Hong Kong: City of Contrasts

by Emma Tang

Emma Tang and Nathanael Rhodes at the top of Victoria Peak overlooking the Hong Kong skyline

Hong Kong is a brilliant blend of ancient and modern traditions. A small jade shop is dwarfed by a massive electronics megastore. Towering skyscrapers overlook breathtaking mountains and greenery. A relaxing Tai Chi lesson takes place just minutes away from the bustle of the city. It’s a city of contrasts in all facets of society from living arrangements to shopping and eating. On one street alone you will most likely pass both a run down noodle shop and a restaurant so expansive that the waiters use walkie-talkies to communicate to the kitchen (I’m a sucker for the small noodle shops, myself).

It is impossible to miss the modern side of the city — the brilliant light displays overlooking the harbor, the high-end shopping malls, and the exotic food in the famous restaurants. My favorite aspect of Hong Kong, however, is not Hong Kong’s impressive skyline or the brand name shopping. I love the history and the crowded markets and the smell. Hong Kong has a distinctive smell that reminds me of the many trips that I took as a child. I’m not talking about the delicious smells wafting from nearby restaurants or the unpleasant smells of garbage on the street, but just a unique scent that the city has. It reminds me of my family. My father’s side of the family is from Hong Kong so we visit quite often and while there are countless things to do in such a spirited city, we generally do the same things each visit — a mix of the old and the new.

Bi Saan - our journey to pay respect to our ancestors

View from the top

During our latest trip to Hong Kong, we started the day with Bi Saan, which is a journey to the top of a mountain to pay respect to ancestors. This specific trip was particularly important to me because my fiancÚ had come with us and I was eager to share this part of my life with him. Walking single file, we walked up the side of the mountain, on a trail that had been created from so many treks up to show respect. Returning to the theme of contrasts in Hong Kong, we Google Mapped the location once we reached the top — talk about the juxtaposition between ancient traditions and modern technology! We took some time to clean the area surrounding the memorial, removing weeds and clearing the path. Inside of the memorial are photographs of my ancestors and behind their photographs are their ashes. There are some empty spaces, indicating the position where other members of the family will rest. It is a bizarre feeling to be standing at the top of a mountain, in such a peaceful setting, away from any noise and lights, but still within minutes of the city of Hong Kong. I always get a deep sense of respect for both life and family when we go on these trips.

The home where my father grew up in Nga Yiu Tau

After returning to the base of the mountain we took taxis to my father’s old house in Nga Yiu Tau. The stairs were crumbling and there was a layer of dust over all of his old memories. The outside had mold growing on the bricks. It had been years since anyone lived there, but the inside still contained old books and scrolls and dishes. My dad pointed to a small room in the corner and said, “That was my room! That was where I slept and studied.” There was an abacus on the shelf that was used to complete math equations and an oil lantern that was used for light. I use the calculator on my iPhone to do math problems and the switch near my bed to turn on the light. When we were finished rifling through old books and pictures, we headed to a restaurant for dinner — a luxurious restaurant with glistening chandeliers over the tables and formally dressed wait staff - a whole world away from the deteriorating house, but just within walking distance. Read more about the cuisine in Hong Kong.

Light show overlooking the harbour

Hong Kong skyscraper

On the other side of the Hong Kong spectrum are the dazzling lights and loud sounds of the city of Hong Kong. Hong Kong is the Asian version of NYC with tall skyscrapers and recognizable logos in neon signs. The sound of the subway and car horns honking in the streets fills the air and the streets are always flooded with people in a hurry.

It is inconceivable to go from such old world history to the bustling city of Hong Kong in the span of minutes. But that is the nature of Hong Kong — it is, indeed, a city of contrasts.

See more of Hong Kong, including Lantau island and the enormous Tian Tan Buddha.

Bi Saan

Nga Yiu Tau