Hong Kong is many things to different people. Some carve a space for themselves in its crowded tenements, and others take comfort in the transience it embodies; the moneyed elite tout its wide offering of high culture, while the cultured scoff at how shallow it is.
Even as thousands join the world's biggest domestic exodus to their homes in Mainland China for the Lunar New Year, the city brims with activity. Locals celebrate this half-week holiday largely by retreating to their nests, but there are colourful festivities that tourists can join in. Witnessing a spectacular display of fireworks along the iconic Victoria Harbour skyline or following the New Year's Parade along the historic Canton Road can give visitors a glimpse of Chinese culture in its modern garb.
Hotels are at full capacity at this time as tourists flock to typical destinations, but some, largely overlooked sites offer up aspects of Hong Kong that can surprise those who, understandably, associate this city only with business or shopping.
Dr Sun Yat-sen Museum
(Admission to all museums are free on Wednesdays) The first such site stands quietly in the heart of Central Hong Kong, glossed over by the expat social life that carries on around it. Housed in a graceful colonial-era (1914) building, the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Museum pays tribute to one of China's major revolutionary figures. His was an instrumental role in the governance of China after the Revolution of 1911, which ended dynastic rule there (but which was also subsequently hijacked by self-proclaimed emperor, Yuan Shikhai).
Dr. Sun Yat-sen, having finished his studies at the now University of Hong Kong, is celebrated as the revolutionary son of a city that has long had aspirations, but few realisations, of a strong political spirit.
The museum is a look into the colonial past upon which much of modern Hong Kong is built and thrives. In the 1920s, Dr. Sun Yat-sen praised its free market, press, and society, which proved conducive to planning a revolution in logistical and intellectual terms. This detailed historical journey includes an extensive collection of photographs, maps, hand-written letters, and personal items reminiscent of the Doctor's Hong Kong.
For families with children unwilling to spend too much time indoors, this museum is the main, but not the only stop on the Dr Sun Yat-sen Historical Trail, which winds through political landmarks in what is now the bustling restaurant district.
Being the highest mountain on Hong Kong Island, and offering awe- inspiring panoramas of skyscrapers and the harbour below, the peak is a very popular destination. While most tourists take the overpriced, five-minute peak tram ride up just to be dropped in the middle of a vast shopping mall, those with a love of nature can be pleasantly surprised with an easy (and free), hour-long walk to the top.
Though the walk is initially steep, it's well worth the effort as all the busyness that Hong Kong drops away below you. The path along the side of the mountain is paved with plenty of signs along the way, but it is surrounded by a surprising amount of foliage, brooks, trees, and space that make it easy to forget that you're in the most densely populated place on the planet.
An added advantage of this walk up to the peak is that one can enjoy views in all directions rather than just of the harbour. This walk also eventually leads to the shopping mall, where the Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum can be enjoyed with a cool drink and sandwich in hand. For those with more time, and more endurance, a 50 km trail leads all the way to the south-western tip of the island.
While many come to Hong Kong to indulge in the highest of luxury brands, be it cars, clothes, or wine, the city is also known as a haven for budget shopping (often on sale within walking distance of each other). The Ladies' Market in Mong Kok across the harbour is one such place that has something for everyone (despite its name).
Locals and foreigners flock to this and nearby streets for souvenirs, knock-off goods, and interminably bubbling activity. With electronic gadgets and everyday apparel, cheap Chinese watercolours and jade trinkets, the marketplace is an exciting place to spend an afternoon browsing. Unfortunately, bargaining here is not as easy as in South East Asia, where a smile takes you a long way. It's not impossible, however, as vendors are largely pleasant and unwilling to lose business. Just try to avoid visiting on the weekend, unless you want to be jostled down the street. These aspects of Hong Kong complete its story and give substance to a place that's in perpetual motion.