Everyone has a happy place. A spot they’re transported to in their mind when they close their eyes and take themselves back in time. It could be triggered by a memory, a scent, perhaps a conversation.
For me it’s a sound; a clanking, whirring of gears with a background hum of chatter in an incomprehensible language, mixed in with car horns and a ‘ding ding’ bell that announces an adventure is about to begin.
My happy place is sitting on top of a skinny tram, rattling sedately along Hong Kong Island, sitting with the windows open as the smells and noises of my favourite Asian city envelope me.
‘Iconic’ and ‘unique’ are two words in travel that are vastly overused. Usually, for every example of something that is supposed to be unique, I can show you five other examples. But Hong Kong’s thin, colourful trams that have been scuttling along since 1904 really are one of a kind.
For the equivalent of 35 US cents (HK$2.6), a Hong Kong tram is the cheapest tour you can get, as you go past stores, restaurants, cafes and bars. There are no finer people-watching opportunities anywhere as office workers dash for coffee, mothers walk children from school and young couples wander hand in hand.
It’s important to grab a seat upstairs, ideally on the front row. Hop on at Sheung Wan and then pass Statue Square and the lions guarding the py Valley — another happy place for me, on Wednesday nights in particular., and onwards to Wan Chai with its noodle shops and buzzing street markets. Continuing down Hennessy Road there’s an abundance of stores and signs advertising everything from the latest designer handbags to hand creams and herbal tonics. Before Causeway Bay, the tram turns right and at the end of the line is Hap
On these evenings from September to July, there’s something magical about Happy Valley as dazzling lights turn on over one of Hong Kong’s two horse race tracks, surrounded by skyscrapers and apartment blocks. Even if you’re not usually a sport fan, a visit here is an absolute must. Nowhere else on earth has as much passion for horse racing, with meetings held here since 1845.
From the grandstand, you can feel the hooves thundering down the dirt track. The roar of 50 thousand people who yell passionately for their horse to pass the winning post first will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Entry starts at the bargain equivalent of US$1.30 (HK$10), you can pay using the same ‘Octopus’ transport card that’s accepted on the tram, and there are plenty of food and drink options at the track. If you’re around at the weekend, a trip to the newer Sha Tin course in the New Territories, which opened in 1978, is just as fun.
Another reason Hong Kong is unique is food, which is of course, a bold claim to make. After all, everyone everywhere eats. But no other world city revolves around food in quite the same way as Hong Kong does, or makes it such a central focus of daily life. I mean New York and Rome are foodie cities. But Hong Kong is unambiguously a city devoted to food around which other facets of daily life turn. You can see it when slurping on a cheap bowl of delicious noodles while sitting on a small plastic chair under a whirring fan as much as in the grandest of Michelin-starred restaurants.
Not that you need to pay a small fortune for the latter. One of my favourite spots is the decidedly wallet-friendly Tim Ho Wan at Level One of the, which is very handy if you’ve just come off the airport train and you’re craving some dim sum. The Sham Shui Po-branch of this budget restaurant has earned a Michelin star. There will probably be a line, but if you haven’t taken a photo of the queue for social media to make your friends back home jealous, have you really been at all? My two cures for jet lag are a quick jog around your hotel and baskets of freshly-steamed shrimp dumplings, barbecued pork buns, and steamed rice rolls with minced beef from here.
But how else to eat well in such a city when the options are almost overwhelming? Well in this modern, connected world almost everyone knows someone who knows someone who lives in Hong Kong, so ask them. There are plenty of food blogs and gastronomic tours out there to search online if you don’t.
Or just wander around neighbourhoods like Sham Shui Po, Kowloon City and Lan Kwai Fong and see what looks busy. Chances are someone in the restaurant will speak English but if necessary just ask a fellow diner or point. And be adventurous. Can you come to Hong Kong and not nibble on chicken’s feet? Who knows, in future just the mere smell of them may take you back to your happy place.