THE TIMES Hong Kong has earned a gaudy reputation as a metropolis where consumption is nothing if it’s not conspicuous. China’s new emperors of bling revel in flashing the Yuan and deliver master classes in glitz. Fortunately, for a city so obsessed with economic might, it’s still possible for those with more modest monetary means to visit without stir-frying their finances. This is the way to do the city on a budget without skimping on style.
Easily the best bargains in Hong Kong are to be found dining out. There’s a dazzling variety of restaurants and cuisines at affordable prices. At the top end Lung Keen Heen at the Four Seasons boasts three Michelin stars and unexpectedly modest prices for such luxury, ranging from £15 to £60 – comparable to some also-ran restaurants in London.
But the most exciting deal is found in Mong Kok or Prosperous Point; that’s something of an oxymoron, the area is traditionally working class and in places pretty grotty. Nevertheless chef Mak Pui-Gor is proprietor of the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant anywhere on the planet. Tim Ho Wan (it means Add Good Luck) is a hole in the wall dim sum restaurant with one Michelin star. A top price of HK$50 – about £3.90, that’s not a misprint – per dish ensures a blow-out feast for little more than a splurge in MacDonalds.
House specialities include pig liver cheung fun noodle, meat balls, turnip pudding and bite-size cha siu baau (sweet pastry buns stuffed with pork that are little short of sensational and cost less than an latte at Starbucks). Steamed dumplings chiu chow style and egg cakes have got critics salivating; the prawn dishes and delicate jellies strewn with flower petals superb. It alone makes the trip to Hong Kong worth the price of the airfare. Think of it as ‘food off-setting’.
Rooms with views
Decent accommodation on Hong Kong Island is notoriously difficult to find at a reasonable price. An unlikely bargain comes from Gallic style maven Andree Putman. She’s created a sophisticated serviced apartment block near Soho with large beautifully furnished flats, equivalent to a generous suite, starting at around £170 per night – or studio spaces from £70. Further west, Traders Hotel has been given a minimal, stylishly sleek makeover. Their cheaper standard rooms start at £60 and offer city views (which to my mind are exciting); although beware, the prices rise steeply the higher you go.
Views of Hong Kong’s extraordinary skyline traditionally come at a steep premium. Across the bay in Kowloon is the extravagant Peninsular Hotel, a place famed for opulence, prices and its vista. Yet immediately next door, enjoying the same views of Victoria Harbour and the incredible skyscrapers opposite is the YMCA Salisbury. Don’t be put off by the YMCA tag; this is a real bargain at £60 a night, the rooms are fine, the panorama sensational.
You’ll have to work harder to nail a bargain when cruising around the shops – like any large city there’s a certain amount of generic international fare that’s readily available in Birmingham or Glasgow, so why go shopping for it abroad? Best go for something unique to the place. Hong Kong’s famous 24 hour tailoring, isn’t what it was. You’ll not find many good deals today – a £100 suit will be just that, ill-fitting and shiny. If you need new duds then Sam’s Tailor in Kowloon is worth checking out; he’s measured up all sorts including various US presidents, assorted royalty and innumerable tourists.
Well priced electronics and computer equipment are still widely available, especially in Kowloon; but you’d do well to remember it’s a long way to return faulty goods once you’re back in Blighty. I’d recommend the markets instead, if only to soak up the atmosphere and marvel at food stuffs unlike anything you might have seen in Waitrose.
The Jade Market on Battery Street has over 400 stalls selling a vast variety of this most auspicious of stones; although you’d be unwise to spend a fortune here unless you really know your stuff. However it’s still a great place to pick up small souvenirs and gifts. For a one-stop shop of Chinese bijouterie and knick-knackery head to one of the Chinese Arts and Crafts department stores. There are four of them dotted around the islands and the quality is generally good.
Temple Street Night Market should be on everyone’s itinerary. Apart from the obvious plethora of fake labels, pirated CDs, tacky watches and faux Mont Blanc pens knocked out by the dozen you’ll also find dai pai dong (open air food stalls). You’re also likely to come across numerologists, fortune-tellers, herbalists and, on occasion al fresco Chinese opera.
Admittedly Chinese opera is an acquired taste, but should you develop a fondness for this esoteric art form like I inexplicably did, then the Sunbeam Theatre on North Point perform Cantonese opera and other musical styles. Seats from £3 – £25.
A trip to the Happy Valley Racecourse is a quintessential Hong Kong experience that is ridiculously inexpensive – entrance is less than a quid. This ex-pat relic is hugely popular with locals because it offers one of the few legitimate ways to gamble. Go for a Wednesday evening fixture (they occur every two weeks) when the stands and trackside are packed with punters; it’s an unforgettable event, but try not to lose your shirt.
If your flutter on the gee gees has left you palpitating, then grab a taxi (they’re cheap) and head back to Kowloon and Tsim Sha Tsui East Promenade for the spectacular Symphony of the Stars sound and light show. Hong Kong’s Blade Runnerish skyline is even more impressive when bedecked with lasers; it starts at 8pm each evening, runs for twenty minutes and is free.
Another watery entertainment is to hire a sampan. There are plenty of operators who work from Aberdeen Promenade, expect to pay about a fiver per person for half hour trip and drift across the harbour in the most traditional of vessels in the most modern of cities.