Markets of Hong Kong

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
Trip End Aug 10, 2007

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Monday, August 6, 2007

There were many signs posted in Hong Kong while I was there promoting the Hong Kong Festival of Shopping with the slogan "Shopping Is Everything" which from the looks of things must be the city's motto.  While the department stores and malls and markets in other cities in China looked very well-stocked with a wide range of goods both luxury and trashy, especially after two months in mostly empty Kazakhstan and Mongolia, no place compares with Hong Kong for the sheer number and variety of retail establishments. Hong Kong must have the world's densest concentration of both high-end megamalls and crowded street markets.

Shopping is usually one of my less preferred pastimes, and I take pride in not having been into a mall in America in nearly two years.  But in Hong Kong even I was able get into browsing in the markets for the fun of it and the bargains and wandering through the malls to take in their opulence and enormity (but mostly to enjoy their air conditioning).

I decided to spend a day of my trip in Kowloon, the tip of the mainland peninsula directly across the harbor from the central business district on Hong Kong Island that's Hong Kong's shopping central.  First, though, I thought I'd take in a little culture at Hong Kong Museum of Art, part of a cultural complex of several museums and a performing arts center situated on the harbor at the southern tip of Kowloon that prove culture in Hong Kong is not only something that happens to pearls. From here in Tsin Sha Tsui, Nathan Road, shopping world, runs for several miles directly north through Kowloon, beginning first with massive malls to its west along the waterfront, outlet stores crowding the side streets to its east, and knock-off goods shops and custom tailoring businesses run by South Asians filling the old tenement "mansions" between the big hotels catering to spendthrift people on shopping holidays.

Beyond the large and pleasant Kowloon Park, Nathan Road and its side streets quickly become far less tourist-spending oriented in the tightly crowded tenement neighborhoods of Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kok where the shopping is more market-oriented, the customers more local, and the bargains more common.  There seems to be a different street for everything, sometimes in shops lining the streets and in many cases on this Saturday in street markets - an entire street dedicated to jade shops, another to jewelry shops, a jade market house in several buildings with hundreds of stands, a street dedicated to wedding outfits and other bridal items, a street and market complex for computer hardware and software, and another for CDs and DVDs.  One street market several blocks long is informally called the "Ladies Market" since it stocks mostly womens' clothing and accessories, while the Temple Street Night Market near the Tin Hau Temple is unofficially called the "Men's Market" for a similar reason.  Even more interesting are the side streets devoted to animals and plants, one street specializing in dogs, cats, and other pets, another known as "The Goldfish Market" in pet fish and aquarium supplies, and a green area known as "The Bird Garden" entirely devoted to song birds, favorite pets among the Chinese.

I decided to go back to the Temple Street Market after watching the evening fireworks over Hong Kong Harbor.  Night markets are common in Southeast Asia but I haven't seen many in China other than those specializing in food.  Anyway, it was crowded and chaotic as is to be expected with lots of cheap clothing, Chinese bric-a-brac, useless knickknacks, and lots of interesting stuff that you forgot you needed until you saw or that would make ideal gifts - pretty chopstick/place mat sets, optical equipment, CDs, travel alarm clocks, bathing suits, camping gear, etc. 

After all that shopping I realized I was not only hot but also hungry, so was easy prey for one of the street restaurant touts who lured me to an outdoor table with an English menu.  Hmmmm, whelks, I've heard of them and I know they're some kind of a mollusc, but what are they?  I guess I'll try some whelks (whatever they are) and the stuff the people next to me are having looks really good, so I'll make a piglet of myself and have that too - scrambled eggs with big shrimp and scallions, a chili crab, steamed pomfret with scallions and ginger, and greens with garlic sauce.  Oh, and a big beer to wash it all down!  All was well except for the whelks, which must be like the escargot of the sea.  Essentially sea snails, their flesh long brown spiral-shaped flesh came out of their spiral shells with the aid of a toothpick and tasted slimy and chewy and gritty and slightly bitter all at the same time.  Blech!  I made it through seven of the twenty-odd shells that must have been in the bowl before I felt the taste and texture would be forever imprinted in my memory and I no longer needed to torture myself.  Now for another beer to wash the taste out of my mouth!

There are other specialty markets and shopping streets in other parts of Hong Kong, some of which are located in the Sheung Wan neighborhood on Hong Kong Island just west of the CBD.  Hollywood road specializes in teas, antiques and home furnishings, Lascar Street (alias Cat Alley) in religious items and bric-a-brac.  More fun, though, are the shops along the side streets around Bonham Road which stock dried seafood products like seahorses, shrimp, shark fins, sea cucumbers, scallops, and seemingly hundreds of other products that come from under the sea.  Similar are the areas full of shops stocking traditional Chinese medicines.  Now these are the true sights and smells of China!
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