50 reasons Hong Kong is the world's greatest city

50 reasons Hong Kong is the world's greatest city

Fifteen years after being "reborn," here's why the fragrant harbor may be the most complete city on earth
World's greatest city

Editor's note:Today is the 15-year anniversary since Hong Kong's handover from British to Chinese rule. While there have been some changes in that period, for the most part Hong Kong is still a colorful, chaotic, fantastic place to live and visit. Here are just a few reasons why.

Article first published October 2009, updated July 2012

1. Public transportation rules

Hong Kong is no place for motorists, with about 380,000 private vehicles for a population of over seven million. But it's a public transit utopia. Big buses, little buses, ferries, railways, a tramway -- you name it, we have it, and they're all interconnected, making Hong Kong’s network one of the most sophisticated in the world.

2. Anger-activated camera phones

It all began with the 'bus uncle' clip, in which a bus rider was told to lower his voice while talking on his cell phone. Then came 'MTR couple,' in which a middle-aged couple launched a tsunami of insults upon some poor sap who bumped into them on the subway. Finally, last February came the absolutely golden 'airport auntie' video, in which an air traveller flipped out upon missing her flight home. Each is a hilarious representation of what happens when Hong Kongers finally lose it. Just stay out of our way, especially on public transport.

3. The stripper strip that won't be outstripped

Wanchai’s Lockhart Road is the heart of Hong Kong’s historic girlie bar district, once thriving with off-duty sailors and soldiers. Nowadays, world-weary ladies entice passersby into their establishments without warning of the pricey tabs. The area is gentrifying fast, with trendy restaurants and funky clubs moving in each day. Despite it all, Lockhart retains a Suzy Wong mystique.

4. We are the world

Now fully 115 countries have consulates in Hong Kong, more than any other city in the world.

5. Star-quality tutors

To become a “tutor king” is a legitimate life-goal here. Competition within the million-dollar tutoring industry is so fierce that tutors market themselves like celebrities, plastering their inordinately well-groomed images on billboards and bus panels. A recent court case involved "tutor god" K Oten, who was ordered to pay HK$8.8 million in damages for breaching his contract with King’s Glory Education.

6. Battling theme parks

What happens when you cram two sprawling theme parks into a tiny city? Perhaps the fiercest amusement park rivalry in modern history -- and a lot of giddy kids. Ever since Disney landed here in 2005, Ocean Park has defended its turf with bulldog-like ferocity, investing HK$5.55 billion to transform into one of the world’s top marine-themed parks. In 2009, Disneyland retaliated by selling bargain HK$103 entry tickets to visitors from mainland China. But the winner might actually be the one to make the most kids cry -- each park’s highly-competitive Halloween festival is notorious for scaring even adults.

7. We're insanely cautious about swine flu


Hong Kong is the place to be if you’re irrationally terrified of catching swine flu. The city infamously became the first and only place to quarantine an entire hotel after a guest was diagnosed with H1N1. The Metropark Hotel was quarantined -- and dominated local headlines -- for seven days. Guess we learned a bit too much from SARS.

8. The best soy sauce Western

Breaded and fried pork chops with rice, spaghetti in gravy and Swiss chicken in sweet soy sauce are just some lip-smacking samples of Western food shamelessly adapted for the Chinese palate. One of the more popular joints for soy sauce Western is the century-old Tai Ping Koon, where borscht made from beef broth, vegetables and no beetroot can be found with a plate of beef chow fun in Swiss sauce and a football-sized souffle.


9. Mega-convenient convenience stores

Hong Kong has the highest density of 7-Elevens in the world, with a density of one per 1.380 square miles, as of 2007. Add to that the number of branches of competitor Circle-K, and you have total convenience store overkill. (One tiny block near the CNNGo offices inexplicably houses five convenience stores).

10. Cosmopolitan city, tropical paradise

About 40 percent of Hong Kong's territory is protected by country parks, representing one of the highest proportions in the world. A 20-minute drive from just about anywhere in the city will take you to idyllic beaches and hiking trails through lush green mountains. In 24 hours, you can experience paragliding off a mountain, diving off the coast, trolling for pink dolphins and cruising on a speedboat, with time left to get decked out for a swank night on the town.

11. Cash-free living

Having a wallet is so passe. Nowadays, all you need for a fun-filled day in Hong Kong is an Octopus card. You can pay for all public transportation, KFC meals, vending machine sodas, 7-Eleven impulse buys, Park n’ Shop grocery runs and even ice skating rentals with a “doot.” (The sound made when swiping the Octopus is now a common verb, as in “just doot it.”) The Octopus even comes in tiny, SIM card-sized chips that can be dangled on bracelets like lucky charms. 


12. All-hours/weather conditions dining

The Tsui Wah Restaurant chain is fast becoming an institution in Hong Kong, serving popular dishes such as Hong Kong-style curries, fishball noodles, pork cartilage in soy sauce, and satay beef noodles. But what really endears the restaurant to Hong Kongers -- and compels them to buy souvenir Tsui Wah t-shirts -- is the fact that they stay open and offer delivery 24 hours a day, even during typhoon signal number eight. 


13. You can judge a politician by his/her cover

Our chief executive Donald Tsang is known as 'bowtie Tsang' for his stubborn sartorial habit. Outspoken pro-democracy LegCo member Leung Kwok Hung is known as 'Long Hair' for his luscious waist-length locks, and retired civil service chief Anson Chan is fondly known as 'Chan sei maahn' after a mahjong tile whose markings resemble her toothy, winning grin. 


14. Stools abound

The ones you sit on, not the ones that -- oh, never mind. Whether they're in a dai pai dong, a cheap noodle shop or just on the side of the street, stools are Hong Kong's answer to Paris' wicker cafe chairs, except they're less fussy and you can put them anywhere. A close second? The stools that are also canes, used by savvy old people.

15. There's market on top of market (on top of market...)

Bird market, sneaker street, ladies market, goldfish market, flower market … all centered in the bustling Mongkok neighborhood within walking-distance of one another. That's unbeatable shopping.

16. Excuse us while we scrape the sky

Hong Kong owns the world's largest collection of skyscrapers -- 7,650, to be precise.But we also suffer some of the worst feng shui in Asia because of inharmonious architecture, such as the knife-like design of the Bank of China tower.

17. The cradle of kung fu legends

Three of the world’s biggest kung fu stars enjoyed their breakout moments in Hong Kong: Bruce Lee in “The Big Boss” (1972), Jet Li in “Shaolin Temple” (1982), and Jackie Chan in “Drunken Master” (1978).

18. The tastiest embryos

Thick, fluffy and moist, with an even, lemon-yellow tone -- such are the seraphic scrambled eggs at Australian Dairy Company served between two slices of white bread with the option of toasting. Add a splash of chili sauce and we’re in comfort-food heaven.

47 Parkes Street, Jordan, Kowloon, tel +852 2730 1356

19. Even our pop music has meaning

Canto-pop legend Sam Hui put soul into popular music. His tunes were catchy, kitschy, and meaningful all at once, giving voice to the working class in the 1970s with charm and wit. Hui also holds the record for the longest stretch of concerts at the Hong Kong Coliseum at 41 performances in 37 days, back in 1992. Total audience attendance numbered 462,481, about eight percent of the city's population at the time.

20. A bridge that can't be topped (except by cars)

The 2.2km Tsing Ma Bridge is the world’s heaviest, longest road-and-rail suspension bridge in the world. It links commuters to Chek Lap Kok airport and also happens to be quite nice to look at.

21. For better or worse, you're never alone

Hong Kong is densely populated at 16,469 people per square mile, and sometimes it feels like the entire population is located in Mongkok. The popular shopping district gained entry into the Guinness Book of World Records as the most crowded shopping district in the world. One of the busiest of Mongkok's busy streets is Sai Yeung Choi Street, which is now sealed off from traffic and home to street performers as well as shoppers.

22. Even the bland food is exquisite

Hong Kong proves that congee isn't just for the infirm. The plain, boiled rice porridge is elevated to epicurean heights here in the Cantonese food capital, served with a range of ingredients from delicate slices of fish to preserved eggs and pig’s blood. But the real mark of a great congee is in its texture -- it should be light and fluffy like white clouds, yet robust. Hong Kong’s juk po (congee shops), such as Sang Kee, accomplishe just that.

Sang Kee Congee Shop, 7-9 Burd Street, Sheung Wan, tel +852 2541 1099

23. Disbelief is suspended beyond belief

In "Hard Boiled," Chow Yun-fat saves a hospital from terrorists while holding a baby on his left arm through a shootout. That’s just one example of cheesy cops-and-robbers films that came out the 1980s in which good guys accomplish superhuman feats before a cheering audience.

24. The best-fed people on earth

With one restaurant for every 600 people, Hong Kong surely boasts one of the highest per-capita concentrations of cafes and restaurants in the world. It also makes Hong Kong the worst place to be on a diet, so we'll just call this one a draw.

25. Adrenaline rushes come cheap

The late-night red minibus from Central to Mongkok is the fastest way to cross the harbor at night -- if you can stomach it. The HK$11 ride is notoriously thrilling, nicknamed 'the deathwish minibus' for its limit-pushing speeds.

26. It's a vintage gold mine

Ask any girl who’s been here and they will tell you that Hong Kong offers the world's best bargain hunting. We know people who have found real Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dresses for HK$80, Marc Jacobs knock-off blouses for $30 and vintage Hermes for $100.

27. Our serials are killer

Local television channel TVB churns out serials that enjoy cult followings, and it isn't just housewives. Young people, male and female, tune into shows ranging from period melodramas to firefighter romantic comedies. DVD box sets of the serials are on sale for diehard fans with Hong Kongers living abroad watching them to cure homesickness.

28. We are disrespectful to dirt

The SARS outbreak in 2003 scarred us forever. Now you’ll notice sanitation stations -- automated machines that spurt disinfectant -- in virtually every building in the city. Notices in elevators boast the frequency with which buttons are sanitized (an average six times a day) and being sick in public is practically a faux pas (dare to sneeze on public transport without wearing a face mask and be prepared for the stink eye from fellow passengers).

29. The granddaddy of dim sum

Lin Heung Tea Househas been around since 1928 and is the granddaddy of Hong Kong's dim sum joints. Cramped quarters, impossibly long queues and intimidating waiters greet diners, but one bite of the dim sum and they are suddenly transported by the flavors and aromas of a bygone era. Lin Heung Tea House's decades-old recipes for dim sum such as preserved sausage rolls with a hint of rosewater and "siu maai" (pork dumplings) made with liver, result in the most authentic, traditional Cantonese flavors.

160-164 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong +852 2544 4556

30. The freest undemocratic place in the world


We don’t elect our leaders, but Hong Kong does have the freest economy in the world for 15 years running. Once more, we turn our noses up at archrival Singapore (who landed in second place) and mainland China (at 126th). 
It’s also easier to start a business here than anywhere else in the world -- all you need is a Hong Kong ID card, US$350 and a business registration form.

31. Our ferry leaves all others in its wake

"Star Ferry is the perfect introduction to the controlled frenzy that is Hong Kong," said writer Fred Gebhart. Voted by the Society of American Travel Writers as the world’s “most exciting ferry ride,” Star Ferry has carried an average 63,000 passengers a day across the Victoria Harbor since 1898. For less than HK$3, catch the ferry around 8pm when 44 skyscrapers from both the Hong Kong and Kowloon side light up in the Symphony of Lights show.

32. There's only one certainty in life

Commanding the lowest tax rates in Asia (16.5% for corporations, 15% for unincorporated busineses), it’s no wonder Hong Kong is a major financial hub. Also, unlike many other countries, taxes on capital gains and sales are unheard of.

33. The bamboo and concrete jungles unite

In a city where buildings can extend more than 50 stories high, the use of bamboo is the safest, most efficient, most versatile, most eco-friendly material used for scaffolding. The bamboo is light, yet durable enough to withstand typhoons. It’s quite the sight to observe the renovation of the Four Seasons Hotel by workers who erect an average of 650 square feet of scaffolding a day.

34. No. 2 gets first treatment

The third most expensive toilet in the world is a 24k solid gold throne valued at HK$38 million. Sitting in Hang Fung Jeweler’s gold-accessorized restroom, the toilet was built when gold cost only HK$1500 per ounce. The plan was to melt the toilet once its value reached HK$8,000 per ounce. It finally did early last year, but the company decided to keep the toilet in its solid form, instead dissolving one ton of accessories in the restroom.

35. We pull the race card -- every Wednesday night

Whether you’re in the city center or the suburbs, Hong Kong’s racecourses are world-renowned. Owner of the world’s longest Diamond Vision television screen, the Sha Tin racecourse is famed for housing horse racing history’s single richest day. Its 70.4-meter screen provides patrons with a clear view of what they’re betting on in major contests like the Hong Kong International Races and the Mercedes-Benz Hong Kong Derby.


36. Our buns are the luckiest

Every May, Cheung Chau draws crowds of up to 60,000 spectators as they watch bun-snatchers compete in a race up three 60-foot towers. The higher the bun, the luckier it is when shared afterward by the town's resident. Since the 18th century, Cheung Chau's fishing community has held the bun festival, disguising themselves as deities to ward off evil spirits and pray for good sailing. The entire island goes vegetarian during this weeklong event, so don’t even expect to find chicken nuggets at McDonald’s.

37. The world's most obscure records

Even though our 1.3 billion neighbors on the mainland grabbed all of the significant world records, we've managed to claim the most creative ones.
- Largest three-legged race (most pairs) with 160 lawyers in participation
- Largest Origami Mosaic
- Largest punching bag from the movie ‘Dragon Tiger Gate’
- Longest television display (70.4 meters long by 8 meters high) at the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Sha Tin racecourse
- Longest yoga marathon, lasting 28 hours
- Most varieties of commercially available rum at Marco Polo Hong Kong Hotel’s Lobby Lounge
- Largest permanent light and sound show during each night's Symphony of Lights

38. The perfect woman

Can Maggie Cheung do any wrong? Since starting her career as a beauty queen in 1983, she’s starred in over 70 films, nabbed a best actress award at Cannes and become a cult goddess among movie buffs. To top it off, she's so stylish that the house of Balenciaga decided to name her its muse. The over-achieving 45-year-old is now recording her first album. "I always go out of tune when I sing and friends know that I can’t sing well," she once said. We're not sure how the album will mar her track record, but right now we're content to continue worshipping at her feet.

39. The most upside of any land, anywhere

Hong Kong’s real estate is notoriously pricey. But its post-recession property values have dropped the most among the world’s luxury housing markets, down 24.5 percent, to a paltry US$2,060 per square feet. 
Now is the time to come and grab that triplex apartment on the peak and laugh at your stupid neighbor.

40. Wholesome late nights (if you're into that sort of thing)

Midnight is when the party starts, even for non-partying types here. Those who just have to buy that 'it' bag at 11 at night can head over to the apm mall, where retailers open till midnight and restaurants until 2am. If you’re lucky, you’ll get the cinema all to yourself at the 3:30am screening at the Chinachem Cinema in Tsim Sha Tsui, then go and stuff your belly at these late-night eateries to recharge for the next day.

41. Gaffe-prone politicians

If you think Bush or Sarkozy are tops in political gaffes, wait till you’ve heard what our politicians have to say. 
Chief executive Donald Tsang once bizarrely remarked that the Chinese Cultural Revolution was a result of “democracy, if you take it to the full swing.” Tsang, who is not elected by the people, also claimed to “represent the opinion of Hong Kong people in general” to which legislators reacted by shouting back on live TV: “You’re raping public opinion." 
Or take Financial Secretary Henry Tang, who, at the opening ceremony of Asia’s longest cable car ride Ngong Ping 360, made history when he repeatedly referred to the ride by the wrong name.

42. If you get bored, just protest!


Compared to reactionary neighbors like Singapore and Mainland China, Hong Kong is ripe for civil disobedience. 
Police figures show that Hong Kongers organize peaceful protests an average 2.7 times daily as of the past two years. Where else can you march for causes like 'protest against the funeral business infinitely expanding,' or 'protest against inadequate social security assistance to buy our kids Japanese comics and sunglasses?'


43. No one does it flakier

If there’s one thing Hong Kong learned from the Brits, it’s pastry, and now we dare do it better than our teachers. Velvet egg custard nestled in buttery shells. Flaky puffs stuffed with smoky char siu. You ain’t tasted pastry until you’ve tried the ones in Hong Kong. These days, bakeries all around the city offer delectable flaky treats infused with an Asian twist. Tai Cheong Bakery, favorite of former governor Chris Patten, arguably serves the best egg tarts in the city.

Tai Cheong Bakery, G/F, 35 Lyndhurst Terrace, Central, tel +852 2544 3475

44. We'll try anything

Our courts have tried some of the most sensational cases in the world.
 This year we’re transfixed by bartender-turner-feng-shui-master Tony Chan's ongoing legal battle concerning the multi-billion-dollar estate of Nina Wang, Asia’s richest woman who passed away in 2007. And who can forget the ‘Milkshake Murders?' In our own real-life desperate housewife slaying, high-rolling expat Nancy Kissel fed her banker husband a drugged strawberry milkshake, clubbed him to death and hid him in the storeroom, drawing a life sentence. Then there was the gruesome Hello Kitty murder, which inspired two movies. Three drug-crazed debtors abducted a nightclub hostess, tortured her for a month, dismembered her and stuffed her head in a Hello Kitty.

45. Almost completely climate controlled

If all shopping malls were to close, Hong Kongers would be in a lot of trouble. The average 22- to 22.6-degree temperature of the SAR's 50 malls is what keeps us cool enough to enjoy hot pot dinners even during our 35-degree sub-tropical summers.

46. We get two New Years

Hong Kong adheres to both the lunar and solar calendars, so we get to celebrate the bi-annual renewal of both. It’s like having dim sum and afternoon tea simultaneously.

47. Home of the Milk Tea King

Hong Kong is home to 'pantyhose milk tea,' a black tea and milk drink strained, appropriately, through pantyhose. This results in a silken texture incomparable in the universe of caffeine drinks. This year's Milk Tea crown landed on the head of Tai Fat in Yuen Long, but it was runner-up Tai Hing Roast Restaurant's scandalous prices (HK$68 per cuppa) that got headlines.

Tai Fat, shop 5, Symphony Gardens, Hung Shui Kiu, Yuen Long, tel +852 2443 5533

48. It rolls right off the tongue

Cantonese isn't just any dialect. Over 60 million people speak it in China and overseas, mostly in Asia’s financial and commercial centers. The tongue-twisting lingo accommodates up to nine tones and spawns new slang each month, continuously adding to the repertoire of this 2,000-year-old language. (China's official language, Mandarin, by comparison, is only about 700 years old.)

49. It's politically ... unique

'One Country, Two Systems,' is probably the most confusing ideological doctrine in the world. While our legal, political and economic systems are opposite from those of the Chinese Communist Party, our cities’ top leaders are appointed by the central government, and the National People’s Congress has final say in interpreting our constitution, the Basic Law.

50. You can get in bed with the mob

Gritty, mysterious and (allegedly) rife with criminal activity, Chunking Mansions is an alluring icon of Hong Kong that the government would rather you ignore. Immortalized by Wong Kar Wai’s “Chungking Express,” in which it’s presented as a hive of illicit activity, Chungking Mansions is feared by most locals, but draws a steady stream of curious travelers nightly. Urban legend aside, the building houses an exciting labyrinth of restaurants, shops, apartments, and about 4,000 residents. Rooms typically go for HK$150 a night.

36-44 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon

What have we missed or are we on the money? Tell us what you think makes Hong Kong the greatest city on this big planet of ours.

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After traveling around the world on a fistful of dollars, Zoe returns to Hong Kong, where she grew up, to discover and write about all the inspiring stuff that happens here on a daily basis.

Read more about Zoe Li

Former CNNGo staff writer Tiffany Lam produced and scripted current affairs documentaries and was a reporter for a local English newspaper before making the brave, brave decision to write about things she’s actually interested in.

Read more about Tiffany Lam
Christopher DeWolf is a writer, photographer and self-styled flâneur.
Read more about Christopher DeWolf

Former editorial assistant Virginia Lau studied international relations and taught English while living and traveling abroad. She is now senior editor at Perspective Magazine.

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