Making head and tail of Hong Kong

I am standing in front of a street food stall in Tung Choi Street North in Kowloon. A neat line of steamed octopus with local seasoning of spices sewed on a stick, a stack of deep-fried squids, crunchy scorpions and once-wriggly earthworms, and shrimps and prawns stare back at me, as the pungent whiff of their meat wrings my nose. Being a vegetarian, I am a mere spectator, but around me is a gastronomic carnival as the vendor hands one dish after another to eager patrons.

Every Sunday, the Kung Fu corner in Kowloon Park turns into a demonstration spot for practitioners of all age groups. Pics/Phorum Dalal

“Do you know what is that one dish you cannot eat in Hong Kong?” Caesar, my new friend in Hong Kong, quizzes me. “Goldfish. Red, white, orange or crimson, it's illegal to savour them here.”

It’s an irony as the street we are at is better known as Goldfish Market. An infinite expanse of fish shops decorates either side of the streets. I squeeze my way into one and find a goldfish swimming in each of the plastic water bags with a little water plant hung precariously on the rack. The fish look distorted, like an image through a magnifying glass - eye popping out wild and the water refracting their colours.

I also spot some crabs, tangerine fish and gouramis, and tanks full of thumb-size turtles. Only Hong Kong - one of the two Special Administrative Regions of the People’s Republic of China - is capable of pulling off such irony in its stride.

A beggar shows off his balancing skill and entertains the crowd in a street in Mong Kong

While I am convinced that there can be no other sight that can surprise me like this one, we have entered Fa Yuen Street, nicknamed Sneakers Street for obvious reasons. Mumbai’s Chor Bazaar was never so organised. A change of terrain, the fish shops have transformed into sneakers. The overall effect is psychedelic, neon pink, yellow, fluorescent orange - all left legs.

As we street-hop, we find ourselves outside an electronic store. Buyers huddle around dealers, shooting questions. However, the real (read illegal) action is outside the shop. Two men seated on chairs, head bent low whisper to passersby. “They will buy your phone, be it in any condition. These are the black market guys, who will retrieve working parts and re-sell them,” whispers Caesar.

Streets, of any city, are where the magic - culture, local spirit and livelihood - comes alive. Be it a signboard of a mahjong shop, a local bar or an eatery, Hong Kong is a riot of colours. The streets turn into a platform not only for beggars with dignity, but upcoming artistes to show of their skills and earn a livelihood. One of Hong Kong’s most popular boy bands also found their first break on the streets.

High-end spots
This is my third day in Hong Kong, but my first taste of the local street culture. Rewind to day one and two, they have been spent in luxury, in the up-market area of Harbour City, Tsim Sha Tsui, welcoming Duck Duck, the inflated rubber duck by Dutch conceptual artist Florentijn Hofman into the South China Sea waters.

With a room on the 12th floor of Marco Polo Hotel, which overlooks the Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong puts its best foot forward here. On this side of the world, brand-conscious, ‘serious’ shoppers queue religiously outside Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Prada stores, waiting their turn to shop to their hearts’ delight. The mall can also be a trekker’s paradise, as it keeps you on your toes, while your heart races from one store to another, hands tugging shopping bags and the mind converting Hong Kong dollars into rupees.

A goldfish shop 

On day three, I walk out of the mouth of five-star luxury and plonk myself into a windowless room of three-star Silka Hotel in Tseun Wan, a bay in New Territories area of Hong Kong. Here on, I turn into a backpacker, with little money, and an inquisitive eye.

Forward to day three, street hopping with Caesar: we end in a dessert café where over a mango soufflé, we pour over the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) map. She scans through my bucket list, passing a frown here and a grin there. And I realise, the Hong Kong-iites, hold the chop sticks like a pen, and a pen like a sword. She scribbles names and circles MTR stops. “You’re on your own now,” she says. Before we part, we pose at a Polaroid photo booth.

On my own
Having travelled alone in many parts of India, internationally, this happens to be my first. With a full balance of 150 HKD in my Oyster card, which is valid on bus, train and taxi, I am raring to go.

A food stall in Goldfish Market, Mong Kong

Satisfied with the streets, I make my way to the Peak, the highest spot in Hong Kong that offers a panoramic view of the city. And to take me there, I have the option of a tram or a city bus. I choose the latter.  From Prince Edward, I take the MTR to Central, and hitch a 45-minute bus ride to the Peak. 

While one entry costs 45 HKD through a mall, there is a quieter view down the road. You’ll be just a few feet lower, but the valley looks just as beautiful. At the Peak, there is a stand called Love from the Peak, which lets you write a love note and tie it to the stand. Call it cheesy if you like, but this spot is also a ‘Propose at the Peak’.

After a day full of site-seeing, it is time to let my hair down, just a little bit. I take a train from Central to Tsim Sha Tsui’s Hollywood Street. Post eight pm, vehicles are not allowed on this toad as it turns into a party street replete with people thronging the restaurants and bars.

A room in Marco Polo Hotel, Tsim Sha Tsui

After a cold beer, a plate of French fries with cheese and a song request, I walk around the streets absorbing the energy, and just watching friends having a good time, feeling thankful for the ones I have back home.

The ‘me-time’ flows into next day, one of the rare Sundays when I am ready by eight am. My first stop today is Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin, one of Hong Kong’s most famous temples. Here, I take part in a very interesting ritual. In a wooden cylinder are sticks with a number on it. As you bow your head and kneel in prayer, I concentrate on one wish, one problem I wish to dissolve from my life. Simultaneously, I shake the flask continuously, till a stick falls out. The number on the stick is my ‘divine’ message that a fortuneteller at the entrance of the temple will translate.

In the mood for some blessings, Chi Lin Nunnery is a 20-minute walk plus an added 30 minutes if you act smart (like me) and decide not to ask for directions. I sweat, huff and puff all the way, but a sudden calmness washes over me when I enter the premise. A hearty lunch of mushrooms, at least five different types, at the nunnery’s vegetarian restaurant opposite is a fitting end to the first half of the day.

By afternoon, I walk into Kowloon Park’s Kung Fu corner to attend a free demonstration of the Chinese martial art. The practitioners included robust five-year-olds to frail 65-year-olds. Not yet ready to end my last day in Hong Kong, Stanley, a peninsular island is my final destination. Here, I unwind. The vast expanse of sea, the tiny boats strung loosely to their anchor, it reminds me of Haruki Murakami’s line from Sputnik Sweetheart that I have been reading on this trip: ‘This is the last day for the person I am right now.’

They say a place will call you back if you leave something undone. Does Hong Kong owe me a revisit? The answer lies in what happens at the fortuneteller. I do receive my divine message, but, when I sit before the mystic lady. But I don’t understand a word she says. “English?” I ask, as she continues to rattle off in Mandarin.

Shopper’s paradise
Ladies Market: This is your destination to bargain, buy cheap but good quality stuff Hollywood Plaza: Adjascent to Diamond Hill MTR station, East Kowloon. Times Square: Situated at Causeway Bay, this is the most fashionable district in Hong Kong

Harbour City mall: Situated on Canton Road in Tsim Sha Shui, this mall offers a wide variety of global brands

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