campgrounds, study halls, art exhibits, and nightly entertainment and discussion. It was an extraordinary outpouring of civic soul, and a demonstration of Hong Kong’s independent and indomitable spirit.

In the spring you should go hiking­­. It’s the best time of year to hit the trails, especially the challenging Wilson Trail in the hilly New Territories.

In the summer you should live the beach life and head for fabulous alfresco seafood in Sai Kung or Clear Water Bay.

In the fall you should enjoy Hong Kong’s sweetest event, the Mid-Autumn Festival. Pass as a local by spreading out a blanket in the parks under the full moon.

In the winter you should eat snake soup, a traditional Cantonese dish that is believed to warm the body in cold weather. Try it at Seh Wong Lam in Sheung Wan.

If you have kids (or are a kid at heart), you won’t want to miss Hong Kong’s big fireworks displays­­. We do it best, and not one, but four times a year!

The best book about my city is … It’s hard to pick just one! However, my two favorites are Love in a Fallen City—a collection of short stories by Eileen Chang, a modern Chinese writer who has been called the “Voice of Hong Kong”—and Martin Booth’s memoir, Gweilo, which beautifully captures the Hong Kong of the 1960s through the eyes of an expat British boy. (For a glimpse of how that era looked to a Chinese boy, read the lovely Diamond Hill by local author Feng Chi-Shun, who describes his hardscrabble childhood in Kowloon slums.)

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