From the glitzy lights of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour to Taipei’s jam-packed night market, East Asia is a vibrant mix for the senses — like an arbiter of cool with a kick of nostalgia.
This is where old meets new, where East and West still mingle, and the thriving metropoles jut up against contemplative calm.
More than 20 years have passed since Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of China, ending about 150 years of British rule.
Remnants of colonial times aren’t hard to find — signs are in English and Chinese, nearly every downtown street has double-decker buses on it and sites like the former Central Police Station (now home to a trendy arts and heritage centre) harken back to the city’s Commonwealth days.
Like many world-class cities, there are plenty of different areas to explore. And the Sham Shui Po and Shek Kip Mei districts, chock full of street markets with clothing, electronics and trinkets give me another sense of the city’s hustle and bustle. Plus, there’s a hint of hipster gentrification. The studios and shops in the Jockey Club Creative Art Centre — a factory in its former life and now the city’s largest art centre — show off some more artisanal goods. And in between my browsing expeditions I fuel up at two places recommended in the Michelin Guide.
My first stop’s at the Kung Woo Beancurd Factory, where I try the popular tofu pudding. And after exploring the area a bit more, my friends and I stop for dim sum at Tim Ho Wan. Be warned — you’ll likely have to line up to get a table, but that’s because this Michelin-starred resto serves up delicious noodle soup, dumplings and buns at affordable prices.
The central part of the Old Town is another great area to visit. The world’s longest, outdoor covered escalator system makes it easy to navigate the steep climb of the neighbourhood and to jump off at any point to check out the side streets.
The previously mentioned former Central Police Station is here. It’s an oasis away from the cacophony of the busy streets and home to a contemporary art gallery, restaurants such as the Old Bailey (don’t be fooled by the name, this mainly organic resto features Jiangnan cuisine with contemporary touches), and a prison museum.
Hollywood Road, the fashionable main drag in the area, boasts of colourful street art, a cool hidden bar called the Stockton, and Man Mo Temple — the 1847 complex built as a tribute to the God of Literature (Man) and the God of War (Mo). Walking into the heavily incensed temple is like walking back in time and it’s amazing how seamless the transition is from modern day commercialism to a more mystical and ornate sanctuary.
One of the best Buddhist sites in Hong Kong is on top of the Ngong Ping Plateau on Lantau Island. I take the glass-bottom cable car up a 5.7 kilometre climb and the panoramic views over the South China Sea, the mountains and the city are spectacular.
Although the area at the top is undoubtedly touristic, it’s still remarkable and feels somewhat remote nestled in the green mountains. The main attractions — both visible from the cable car — are the Big Buddha, which at 23 metres high is the second-biggest outdoor bronze Buddha statue in the world, and the Po Lin Monastery, which was built in 1924.
The bronze Buddha statue of Lord Gautama took 12 years to make and was completed in 1993. I climb the 268 steps to get a closer look at the spiritual icon and some of the beautiful statues on the terrace. There’s a fantastic view of the countryside and surrounding mountains from this vantage point. And I visit the small museum, which has a large bell (that rings 108 times a day, to symbolise what Buddhists see as the 108 afflictions that affect people), paintings and plaques of the Buddha’s life and teachings in the aptly named halls of the Universe, Benevolent Merit and Remembrance.
If the names alone don’t make you feel virtuous, a visit to the monastery complex across the way surely will. Despite the crowds, giant sticks of burning incense create a tranquil atmosphere, before reaching the temple and surrounding buildings, which are all traditionally crafted with colourful painting and natural stone sculptures.
Lingering in the area I’m struck by how green Hong Kong is and reminded that there’s more to the city than the core. The overall area covers 1,106 square-kilometres, including about 260 islands, and less than 25 per cent of the land is actually developed.
Lofty vantage point
Another easy place to escape the city is at the Peak. I take the tram, which opened in 1888 for the exclusive use of the British governor and the area’s few residents, to the top of the viewing area. The steep climb rises about 430 metres and gives me a stunning view of the celebrated cityscape below. Afterwards, I go for a peaceful cliff-side walk on the path by Lugard Road.
Having enjoyed the city from afar it was time to feel the full-on, neon-tastic vibe of Hong Kong and so I head to the Ocean Terminal Deck. The 270-degree panoramic view is stunning especially at 8 p.m. when the Symphony of Lights laser show highlights the skyscrapers’ facades across the water. Luckily, Fu Rong restaurant has a deck that pairs the stunning view with mouth-watering contemporary Sichuan dishes and so I indulge my tastebuds and feast my eyes over the harbour a little longer.
About 800 kilometres northwest of Hong Kong (a short plane ride away) the views are quite different, but no less impressive from Taipei 101. The 509-metre-high skyscraper, built to resemble a bamboo plant was the tallest building in the world when it was completed in 2003 (today it ranks as the 10th tallest).
In just 37 seconds, the elevator shoots me to the observatory level on the 89th floor and I see the whole city and the countryside beyond sprawled out in front of me.
The city itself seems a bit more mellow than Hong Kong. Granted, with 2.7-million people compared with Hong Kong’s 7.3 million, everything is on a smaller scale.
Of course, Taiwan’s history is different too. It was under Japanese rule between 1895 and 1945. And its identity has been mired in ambiguity since the late 1940s, when China’s defeated Nationalist government, under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, fled to the island as the Communists swept to power on the mainland. Under his Kuomintang (KMT) party martial law was declared in Taiwan between 1948 and 1987.
Taiwan has many characteristics of an independent state and is today recognized as such by a handful of countries. (Mainland China insists nations can’t have official relations with China and Taiwan.) It’s run by President Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, who was elected in 2016. However, Taiwan, which is also known as the Republic of China, is seen by mainland China as a breakaway province.
Despite the ambiguity, Taiwan is one of Asia’s success stories (it ranks 23rd in the world in terms of gross domestic product, according to the International Monetary Fund). It has a fantastic countryside, a mouth-watering food scene and the world’s best collection of Chinese art.
Art for emperors
The latter is thanks to Kai-shek who brought more than 600,000 artworks and artifacts spanning thousands of years with him when he fled mainland China. Today the pieces that once belonged to Chinese emperors are housed in Taiwan’s National Palace Museum.
There are paintings, bronzes and endless curios… I took a guided tour of the highlights just to get a sense of it all. Bizarrely, one of the most popular pieces is a white/green jadeite carving of a cabbage with a grasshopper and a locust.
To learn a bit more about Kai-shek, I visit the massive shrine built to commemorate the man who, for better or worse, was Taiwan’s first president and ruled the republic for about 25 years until his death in 1975.
The memorial hall sits in the centre of a grand plaza and the site boasts of some of the largest examples of classical Chinese architecture (though it was completed in the 1980s).
The hall has an exhibit outlining Kai-shek’s life. There’s also a small, albeit popular, changing of the guard ceremony in front of a giant bronze statue of the Generalissimo every hour.
Urban and traditional
While the big sites are impressive, so too are some of the more subtle gems in and around Taipei. The Songshan Culture and Creative Park showcases crafty and artisanal pieces in exhibitions, studios and shops. Longshan Temple, which traces its roots to a 1653 shrine, is one of the most famous Buddhist temples in Taiwan. And the historic Datong district boasts of a mix of dried food stores, a puppet theatre museum and some trendy shops and cafes.
Taipei is known as one of Asia’s culinary gems and mainly features a mix of Chinese and Japanese foods. There are about 126 Michelin restaurants in the city where Bubble Tea was created. Plus, there’s a very lively street food culture too.
The Shilin Night Market dates back to 1910 and is the city’s biggest market. People come for the massive area of food stalls, although there’s also a mix of clothing and bric-a-brac as well.
Open roughly between 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. the streets, alleys and underground food court overflows with heaps of people eating everything from oyster omelettes to stinky tofu. The choices and selection are endless in this nightly smorgasbord…
That said, one of my favourite meals is in Hualien, in the countryside on the east coast of Taiwan. Members of the Amis tribe, one of 16 officially recognized groups of Taiwanese aboriginals, at the Cidal Hunter School teach my group and I about their culture and connection with nature. And they make a delicious meal — a soup made from hot rocks, fish, eggplant and greens from the area all served on plates made from natural taro leaves.
The countryside is beautiful — whether you’re hiking Taroko Gorge, visiting the colourful Eternal Spring Shrine, which commemorates the 226 people who died building the Central Cross Island Highway, or cruising along the coast where the spectacular Qingshui Cliff drops 1,000 metres to the Pacific Ocean.
The rural area, which is also home to the Tropic of Cancer marker and several tea plantations, is lush and dramatic and much like the city of Taipei and Hong Kong it leaves me wishing I had just a bit more time to explore it all.
The writer was a guest of the Hong Kong and Taiwan Tourism Boards and flew on Hong Kong Airlines. The organizations did not review this article.