Discover Hong Kong like a local: 7 places to see

Victoria Harbour at night Philstar.com/Deni Rose M. Afinidad-Bernardo

HONG KONG - There is a joke among Hong Kong citizens that "Typhoons build in the Philippines and burst in Hong Kong," says Samantha Poon, a communications executive for one of HK's biggest hotel chains.

But this time of the year until Chinese New Year and Spring Lantern Festival in February marks winter in HK, so there are only brief rain showers for about five days in a month. The weather is generally cool and pleasant, with some dusting of snow, ideal for exploring Hong Kong's tourist attractions and fusion of Chinese and British cultures.

Because HK is only around two hours by airplane from Manila, it remains a leading holiday destination for Filipinos. Latest statistics of Hong Kong's Tourism Commission show that Filipinos are in the top 10 of HK's visitors from around the globe and the number of Filipinos traveling to HK increased from two to over 10 percent in recent years.

In a recent press conference, Becky Ip, Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB) deputy executive director, said that HK is one of the top destinations for Filipinos, especially, for the holidays and for those going abroad for the first time.

Last year, tourism in HK registered a double-digit growth, with the Philippines as the best performing market from Southeast Asia.

Filipinos love HK, said Ip, because of its variety, close proximity and exciting theme parks.

This year, HKTB invites Filipinos to explore HK like a local via its new marketing campaign in the Philippines, "Best of All, It's in Hong Kong", which aims to highlight the city's rich diversity and off-beat dining, fashion, family entertainment and natural attractions.

 

The grand fireworks display at the Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland Philstar.com/Deni Rose M. Afinidad-Bernardo

Hong Kong Disneyland

If you only have one day in HK and Disney is a big part of your childhood, make sure to spend it in "the happiest place on Earth", which just opened the world's first Marvel-themed ride, Iron Man.

Also located at the Tomorrowland section is a new Star Wars arena, where children can get workshops on how to become a Jedi.

At the Festival of the Lion King in Adventureland, you can enjoy the entire The Lion King Musical, so tickets to Disneyland are already a steal as you have to pay for a separate amount if you are to watch the touring musical in other countries.

If you only have hours to spend in the park, make sure to at least see all the shows like the four-dimensional "Mickey's PhilHar Magic" at Fantasyland; and "Mickey and the Wondrous Book" that seamlessly combines live performances, puppetry, and animation in one storybook-like show set in three languages - English, Mandarin and Hong Kong's native Cantonese.

These shows feature Chinese-looking performers and acrobats, giving one a taste of HK's illustrious film industry, martial arts shows, and "popopera" (pop opera).  

Among the rides, do not miss the Victorian thriller Mystic Manor and the Filipino dolls and Filipino counterpart of It's a Small World.

To make sure you can see and try almost everything, be there when the park opens at 10 a.m. and stay until the fireworks display at 8 p.m. By 6:30 p.m., you should be done with the rides and finding a good spot to see and take pictures of the grand parade at 7 p.m. Guard your spot because Chinese mainlanders are notorious for sneaking in between lines. Avoid trouble by asking help from the park's ushers to discipline a misbehaving guest.

Accompanied by street dancing, the grand parade of LED-lit floats of Disney's well-loved characters can leave one teary-eyed. Scenes from the movies are also projected on the castle during the fireworks display.

Taxis and travel agents might offer to take you to Disneyland, but it will be better to go on your own because it is not only cheaper, it is also easier as HK's train system, the Mass Transit Railway or MTR, is so efficient and reliable. The Disneyland train from the Sunny Bay station to the amusement park and resort is already an experience in itself with its velvet coaches, brass statues of Disney characters, and Mickey Mouse-shaped windows and handrails.

 

Learn about Hong Kong's colorful past and festivals at the Museum of History Philstar.com/Deni Rose M. Afinidad-Bernardo

Tsim Sha Tsui

From the Kowloon station of the Airport Express train, there are free shuttle buses that could take you to Tsim Sha Tsui, which has most of HK's tourist attractions, including a spectacular, miles-long view of Victoria Harbour, the world's busiest pier.

At 8 p.m., make sure not to miss Victoria Harbour's signature Symphony of Lights show, the "World's Largest Permanent Light and Sound Show," according to Guinness World Records. The show is projected on giant screens on the sides of one of Tsim Sha Tsui's most famous landmarks, Hong Kong Cultural Centre, as well as on the iconic Clocktower, which nods to HK's British roots as the HK counterpart of London's Big Ben.

After the shows, you can hop on a traditional HK cargo ship and cruise along the Victoria Harbour for 30 minutes for a fee. At Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, there are also ferry stations leading to Macau, Mainland China, and other parts of Hong Kong.

Spacious hotel rooms are a luxury in Hong Kong, which has one of the highest real estate values in the world. Released

Marco Polo Hotels - Hong Kong have direct access to the ferries. The three hotels under the group, Marco Polo Hong Kong Hotel, Prince Hotel and Gateway Hotel, boast of spacious rooms, which are a luxury since HK has among the world's most expensive real estate.

Poon, the hotel group's communications director, said their Filipino guests appreciate their hotel's free handy phone feature, which enables the guests to call to their families in the Philippines for free. The phone also serves as a wi-fi hotspot with built-in apps that serve as guides to the city.

Marco Polo Hotels have direct access to Harbour City, HK's biggest shopping haven and arguably the most glamorous part of Tsim Sha Tsui as it has some of the world's biggest flagship stores of fashion and luxury brands.

It is sale season in HK, so fast fashion labels there are more affordable now than they do in Manila, but the styles in HK are different from those in Manila. Fall-winter collections are those mostly on display, so expect a lot of coats and thick fabrics one can hardly wear in Manila.

Reminisce HK's British past by having tea at the coffee shop counterparts of fashion and luxury brands, which are not yet available in the Philippines. These include Vivienne Westwood Café, Kenzo Café, Agnes B Delices, and gold-infused Bulgari chocolates presented like jewelry inside the Bulgari store.

The hotels nearest to Victoria Harbour are mostly five-star, while many of the restaurants are Michelin-starred, and these include Ye Shanghai, which serves modern takes on traditional Shanghai cuisine, as well as a restaurant with an al fresco dining by British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. 

Just across Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade is another HK landmark, 1881 Heritage, a former HK Marine Police headquarters with a well-preserved British colonial architecture. It has been transformed into a hotel and a luxury shopping and dining complex.

If you still have time, watch three-dimensional movies at the Stanley Ho Space Centre and martial arts show or classical concerts at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

Located in East Tsim Sha Tsui is Hong Kong Museum of History, where admission is free daily and where one can interact with life-size replicas of HK's cultural figures and historic commercial establishments. It is just across Hong Kong Science Museum, where admission is free every Wednesday and where one can have fun with mirrors and optical illusions at the basement.

 

Branded cakes and pastries at Vivienne Westwood Cafe in Harbour City Philstar.com/Deni Rose M. Afinidad-Bernardo
Have fun with mirrors and optical illusions at the Hong Kong Science Museum Philstar.com/Deni Rose M. Afinidad-Bernardo

Kowloon

For budget hotels and shopping, head to Mong Kok. Temple Street, Ladies Market, Sneakers Street and Jade Market are popular haunts for harnessing one's haggling skills.

Many Filipinos, however, believe that the prices are still cheaper and the variety of commodities is still wider in Divisoria in Manila. Thus, it is advisable to skip products that are also available in Manila as these will also occupy one's baggage. Look instead for arts and crafts such as foldable paintings, Chinese tea sets and greeting cards written in Chinese calligraphy.

At the hem of these bargain districts are street food joints strictly monitored by the Hong Kong police for sanitation. From these stalls and small eateries, one can try exotic food like octopus tentacles, French fries on Belgian wafer cones, egg waffles, Bu Zai pudding, grilled radish, pear and chayote shake and roasted goose.

HK's famous neon-lit postcard pictures were shot along Nathan Road, so it has been a must for many tourists to stroll along Nathan Road - from the glitzy Tsim Sha Tsui to the shabby Sham Shui Po or vice versa. After all, taking long walks is a custom in HK, so there seems to be nobody obese there.

Hence, if you are just going nearby, some taxi drivers might refuse to give you a ride and ask you to walk instead. Riding taxis for short distances is unpopular in HK because although the taxis there observe a hefty flag down (22 Hong Kong Dollars or Php154), it takes so long for their meters to tick and because the MTR has a station at every tourist stop and in almost every town. 

 

French fries on Belgian cone in Mong Kok Philstar.com/Deni Rose M. Afinidad-Bernardo

Central

While the MTR is something one wishes for instead of Manila's Metro Rail Transit (MRT), the lines going to the Peak Tram is something Filipino MRT commuters on a rush hour know all too well.

It may take hours of long queuing before one gets to ride the Peak Tram in Central, but it is all worth it. At the station, there is a small exhibit about the tram's history. The ride is a thrilling, rollercoaster-like steep ascent past colonial British houses, some of which have been turned into restaurants or hostels.

The tram takes guests to the wok-shaped The Peak Tower, designed by celebrity architect Terry Farrell. The tower's roof deck is where one can get a bird's eye view of the city's LED-lit skyline, including the iconic Bank of China Tower, designed by celebrated Shanghai-born American Chinese architect I.M Pei, who is also behind the Glass Pyramid in Louvre, Paris; the Lippo Centre, designed by Paul Rudolph; and the main building of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corp. (HSBC), which, alongside the HK International Airport, was designed by British baron and architect Lord Norman Foster.

Many Filipino domestic workers gather at HSBC's pass-through ground floor on Sundays. The building, touted as the world's most expensive office edifice at the time it was built in 1982, follows local feng shui codes and is said to be capable of being dismantled and re-assembled like toy blocks.

Also in Central is the designer and art hub PMQ.

A tram away from Central is the hipster district, Chung Wan, which has been the setting of many Hong Kong and international films. It is where one can enjoy old and new architecture, hip cafes, bars, and unique concept stores.

 

The first and only Yayoi Kusama wax figure exhibition outside Tokyo opens in Madame Tussauds Hong Kong Philstar.com/Deni Rose M. Afinidad-Bernardo

Madame Tussauds Hong Kong (MTHK)

Besides the viewing deck, inside the Peak Tower is Madame Tussauds, which, to show that it is more than just a wax figure museum, launched its first artistic themed zone last November.

The new zone features the permanent exhibition of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, the only wax figure themed zone outside of Tokyo featuring "arguably the most significant contemporary artist of our time," said the museum's general manager, Jenny You.

"We are extremely honored for the opportunity to collaborate with her (Kusama) in bringing her wax figure and creative work to MTHK. From now on, art lovers need not make a pilgrimage to Japan - they can simply visit Madame Tussauds Hong Kong," You added.

The brand-new zone's design draws from the artist's iconic polka dots and gourd motifs, and invites visitors to experience the concept of "self-obliteration."

The zone adopts yellow as the main color and is manifested with repeating black dots. As visitors step into the space, they will be greeted by an overhanging "gourd" especially made in Japan. Parallel mirrors, along with dramatic lighting effects, instantly create a sense of infinite space and dissolve the border between space and oneself, inviting visitors to let loose as they embark on a journey of self-obliteration.

Seated at the centre of her artistic world, the highly lifelike wax figure of Kusama dons an eye-catching red hairpiece and a yellow dress with black polka dots.

"Filipino visitors were curious to learn more about the life and achievements of this renowned artist. They also enjoy taking selfies in the room, since the mirrors, polka dots, and lighting serve as a very dramatic backdrop," You shared in an e-mail interview with this writer.

The museum features over 100 celebrities and personalities from all around the world. From Hollywood movie stars to athletes, historical figures, British royalty and even cartoon characters, MTHK's line-up of wax figures has something for everyone.

"Every Madame Tussauds has its unique features. For example, MTHK is home to K-wave zone, which opened last year and is the only Korean pop culture zone in Madame Tussauds worldwide. MTHK is also home to Kung Fu zone, Hong Kong's one and only wax figure tribute to Kung Fu films, which also opened last year," You explained.

According to her, within these zones, visitors can grasp the tedious work of the museum's production team, which includes sewing the figures' hair strand by strand. The team is said to be the ones with the most knowledge about the celebrities' every body part.

Guests can also interact with their favorite celebrities. "Filipino visitors really enjoy taking photos with international action star Jackie Chan and Lady Gaga, who is decked out in a very eye-catching hairstyle and costume," You observed.

"They also enjoy Kung Fu zone, where they can learn to be a Kung Fu master with interactive games and interact with legendary martial arts film stars. K-wave is another favourite, since they can ‘stroll' in the streets of Seoul and immerse themselves in K-pop culture, not to mention take selfies with heartthrobs such as Kim Soo-hyun from the television drama ‘My Love from the Star'."

To reduce queue time for the holidays, the museum launched an online promo that allows guests to access the special lane for the Peak Tram.

If you do not want to line up again going down, you can try hiking. Hiking to and from The Peak is popular among locals, says Angel Wong, who lives in Central, a town below The Peak.

In time for Donald Trump's inauguration, wax figures of America's new president are now in Madame Tussauds.

 

Hong Kong is not just a city, actually, natural attractions comprise about 70 percent of it. HKTB/Released

The great outdoors

When you think of Hong Kong, you think of the city, but actually, natural attractions such as parks, beaches, and mountains comprise about 70 percent of Hong Kong, said Ip. Thus, according to her, hiking has become not only locals' favorite pastime, but also their means to sight-see.

Any time Hong Kong residents want to get away from it all, they go to nature enclaves like Cheung Chan, Geopark, Lamma Island, and Dragon's Back Trail, which is believed to be auspicious because of its shape.

 

Ocean Park's last surviving panda Philstar.com/Deni Rose M. Afinidad-Bernardo

Ocean Park

This year marks the 40th anniversary of HK's "open classroom", Ocean Park. Besides the usual amusement park rides and arcade, here, you can see the park's only surviving panda.

Do not fret, because there are other animals to see like giant sea lions; dolphins you can take pictures with after the show; and lots of emperor penguins and "Happy Feet" dancing and swimming in their habitat - you do not need to see the show.

At Old Hong Kong, you can try traditional street food or watch in an old HK cinema.

Before heading out, make sure to see the entire park from above through the 360-degree flier, or via an exhilarating cable car ride, with heartbeat-skipping stops, alongside mountain slopes and atop beaches.

The Nong Ping Cable Car ride will be closed for rope replacement from January to June, so better try it now or go to Ocean Park if you want to ride a cable car.

Buying tickets

Tickets at government-accredited travel agencies in the airport are cheaper than buying them from Philippine travel agents and from the parks' ticketing offices. You can also get a good deal by taking advantage of promos from the parks' websites.

Currency exchange

It is cheaper to exchange from US dollars or Philippine peso to HKD from banks in the Philippines, where the current exchange rate is a little over Php6 to one HKD. Once you are in HK, the exchange rate is 7+ HKD to a peso, even in the airport or banks.

If you cannot find a money changer, just use your internationally accredited credit card or withdraw from an automated teller machine in a local bank in HK using your international debit card.

Alternatively, you can buy and top up an Octopus card from any MTR station and use it to pay not only for train rides, but also for fast food chains, groceries, and some restaurants. You can refund the remaining balance from the MTR's booths in the airport for a processing fee of nine HKD.

 

Garden of the Stars in Tsim Sha Tsui East Philstar.com/Deni Rose M. Afinidad-Bernardo

Events to watch out

The Hong Kong Museum of Art will remain closed for renovations and expansion and will reopen in 2018 or 2019. Likewise, the permanent galleries at the Space Museum are still closed for refurbishment, and so is the Avenue of Stars, which will reopen in 2018.

Hong Kong International Film Festival, which just marked its 40th anniversary last year, will return on March to give one a chance to watch HK films with international Hong Kong superstars like Jackie Chan, Aaron Kwok and Chow Yun-fat.

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The sweet life of Silay

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