Though for the first-time visitor Hong Kong has an anticipatory aura of mystery, of being one big American Chinatown, it is in reality in league with the most sophisticated 20th-century cities. This tiny 29-mile-square island is a crossroads of people and cultures. It is the world’s third-largest port, tightly packed with skyscrapers and glitzy high-end shops, and many residents speak English. It also is reputed to be the most densely populated spot in the world--in the Shamshuipo section of Kowloon people are squeezed in at the rate of 165,000 per kilometer.
After the switch from British rule, the world was expecting changes. The biggest one affecting travelers is the opening of the Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok. Located 15 miles west of town, it is the fourth busiest airport in the world. Alas, it is no longer possible to experience the infamous landing at Kai Tak airport. Coming down between highrise tenements, that landing sometimes actually permitted passengers to see the rice on a dining resident’s chopsticks.
In exchange for safer landings, visitors must now travel farther to get into town. However, an express train whisks passengers to central Hong Kong in just 23 minutes. Should your flight out be delayed, consider getting a haircut. A friend told me she had a great haircut at a nearby salon. And they gave the best head massages as part of the cut.”
Hong Kong is one of the world’s safest cities. According to Dena Masuda, an American woman who lived in Japan for more than 20 years, “Women traveling alone are unlikely to have problems. And the city is small. You can tour it in 4 hours.”
Dress is western-style casual chic. Most local business people are well-dressed, especially those who work in offices. (You’ll see as many cell phones on the prosperous streets here as you will in London, New York, or Los Angeles.) Locals follow Chinese traditions and tend to be conservative, although there are no restrictions or dress code. If you want to frequent the nicest hotels, forget jeans, but pants are fine. But if you’re off to the city’s hilly, leafy combination zoo and botanical garden for morning Tai Chi exercises (locals use the barrier fences for balance), you can dress in sweats and fit in just fine. However, the weather can be warm.
Though there are plenty of celebrated, expensive hotels, all of which are comfortable for the solo woman traveler, it is useful to know that the inexpensive 360-room Salisbury YMCA in Kowloon--this mainland area is just a scenic ride from Hong Kong island via the charming green-and-white Star Ferry--is particularly amenable to the woman alone. Though its private rooms have simple dorm-like furnishings and bathrooms, those on the upper floors offer the same fabulous views of Hong Kong’s bright neon lights as does its more upscale next-door neighbor--the world-famous Peninsula Hotel. The Y also has a comfortable cafeteria where women can dine alone unbothered.
Public transportation and cabs are easy to use, and wandering by foot during the daylight hours is safe and fun. An exceptional sight is the Bird Market, where you can view men airing their song birds while strolling with them in cages dangling from their arms, or hanging the cages in trees while chatting with friends (historically this activity is engaged in primarily by men), and where you can buy a beautiful hand-carved bamboo cage to take home. You’ll also experience a fascinating slice of life. (If you buy a birdcage, opt for feeding cups with a blue design. Avoid the eye-catching yellow or red versions that are not liked by birds, though they are admired by tourists.)
Also worth seeking out is the Jade Market, where handcarved jade pieces, amber, and other semi-precious stones are available at good prices.
In the evening, you will feel safe where there are lights, and lights are just about everywhere. A visit to the bustling Temple Street Night Market, a bargain-hunter’s mecca open nightly from 7 to 10 p.m., is particularly interesting.
• Do not accept any boat rides on the local “junks.” It is advised that you instead take a tour on a registered junk in Aberdeen.
• Be aware that many streets specialize in displaying particular items. For example, one features herbs and medicines, while another is devoted to restaurants serving snake dishes.
• I’ve heard nothing good about Chungking Mansions. Author Pamela Barrus, a woman who has traveled solo in over 150 countries, says, “Though safe for lone females, they are a series of cheap hotels and hostels in one big fire trap building.” Guidebook writer J.D. Brown warns, “Men lurk there trying to pick up women.” (Instead, you might want to book in at the 597-room Holiday Inn Golden Mile located next door.) Also, the small, inexpensive guest houses, though a bargain, are often tucked away in places where a woman alone in the city, especially for the first time, might not feel secure.
• J.D. Brown adds, “Lesbians are not an open feature of Chinese society, but they are not openly discriminated against, and walking hand in hand is acceptable for people of the same sex. However, kissing in public is a rare sight, as is eating on the streets.”
• Hong Kong is the most expensive Asian city after Tokyo. Luxury hotel rooms go for $350 and up, with a few bargain rooms offered at $250.
• Flagstaff House Museum of Teaware in Hong Kong Park. All kinds of tea paraphernalia, some over 1,000 years old, is displayed in Hong Kong’s oldest surviving colonial building, and a lovely array of teaware and teas are sold in the gift shop. The park also holds an impressive aviary with an elevated walkway winding through treetops.
• High Tea at the Peninsula. Don’t miss a sedate afternoon tea in this fabled, elegant, colonial hotel. The staff here is trained to make women dining alone feel comfortable.
• The Noon Day Gun at Causeway Bay. Every day at noon the historic cannon, immortalized in song by Noel Coward, is fired. Here you’ll see picturesque junks in the water beside yachts, and glossy highrise office buildings abutting tenements. And right across the street in the upscale Excelsior hotel are several reliably good restaurants.
• On Sundays, hundreds of Filipino maids are said to gather in Central. If you’re nearby, take a look.
• Holiday Inn Golden Mile 46-52 Nathan Rd., Tsimshatsui.
• The Peninsula Salisbury Rd.
• Salisbury YMCA 41 Salisbury Rd., Tsimshatsui.
Hong Kong Tourism Board www.discoverhongkong.com/eng/index.jsp
Carole Terwilliger Meyers blogs at Travels With Carole.
Ms. Meyers is also the author of “Miles of Smiles: 101 Great Car Games & Activities”
copyright 2019 Carole Terwilliger Meyers