Hong Kong shopping

City crowds. This was taken at Causeway Bay. We didn’t take pictures in Kowloon

Years ago what attracted Australians to stay a day or two or three in Hong Kong was the shopping. Sure, it was an accessible way to get a look at the Orient, but mixed with that was the great exchange rate, and the quality goods for sale at substantially less than the prices in Australia. Even when the sales taxes were altered back in the Keating years, you could still snap up a bargain in Hongkers. With that in mind, Pete and I set out after our lunch escapade in search of bargains.

I’ll interrupt that story with a small side arc. The cost of ‘roaming’ on mobile phone plans in Australia is outrageous, but it’s possible to buy ‘roaming’ plans that charge just the cost of a local phone call. Using Travelsim, we put $5 on such a sim and inserted it into a cheap phone, then told a few close friends the number so they could contact us in case of emergency at home. I also downloaded an app called Maps.Me. It’s free and lets you download a functioning map for overseas travel. Yes, Google does this, too, but Google has upset the powers that be in China, and you can’t download Google’s China maps. We put the app on Pete’s tablet, which he always has with him to take photos. Pete fell in love with Maps.Me. You don’t need access to Wifi, and of course the GPS function will locate you on the map. It certainly helps with navigating in foreign parts.

Back on the streets of Hong Kong, we made our way towards the electronics street. We had already discovered that our mate Andy (tour guide) had given us a bum steer as far as directions went. But Pete is quite happy to ask for help, and managed to find an Aussie working in a shop to tell us where to go. So we worked our way across Nathan Road, which runs up the middle of Kowloon, and into the back roads where the shops line the streets.

Hong Kong was always a busy place, and this was the weekend, but the throng of humanity was extraordinary. The streets were sardine packed everywhere. For Aussies, think sideshow alley at the Royal Show on steroids. The demographics had changed, too. Not so many years ago, the crowd would have been mostly Asian, but there would have been a good number of European people. Now, people like us were a rarity. I hate crowds at the best of times. I don’t get anxious or claustrophobic, but I hate the press of people invading my space, brushing their bodies against me as they pass. When I find myself in a crowd I start to move faster, ducking and weaving my way between the people. Where there’s rudeness, pushing, shoving and the like, the nostrils flare, the elbows come out, and although I won’t push first, I’ll shove second. We were both struck by the rudeness and total lack of consideration for anyone else on the street. And we discovered we weren’t the only ones with that perception.

We were looking for a camera lens. We had done our homework at home and knew what we wanted, and what it should cost. I leave all negotiations about price to Peter, who enjoys the cut and thrust, and is very good at it. But while he would have had a lovely time haggling in years gone by, it doesn’t happen anymore. For a start, far fewer Hong Kongers speak English. We would go into a shop, they would wheel out their English speaker, we would tell them what we wanted, and they would give us a price. That was it. No negotiation. Take it or leave it. You can get it for that in Australia? Shrug. In days gone by, they wouldn’t have let you out of the shop, at least trying to sell you something else. That’s how it still is in Singapore. But not here.

What was happening? What had changed? The answers came from our tour guide in Macao, a Portuguese gentleman who had lived in Macao for 33 years. The vast majority of tourists in Hong Kong (and Macao) now are mainland Chinese. They require less personal space and have a different perception about how to behave in a crowd. And they pay whatever the vendors ask. They have money, and they know they will get a quality product in Hong Kong. I have never seen so many stores selling up-market merchandise like Gucci, Armani, Yves St Laurent, and all the other big-name designer brands. Every fifth car (that wasn’t a taxi) was a Mercedes. I must have seen half a dozen Maseratis (I’ve never seen one on the street before) one red one being driven by a kid with P plates, doing his best to hoon around a packed Hong Kong block.  The best-selling item for the Chinese? Tins of powdered baby milk. There is a ration of two tins per person. They also love to gamble. But I’ll leave that to my Macao post.

After a fruitless few hours fighting our way through Kowloon, we gave up and caught a taxi to the star ferry which plies the waters between Kowloon and the Island. It’s a short ride, and not very crowded on this Saturday afternoon. The ride in a lift made up for it, though. The last fellow to insinuate himself in could only just lean out of the way of the closing doors. Now that WAS claustrophobic. I keep on wondering how it would be if the lift failed…

That evening we decided to go out for dinner. I’m not a great lover of Chinese food – I hasten to add that there are very many excellent Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong, I just wasn’t in the mood. I love Indian, though, and on the concierge’s recommendation we went to a restaurant tucked away in an arcade in an alley less than 10 minutes from the hotel. We spent a lovely evening there. The menu listed a vast array of dishes, but since the owners were Hindu, not beef. Peter asked the Indian waiter where he came from, which was greeted with a big grin. “I was born here, sir.” Turned out his ancestors had been in the British army stationed in Hong Kong, and had decided to stay. The barman was from Indian, though. He didn’t speak much English, but that was okay. We tried a shot of Indian whisky (better than Johnny Walker IMO) and Pete had Indian beer. I had a glass of house white, which arrived in a bucket (not really – just a very generous serve). The menu included standard combinations, so we picked the ‘Happy Meal’ – tandoori chicken for starters, then lamb tikka marsala served with naan and condiments, sweets and coffee.

We slept well that night. Join me tomorrow for our last day in Hong Kong, pottering around in a different part of the city.