NOTHING WONG WITH THE OTHER HONG KONG
I came here on a premise this trip: That too many of the nine million tourists each year, especially Australians, only think of Kowloon when they visit this reclaimed part of China.
Sure, they may take the obligatory cross-Harbour trip on the Star ferry to Hong Kong Island but all the action is on the mainland side of the former British colony. The island is the stuffy financial district. Right? Wrong.
Kowloon does have teeming Nathan Road and the famous Peninsula Hotel and thousands of Chinese restaurants and affordable holiday package hotels and open air markets. But it is also crammed with people and choking air pollution. Some visitors never leave it.
But Hong Kong Island, with its dramatic, towering skyscrapers and The Peak as a backdrop, is actually the centre of night life for the area and it is only a one-station, cheap, speedy subway ride under the harbour from Tsim Sha Tsui station on the Kowloon side to Admiralty station on the island.
Decades ago part of Hong Kong Island was a must visit place for randy tourists. It was the red light bar district of Wan Chai made famous in the racy (for the times) movie The World of Suzy Wong.
These days the bars do still exist but Wan Chai also hosts hotels like the Grand Hyatt and Wanchai Tower, the Hong Kong Arts Centre and the Expo Convention Centre.
The nightlife of Hong Kong these days centres on bars and nightclubs in Soho and Lan Kwai Fong areas on the edge of the central CBD.
Lan Kwai Fong is a tiny cobblestone hillside lane filled with bars, nightclubs and restaurants that truly is the centre of nightlife in Hong Kong.
There are dozens of places crammed into a few blocks and they spill out on to the pavement. Famous bars like California, La Dolce Vita, Lux and Oscar’s are matched by German beer houses and clubs that don’t close until 5a.m. One, aptly named Insomnia is almost open 24/7 – closing only between 6a.m. and 9a.m. to sluice it out. Another features Jacuzzi tubs.
For shoppers during the day there are massive multi-level underground plazas like Pacific Place which have every brand name imaginable: Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Armani, Tiffany’s, Ralph Lauren, Dolce & Gabbana, Dior, Balenciaga, Swarovski, Jimmy Choo. All the real thing. Not a fake to be seen.
Sure, there are rip-off copies at the markets and in tiny laneway shops but originals have such stature once again that the increasing army of wealthy Chinese from Beijing and Shanghai now boast that they’ve just been shopping in Hong Kong.
Amidst all this – and right above Pacific Place – I found an island within an island. And that’s where we stayed. The Island Shangri-La Hotel.
Aptly named. On your pillow is a bookmark that reads: ‘He was enjoying that pleasant mingling of physical ease and mental alertness which seemed to him, of all sensations, the most civilised. So far, the appointments of Shangri-La had been all that he could have wished – certainly more than he could ever have expected.’
James Hilton was actually writing about a different Shangri-La – the mythical hidden monastery in the Himalayas – in his 1930s novel Lost Horizon. But it describes the Hong Kong Island version pretty well.
(For Trivial Pursuit buffs Lost Horizon was the first book ever published in paperback.)
The Island Shangri-La became our island within an island because they spoil you rotten. Our 53rd Floor Executive Room overlooked the harbour and Kowloon.
Fresh fruit breakfasts –including the best golden pineapple and reddish papaya – in the top of the tower Petrus Restaurant. Undoubtedly the best, most extensive smorgasbord in Hong Kong is at Café Too. It was a favourite on a previous visit.
There are islands of different foods, oriental and western. The Hungry Hinch favourite: Start with salmon and tuna sashimi sliced to order in front of you. Or sushi. Plus some chilled prawns. Mrs. Nosebag headed straight for an island of various salads.
Then some golden honeyed duck (or pork spare ribs or beef or chicken) with bok choy and other greens stir-fried to order. For Mrs. Nosebag it was beautifully light fish with stir-fried beans.
One of Café Too’s adventures is to make up your own soup concoction. Some greens, some bean sprouts, a variety of mushrooms, slivers of beef or pork, bean curd, thick or thin noodles and then a choice of stocks. Then the chef quickly cooks it all in water and you add your own soy sauce or chilli oil.
One of the biggest islands is for desserts. An explosion of colours and tastes. Exotic cakes plus fruit salad or chunks of water melon. From experience we saved a bit of space for the spectacular chocolate fountain in which you dunk fresh strawberries and marshmallows.
You can easily take a couple of hours of slow ‘island-hopping’ in this place.
The other favourite spot at the Shangri-La almost became a nightly ritual.
Our first night in town, after a flight-delayed marathon, we lazily decided to eat in-house and we found a bar and seafood restaurant that was world class. The Lobster Bar and Grill could be in Paris or New York. Wood-panelling, banquettes, subtle lighting, a long well-stocked bar, a jazz trio. And faultless seafood with a cornucopia bread basket you have to push away.
It set the scene and the standard for the week and even on the occasions we didn’t eat there we would drop into the bar for a nightcap and to listen to the music. (There’ll be a Hungry Hinch review of it).
Like the Conrad Hotel next door or the nearby Marriott, the Shangri-la ( and there is a sister hotel on Kowloon) is central and close to everything you need day or night. The subway system through the island, Kowloon and under the harbour is the best, safest, cleanest, most comfortable and easily negotiable that I have experienced anywhere. It makes The Tube in London and New York’s subway system look rusty even prehistoric.
You can get an ‘Octopus Card’ that you top up like a piggy bank and it permits you to use all forms of public transport. And the kamikaze taxis, which are everywhere, have a $HK 15 basic fare which will get you a fair distance for less than $3 Australian.
Even at that price we didn’t need a late night impromptu concert by an opera singing driver who wasn’t sure if he was ‘Pavarotti doing Elvis’ or ‘Elvis doing Pavarotti’. Especially when he took both hands off the wheel as we careened down hill and flung arms wide for the big finish.
Note from the ‘They think of everything file’. The Island Shangri-La has a shallow outside heated swimming pool on the eighth floor. They have a life guard on duty!
SEW IT AGAIN, SAM
Trivial Pursuit time: What on earth do Bill Clinton, David Bowie, Pavarotti and Ronald Reagan have in common? What common thread (or threads) link their lives. And therein lies a clue.
Give up? Well, how about: John Howard, Bob Hawke, Mark Latham, Tony Blair, Maggie Thatcher, Elton John, Cliff Richard and Kylie Minogue.
They have all been clients of Sam The Tailor in Hong Kong at his premises in the grandly named Burlington Arcade. In reality it’s a tiny tailor’s shop jammed with swards of cloth and fabric samples down a narrow nondescript corridor off Nathan Road, Kowloon. A minute from Tsim Sha Tsui station.
The King of Weird Michael Jackson has also been a customer. He probably had some androgynous garment run up in opulent Oriental brocade.
Reagan wasn’t the only presidential customer. Try Jimmy Carter, George Bushes (Senior and Junior), Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton. The royal clientele ranges from the Queen to Prince Philip and Prince Charles. There’s also a signed, but uncashed, cheque from Fergie. Maybe Sam figured it would bounce.
There are a few misnomers about Sam and his suits. His name isn’t actually Sam. It’s Manu Melwani. The business was started decades ago by his Indian father and now his son is training to take over. They call ‘Sam’ the ‘father of the 24-hour suit’ but if you are wise you’ll be patient and give it two or three days and two or three fittings. Copies of favourite shirts in silk or pure cotton can be done very quickly.
Sam still does the lightning fast, but accurate, measuring but one of his team of 55 tailors makes the suit or jacket off the premises. And despite his celebratory status you can still buy a handmade, immaculately finished cashmere and wool suit or jacket for about half the cost of something off the shelf back home.
But be warned of the consequences when you give them your business card as you place your order. I didn’t have one so, innocently, gave them one of my wife Chanel’s cards.
I am now the proud owner of a beautiful jacket that has intricately embroidered on the inside pocket: ‘Specially made for Mr. Chanel Hinch’ followed by an individual garment number. Thanks Sam. I doubt Bill’s wearing a pair of pants with Hillary’s name on the waistband.