Learn About the Chinese Tea
The fragile cup is warm in my hand, a soothing comfort against the chilly December air that attempts to slip under the doors of the Lock Cha Tea Shop.
But I am not here for warmth, but rather to learn about Chinese tea. I refocus on Mr. Ip, a local tea expert, as he discusses China’s love for the revered drink.
One must understand the tea’s qualities, he says, as well as the culture and tradition that surround it. There are intricate rituals involved with drinking tea, he explains, delicately pouring the liquid into several cups.
Then it’s time to sample. I try to grasp what I’ve just heard, but it’s hard for me — a tea-drinking novice — to understand the drink’s subtleties.
Yet as I sip the warm brew, I almost feel as I am drinking a bit of China herself. Thousands of years of knowledge have just slipped down my throat.
Such treasured experiences are not what I expected from my first trip to Hong Kong. In fact, this bustling city is not at all what I imagined.
Mention Hong Kong to almost anyone and certain images come to mind: Crowded streets filled with businessmen hurrying to the office, tall skyscrapers blocking the sun and hundreds of stores open late for good shopping.
Yet that picture is incomplete without the people of this vibrant city. The area’s 6.8 million residents come from all walks of life.
Fisherman sailing their sampans into the harbor, vendors selling dim sum (dumplings) from carts as they talk on cell phones and villagers living in tiny stilted homes along the waterways in the outlying islands.
Travel to Hong Kong
It is through the eyes of Hong Kong’s people that I have come to appreciate this city.
I’m lucky — I’ve had my friend, Winnie, to show me some of her hometown’s highlights. But other visitors can benefit from local knowledge as well.
In a unique Hong Kong initiative called “Meet the People,” area residents, artists and businessmen have offered to share their thoughts and expertise with guests to the city.
The goal is to help visitors get below surface tourism and experience Chinese culture, tradition and heritage for themselves.
Free weekly sessions on a variety of topics and activities are offered in English, which is widely spoken in this former British colony.
Mr. Ip’s tea talk has been so enjoyable, that I decide to attend some of the other free local-taught classes.
Participating in the Free Classes
Early-morning tai chi lessons are offered on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront Promenade in Kowloon, so I head out while the sky is still dark to give this popular practice a try.
Tai chi instructors William Ng and Pandora Wu lead the class of about 20 tourists from all over the globe.
As the sun moves into the sky, Ng gently helps participants find the correct positions, encouraging them to relax and enjoy the exercise. “Tai chi is about balance,” he says to me, moving my arms into correct position.
Niels Voigt, a 25-year-old visitor from Amsterdam, is one of the other participants.
“This program is a good way to get to know people and experience Hong Kong,” says Voigt as he practices the unfamiliar moves. “I wish this kind of program was in other cities as well.”
I would agree, but I’m too busy trying to get the moves right to reply. Although tai chi looks easy, it is not! My muscles ache by the time the class is over.
Passionate About the Jade Shopping
Locals from other fields have also chosen to share their expertise with visitors to Hong Kong. Henry Cheng, a respected jeweler and designer, offers his knowledge in a free class on Jade Shopping.
This know-how comes in handy later on as Winnie and I head for Hong Kong’s Jade Market. There are literally hundreds of jade sellers to choose from, and my friend waits patiently as I search for the perfect purchase.
From there, we head to dinner, which has quickly become one of my favorite experiences here in Hong Kong. All of my life, I’ve been fairly unimpressed by the “Chinese food” served up in my home state of Colorado.
And now I‘ve confirmed what I’ve long suspected — much of the “Chinese cuisine” served in my mountain community bears little resemblance to the authentic thing.
“American-Chinese food is like Chinese for beginners,” a local restaurateur from my hometown informs me later. (Now he tells me!)
But the food in Hong Kong is excellent, igniting tastes I have never before experienced — from the sautéed crab claws at the award-winning GoldenBauhinia Restaurant to dim sum at a local eatery to the Bird’s Nest Soup and mouth-watering Peking Duck at T’ang Court.
By the end of my second day in Hong Kong, I’m hooked on the local cuisine. I will never be satisfied with the “fake” Chinese food back home again.
True Shopper’s Paradise
I have discovered something else I like about this thriving city — it is a true shopper’s paradise. As one of the world’s top fashion centers, there are hundreds of upscale clothing stores and other shops to choose from.
But you don’t have to spend a fortune to get a good deal. In fact, Hong Kong’s many streets markets offer top goods at very competitive prices.
Using the city’s excellent public transport system, Winnie and I head off for a full day of shopping later that week.
First, we stroll through the Flower Market, where the streets are lined with dozens of flower shops. Blooms are everywhere, and the sweet fragrance of flowers fills the air.
From there, we run by the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden. Even as we near the market, the air is filled with the songs of hundreds of birds.
I watch as potential buyers go from cage to cage, listening to each bird’s song and judging its desirability.
Others, mostly men and older boys, have brought their birds (in cages, of course) for some time in the park.
The birds in their cages hang in the trees, while the men sit and chat. Others play mah jong or simply soak in the sun.
Temple Street Night Market
Yet my favorite stop is the Temple Street Night Market, where the cacophony of vendors and shoppers speaking Cantonese and English rises to a dull roar.
Fortune tellers set up lights and tables, offering to tell your future with cards or even a bird.
“Go try it,” Winnie encourages me, but I just stand back and watch. By the end of the evening, one thing is clear.
I’ve bought so much in Hong Kong that I’m going to have to purchase another suitcase just to get it all home.
Made up of many islands, Hong Kong has made excellent use of its setting along the water. There are waterfront promenades and parks to enjoy, as well as an excellent ferry system.
Traces of the town’s colonial past are everywhere — from the English that is widely spoken to the High Tea served at several area hotels. Yet beneath that English exterior beats a rich, Chinese heart.
The Tradition of Hong Kong
Now a part of China, Hong Kong continues its brisk capitalistic ways. But even though modern ways are the norm, traditions are not forgotten — even when designing huge sky scrapers.
When a new building is designed, feng shui experts are often brought in to consult.
This ancient Chinese art, which literally means “wind and water,” is the practice of positioning objects and buildings in harmony with nature to ensure good fortune.
The art is taken quite seriously here, so I’m pleased when I come across Mr. Yu and his free feng shui class for visitors.
Mr. Yu is an experienced practitioner of this art, and he lectures on it each week for the Hong Kong’s Meet the People program.
Goemancy, as feng shui is also called, is an important part of the local architecture. Many residents believe that a business’ success hinges on assuring harmony in the environment.
Winnie points out one building with “bad right angles,” and then others that offer “beautiful harmony.”
She tells me of one local businessman who scoffed at feng shui and built his office building to his own whims.
Of course, as many here could foretell, such foolishness was costly. The business soon went under.
After this introduction to feng shui, the layout of the city, its harbors and skyscrapers take on new meaning.
Such insight into Chinese culture offers visitors a rare opportunity to see Hong Kong in a whole new light. And that, some would say, enriches any visit.
If You Go
Hong Kong Tourism Board