I firmly believe that a trip to Hong Kong that revolves solely around eating as much food as possible is not only entirely acceptable, but wholly desirable as well! However, not everyone is so singularly minded as Tony & I are, and it would be wrong for us to give the impression that all there is to do in Hong Kong is eat. Far from it! Though we spent the months leading up to our trip seriously downsizing our belongings, and carrying all of our possessions on your back has a way of causing you to re-evaluate just how necessary a purchase really is, like millions before us, we discovered that Hong Kong is a bit of a shopper’s paradise.
Although Hong Kong has its fair share of malls with upscale stores, we quickly realized that the real fun comes from trawling the streets and perusing the daily markets in order to find what you are looking for. Whether it’s food or fashion, you’ll find it down on the ground in Hong Kong. And while you’ll certainly encounter many tourists making the rounds, for the most part, this is also where the locals do their shopping, so in addition to picking up souvenirs on the cheap, you’ll also be getting your daily dose of culture. Score!
While random and haphazard selection of street markets (we’ve all engaged in the “I’ll just randomly point to a place on the map and take my chances” strategy) is all fine and dandy, to get the most out of shopping in Hong Kong, a little bit of pre-planning is advised. Like many old cities, Hong Kong still has pockets of specialized districts about it, meaning that if you’re in the market for a particular object, you generally go to one street or neighborhood to find it. At first, the idea of one whole street dedicated to cameras or athletic footwear seemed a bit counter-intuitive to me — why would you want to place your store smack dab in the center of 50 of your biggest competitors — but I soon realized that at least as a shopper, this is the ideal scenario. I actually happened to be in the market for a new pair of sports sandals (having somehow lost my original pair somewhere in Japan), so off we headed to Fan Yuen St, located in the Mong Kok district of Kowloon. Save for a few restaurants scattered here and there, approximately three blocks of real estate are devoted solely to peddling sports shoes.
At a mall, I likely would have had to run from one end to the next, across countless floors in search of the perfect pair of sandals. But here, playing Cinderella for the day was a far more efficient process, as I was able to methodically make my way down the street, popping into every store to check out their goods and compare prices. With so many stores specializing in the same niche, you can pretty much guarantee that eventually you’ll find what you’re looking for. With so much overlap between the stores, merchandise is generally priced very competitively, but stock and prices do vary from store to store, so it’s certainly in your best interest to check out more than one shop. Although the sandals I wound up selecting were available at several stores, the price fluctuated by $30 – $40USD based on which store you were in, so do your due diligence before you buy! Not only was I able to find a pair of sandals that I love, but I was able to do so in about 1 hour… which is not only a fraction of the time I spent hunting for something similar in Japan, but at also about 1/3 of the price! And you thought I couldn’t love Hong Kong any more than I already did…
Following our success at Fan Yuen St, Tony & I spent the rest of the day slowly ambling down some of Hong Kong’s older and more offbeat specialty streets. Our wanderings took us down Goldfish Street, where the stores are crammed to the gills (pun intended!) with all manner of aquatic animals. We marveled at how crowded the stores were, as both the young and old vied for the luckiest turtle or the most flamboyant fighting fish. This was definitely an area where the streets were quite literally teeming with life!
Gradually, the din and frenetic energy of Goldfish Street gives way to the more serene, though no less exotic, Flower Street. The explosion of color and scents was a riot for the senses, and it was really fascinating to observe the deep-rooted tradition that surrounds seemingly mundane tasks in Hong Kong. Here flowers are selected with intention — not arbitrarily (or according to cost) as they often are back home — the meaning of each flower carefully considered and perfectly pruned before being included in an arrangement. Like so much in Chinese culture, everything is about balance and everything is done with a deliberateness that can be astounding to those of us used to idly drifting through our daily lives.
Of the old markets we visited, my very favorite had to be the historic Bird Market. Birds are perhaps the most traditional of all Chinese pets, and the Bird Market provides a fascinating glimpse into the colorful culture of the country. Though I admit to having always considered birds somewhat lame pets, I learned that they have been the longtime chosen companions of the Chinese upper class. I was dazzled by the variety of birds on offer here, as well as the lavish and ornate cages and accouterments being flogged (the craftsmanship of which was absolutely exquisite). From flirty little finches, to inquisitive parrots, a stunning parade of avian diversity was on display. One of the shops was actually flaunting a toucan, which was absolutely stunning and startling.
[As an aside, I will say that in general, I felt that all the birds we saw at the market were well cared for and were a point of pride for the shopkeepers, but the toucan did make me feel uncomfortable. It was so beautiful, and unlike most birds, had real understanding glimmering in its hugely expressive eyes, so it just seemed wrong for it to be in a cage. ]
Not all of the birds at the market are for sale, as the area and its surrounding garden also acts as a social meeting place where older Hong Kong residents can come to chat with friends and neighbors while also letting their feathered friends get a bit of fresh air. As we wandered through, we witnessed more than one heated game of Go in progress, and it was really invigorating to see how lively these little districts are and that within them, Cantonese culture is alive and well and continues to thrive.
Of course, as fascinating as these markets were, their wares were more than a little impractical for two long-term budget travelers, so during our time in Hong Kong we made sure to check out some of the city’s other famous markets that are slightly more conventional, namely the Ladies’ and Men’s Markets. Our first lesson was that these names refer not to the patrons the markets are aimed at, but rather the people running the stalls! You’ll find just as much weird (and useless) stuff marketed towards men at the Ladies’ Market as you will at the Men’s; the only difference is that at the Ladies’ Market, it’s all women trying to fleece you of your hard earned HKDs! Our second lesson was that picking up or even pointing at any item is taken as a tacit signal that the floor is now open for the seller to start negotiations with you over the price. So don’t pick up that Mini Cooper memory stick or that wallet with Yoshi emblazoned on it idly! Also, lest you fear that if you don’t snag that bedazzled banana hammock someone else will, you’ll soon realize that pretty much everyone is selling the same stuff and nothing is one of a kind. While we didn’t buy anything at either of these markets, they certainly primed us for what we would encounter when we hit the big leagues: the Temple Street Night Market.
Hong Kong has a few notable night markets, but Temple Street was the one that we were most interested in visiting, primarily because we heard it happened to offer the best food! (Surprise, surprise!) We were expecting stalls selling little treats and snacks that we could munch on as we browsed, but in actuality, most of the food being hawked was of the sit-down variety in makeshift dining areas cobbled together along side streets. The options on offer were overwhelming, so we chose a place at random and hope for the best.
Glancing at the tables around us, we realized that the thing to order was chili crab, so we ordered up a plate, alongside some sautéed greens and decided we would also try squab. The meal was pricey, but given our good luck with food thus far, we were sure it would be worth it. Alas! This was our one dud of a meal in Hong Kong, as the crab we ordered had almost no meat in it and we could not for the life of us crack the claws open. It’s a shame because the bits of crab we did taste were delicious, and the rest of our meal was really yummy (for the record, squab—which is just a fancy name for pigeon—tastes just like duck), we just paid far too much for what we got.
To shake off our sorrows, we headed to the shopping portion of the market and tested out our haggling skills. We wound up with a new sling bag for Tony to tote around his camera gear ($105HKD à $13.5USD), and I splurged and picked up 2 necklaces for myself ($155HKD à $20USD). These may not have been the prices experienced hagglers would have snagged, but we were happy with our first outing, which I think is what matters most in these instances. For reference, Tony’s camera bag started off at $125HKD ($16USD), and my necklaces started at $268HKD ($35USD).
Skipping the markets in Hong Kong would have meant missing out on a vital part of the city. Even for those who don’t care to shop, these streets and stalls offer tourists a candid way to observe and interact with locals, and may just lead to some of the most memorable moments of your time here. It’s a far cry from the sterilized over-the-top consumerism that pervades most malls and high end shopping streets. Though we love a good mall as much as the next person, there is something undeniably refreshing about doing your shopping outside, especially in a place as dynamic as Hong Kong. You really get to soak in the undiluted vibrancy of this wild, remarkable city. These streets offer a perfect environment for locals and foreigners alike to mingle and socialize, providing a cultural experience and insight into daily life here that is hard to put a price tag on.