Victoria Peak. The Star Ferry. Lantau’s Big Buddha. Ocean Park. Disneyland Resort. The harbour. When it comes to iconic sites and attractions, Hong Kong remains a firm favourite with visitors from around the world, including the Gulf, as this writer discovered on a recent fam trip.
But this ever-cosmopolitan territory on China’s southern coast is in the midst of a cultural and artistic revolution which promises to enliven and enrich the city’s tourist offering, and reinforce Hong Kong’s status as one of the world’s most enduringly exciting, and unique, destinations.
From the dizzying heights of sky100, the observation deck on the 100th floor of the city’s highest building and which bills itself as ‘Hong Kong’s premier attraction’ - perhaps with some justification given the million-dollar views across the harbour right into the city’s heart - a major new cultural investment is rapidly taking shape hundreds of metres below.
The West Kowloon Cultural District is Hong Kong’s latest, and probably most ambitious to date, endeavour it hopes will establish the territory as a regional and global cultural and arts hub. Representing significant financial outlay – the district occupies prime waterfront with dramatic cross-harbour vistas - it is already a bucket list fixture for art afficionados and visitors searching for Hong Kong’s cultural underbelly.
Currently the district, parts of which are still under construction, has three main elements open to the public, playing host to frequent exhibitions, events and festivals which take place throughout the year.
In fine weather, the Art Park is a tranquil, lush green space where open-air performances and cultural events already draw crowds. Starting next September and through the winter months, it will host Freespace Happening, a monthly live music, dance, literature, and handicraft festival at a 900-capacity venue currently under construction.
Located within Art Park, the impressive M+ Pavilion, a museum which claims to be ‘dedicated to collecting, exhibiting and interpreting visual culture of the 20th and 21st centuries’, will in the not-too-distant-future make way for the so-called M+ Building, which once completed will become a new space for artists, designers and organisations to stage independent, small-scale exhibitions and events.
The Xiqu Centre, meanwhile, is a world-class arts venue dedicated to the promotion of Chinese traditional theatre and cultural events, with a beautiful atrium, and the 1,000-seat Grand Theatre which showcases traditional and contemporary performances by artists from Hong Kong, mainland China, and Southeast Asia. Within the Centre, the Tea House Theatre offers what it describes as ‘intimate encounters with Chinese traditional theatre’.
Hong Kong’s alternative side is about much more than arts and culture, of course. Back on the main island, sites which encapsulate the territory’s storied past - and capture the imagination - have also been the subject of renovation and revived interest, and as such are becoming increasingly popular stops on city itineraries. At Pak Tsz Lane Park, whose entrance is via a ‘blink-and-you-miss-it’ doorway on Hollywood Road, a main city thoroughfare, a monument celebrating the late 19th century revolutionary anti-Qing Dynasty activities of the members of the Furen Literary Society and the Hong Kong chapter of the Revive China Society, provide a unique historical insight.
A short journey from Pak Tsz Lane Park, a $485 million, eight-year restoration of the former Victoria Prison and Central Police Station opened to the public in mid-2018. The city’s biggest heritage conservation project, it includes 16 restored buildings (one of which is 150 years old), most of whose original features have been preserved, plus art spaces, exhibitions and cafes. The complex serves as a vivid reminder of a past long since left behind, where visitors – provided not prone to claustrophobia - can step inside the cells, and see where inmates such as Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese independence leader, would exercise in the yard.
Today’s visitor to Hong Kong need not be confined within the walls of a 20th century prison, nor have to pound the pavements on the hunt for shopping bargains, to get their daily exercise. The city may be one of the earth’s most densely populated, but the land is studded with nature parks and hiking trails which make the most of its rugged topography, dramatic coastlines and wild areas.
Take the Global Geopark in the east and northeast areas of the New Territories, the part of Hong Kong which borders with the Chinese mainland, where escapism is more than just a dream. A UNESCO-designated park easily experienced on a half-day or full-day excursion, its landscapes include the intriguing hexagonal rock columns at Sai Kung, formed by volcanic activity 140 million years ago.
Lantau Island, location of the international airport and the famous hilltop Big Buddha, is also broadening its appeal as a lesser-known face of Hong Kong. The 5.7km-long cable car ride from the Tung Chung terminal may be one of Hong Kong’s most popular points of interest - the views on both the ascent and descent guarantee spectacular panoramas across the South China Sea and Hong Kong’s outlying islands on a clear day - but it also delivers the passenger into another world, where relative solitude, and perhaps spiritual enlightenment, are on the agenda.
Just a few minutes’ stroll from Ngong Ping village, location of the Big Buddha, its not hard to escape the crowds. On the Wisdom Path, 38 upright wooden steles contain verses from the centuries-old Heart Sutra - considered one of the world’s best-known prayers revered by Confucians, Buddhists and Taoists - provide thought-provoking moments against steep mountain backdrops. At the nearby Po Lin Monastery, long a place of reflection for Hong Kongers and foreign visitors alike, hearts and souls are continuously replenished.
Hong Kong’s different face has never been easier to access and appreciate. World-class shopping, some of the planet’s best Chinese dining and those achingly dramatic harbour views are still on the ‘must do’ list for any visitor, but exciting new dimensions are opening up in this ever-changing, evolving city. Diminutive in size it may be, but Hong Kong packs a real punch, and with its latest additions to the arts and cultural scene, getting alternative perspectives of ‘Asia’s world city’ is very much in vogue. ”
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