Hong Kong is a giant, dazzling emporium of luxury goods and soaring glass office towers. But if you long for a nostalgic glimpse of an older Hong Kong, the one depicted in movies such as In the Mood for Love or the classic Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, you can still find your way to the city that used to be.
The best place to start is the Mandarin Oriental hotel in the Central district. No building embodies Hong Kong's mid-20th century prosperity boom like this luxury hotel. Built in 1963 and described then as a "towering 27 storeys," it is now dwarfed by skyscrapers, but is no less impressive. In the 1960s and seventies, celebrity guests included the Beatles, David Bowie, the shah of Iran and pop-art prince Andy Warhol. Though smartly updated, the hotel still has its gold-leaf wooden wall carvings, Venetian crystal chandeliers and impeccable service. With the Mandarin as our base, we explored the Hong Kong of old.
Dim sum din
Dim sum at Lin Heung Tea House is an authentic, if exhausting, experience, complete with resentful waiters, dusty ceiling fans and squalling babies. No gracious service here, where passing food carts trigger waves of hungry diners. Orders are shouted for fish head, duck feet, doughy buns (the sweet lotus-paste bun won our vote). A businessman sitting near us, who snagged his favourite pig-liver dumpling, said he came "for the memories of my childhood."
Hong Kong boasts luxury brands, but also offers old-fashioned "sunset businesses." The family-owned Chu Wing Kee and Man Kee stores, for example, are crammed with feather dusters, porcelain bowls, tea flasks and handmade wooden cutting boards.
And although the city's mah-jong gambling parlours have dwindled, you can still buy handmade mah-jong tiles at Kung Yau Cheong Mahjong. (And if you speak Cantonese and don't mind cigarette smoke, you can check out one of the last gambling joints, Kai Kee Mahjong, on Temple Street.)
Fifty years ago, Hong Kong women were known for their signature one-piece cheongsam or qipao dresses (tight- and loose-fitting, respectively). In Mei Wah, a custom tailor shop crowded with rolls of silk, third-generation tailor Kan Hong Wing still spends 12 hours a day making these garments. "Every piece is an art. My heart is in every tiny stitch," he said. It can take up to four days to make a body-hugging cheongsam so if you can't wait, check out Bang Bang 70's. Store owners Michael and Parker Tan, aficionados of all things seventies, can outfit you from head to toe in period wear.
At the Duen Kee Restaurant, tea is a DIY affair. Snag a plastic stool from a stack, grab a cup from a shelf and choose your own jasmine or pu-erh tea leaves from a scarred wooden bin. Fill a pot with boiling water piped in from a nearby mountain stream, and drag your stool over to one of the mismatched tables. The pure stream water is the draw, but so is the group of elder regulars who show up with their caged birds. The birds lend a soundtrack to morning tea, while their owners shush the customers: "Shhh. You'll disturb the birds!"
Pamper and groom
If you'd like to experience a fading art, try the old-school pedicure ($110) offered at the Mandarin by Samuel So (like his father before him). He spends two to three hours a day sharping his 10 handmade blades, which he uses to delicately shave dead skin from your feet, followed by a toenail buffing. "I just love my work," he said, pointing to a customer's newborn smooth foot. "I can make people so happy!"
And any man yearning for a straight-razor shave, complete with badger brush and hot towels (starting at $65) should settle into one of the original chairs in the Mandarin's barber shop, where Stephen Wan has been pampering customers since 1964. "I've been doing this so long," he said, "I can give a straight-razor shave with my eyes closed."
'Soy sauce Western'
Fifties-style dining in Hong Kong took us to a surprising destination: a steak house. Just as Western countries adopted and interpreted Chinese cuisine in the 1950s, so the newly prosperous Hong Kong riffed on the idea of a steak house. Sides of white rice, plenty of black pepper and soy sauce turned the Hong Kong version into a new local comfort food, dubbed "soy sauce Western." Fusion before there was fusion, although there are few such steak houses left. Locals favour the landmark Goldfinch Restaurant, which opened in 1962, and is decorated with cloud paintings on the ceiling, striped carpet and slippery vinyl booths. (It was the setting for the evocative 2000 film In the Mood for Love.)
The lounges that once launched the careers of pop singers such as Anita Mui are closing their doors, but we got a look into the past at Yue Wen Singing Lounge. We found seats at beat-up tables with patrons who smoked, watched lethargically or applauded enthusiastically for the hired-per-song crooners. As soon as we sat down, Connie and Jing appeared with offers to sing with us, or for us. We opted for the "for" and paid each about $10 for a song. As a disco ball twirled above the stage, Connie closed her eyes and sang a classic, Tian Mi Mi: "Your smile is so sweet as honey … so familiar but I just cannot remember when …"
There's no better place to end the night than in the Mandarin's legendary Captain's Bar, which has been mixing classic cocktails for a half-century. A row of silver tankards, engraved with names of moguls past, lines the wall behind the bar, a popular rendezvous spot for locals. The glamour days of Bruce Lee and Anita Mui may be gone, and the cool jazz may be from a Filipino cover band rather than Eartha Kitt, but the singular experience of old Hong Kong is still on tap.
IF YOU GO
WHERE TO STAY
The Mandarin Oriental: Although it's celebrating five decades as a Hong Kong landmark, the Mandarin is a 21st-century hotel. A $140-million update gave it all the technological doodads imaginable, but the ambience is genteel-cool. Indulge your Mad Men fantasy with a glass of 1963 port at the Chinnery Bar, or visit the elegant Man Wah Restaurant, with its 25th-floor panoramic views. Rooms range from about $650 a night to a $1,300 for a suite. (5 Connaught Rd., Central district; mandarinoriental.com/hongkong)
WHERE TO EAT
Duen Kee Restaurant: Morning tea with mountain water from a running stream and a chance to meet the last of Hong Kong's bird hobbyists. (57-58 Chuen Lung Village, Route Twisk)
Lin Heung Tea House: One of the last of the dim sum restaurants to have rolling trolleys and delicacies such as pig liver, fish maw and duck feet snacks. Very local. (160-164 Wellington St., Central)
Goldfinch Restaurant: Founded more than 40 years ago, this "authentic" Hong Kong steak house offers a local spin on Western food. Try favourites such as the pepper steak ($18), grilled sliced ostrich ($19) or a two-person set meal for about $45. Top it off with a Singapore Sling ($5). (13-15 Lan Fong Rd., Causeway Bay)
WHERE TO SHOP
Chu Wing Kee: This crammed shop has been offering housewares since 1959. Second-generation owner Perry Chu boasts 10,000 items such as back scratchers and the shop's famous red plastic piggy banks. (26 Possession St. Sheung Wan)
Man Kee: The best place in Hong Kong to get handmade wooden chopping boards. (342 Shanghai St.; mankee.hk)
Kung Yau Cheong Mahjong: There is hardly a mah-jong parlour left in the city, but you can see the tiles being carved at Kung Yau Cheong Mahjong. (661 Shanghai St., Mong Kok)
Mei Wah Tailor: "Almost every part of this work is difficult," says master custom tailor Kan Hong Wing. But for a cheongsam for your special event, there is almost nowhere else to go. He also crafts lovely men's mandarin jackets of the best British and Italian wools. (76 Queen's Rd. West, Sheung Wan)
Bang Bang 70's: Brothers Michael and Parker Tan are seventies fans, and the finds at their store are guaranteed authentic. (16A Aberdeen St., SoHo, Central)
WHERE TO PLAY
Yue Wen Singing Lounge: The perfect place for amateur singers to shell out $10 and sing classic Cantonese pop tunes or try Chinese opera with live accompaniment. (53-57 Temple St., Yau Ma Tei)
The writer travelled courtesy of the Hong Kong Tourism Board; it did not review or approve the article.