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Tourists flock to fascinating city of Hong Kong.

HOME to both the crazy-rich and the mega-poor, the bustling metropolis of Hong Kong has not always been the world’s number one place to harbour wealth. A mere hundred years ago an insignificant fishing village, Hong Kong is now considered the financial centre of Asia.

Red duck curry at Krua Walaiphan in Hong Kong

Although there are 93 billionaires in this former British colony, it is also home to over a million people, including children, living well below the poverty datum line. Living side by side, it’s not unusual to see grubby tenement blocks and steel and glass skyscrapers standing alongside each other, both looking out across Victoria Harbour and towards the outlying islands.

In addition to finance, tourism is also an important pillar of Hong Kong’s economy. Last month, George and I added two more to the 6 million tourists visiting Hong Kong in a 12 month period. You can stay cheaply in youth hostels on Kowloon Peninsula, at a Travel Lodge in Hollywood Road for $62, or at The Conrad in Pacific Place for $260. Luckily for us, we had friends (ex-Zimbos) who put us up in style in their apartment in the trendy area of Mid-levels, on Hong Kong island. From here it was a short but steep walk down to the start of the world’s longest outdoor covered escalator system, running from the peaceful residential area of Mid-levels, down to the heart of Hong Kong’s bustling Central district. From 6 am to 10 am, the escalator runs downhill, allowing people to get to work, and from 10 am until midnight it runs uphill. One can hop on and off at will onto different levels, visiting markets, antique shops, historic buildings and restaurants The complete journey takes about 25 minutes, and the best part: there’s no charge.

We had three brief days to check out Hong Kong, so having dropped off our bags at Mid-levels, we walked downhill and boarded the escalator, dropping off at High Street in Sai Ying Pun, in search of sustenance. From a number of Thai and Vietnamese restaurants we chose Krua Walaiphan, where Thai Chef Walaiphan was busy in her open kitchen, preparing spices and grinding coconut. We sat at a tiny little table for two, and ordered a red duck curry (HK$148), a kale salad ($78), and two home made ginger beers, each (HK$38). Paired with steamed sticky rice, the fragrant duck curry was rich with coconut, delicately spiced and over flowing with duck, pineapple and litchis. The crisp kale salad was expertly tempered with Thai garlic, oyster sauce and salted soya beans.

The Hong Kong Metro Rail system is a convenient and inexpensive way to get around, and if you buy an Octopus Card, this makes travel even cheaper. The carriages on the train are clean and quiet, and passengers are discouraged from speaking on mobile phones.

For an unforgettable trip, take the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour from Central to Kowloon. As your electric-diesel vessel named Twinkling Star chugs across the water, you’ll have an amazing view across the water of sky scrapers, high-rise apartments and montane forests rising in the distance. On arrival 10 minutes later, the boatman throws a rope to moor the vessel. Started in 1888, the Star Ferry crossing is more popular than travelling by bus or taxi.

Dragon fruit at Hong Kong Market

We arrived in Kowloon, and stepped off Twinkling Star just before lunch time. A McDonalds fast food restaurant stood before us, and George was delighted. Against my better judgement I agreed to go in for a burger, chips and coke for HK$ 28 (US$3.5). The restaurant was crowded with both locals and tourists. By the time our soggy burgers reached our table, they bore little resemblance to the carefully crafted buns and patties seen in the advertisements. Even so, I was hungry, and took a bite. It tasted like death. I remembered why I never wanted to eat a McDonald burger in the first place, and abandoned the meal.

Back on the escalator the next morning, we stopped off at a fish and fresh fruit and vegetable market. If you tire of eating dim sum and dumplings, and can’t afford the Michelin-starred restaurants for which Hong Kong is famous, choose ingredients for your lunch or dinner to cook at home, from gleaming aubergines and broccoli, luscious Dragon fruit and Durian fruit, bright-eyed line fish and giant prawns.

Shop for T shirts, hair extensions and souvenirs at the Ladies Market in Mong Kok. Haggling over price is said to be in order, but we were unsuccessful and left the market empty handed. Stanley Market, a bus and train ride away is highly recommended, but we had run out of time.

Strolling through Hong Kong Park we came across the fascinating Museum of Tea Ware, occupying Flagstaff House, residence during colonial times of the Commander of the British Forces. The museum promotes China’s tea culture and beautiful examples of ceramic art, with hand-made tea pots, cups and saucers. A storm blew up as we watched a video describing the ancient tea ceremony, and later we decided to catch a Toyota Crown taxi to come home.

Retro-styled red Toyota Crown taxis, all with electric doors that open and shut at the press of a button, are a common sight in Hong Kong. Their charges aren’t excessive, and they are a welcome sight, especially when it’s raining.

Buying fresh vegetables at Hong Kong market.

The government is likely to introduce labour market reforms to reduce the rising rate of poverty in Hong Kong, but in the meantime the wealthy flourish, and tourists continue to flock to this fascinating city. A Matter of Taste with Charlotte Malakoff

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