Comparisons between Asia’s trading hub and Dubai, the Middle East’s, have been bandied around for, well, at least 37 years. The immediate parallels are evident. Apart from Britain having a little something to do with each of them some time ago, both cities are renowned for their high numbers of expats, rapid development and fiscal power (recent developments notwithstanding). Heck, Sheikh Zayed Road is even nicknamed ‘the Hong Kong strip’, while a giant billboard near Jebel Ali claims Waterfront City will be ‘twice the size’ of the Chinese metropolis (if that advert’s still standing, that is). As a result, many Dubai residents choose Hong Kong as the next chapter in their emigrant adventures – and I can’t stop comparing the two places throughout the few days I stay there.
So, how do first impressions of each compare? Are eyes initially drawn to a zig-zag skyline, as in Dubai? In short, no. Instead, as I glide from the immaculate, airport into Central on their similarly spotless rail system, it is the water that hypnotises. Hong Kong may be a ‘world city’ now, but it has always been a naturally beautiful collection of islands first and foremost.
The second thing that strikes me isn’t quite as exciting, but is integral to one’s rating of any urban centre: the public transport is impossibly smooth and efficient – whether you’re travelling by train, ferry, taxi, underground metro or cable car. Residents might moan about the traffic on Friday nights, but it’s nothing compared to the Sharjah commute.
The real traffic is on the pavements: hundreds of thousands of people dart everywhere in this, one of the most densely populated areas on earth, to the beat of the ever-bleeping pedestrian crossing. They hurtle past topless Chinese builders repairing and reinforcing existing structures, their work supported by seemingly flimsy bamboo scaffolding.
Swept up in the human swirl, we wander around the city’s Soho, and stumble across the colourful food market. How it contrasts with the slick new restaurants and soaring skyscrapers that surround it is striking – Hong Kong is a futuristic city with ancient customs at its feet.
As with any city break, in order to get an initial feel for the location, I’m compelled to rise up within it and take in a sweeping view of it, all at once. The tourist spot to fulfil this need is Victoria Peak, one of the highest points in Hong Kong. After winding our way up this 552m mountain, my travel companion, who visited the spot five years previously, is stunned (and sickened) at the shiny mall that greets us, complete with coffee chains and gift shops.
Fortunately, the city’s nightly light show hasn’t undergone such a gaudy facelift. As 8pm strikes, dozens of buildings below begin to flash a rainbow of neon colours, culminating with a laser show to easily rival that of the Burj Al Arab. Why do they do it? We’re not sure. But the fact that such a serious, relentless business capital chooses to muck about with pretty lights every evening only warms us to it even more.
Having been out of Dubai for more than 24 hours, we feel the urge to marvel at something record-breaking. In Hong Kong it would have to be Tian Tan Buddha, the world’s largest outdoor, bronze Buddha, located on Lantau Island. Set atop a vast mountain, the giant beacon comes into view gradually, as though it were part of the landscape. We scramble up the steps into the Buddhist museum that lies inside his belly and are offered free ice creams and drinks to savour along with the vista. Captivated by the surrounding green, it occurs to me that, for all its modernity, Hong Kong shines when embracing its own traditions – just like Dubai.
Another local custom worth celebrating is taking tea and doughy Chinese buns, which we do after travelling back to Central via ferry. Luk Yu Tea House, open since 1933 with a delightful Art Deco interior, roars with Chinese customers every lunchtime. There’s no pandering service here, if you’re seated in one of the cosy booths, you’ll be lucky to catch a waiter’s eye, and you have to learn to set your teapot a certain way if you’re after a refill.
Of course, there are plenty of fine dining venues in Hong Kong as well. One evening, we dine with some Hong Kongers in the Four Season’s Caprice, a shimmering venue that overlooks Victoria Harbour and Kowloon peninsula and reminds me of Dubai’s Reflets Par Pierre Gagnaire. That’s not the only thing I find familiar about the evening. Our hosts are expats, including an American, Canadian and two Brits, and have all lived in Hong Kong for around five years. Their conversation is strikingly similar to typical Dubai discussion, circling around local scandals, censorship, comparisons between Hong Kong and their respective homes, new hotels, bars and restaurants, weekend boat trips and when the Michelin Guide is coming to town (the ratings are now out; see www.michelinguide.com). Perhaps there’s no better way to compare two cities than by dinner party discussions.
Caprice is located in the Four Seasons, and many of the city’s bars and restaurants are located in hotels. ‘Dubai tourists immediately take to Hong Kong,’ says Josephine Lee of the achingly hip Landmark Mandarin, their equivalent of The Address, and home of MO Bar. ‘In other cities, it’s not so normal for nightlife to be situated in hotels.’ A double whammy of Dubai likenesses – The Landmark is also directly linked to a mall.
As often as bars are found in hotels here, they are also located on rooftops. Like New York with its lack of floor space, the island city instead parties high. Particular hot spots on our visit are restaurant and bar Aqua, the bird cage scattered Dragon-I club, where we spot Dita Von Teese, fresh from a Dubai visit – and Sevva. With its encircling terrace and impressive views – the latter is the closest Hong Kong has to 360° nightclub. LanKwai Fong, on the other hand, would find more in common with Ibiza. Dozens of boutique bars spill out onto the streets, where regular food and performance festivals are held over the din of overlapping DJ sets. Packed with Western expats, we wonder whether this area is maybe less busy than it once was.
One telling discrepancy between Dubai and Hong Kong is the percentage of expats. Whereas the former’s foreign workforce is in the majority, around 95 per cent of Hong Kongers are of Chinese descent. Looking more and more towards the mainland, Hong Kong’s younger taxi drivers are now more likely to speak both Cantonese and Mandarin, rather than English, like the previous generation. While the older drivers will be singing to George Michael and Mariah Carey (or both in one trip, as we discover), the younger ones are more likely to blare out Canto-pop.
Dubai is not the new Hong Kong, contrary to popular marketing spiel. Instead, perhaps, the cities are moving in opposite directions – though at very similar speeds.
Plan your own Dublin romp
Singapore Airlines fly to Hong Kong from Dubai daily, prices start from Dhs2,800 (plus taxes and surcharges) Visit www.cathay pacific.com.
Where to stay
Landmark Mandarin, The starting room rack rate is HK$4,500 plus taxes per night
Hotel Continental Visit www.timeouthk.com.
Where to eat
The Address, and home of MO Bar (15 Queen’s Road, Central, 852 2132 0188, open Mon-Fri 8am-10am; Sat-Sun, 8am-12pm).
Luk Yu Tea House, open since 1933 (24-26 Stanley St, Central, 852 2523 5464, open daily 7am-10pm).
Caprice is located in the Four Seasons (8 Finance Street, Central, 852 31968888, open daily 12pm-2.30pm; 6pm-10.30pm).
bar Aqua (28/F One Peking Road, TsimShaTsue, 852 3428 8342, open daily 12pm-3pm; 6pm-late).
Dragon-I club (The Centrium, 60 Wyndham Street, 852 3110 1222, open late).
Sevva (25/F, Prince’s Bldg, Central, 852 2537 1388 open Mon-Thu 12pm-3pm, 6pm-12am, Fri-Sat noon-3pm, 6pm- 2am, Sun closed).