Another side to Hong Kong

by Rachel Allen

Filled with authentic old-style Chinese culture and food, Kowloon is a place tour guides don't mention--but it has sights and tastes that can't be missed

If you’re looking for a break from the ultra-busy high rise life of Hong Kong Island, Kowloon City is the place to go. A short ride on the MTR from Tsim Sha Tsui or Wan Chai, Kowloon City is what most people expect an authentic Chinese city to look like. The buildings are old and are crowded with shops spilling out onto the street selling braids of dried herbs, and wet markets sell seafood killed to order.

Temple Street it’s not—Kowloon City has a special place of nostalgia in Hong Konger's hearts, and many local people consider it to be one of the only places left that preserves the older culture. When you walk down the street it's like looking back into another decade. You can still see people carrying loads on bamboo sticks across their shoulders, and storeowners sit on boxes of goods in the street and chat in between customers.

Given it's nostalgic reputation, you might be surprised to find out that it's popular with Hong Kong celebrities, but if you ask the locals, they'll tell you why—they’re there for Hoover Bakery.

Hoover Bakery on Nga Tsin Wai Road is a Kowloon City legend and has held the title for the best old-style bakery in Hong Kong for thirty years because of two things: their egg tarts and their favorite customer, Chow Yun Fat. Although the bakery looks a little run-down, it is easy to find because the front is completely covered with pictures of Chow Yun Fat, who visits regularly. All of their buns and breads are good, but the egg tarts (a delicious custard-y vanilla and egg filling in a fluffy pastry) are considered to be the best in Hong Kong. In fact, they are such a staple that local flight attendants always buy some before they go overseas to stave off homesickness. Easy to afford even on a budget, you can expect to pay about HK$4 for one—if you can stop after only one! Their coconut buns and pineapple buns (another Hong Kong staple) are also excellent.

If you're in the mood for some tea to drink with your egg tarts, head over to Nam Kok Road to the Yuen Mau Hing Kei Tea Company about five minutes away. The company is owned by an old Cantonese couple who imports giant batches of tea from mainland China and stores it loose in huge tin boxes to keep it fresh. You can buy almost any amount, and depending on the tea, can expect to pay about US$10 for 200 grams, which will make well over 100 cups of tea.

Kowloon City’s other big claim to fame is their Thai restaurants, which the locals say are the most authentic in Hong Kong. Spread throughout the city, most of the restaurants are operated by Thai women who originally came to Hong Kong as domestic servants, then started the restaurants with their savings. Wong Chun Chun Thai Restaurant on Tak Ku Ling Road is good, but considered a bit cliché by the locals. Others, such as Friendship Thai Food on Kai Tak Road are more local-oriented, and if you can stand the spicy green curry, you can have a meal for anything from HK$30 to HK$100. Basically any restaurant you stop into in this area will be good, but be careful about what you order—when they spicy, they mean it.

After eating, try heading over to the Kowloon City wet market, a huge, easily visible building in the middle of the city. Here you can buy almost anything you can think of, and a lot of things that you might never want to think of again, like gigantic dried octopuses, pig faces, or snake wine. Despite the unhygienic look of the wet market—the smell around the chicken cages is not for the faint-hearted—it is actually pretty safe, and you should be sure to try some boot zai go (a jelly-textured snack made with sweet red beans) or freshly pressed soy milk.

When you’ve worn yourself out walking around the city, the Regal Oriental, near the now-defunct airport, can cater to the most demanding of tastes with rooms for about US$200 per night, and is the only major hotel in Kowloon City. However, cheaper (or more expensive, if you prefer) accommodations can be found in Tsim Sha Tsui or Wan Chai.

From the bakery to the open-air markets, Kowloon City is as local and authentic as it gets, and is a refreshing break from the ultra-urban life in most of Hong Kong—once you’ve immersed yourself in the culture here, you can truly say you’ve experienced the local Hong Kong culture.