It’s one of the world’s most popular stopover destinations. A major trading hub and financial centre with a modern skyline studded with more skyscrapers than anywhere else on earth.
But beyond the gleaming high rises and glitzy shopping malls, there’s much more to Hong Kong than first meets the eye.
In fact, dive beneath the surface of this Asian metropolis and you’ll discover attractions that are considered under-the-radar even by locals.
From sorcery and snake soup, to abandoned houses and unexplored offshore hikes; ditch your guidebook and read on for 12 Hong Kong experiences that go way off the tourist trail.
INDULGE IN SOME HOCUS POCUS
Looking to get back at a scheming ex? Boss at work causing you strife? If there’s someone in your life that’s in need of a bit of payback, in Hong Kong you can hire a very special kind of hit woman to make sure they get their comeuppance. Meet the “villain hitter”.
Also know as “da siu yan” or “petty person beating”, these (usually) old women practice a form of sorcery or “voodoo” derived from ancient Chinese folk magic. Employed by those in search of vengeance, the enemy hexing ritual essentially involves the woman violently beating a paper representation of your enemy to a pulp with an old shoe, all the while muttering a series of incantations.
Expedia’s (expedia.com.au) Hidden Gems of Old Hong Kong island tour covers some of the best off-the-beaten-path destinations in the city, including petty person beating.
GET YOUR KICKS OFFSHORE
Think of Hong Kong and you think of crowded high rises, so it may come as some surprise that 90 per cent of land is actually rural.
Yep, for all its neon and glitz, Hong Kong has some of the best urban hiking in the world. And with some 230 outlying islands, there’s a serene beach, scenic hike or fishing village never more than a hop, skip and a ferry ride away.
First-timers can’t go past Lamma Island. A mere 30-minute ferry ride from the hustle and bustle of downtown; the car-free roads, quaint villages, and picturesque hiking trails of Hong Kong’s “hippy” island are a world away from the big smoke.
EXPLORE THE ‘GHOST ISLAND’
Given how densely populated Hong Kong Island is, the idea of vacant, unused space is hard to fathom, yet weirdly many of the afore mentioned islands are unoccupied. For visitors, one in particular is worth a visit for a peek into the past.
Accessed by a short 15-short minute boat rides from the seaside town of Sai Kung in the eastern part of the New Territories, Yim Tin Tsai (also known as “ghost island”) is a tiny, lush, green island that is peppered with decomposing homes.
Deserted by villagers during the 1990s when the local salt farming industry began to decline, these eerily abandoned houses are ripe for exploring. Venture into one and you’ll still see their belongings in various states of disrepair, with rotting beds, old fashioned kitchen stoves, Mah Jong sets, broken Buddha statues, and old bottles, all eerily rising out of the rubble.
HUNT FOR TREASURE AND VISIT AN ANCIENT TOMB
If you want to get a glimpse of a working class, unpolished Hong Kong of yesteryear, then Sham Shui Po is the place to go. Not only is this neighbourhood no-frills authentic, it’s also where you can see very gradual gentrification taking place with the odd hipster cafe or quirky boutique opening up next to at traditional wet markets or street food stall.
Keen-eyed magpies will want to hit up the grungy flea market on Apliu Street.
Held daily, the street is lined with hawkers selling literally everything. The embodiment of the adage that one person’s trash is another’s treasure, amid the piles of rubbish there’s real potential to find a genuine antique or two.
From treasure to tombs; this historic hood is also home to the 2,000-year-old Le Cheng Uk Han tomb. Visitors are no longer allowed inside, but you can view it through a glass panel.
Walk in Hong Kong (walkin.hk) offer personalised guided tours of the area.
FIND A CURE FOR WHAT AILS YOU
Though one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Asia, Chinese beliefs are still very much part of day-to-day life in Hong Kong. This can be seen nowhere better than at a Traditional Chinese Medicine (or “TCM”) shop.
Dating back some 5,000 years, for the uninitiated the ancient practice utilises acupuncture, cupping therapy and herbs to achieve balance. You’ll likely smell some of these stores before you see them, thanks to their pungent wares comprising a Harry Potter-like array of potions and herbs, with bottles and boxes of plants and dried insects, lizards, seahorses and scorpions.
If you’ve got the stomach for it trialling a concoction is an experience. Head to third generation shop, Good Spring Company, in Central which has been dishing up cure-alls since 1906.
Wanderlust Walks (wanderlustwalkshongkong.com) run bespoke tours around the area that include a visit to this medicinal stalwart.
BRAVE THE BIZARRE
Speaking of strong stomachs, if you’re equipped with one then make like a local and give some of the favoured “delicacies” a whirl.
Cow offal (braised in soy until tender), pig intestine (fried until crisp on the outside and skewered with a dollop of sweet sauce on top), and chicken feet (also called “phoenix talons”) are beloved by Hongkongers.
But perhaps the most unusual culinary adventure is snake soup. Believed to help ward off colds and other maladies, snake meat is medicinal as well as tasty. Head to Shai Wong Hip to try it for a bowl — or even a dose of snake gallbladder wine, if you’re feeling extra adventurous.
SEND AN IPHONE OR DESIGNER BAG TO YOUR DEARLY DEPARTED
If you feel that a family member who has passed on may be missing out on the latest iPhone upgrade, or perhaps the latest designer IT bag, then there is something you can do to ensure they don’t suffer afterlife FOMO.
Thanks largely to its separation from China during the Cultural Revolution, Hongkongers tend to have more traditional beliefs — and to be more superstitious — than their mainland cousins. Case in point: the belief that ancestors still need money and material goods in the netherworld. As such, ‘joss paper’ items are burned in order to be sent to the other side.
Offerings used to be confined to traditional gold bars and cash (called “hell money”), but these days demanding ghosts are being sent houses, cars, toiletries, iPhones, McDonald’s Happy Meals, and Gucci handbags.
To see these and more head to Po Wah Paper Crafting store in Sham Shui Po where every conceivable item is turned into a paper effigy destined for the beyond.
SEE HONG KONG’S SEEDY SIDE
Though often super-clean and super-efficient, the city still has a seedy side. After all, given that the city was essentially build on drugs (the Brits took control after what as dubbed the First Opium War), Hong Kong has had a murky side since its creation.
Today there are several major red light districts, but Wan Chai is probably the most infamous. A base for Hong Kong’s sex workers since the early 1900s (prostitution is legal but brothels are not) and on its neon-lit streets you can still spy a working girl touting for trade.
But the focus is changing, these days it’s going from seedy to scene-y, with foodie hot spots opening and more mainstream nightlife, outside of the girlie bars. There’s also a swag of happy hour deals that can stretch from the afternoon well into the wee hours of the morning. This is grimy hedonism at its best.
ROLL IN A ROLLS
Little known fact: Hong Kong loves luxury and has more Rolls Royces per capita than anywhere else in the world. And for luxury-lovers who have a bit of extra cash to splash (given the wad of cash you’ve saved by being a frugal foodie you can afford to splurge a bit after all), then a check in at The Peninsula — which offers Rolls Royce airport transfers — is the way to go.
A staple in the city since 1928, the grand old “Pen” owns 14 Brewster Green Rolls Royce Phantoms for airport transfers and guest hire. It may cost more than 10 times the train fare (a one-way trip is around $300), but the feeling of travelling like a rock star in this roomy ride is priceless.
EAT MICHELIN STARRED FOOD FOR NEXT TO NIX
Champagne taste on a beer budget? If you’d like to be chauffeured in the afore mentioned Rolls but don’t have the bank balance to facilitate it, don’t worry. In Hong Kong, you can eat like a like a prince on a pauper’s pay packet. While there’s a slew of fine dining restaurants, on the streets you can grab a Michelin-starred dish for next to nix.
With one star to its name, Kam’s Roast Goose serves one of the city’s favourite meats in the best way possible: tender and topped with crispy skin.
While 90-plus-year-old, Kau Kee, scored a coveted nod for its beef brisket noodles that’ll leave you change from $5. But for the ultimate in cheap Michelin-starred eats, hit up Tim Ho Wan (timhowan.com). Its barbecued pork buns (char siu bao) were named the cheapest Michelin-starred dish on the planet.
SOAK IN THE SERENITY
It’s one of the busiest cities in the world, but even in Hong Kong you can find small pockets of peace, or in the case of Tsz Shan Monastery (tszshan.org), a very large one.
Opened two years ago to serious fanfare (it cost a staggering $400 million, after all) this 500,00-square-foot Buddhist sanctuary needs to be seen to be believed. Housing three 24-carat gold-plated Buddhist statues, a 76-metre-high bronze statue of the goddess of mercy, Guan Yin, a meditation path and a “brilliance pond”, it’s the perfect destination to get some Zen and balance out any city slicker excesses.