From Middle East to the Far East

Hong Kong (2010-2011)

October 2010 The Victoria Peak, Hong Kong
The first time I have been to Hong Kong was way back in early 2009. I was flying back to Dubai from a vacation in the Philippines and had a long layover so I decided to get out and explore a little bit of it. 

All I knew of Hong Kong is Disneyland, but I knew my time wouldn't be enough to go there. So randomly, I grabbed a flyer from the airport and checked what are the nearby places I can go to. But then I found out that HK island is quite far from the airport, so there is no place that could be considered "near" for a quick trip. The Peak caught my eye.

It was freezing cold when I got there and winter was probably at its peak. Wishfully thinking, I said to myself that perhaps it would be great to live in there. It was just so beautiful and the cold weather was inviting, something that's missing in Dubai. Little did I know that random thoughts and wishes like these would lead me back to Hong Kong a year after to actually live in there! So much for wishes do come true.

View from The Victoria Peak 
Behind me is the Peak Tower

Dubai was blown hard by the economic recession in 2008. The company I was working for was no exception. We lost a handful of employees and I got scared for my own place. So after my Christmas holiday in 2008, I returned to Dubai with a resignation letter on my hand. I have decided I wanted to move to Singapore, where my brother and a few of my high school friends have already moved to. I reasoned out it was closer to home and that I just felt like my time in Dubai has come to an end. It was a good three years and I was ready to go wherever fate would take me next.

There's a part of me that feels I am getting fed up of Dubai and just wanted a change of scenery. I was offered to stay but I just really wanted to go. I think when your desire to leave a place is stronger, your eyes are shut to see what else is around you that may convince you to stay.

So they offered me to move to Hong Kong instead. If I was just really considering its proximity to my home town, it is actually closer compared to Singapore. So I took the offer. I just cant believe a year before that I was wishing I could live there, and Viola! The Universe has responded.

There is a huge difference between visiting a city and actually living in there. When you are a tourist, you only get to see all the nice places, stay in there for a couple of days and then you leave with all the good impressions you have for that city. You view it differently because everything looks sparkly and new to your foreign eyes. But to actually live in there is a totally different story. I had to learn this when I moved to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Central

Facts about Hong Kong

* Hong Kong means "fragrant harbour".

* It was a British colony for 156 years and on 1997, was handed over back to its motherland, China. It has then been called Hong Kong SAR (Special Administrative Region).

* It is one of the densely populated cities in the world.

Hong Kong is a world city. It is one of the Al­pha+ cities, along with London and New York City, which forms the most influential and important cities in the global economy.

* It has four main islands: Kowloon, Lantau Island, Lamma Island and Hong Kong Island.

Outlying Islands
Photo Credit: Discover Hong Kong
* The local language is Cantonese. Though most of the locals can speak Mandarin too.

* The locals prefer to call themselves Hong Kees than Chinese.

*Source: Wikipedia, personal observations.

First Impressions

Wan Chai Area, Hong Kong

When I moved to Hong Kong in 2010, I had that same feeling when I've first been there during a layover in 2009. I was excited. I was in high spirits, everything was just new to me. And then it hit me the actual difference of just visiting and actually living in the city.

I find Hong Kong a city that is really busy and seems to never gets tired. Even at night, it is still full of life and lights and it felt like it was so wrong to sleep so early while the city is still so much awake and upbeat. It is indeed a City that seems to never sleep.

It feels congested too in terms of actual "space". You won't see much land spaces on Hong Kong island alone, there are just buildings or establishments everywhere to maximise every corner of it.

Adjusting to the New Environment

I think my main problem when moving to a new city is I don't really make a thorough research. At that time, my priority was just to move out of Dubai and land somewhere with a secured job and that's when Hong Kong presented itself. I did try to ask former colleagues in Dubai who also moved to Hong Kong and got a few pointers and description of what it has been like for them. But I guess everyone has a different vantage point.

Language barrier made it very difficult for me to settle in. Most of the people are poor in speaking English. I was really surprised by this to think HK was once a British colony. Since I am Asian, people assume that I was a local and so they speak to me in Cantonese. At first, I was okay with it, having to explain that I am not Chinese and I don't speak any Cantonese. But it really gets frustrating later on, like when you really just wanted to go to a place and the taxi driver can't make out of what you are saying, when you are deliberately speaking in English and they still respond in Cantonese. Sometimes, I had to get help from my boss, who is a Hong Kee, to write down for me in Cantonese the places I wanted to go to so I can just show it to the taxi driver to make it easier for the both of us. 

Even at work, I felt really out of place. I had to attend several meetings in Cantonese (or Mandarin, I can't tell the difference). It was frustrating and my boss had to translate to me afterwards in like three or four sentences. 

Believe it or not, I even actually missed speaking Tagalog, (my mother tongue). There was just no one to talk to or share how your day has been, so most of the times I would call my friends just to hear myself speaking in my native tongue. I think whenever I am in another country, somehow, I still long for Filipinos just to give me that comfort and feeling that I am never far away from home.

Looking over Hong Kong's skyline at Victoria Peak

I started missing the diversity of culture in Dubai. At work, there were only a few expats like me (around 10 I think) and most of them are Westerners and managers and the rest are all Hong Kees that tend to stick with their group. There were a few Filipinos but I have met them when I was already about to leave Hong Kong. So most of the times, I have eaten lunch alone, which I was not really used to. Back in Dubai, we had this huge Filipino group and we ate lunch together. I started feeling homesick of Dubai and the friends I have made back there. 

Depression, loneliness, homesickness, that feeling of isolation, that lack of sense of belonging and a heartbreak over a failed relationship made me leave Hong Kong a year after. The circumstances around me and the experience I've had of living there gave me a different view of Hong Kong, something that I didn't see when I was just visiting it. I am not saying living in Hong Kong was a bad experience for me or it is not a good city to live at. I think every person deals differently when they're out of their comfort zone. 

Dark clouds hovering over Victoria Harbour.
Such a drastic difference of view when the sky is blue.

If there's anything I have learnt and I am grateful for of my time in Hong Kong is that it taught me how to do things even on my own and still enjoy it. Only in Hong Kong have I started to watch movies alone, to eat out alone, even to watch concerts alone (yes, twice!), to hang out at the beach alone, travelled solo to Phuket, etc. These things that I didn't even dare to try to do before because I have always had someone to do it with.

I have come to appreciate the beauty of solitariness. I had so much time on my hands that it gave me a great opportunity to start doing the things I wanted to do but I am always putting off. I signed up for a yoga class, I volunteered at Hong Kong Dog Rescue, I started (but still failed) swimming lessons. 

Taking a moment watching the placid waters at Stanley beach.

To be fair, I did make a few good friends in Hong Kong. I'd like to think that I struggled mostly in finding common interests amongst the people I have met, mostly Brits or Asians who were brought up in the UK. There were just some things that I can't relate to with them like in terms of food, TV shows to watch, music, things to do on the weekends, etc. These simple things that you talk about to try and find some ground to connect to another person. I think I'm too Americanised that I mostly felt out of place.

There is somehow a bit of racism against Filipinos that I felt when I was there. The perception of most of the people have there is that when you are a Filipino, they would immediately assume that you are working as a domestic helper or at the "bars". It was uncomfortable to say the least, when people make comments whenever they find out that I am a Filipino but I am neither of those they think I would be. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against the Filipino workers. It's just disappointing whenever people look down on you or judge you by the colour of your skin and by what you do in life.

The People, Lifestyle, Culture, Cost of Living (Then), Etc.

The beautiful Hong Kong Park in the middle of skyscrapers in Central, Hong Kong
One thing I admire about the Hong Kees is their efficiency to get things done. This is how dedicated they are in providing services for everyone. Take for instance, ordering a food or when I renewed my work visa. I don't remember having to queue for long. One thing I observed though is that they mostly don't smile or make eye contact with you and I felt like they were a bit snobbish. I asked my boss about it and he said it's how they get things done, they don't like the idea of seeing other people wait behind you, so they try to get things done as fast as they could. One thing you won't see happening when you are in the Philippines.

Another thing I noticed at work is they don't leave on time. On my first few weeks, I was the only one leaving at exactly 5:30 PM! I felt embarrassed and started asking my other colleague, who is a Brit. He said he was the same as me when he started, a bit culture-shocked. According to him, most of them stay longer because they don't want to go home just yet as most of them are still living with their parents (common Asian trait) or they just pretend to be working to impress their superiors even though they are just browsing the internet. I am not sure what is the truth behind this or if it was just their thing. I didn't dare to ask any of my colleagues back then. 

In terms of cost of living, I find Hong Kong more expensive than Dubai. I used to live in Hong Kong island, Central Mid-levels. The room I was paying for is *HKD 6,500 (USD 800 ; AED 3,000). My room was even smaller compared to the one I had in Dubai. Well, everything is smaller in Hong Kong because of the little land area it has. I like the vicinity where I used to live at. It's very close to everything and all within walking distance - grocery stores, salons, gym, Catholic church, Lan Kwai Fong (which is the popular party place in Hong Kong), streets and streets of food places. My office was just about 10-15 minutes away.

 Central Mid Levels, Hong Kong
The Central Mid-levels Escalator
 The world's longest outdoor covered escalator system, stretching for over 800-metres and rising 135-metres 

Food is cheap especially if you don't mind street foods. There are a lot of food options in Hong Kong, but one thing I found difficult when dining out was that most of the menu are written in Chinese. They do post pictures of the food so mostly I relied on those to see which one looks delicious. Noodles and dumplings are the most popular food. There is something different about when you taste (for example) a beef noodle from a Chinese restaurant in Dubai than a beef noodle in Hong Kong. I don't know what it is but for some reasons, I'd like to think a local food becomes more authentic when you eat it at its place of origin. 

Here are some of the interesting buffet restaurants, that offer not only good food but a good view of Hong Kong as well, which I recommend:

Jumbo Floating Restaurant in Aberdeen 
You need to ride a small boat to get to the actual restaurant. It is literally floating in the waters. Best to get a table near the windows to get a good view of the harbour. Most of the foods served are seafood.

R66 Revolving Restaurant in Wanchai
(Photo Credit:
View of the city from the Revolving Restaurant. 
This is located at Hopewell Centre, Wanchai where my former office was located as well. A great variety of food is served. You won't actually feel the place moving unless you look out at the windows. View of the city is absolutely amazing. I haven't tried to go up at night but I reckon it would look splendid as well.

If you're not into Chinese food, there are a lot of Western foods and other Asian cuisines such as Thai, Indian and even Filipino, to choose from. There was even a Jollibee outlet there! You will definitely never feel hungry when you are in Hong Kong. Every street, every corner has a food place.

HK Beef Noodles
Jollibee in Central, HK
Getting around Hong Kong was very easy. I personally think you wouldn't need a car. They have a very good train system, MTR (Mass Transit Railway). Other means of transportation are public buses, 5-seater cabs (which are very spacious), LRT (Light Rail Transit) for the farther areas, Trams which are cheap but non-air conditioned and Public Light buses or the mini buses which are all widely available. 

The mini buses have red and green colours and its numbers indicate its route. Their stops are the same as where the buses are, but you can hail and ride them at any corner most of the times. I got a bit disoriented when I first boarded this. Some of it don't have the bell to press to make it stop so you have to shout "Next stop, Please" when you want to get off.

Hong Kong's Mini Bus
Photo Credit: Google Images
HK's 5-seater Red Cabs
Some people consider the Trams are more for tourists rather than a means of transportation. You can actually hire one and host a Tram Party.

Tram(L) and Public Bus(R) in Hong Kong Central.
Since Hong Kong is composed of other outlying islands, you can also catch a ferry and enjoy the scenic view of the its harbours.

Ferry Ride from Hong Kong island to Tsim Sha Tsui
The weather in Hong Kong has the complete four seasons - Spring(March-May), Summer (June-August), Autumn(September-November) and Winter(December-February).

Due to its geographical location, it also experiences typhoons usually during summer. Though in my experience, they were not as strong and violent as the ones we have in the Philippines. They have a different type of categorising typhoon level which really confused me. Having grew up in the Philippines, I only know of Signal 1-5. HK has colour system (measures rainfall) and numbering system (measures the strength of wind) in categorising typhoons.

Growing up in the Philippines, I have never experienced what winter was like. Dubai has a winter season too but it was tolerable, I could just wear a thick jacket and a scarf. I struggled very much to keep warm during winter in Hong Kong. I just didn't know how much layering of clothing I had to wear. I ended up mostly just staying at home because it was too crucially cold for me to go outside. The temperature can get as low as 8 oC to 10 oC in the mornings but it doesn't snow in there. On the brighter side, I enjoyed dressing up during this season. I got to wear my coats, beanies and boots!

Not the best time to go to the beach! :p
(Taken at Repulse Bay)

Things to Do/See in Hong Kong

Hong Kong offers a wide variety of places to see. You'll never run out of things to do in here.

I have listed down a few places I have thoroughly enjoyed visiting (and re-visiting) while I was living there.

1. Ngong Ping

One of the most popular destinations in Hong Kong, this highland situated on the Western part of Lantau island, is flocked by visitors every day as it offers a one stop venue for various attractions. It hosts Ngong Ping Village, the Big Buddha and Po Lin Monastery.

Ngong Ping 360

Perhaps the easiest way to get to Ngong Ping is via the cable car, Ngong Ping 360. If you are being adventurous, you can hike it. You can also catch a bus and ferry ride from and to Hong Kong island. But for the three times I visited this place, I always opted to go with the cable car.

This amazing 5.7 km cable car ride that goes from Tung Chung (via MTR Station) to the Ngong Ping Village gives a breath taking view of a little bit of Hong Kong's countryside. The cable ride goes on for about 25 minutes showing panoramic views of the North Lantau Country Park, South China Sea, Ngong Ping Plateau, terrain and waterways.

Several buildings sprout like mushrooms amidst all the green and blue colours, which make it a bit distracting. I hope it won't come a time that they will commercialise all of these beautiful and natural resources that they have.

It's quite difficult to get a good view of the Big Buddha from afar. Even at summer, it could still be foggy. The climate gets cooler once you arrive at Ngong Ping Village.

Ngong Ping 360 is one of the longest cable car ride in Asia

Ngong Ping Village

As soon as you arrive, you will be welcomed by an array of restaurants and souvenir shops at Ngong Ping Village. The ambience is an adaptation of an old Chinese village.

There is also a very interesting short film narrating the life of Buddha called 'Walk with Buddha', where in you have to literally walk around inside, trying to 'follow' the life of Buddha as it is being narrated using animated short films shown on walls through a projector. I have always been a believer of the teachings of Buddhism so it was really enlightening to have understood its origin.

They have it in English and Cantonese so be sure to check the schedule first before you get in.  

The Bodhi Tree or Bo Tree which means "Tree of Awakening"
The Bodhi Wishing Shrine with hundreds of wishing cards.

Big Buddha

**The Tin Tan Buddha or popularly known as the Big Buddha, is one of the largest outdoor Buddha statues in China. This bronze statue is 34 meters tall and weighs 250 metric tons. Visitors have to climb 268 steps to reach the top platform. 

Climbing up
** The Buddha's right hand is raised, representing the removal of affliction while his left hand rests on his lap in a gesture of giving dhana. The Buddha faces north, which is unique among the great Buddha statues, as all others face south. It is believed it can be seen even from Macau on a clear day.

The view from the top is absolutely breathtaking though it was quite difficult to get a clearer view because of the fog. 

View from the top of the Big Buddha
** It is surrounded by six smaller bronze statues known as "The Offering of the Six Devas" and are posed offering flowers, incense, lamp, ointment, fruit, and music to the Buddha. These offerings symbolize charity, morality, patience, zeal, meditation, and wisdom, all of which are necessary to enter into nirvana.

 'The offering of the Six Devas'

Po Lin Monastery

** The monastery was founded in 1906 by three monks and was initially known simply as "The Big Hut". It was renamed to its present name in 1924. The main temple houses three bronze statues of the Buddha – representing his past, present and future lives – as well as many Buddhist scriptures.

The monks, with their musical instruments, after a ceremony
If you arrive at the time of one of their ceremonies, you may actually witness it from the outside. It was surreal to actually hear chantings in between musical instruments being played.

Its interiors are beautifully decorated by orange and gold colour theme.

Its exteriors are intricately decorated as well. They have surely given a lot of thought to represent Buddhism through the architecture and design of this temple.

Area for prayer requests

2. The Victoria Peak

The Victoria Peak or more commonly known as The Peak is a major tourist attraction that offers impressive views over CentralVictoria HarbourLamma Island and the surrounding islands.

There are two ways to get here - via the Peak Tram or by bus. I usually take bus number 15 from Wan Chai or Central. The Peak tram is swarmed (literally!) by tourists and can take you hours before you can get in. So what I usually do is take the bus going up and take the Peak Tram going down. 

Bus Number 15 will take you straight to the Peak Galleria and will take approximately 40 minutes from Central Bus Station.
The Peak Tram is a must-do and see in Hong Kong! It is perhaps the city's oldest mode of transportation and what makes it interesting is that it is a cliff railway (funicular). It gives you an "inclined" view of the city, a very rare sight. I prefer to see it at night, when all the buildings are all lit up. 

The Peak Tram

Tram Ride going down! It felt like riding a roller coaster in slow motion!

To give you an idea of what it is like, here's a clip of it.

When you get there, you will first have to go through the Peak Galleria, which is a shopping mall to go to the Peak Tower, which holds the viewing platform of the Victoria Peak. There's a lot of restaurants here that offer a balcony view. It also hosts the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum.

The Peak Galleria
I have visited the Peak during the day and at night and I still prefer to see it at night when all the buildings are lit up like stars. On a very clear day, it isn't so bad as well.

The Peak during the day
The Peak at night showing the city's vibrant skyline

3. Disneyland

Who wouldn't want to be on the Happiest Place on Earth? I'm a kid at heart and a sucker for theme parks. I think this is almost any kid's dream, to visit Disneyland someday. Having lived in Hong Kong, I have visited it three times and still couldn't help to giggle like a kid every time I hop onto the train taking me to this wonderland.

Happy kid getting off the Disney Train!

Getting to Disneyland is quite easy. The most convenient way is via the MTR, alighting at Sunny Bay Station. Then from there, transfer to the Disneyland Train.

I couldn't recommend any ideal day or time to visit this place as it will always be packed but I would say during Winter is the most ideal time (weather-wise). The first time I went here was on June 2010 (during my 25th Birthday) and it was excruciatingly hot! Winter time was nicer, and they had some fake snow too!

Snowflakes! with my good friend Trina, visiting me from Manila
The entire park is colourfully decorated, everywhere you look at will surely bring a smile to your face. The parade, rides and the fireworks at night are definitely not to be missed!

The colourful and lively Disney Parade

Photo Op with the Disney characters are such a hit that you have to queue and be on the look out when they will be out next! They were like celebrities! They were even signing autographs! 

Striking a pose with Mickey and Minnie :)
Woody and Jessie signing an autograph
You will definitely spend at least one whole day here. There was just so much to see. The queue for the rides will also take up a lot of your time.

This train ride will take you around and get a better view of the theme park

Sleeping Beauty's Castle
Perhaps my most favourite part is the fireworks display at night. It never fails to make anyone smile after an entire day of tiring walking around. You can even hear almost everyone saying 'Wow'. This takes place around 8 PM at Sleeping Beauty's Castle. So as soon as the sun sets, you can see everyone trying to gather around to save a good spot.

Here's a short video that I took when I visited it on December 2010. It was exactly the same as the one during my first visit. But nevertheless, it was still spectacular to watch. The Disney songs at the background were a cute touch to it which synchronises with the fireworks. It was magical.

4. Avenue of Stars/Tsim Shai Tsui

View of Hong Kong island from Tsim Shai Tsui (TST)

The Avenue of Stars is Hong Kong's version of Hollywood's Walk of Fame. Famous Martial Arts actors Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan are some of the few artists who have left their prints on here.

View during the Day
I prefer to stroll here during the day, when the sun is out and the sky is clear, it gives you a bright view of the harbour. There is a light show performance called The Symphony of Lights at night (around 8 PM). The first time I've watched this was while riding one of the junks (an ancient Chinese sailing vessel/ship design). Music is being played at the background that synchronises with the lights so it looked like the lights of the buildings were dancing.

View at Night
Lights Show at Tsim Shai Tsui
TST is also famous for shopping - streets and streets of malls, shops, and night markets can be found here.

5. Parks

It amazes me to discover that no matter how much of a city Hong Kong is, it still manages to preserve beautiful parks, which are mostly located on the midst of all the skyscrapers. It is a refreshing sight to see and worth checking out.

Kowloon Park, Tsim Shai Tsui

Hong Kong Park, Central

Wetland Park, Tin Shui Wai, New Territories

6. The Beaches & Mega Junk

If there's one thing I mostly loved to do during weekends in Hong Kong was lay on the beach and read a book or a magazine and just relax. They have a lot of nice and clean beaches and most of it are very accessible by bus so it's really easy to get to from the city.

Stanley Beach
Big Waves Beach
Turtle Cove Beach
Shek-O Beach
Repulse Bay

I was invited once to join a Mega Junk Party. So it's basically an awesome party by the boat (junk)! Once we reached the spot to start partying (location varies, depending on the organiser) the junks (about twelve of them) are tied together to form like a line and people can start visiting other junks or start jumping into the waters. Floaters are more likely helpful to bring along with you. There were booze, good food and live music with DJ too. It was definitely 'the party' worth going to and for sure a great event to meet a lot of people. 

This has been my time in Hong Kong. Have I stayed if the circumstances were different? Definitely, Maybe. It's quite tricky to answer it now when I look back. But I have absolutely no regrets of giving HK a try. It surely toughened me up, taught me how to be more independent and to spend a lot of time being alone and be comfortable with it.

An old junk cruising along Victoria Harbour

*   All figures were from 2010-2011

** Source of information: Wikipedia