What is Hong Kong’s cultural scene like?

Natalie Wearstler

Compared with other major cities, it’s easy to imagine Hong Kong as something of a cultural desert, with its creative soul smothered in dunes of cold, hard cash. But look closer and you’ll see that the theory doesn’t hold up. Recent times have seen a surge in the city’s cultural ambitions, as evidenced by a proliferation of new galleries; the arrival in 2008 of a high-profile international art fair, ART HK; the opening of Hong Kong’s first local auction house, Atting House, which focuses on Asian contemporary art; and the arrival of Art Basel Hong Kong in 2013, the first Asian iteration of the international art fair. Today, the city ranks as the world’s third-largest art market after New York and London, thanks to headline-grabbing auction sales fueled by the Chinese contemporary art boom just to the north.

There’s still work to be done. The city suffers from a chronic dearth of venues, particularly for music and theater. Nonetheless, the government is slowly making headway in its plans to build a vast, multi-disciplinary cultural complex in West Kowloon, while a growing number of independent arts outfits are finding innovative ways to make their mark on the local scene. Case in point: The organizers behind October Contemporary, an annual month-long citywide event promoting Hong Kong contemporary art, started in 2007. There are other events that have evolved into revered annual traditions, such as the ArtWalk (a citywide gallery showcase that drew 70 participating galleries in 2013) and the Hong Kong International Film Festival, which started in 1977. All this means that while Hong Kong culture isn’t exactly in-your-face, there’s a growing scene that’s just waiting to be discovered. Go and see it for yourself.

  • On July 25, 2013
    Natalie Wearstler answered the question: Natalie Wearstler

    What is the best Hong Kong nightlife?

    ©iStock/daumiudaumiu Since most Hong Kongers consider clocking out of the office before 9 p.m. an early night and bars can stay open until dawn, it’s no wonder that Hong Kong’s nightlife carries a high-caliber reputation. Options run the gamut from divey British pubs and candlelit wine bars to trendy lounges and members-only nightclubs where well-heeled locals and expats dance the night away.

    The swanky, modern neighborhood of Central (and, more specifically, the small cluster of streets known as Lan Kwai Fong) still lays claim to the hottest clubs in Hong Kong, but other areas are joining the scene. Kowloon has become a popular after-hours location thanks to an influx of new and revamped hotels like the W Hotel, The Mira and The Peninsula. Likewise, Wan Chai — once famous for its red-light entertainment venues — has experienced a revival in recent years, drawing new pubs, wine bars and lounges to the neighborhood, along with a more mainstream crowd. For a more sophisticated, low-key experience, try your hand at the bars and lounges along the Soho escalators. 

    Like many cities around the globe, Hong Kong banned smoking in all public places in 2009. But, there is yet to be a rule about being a set distance from building entrances, so it is quite common to see clusters of puffers huddled around bar doorways.

    Keep in mind that the frequency of several MTR lines reduces quite dramatically during late night and early morning hours. Plan ahead for transportation at the end of the night; your best bet is to bring along money for a cab.
  • On July 25, 2013
    Barbra Austin answered the question: Barbra Austin

    What festivals are going on in Hong Kong?

    Here’s what’s happening in Hong Kong:

    Hong Kong Restaurant Week August 5-11) gives eager eaters the chance to dine at some of the city's best and most popular tables, for a song.

    The Summer Spectacular (through August) exists mainly to promote tourism during the hottest months, but there are some intriguing offerings, including discounts at popular attractions, live music, and sporting events. See the Hong Kong Tourism Board website for details.

    Programmed for children, the International Arts Carnival (July 5 - August 11) features theater, music, and dance troupes from around the world.

    During the Hungry Ghost Festival (August), the dearly departed are believed to come back to visit; families leave offerings of food and fake money to appease the wandering spirits, and elaborate bamboo stages are constructed around the city for traditional opera performances.

    Rooted in ancient agricultural traditions, the Mid-Autumn Festival (September) celebrates the harvest with glowing lanterns, dragon dances, and mooncakes. Victoria Park is where much of the action happens.

  • On July 24, 2013
    Barbra Austin answered the question: Barbra Austin

    What new museum exhibits are in Hong Kong?

    Here's where to get your cultural fix in Hong Kong right now:

    The Origin of Dao: New Dimensions in Contemporary Chinese Art (at the Hong Kong Art Museum until August 18, 2013) This carefully curated exhibit explores the current state of Chinese art, with an emphasis on ways that artists are incorporating traditional techniques into their work to create a contemporary Chinese vernacular.

    Intelligence Infinity: Inspiration Through Art (at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum until September 23, 2013) Designed for kids, this interactive, interdisciplinary exhibit puts the “art” in “smart” by using Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences as the basis of curation.

    Light Before Dawn: Unofficial Chinese Art 1975-1984 (at the Asia Society until September 1, 2013) By refusing to make art that served the political aims of the Cultural Revoluti and instead choosing to make art for art’s sake, the artists in this show risked their lives and unknowingly set the stage for China’s explosion in the art world.

    Maritime Porcelain Road: Relics from Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macao Museums (At the Hong Kong Art Museum until February 16, 2014) This exhibit showcases exquisite pieces from the collections of the three participating museums, and examines the ways in which Chinese techniques have influenced the global ceramics trade for centuries.

    Bruce Lee: Kung Fu - Art - Life (at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum through July 20, 2018) Martial arts fans and film buffs will enjoy this retrospective on the legendary life of one of cinema's most influential fighters.
  • On July 24, 2013
    Natalie Wearstler answered the question: Natalie Wearstler

    Where can I go watch sports in Hong Kong?

    Making money is a favorite pastime of many Hong Kongers, so it should come as no surprise that the most popular spectator sport here is horse racing — the city’s only legal form of gambling apart from the lottery, soccer (coincidentally run by the same organization, the 1884-founded Hong Kong Jockey Club) and online sports betting. Happy Valley Racecourse has been home to the sport since 1846. Races run from September to June, when thousands of punters show up on Wednesday nights to win and lose fortunes — in fact, over the course of one season, an estimated $91 million HKD passes through the course. If you’re lucky enough to be in Hong Kong in December, you can catch a variety of mega-cash payouts during the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Races. The atmosphere ranges from charged to positively electrifying, but it’s not all high drama: The course is a green floodlit expanse, so if you aren't fixated on a scorecard, you can take advantage of the chance to relax in the great outdoors with one of Hong Kong’s cheapest pints.

    While Happy Valley Racecourse is by far the most iconic venue in Hong Kong, the Sha Tin Racecourse (which opened in 2007) is Hong Kong’s largest racecourse and is the choice destination for serious gamblers (it's also where corporate types go to mingle and enjoy lavish spreads in the many private boxes). Hong Kong Jockey Club also oversees Sha Tin, and hosts the course's frequent international races, including the annual Hong Kong Cup. You’ll have to buy a ticket to enter Sha Tin (HK$10), and if you want to venture past the public areas it will cost you even more. Tourists can gain access to the reserved areas of the racecourse by joining a tour organized by the Hong Kong Tourism Board, which includes entrance and a buffet lunch at the Visitors’ Box.

    Every year, during the last weekend of March, hordes of expats descend upon Hong Kong Stadium, claiming its 40,000 outdoor seats in the name of boozing, revelry and, occasionally, even rugby. Considered to be the most important competition in the eight-tournament IRB Sevens World Series, the Hong Kong Sevens pits 24 rugby union teams from around the world against each other. The contest’s huge popularity has resulted in the previously amateur Hong Kong team acquiring star players with professional status. Though the matches are undoubtedly exciting, the crowds are as diverting as the main event, especially at the hard-partying South Stand. If you’re more into the rugby than the crowd, a corporate box may be a better option. There is also a lively beer tent just outside the stadium with big-screen TVs for a different (yet no less lively) atmosphere for those unable to score tickets.
  • On July 23, 2013
    Natalie Wearstler answered the question: Natalie Wearstler

    What are the best Hong Kong museums?

    Hong Kong's museum draw from a rich well of history, fine art and ancient traditions to make this city's museum scenes one of the most captivating in the world. If you're looking for the best museums to add to your itinerary, consider these options:

    The Hong Kong Museum of Art — the city’s largest art museum, established in 1962 — has been located at its current premises in Tsim Sha Tsui since 1991, though the masterpieces housed inside date back much farther. Today, the museum is home to more than 15,800 unique pieces of art, ranging in style from intricate calligraphy to paintings by contemporary local artists. Permanent collections of Chinese antiquities and historical pictures complement traveling international exhibits, which keep art fiends coming back time and again. The Hong Kong Museum of Art also owns the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware in Hong Kong Park.

    At the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, guests can explore six permanent galleries (Orientation Theatre, New Territories Heritage Hall, Cantonese Opera Heritage Hall, T.T. Tsui Gallery of Chinese Art, Chao Shao-an Gallery, Children's Discovery Gallery). Additionally, six thematic galleries host rotating programs designed to appeal to both kids and adults, like an introductory workshop on Cantonese opera headwear. Special events, such as an ink painting demonstration or lectures on traditional Chinese woodblock prints, round out this unique museum's offerings.

    Adjacent to the Hong Kong Museum of History, the Hong Kong Museum of Science features about 500 exhibits — many of which are interactive. The biggest permanent exhibit is undoubtedly the Energy Machine, which occupies all four stories of the museum and is the only machine of its kind in the world. Balls zip along wavy or zig-zag tracks powered by computer controlled gates, demonstrating the relationship between energy conversion and movement. Along the way, they strike gongs and chimes, and create a chorus when they hit drums and xylophones. Temporary exhibits add to the fun; when I visited the museum in 2009, an interactive exhibit about candy revealed that there's much more to the wide array of treats wrapped in bright paper than I ever imagined.
  • On July 22, 2013
    Natalie Wearstler answered the question: Natalie Wearstler

    What should I pack for a trip to Hong Kong?

    ©iStock/fotoVoyage Hong Kong is a bustling, vibrant and modern city — and as such, there are few things that can't be picked up from a nearby store should your packing list exclude a few necessities. That said, you should definitely plan to bring at least one pair of comfortable walking shoes for exploring the city during the daytime. Ladies, it's not a bad idea to leave your tallest stilettos at home; the steep inclines and concrete sidewalks in Lan Kwai Fong and Soho are best traversed in flats or wedges. A small umbrella is handy for unexpected spring and summer showers. Impress your hosts or business associates by remembering to pack a few small gifts, as gift-giving is a part of Hong Kong culture. Coffee, tea or gourmet candy from a shop in your neighborhood back home is a thoughtful and practical way to extend your gratitude for the warm hospitality of your Hong Kong friends.
  • On July 22, 2013
    Natalie Wearstler answered the question: Natalie Wearstler

    What are the five best free things to do in Hong Kong?

    ©iStock/samxmeg While we would be remiss if we didn't recommend booking reservations for a meal at one of Hong Kong's finest restaurants, we also don’t blame you for wanting to save some of your money to spend on hard-fought bargains in Hong Kong’s famous markets. It’s a good thing, then, that many of the best things to see and do in this bustling Southeast Asia metropolis can be experienced without spending a single Hong Kong dollar. Here are five of our favorite ways to soak in this city's vibrant culture while keeping your wallet tucked away:

    1. Line up on the waterfront at Tsim Sha Tsui to watch "A Symphony of Lights." The 15 minute-long light and music show, which begins each night at 8 p.m., spotlights the many skyscrapers clustered together across Victoria Harbour. On a pleasant night, there's no better place to enjoy a cool breeze from the water. The people watching is good, too, especially if you can secure a spot near the Avenue of Stars, Hong Kong's version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

    2. Even though Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, there are still pockets of protected green space where you can head out for a hike. Pack a bottle of water and a few snacks and head out for a day in the woods, starting at the top of Victoria Peak and moving (steeply) downhill through lush, tropical trees and vines. For an even more scenic trail, head to Tai Tam Country Park to hike the Dragon’s Back trail, which winds up a ridge that offers views of Stanley and the South China Sea. The trail ends at Shek O, a charming seaside village with plenty of alfresco restaurants.

    3. Learn tai chi from two revered masters. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, William Ng and Pandora Wu teach a free class from 8 to 9 a.m. in the sculpture garden outside of the Hong Kong Museum of Art. 

    4. A walk through any of Hong Kong’s many markets is a fascinating exposure to sights, sounds and smells that are unique to this international city — even if you don't buy anything. Removed from the bustle of Hong Kong shopping in the southern part of the Island, Stanley Market is an outdoor one-stop shop for souvenir-seekers. You’ll find stereotypical Chinese-inspired print bags and wallets, among Chinese calligraphy and paintings, in these stalls just blocks from the water. Some stalls can be skipped, but be persistent and you’ll find antiques (or at least well-done replicas) and potentially good deals on Chinese embroidery and prints of various eras of Hong Kong history suitable for framing. Another market worth your while is Ladies Market, which earned its name because its goods were originally hawked to women only. Today’s vendors sell goods to both men and women, including T-shirts, shoes, stuffed animals, jackets, jeans and trinkets that make perfect souvenirs.

    5. Every Wednesday, many museums in Hong Kong offer free admission, including the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, Hong Kong’s Museum of Art, Hong Kong’s Museum of History, Museum of Coastal Defense, Science Museum and Dr. Sun Yat-sen Museum. Make a day of it by hopping between several outposts.
  • On July 18, 2013
    Natalie Wearstler answered the question: Natalie Wearstler

    What are the five best things to do with kids in Hong Kong?

    ©iStock/oksanaphoto There is plenty of wonderment to be found in Hong Kong — something that you and your kids can appreciate equally. From Ocean Park theme park and Hong Kong Disneyland to Ngong Ping 360 and the Peak Tram, you’ll reach new and thrilling heights together in this Southeast Asia metropolis. 

    1. Opened in 1977, Ocean Park, a giant homegrown theme park, has survived the competition from Hong Kong Disneyland since the latter’s arrival in 2005. Kids will love the park, which features rides that range from thrilling ones like the aptly-named Hair Raiser roller coaster, to gentle kid-friendly options like the Frog Hopper and Clown A Round. Save time to explore the park's many exhibits, including giant pandas An An and Jia Jia, and rare Chinese sturgeons, and don't forget to take advantage of the cable car system that links the Lowland and Headland sections of the park; it's a perfect way to give your legs a rest and enjoy amazing views of the South China Sea.

    2. Hong Kong Disneyland is the famous Asian outpost of the happiest place on earth, and has all the familiar attractions (It’s A Small World, Mad Hatter Tea Cups, Space Mountain), plus a chance to meet Mickey and friends. There are seven "lands" built into this enormous park: Mystic Point, Grizzly Gulch, Toy Story Land, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Adventureland and Main Street, U.S.A. Getting to the park is easy, as there is a dedicated MTR line that will take you right to Mickey's front door. 

    3. Ngong Ping 360 knocks your average theme park zip line ride out of the water. The 3.5-mile cable car journey allows you to see Hong Kong International Airport, South China Sea and the Tian Tan Buddha Statue from a whole new vantage point. Both you and your kids will let out plenty of “oohs” and “aahs” as you glide above the rolling grassy slopes of North Lantau Country Park. Most of all, the 25-minute ride provides a positively serene escape from the bustling city.

    4. Hop aboard the Victorian-era Peak Tram for the scenic ride to the top of Victoria Peak. One of Hong Kong’s main tourist attractions, Peak Tram inspires long lines daily. The tram starts on Garden Road and climbs ore than 1,200 feet to the Peak. In some parts, it’s so steep, you’ll feel yourself tipped back almost flat on your back. Tip: The best views are on the right-hand side near the front.

    5. Line up on the waterfront at Tsim Sha Tsui with the many locals who come to watch A Symphony of Lights. This 15-minute long light and music show, which begins each night at 8 p.m., is a free spectacle that is fun for the whole family. After the show, explore the famous Avenue of Stars, Hong Kong's version of the famous Walk of Fame in Hollywood. 
  • On July 17, 2013
    Natalie Wearstler answered the question: Natalie Wearstler

    What is Hong Kong’s restaurant scene like?

    ©iStock/mhchungmhchung Rightly known internationally as a destination that wants for nothing in the dining stakes, Hong Kong brims with thousands of great restaurants — which makes choosing one in which to dine a difficult task. Cantonese restaurants are prolific, ranging from small brightly lit cafés and noodle shops to opulent hotel dining rooms. Regional Chinese food (think spicy Szechuan) is also well represented, as is Southeast and South Asian food. You’ll find plenty of authentic dishes at the scores of tasty Thai, Indonesian and Indian restaurants that pepper the city.

    In the past decade, more and more Western restaurants have spring up outside the confines of hotels. The Soho district in Central is where you’ll find the highest density of ever-changing upscale restaurants, from steakhouses to Italian trattorias offering the biggest new trend of fusion tapas plates. Hotels in the Central area offer some of the finest Western fare in town. Celebrity chef-led kitchens have also made their way to Hong Kong; today, well-heeled Hong Kongers make reservations at the eponymous outposts of world-famous chefs, such as L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon and Spoon by Alain Ducasse, which is located inside the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star InterContinental Hong Kong hotel.

    Shopping malls usually harbor a wide spectrum of restaurants, from reasonably priced food courts to mid-range and fine-dining eateries. As with the rest of Asia, the coffee culture has boomed in Hong Kong, and these days finding a decent café, sandwich or pastry is easy. You’ll see Starbucks everywhere you go (as well as Pacific Coffee Company, a much more local chain that has locations throughout Hong Kong, China, Sinagpore, Macau and Malaysia), in addition to plenty of local, independent cafés. Although the traditional street-food stalls are disappearing for government policy reasons, you’ll have more than enough options to get a taste of Hong Kong’s homegrown culinary scene.
  • On July 16, 2013
    Natalie Wearstler answered the question: Natalie Wearstler

    What are the five best food experiences in Hong Kong?

    Leave the jacket and tie at home, and take to the city’s neighborhoods for Hong Kong’s best food experiences. At these restaurants, ambience complements delicious, authentic food made from the freshest ingredients. Here are a five places to get a local's taste of Hong Kong:

    1. At Yung Kee restaurant in Central, diners jam into the noisy space to dig into traditional Chinese cuisine. This busy dining room may not be the best place for a romantic evening out, but the roast goose is considered by many to be the best in the city. Cantonese specialities like braised supreme bird’s nest and sautéed frog legs with bamboo shots will give you a taste of authentic Hong Kong cuisine.

    2. The most popular place for dim sum for tourists and locals alike is Central City Hall Maxim's Palace — perhaps because Maxim’s is one of the few restaurants in Hong Kong to still use a trolley to carry steamed baskets of pork buns and dumplings to each table. Sample classic dishes such as steamed chicken and mushroom buns while sipping chrysanthemum tea, then finish a meal with a traditional moon cake.

    3. You can't leave Hong Kong without trying a plate of fresh seafood, and local residents know that one of the best places to find flavorful crab, prawns and fish is Lamma Island. The small fishing village of Sok Kwu Wan is where most visitors go, and for good reason; once you step off the ferry (you'll have to board at Central Pier 4 for the 30-40 minute journey), the first thing you'll notice is a row of seafood restaurants. Most of the dining options on this strip of the island allow guests to choose their own dinner from a tank of the day's fresh catch. Take your pick, have a seat at an outdoor table and order a round of Tsingtao for the table — you're about to dine on some of the finest fresh seafood in all of Southeast Asia.

    4. Under Bridge Spicy Crab serves one of the most famous crab dishes around. In Hong Kong’s early days, the restaurant’s neighborhood of Causeway Bay was where diners came for fresh seafood caught in the harbor and cooked to order the same day. The traditional dish of typhoon shelter crab (made with crab meat, garlic, scallion, red chili and black beans) originated in this area, and today, it's made to perfection at this curiously named local joint.

    5. Tsui Wah Cha Chaan Teng is a great place for everyday dining. In fact, “Cha Chaan Teng” means local diner in Cantonese. The first Tsui Wah opened in San Po Kong, and today, you can find the popular chain in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Macau and Wuhan. Still, the first location is a bit of a legend, so make a trip to enjoy an inexspensive lunch of fish balls and sliced fish cakes with rice noodles in fish soup noodles and a sweet cup of milk tea.
  • On July 15, 2013
    Natalie Wearstler answered the question: Natalie Wearstler

    Which five Hong Kong restaurants are best for brunch?

    ©FourSeasonsHongKong When Americans think of brunch, they usually envision hearty egg dishes and towering stacks of pancackes. But in Hong Kong, the brunch menu is devoted to dim sum (which translates to “heart’s delight”), or steamed or fried dumplings filled with vegetables, chopped seasoned meat, seafood and just about any combination of ingredients that will fill the tiny pouches. Families of several generations gather on weekends to dine on dim sum and sip hot tea, filling up on many kinds of dumplings usually selected from steaming carts presented tableside. Here are five of the best restaurants to experience Hong Kong’s version of brunch:

    1. Harbourside Grill at the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Intercontinental Hong Kong hotel has all you’d want in a brunch buffet: An amazing view with very tall ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows, good service and excellent quality western and Chinese brunch cuisine. Their displays are elaborate to say the least, with both western and Asian dishes, a roast carving station and homemade desserts (ask your server about the cake of the day).

    2. For more upscale (but no less delicious) dim sum, book a table at Lung King Heen inside the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong. Executive Chef Chan Yan Tak is considered a master of contemporary Cantonese cuisine, and the restaurant's weekend dim sum lunch (offered on Saturdays from 12 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., and on Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.) is a perfect opportunity to experience the talented chef's craftsmanship. Start off your day with dishes like steamed lobster and scallop dumpling, baked whole abalone puff with diced chicken, steamed Shanghainese pork dumplings with crab meat or crispy tofu rolls with shrimp and enoki mushrooms.

    3. Refined Cantonese specialties and a handful of regional Chinese favorites are expertly executed at Summer Palace at the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Island Shangri-La hotel. Famous for its dim sum lunches, Summer Palace also features signature plates that include sliced barbecued suckling pig, hot and sour seafood soup and braised sea cucumber with garden greens in shrimp roe sauce. The dining room is open to midday diners from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, and 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday (throughout the week, lunch is served during the same hours as Saturday). The afternoon tea menu feature a wide selection of authentic Chinese teas, which your server will suggest according to your current state of health and even your mood.

    4. The Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Champagne brunch at The Peninsula Hong Kong, a Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star hotel, is almost too good to be true. The lavish affair is held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the hotel's iconic Lobby each Saturday and Sunday. While guests enjoy brunch classics like eggs Benedict or waffles, the sounds of live music fill the air (courtesy of The Lobby Band) and Champagne glasses stay filled with as much bubbly as you'd like.

    5. At Grissini in the Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Grand Hyatt Hong Kong hotel, you’ll feel as though you were transported to a fine dining room in Tuscany when you see the rustic décor, authentic Italian menu and the length of the wine list — it boasts more than 1,000 bottles. Floor-to-ceiling windows give diners a stunning view of Victoria Harbor to enjoy along with their meal. It’s the perfect backdrop for an Italian-style brunch in Hong Kong, with brunch service starting on Sunday afternoons at 12 p.m. and ending at 2:30 p.m. If the live pasta cooking station or the tantalizing antipasta and salad spreads don't whet your appetite, the homemade gelato, tiramisu and panna cotta will.