Why Hong Kong makes you long for home

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A recent trip to the global city is a reminder that every Filipino has a Hong Kong story to tell. In photo: Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Island has a long stretch fine sand beaches.. Photo by MARGA BUENAVENTURA

For such a small cluster of islands, Hong Kong never looks the same whenever I go for a visit. The very first time was more than two decades ago. It was my first trip abroad, and our pictures featured the usual haunts a kid my age would enjoy: the Hong Kong Science Museum in Tsim Tsa Tsui, Ocean Park with my cousins, and Toys R Us. “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” had just been released in theaters, and I bought myself a Draco Malfoy action figure. Years later, Hong Kong would be the first place I’d travel to with a friend. We were two college girls intent on shopping for three straight days, and our haunts included the Temple Street Night Market and all the high street shops in Kowloon. I’ve seen Hong Kong’s commercial districts for work trips, and have made a pilgrimage to Lan Kwai Fong in search of a decent place to drink at. Once I went on vacation with my family for New Year’s, and we spent most of it looking for dimsum restaurants that would accept dinner reservations for 23 people.

In the evenings, Temple Street comes alive as popular street market. Photo by MARGA BUENAVENTURA

By then Hong Kong had become such a familiar place, and it’s easy to feel integrated into the fast tempo of life there, even for transients. It’s a city that immediately grabs you by the hand as soon as you land: the airport is vast but incredibly accessible to any point in Hong Kong. Their MTR has been called “the world’s most envied metro system.” In the Filipino context, Hong Kong has become one of our easiest bridges to see the rest of the world: the home of luxury designer brands that have yet to reach our shores, or family experiences like Disneyland, which used to be hours and hours away. For Filipino migrant workers, Hong Kong has become a second home, and their experiences — the struggles and triumphs — are well-documented in films like the Rory B. Quintos-directed, Ricky Lee-penned “Anak” starring Vilma Santos and more recently, Cathy Garcia Molina’s “Hello, Love, Goodbye” featuring Kathryn Bernardo and Alden Richards. Baby Ruth Villarama’s 2016 documentary “Sunday Beauty Queen” follows the lives of domestic workers in Hong Kong as they prepare for an annual beauty pageant.

Public art installations at Harbour City Mall. Photo by MARGA BUENAVENTURA

The ties that bind Hong Kong and the Philippines have always been strong, even after a pandemic that limited border crossings between them. The years away gave Hong Kong the opportunity to turn the familiar into new marvels, or offer something new entirely. The Hong Kong Tourism Board’s (HKTB) slogan “Hello, Hong Kong!” suggests as much. Hong Kong in 2023 is just as bold and bright as its iterations years before, but with a renewed spring in its step. The city is bursting with fresh places to visit and dishes waiting to be discovered. When we were told that we’d be there for a week, I wondered what new experiences Hong Kong had in store for us.

On our first day in, they treated us to a Hong Kong classic: an evening ride up The Peak. The weather was perfectly chill, and as we sat in the dark tram, a walking path snaked up in parallel. One of the local HKTB staff members asked me who my favorite Hong Kong stars are. I told her Andy Lau because of “Love on a Diet” and Tony Leung because well, it’s Tony Leung.

“You should spend more time here at The Peak,” she said. “I think Tony Leung lives nearby. I’ve seen him running here.”

I wasn’t in the mood for love, but I could be persuaded.

The Peak is best visited at night to enjoy the Hong Kong skyline. Photo by MARGA BUENAVENTURA

Yau Ma Tei fruit market sells imported fruits at wholesale prices. Photo by MARGA BUENAVENTURA

Even in some of Hong Kong’s oldest neighborhoods, there was much to see. We took an hours-long walking tour in the West Kowloon neighborhood. Yau Ma Tei features a whole street that sells all sorts of kitchen supplies, including traditional round chopping boards cut out of tree trunks. There’s also the Yau Ma Tei Fruit Market, which sells fruit from all over the world at affordable, wholesale prices — an auntie on vacation’s dream come true. They said that a lot of scenes in Hong Kong action movies feature this historical market.

The rest of Hong Kong’s famed shopping culture is just as alive in other parts of town. We spent hours at Harbour City Mall, Hong Kong’s largest, which opened almost 300 shops in the last three years. As someone who lives in a mall-centric city, I tend to feel the same old way about shopping malls. But I found Harbour City’s art installations fun and endearing, and their shop selections felt intentional. The Dang Wen Li by Dominique Ansel is the French chef’s tribute to Hong Kong, with special pastries found only there. The shop had a chestnut madeleine stall that makes them fresh every time. It was nutty and rich with the perfect density, a perfect spherical sponge. I still think about it sometimes.

The Dang Wen Li by Dominique Ansel at Harbour City Mall features pastries that are exclusive to Hong Kong. Photo by MARGA BUENAVENTURA

The newly opened M+ Museum. Photo by MARGA BUENAVENTURA

While Hong Kong is most known for its shopping, it has spent the last few years investing heavily in artistic and cultural endeavors; this year, tourists can finally enjoy them in full. Over at West Kowloon, the museum district bursts with activity. The Hong Kong Palace Museum features over 900 treasures from the Palace Museum in Beijing. The M+ is Asia’s first global museum of contemporary visual culture. The “Things, Spaces, Interactions” exhibit featured excellent furniture, architecture, design objects, and graphic arts with significant impact in Asia and the rest of the world. The exhibit includes mid-century fashion brand advertisements and even the Kiyotomo Sushi Bar, which they relocated from Japan. Of course, for anyone visiting before May 14 this year, the “Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now” is an unmissable exhibit. It’s a comprehensive documentation of Kusama’s life and artistry, and manages to reveal the genius behind her surreal, fantastical work.

The Kiyotomo Sushi Bar designed by Shiro Kuramata was dismantled and relocated to M+ Museum. Photo by MARGA BUENAVENTURA

A piece from the Yayoi Kusama exhibit at the new M+ Museum. Photo by MARGA BUENAVENTURA

It’s strange to think of Hong Kong in the context of fantasies, because the city’s urbanity makes everything feel real and solid. But this trip managed to show a side of Hong Kong I would have never fathomed in any old visit. We spent half a day on the island of Cheung Chau, best known for their annual bun festival. It’s a 30-minute boat ride from Central Pier. Our guide Sidney told us that Cheung Chau’s residents are mostly fisherfolk; if a boat by the pier has a roof on it, that means they live on their fishing vessel. We took a short hike up the Mini Great Wall, which offered beautiful views of the sea. The restaurants are situated right by the water, so you can enjoy freshly caught seafood as people walk by the harbor. It’s easy to devote the morning there to walk around, and end it with a late afternoon coffee before taking the next ferry back to Central.

There are no cars in Cheung Chau. Most people, including residents, walk or take bikes. Photo by MARGA BUENAVENTURA

Filipino performers headline the "Follow Your Dreams" daytime show at Hong Kong Disneyland. Photo by MARGA BUENAVENTURA

Our weeklong journey around Hong Kong ended in the best possible way — an afternoon at Hong Kong Disneyland. I wasn’t much of a Disney fan as an adult, but I admit that Disneyland really manages to unlock one’s childlike wonder. Perhaps wearing Minnie Mouse ears the entire time also helped. But Disneyland’s new “Momentous” show, a 20-minute long lights and pyrotechnic exhibit is set in the theme park’s newly refurbished castle. It featured a montage of beloved Disney characters and most importantly the songs that kids and adults pretty much know by heart. Throughout the show, I saw people hugging each other and calling loved ones via video chat to share it live.

It was there that I finally realized why a heavy feeling sat in my gut for most of my visit. No, it wasn’t all the food I ate; I was homesick. And I couldn’t immediately understand this longing, because I knew that it had nothing to do with the trip. Even after two decades of brief visits, Hong Kong proves itself to be the same old chameleon, changing colors while retaining its spirit. For Filipinos, an hour-and-a-half plane ride transports you to an entirely new reality. But what I failed to realize until now, is our affinity to Hong Kong has made our people and our culture just as much a part of what makes it a bustling global destination. There was Kuya Manny, the server at Madam Fù who cheerfully said that he “just moved to Hong Kong” 30 years ago; the Hong Kong Disneyland performers who had the clear cadence of Pinoy power singers; even our Disneyland guide Martin spoke perfect Filipino and Bisaya but wasn’t Filipino at all. Our tightly knit group of Philippine media members were some of the loudest in the junket, a group of perfect strangers who became friends in a matter of hours. Someone from the HKTB staff said that they’d know the Philippine delegation was missing if the bus went quiet. So while I had loved my week in Hong Kong, I was more than ready to say goodbye. Because everywhere I went in this small cluster of islands, I was reminded of one thing: home.