34 Words You'll Want to Learn Before Going to Hong Kong
Here’s the scenario: You’re going to Hong Kong. As a devotee of independent travel, you say to yourself, “Self, let’s research it up and do this! I don’t need a guide or a person who knows what they’re doing!” And so you begin your studies, shamelessly loitering in Barnes & Noble’s travel section and trolling the usual-suspect Internet resources, from the folks in polyester-khaki-everything at TripAdvisor to Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree, where you may or may not be lambasted or mocked for asking a too-simple question.
And then here’s what you think, after you’ve been doing that for a little bit (an hour/two days/three weeks): “What in the hell are these people talking about?” Do I eat a Yau Ma Tei or a Lor Mai Kai? Do I stay in Tim Ho Wan or Lan Kwai Fong? What the fresh hell is the difference between a dai pai dong and a cha chaan teng?
So, in a spirit of sisterly unity with those who also find themselves headed to Hong Kong without benefit of knowing anyone there or the willingness/funds to hire a guide, I offer up a glossary of words that I’ve stuffed into my brain. (Emphasis on the “gloss” in “glossary” because, you know, I’m plucking these few out of the monumental complexity of the Cantonese language.) This isn’t meant to be for experts, but instead, a helping hand for those traveling HK for the first time.
Place Words (Yes, the first three are out of alphabetical order—it's for a reason)
Hong Kong Island | Hong Kong is situated on both a peninsula and multiple islands. This, believe it or not, is the largest of those islands. It's also the home to many of the neighborhoods and sights you'll want to visit. I'll label anything in Hong Kong Island (HKI).
Kowloon | The peninsula part of Hong Kong, to the north of the island. You will almost certainly end up here at one point or another. I'll label anything in Kowloon (K).
New Territories | Located north of Kowloon and south of the Chinese border, the New Territories make up most of Hong Kong. Increasingly suburban, absorbing more of Hong Kong's growing population. Hakka people have been living and farming in the area for centuries, and a few of their walled villages are still in existence. I'll label anything in the New Territories as (NT).
Aberdeen (HKI) | On the south shore of HKI, Aberdeen has a long harbor in which fishing boats, house boats and other vessels take shelter in their hundreds. Also home to the gargantuan Jumbo Kingdom floating restaurant.
Admiralty (HKI) | Actually a part of Central (on the north side of HKI), Admiralty is a name you’ll see crop up when taking the MTR, because, well, there’s a station named for it. Like much of the rest of Central, expect skyscrapers, glossy shops and posh hotels.
Causeway Bay (HKI) | Also on the northern edge of HKI, Causeway Bay is east of the heart of Central. Yet another great place for avid shoppers, you’ll find everything from street markets to upscale retailers.
Central (HKI) | The thumping heart of HKI, Central is a hive of activity: business, shopping, dining, tourism—it’s all here. There’s no way to visit Hong Kong without spending some time in Central (and its sub-neighborhoods). Hotels in the area will cost you plenty, but wandering around and taking in the energy is free (as is a visit to verdant Hong Kong Park).
Happy Valley (HKI) | Inland from HKI’s northern shore, Happy Valley is primarily known among travelers for its racecourse, which thunders into life on Wednesday nights. Historic Hong Kong Cemetery is also in the area.
Hung Hom (K) | Not a neighborhood, but a transit station. Thrilling, I know, but it’s a critical place to know about if you want to go by train to mainland China. If you’re staying in Kowloon or on Hong Kong Island, this will be your point of departure to get to the border.
Jordan (K) | Smushed between Yau Ma Tei and Tsim Sha Tsui, Jordan is a great slice of Hong Kong life. Lots of shopping (across price ranges), street markets and a more (financially) modest atmosphere than Central, featuring of Hong Kong’s more affordable hotels.
Lo Wu (NT) | The MTR/East Rail Line station that is one of two border crossings into mainland China, or more specifically, Shenzhen. This will take you into the older part of Shenzhen and is the older of the two stations.
Lok Ma Chau (NT) | The other MTR/East Rail Line border crossing, located at the end of a spur off the main line. It’s a newer station and is more convenient for accessing the newer parts of Shenzhen, but supposedly wait times between this and Lo Wu aren’t terribly different.
Lan Kwai Fong (HKI) | Hong Kong’s notorious nightlife district, located within Central. Expect youths.
Midlevels (HKI) | Logically named, the Midlevels sit on the hill slopes above Central, about midway up Victoria Peak. It’s a high-demand residential area outfitted with the world’s longest escalator, which you can ride for free.
Mong Kok (K) | Sitting above (north of) Yau Ma Tei on the Kowloon side, Mong Kok is a riot of neon, markets and street-side food vendors. It might lack the polish of Central, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
PoHo (a.k.a. Po Hing Fong) (HKI) | I’ll be honest, this artsy little corner of Hong Kong charmed the daylights out of me. It has the feel of a neighborhood that the cool kids are living in, but the rest of the world hasn’t quite figured it out yet. Hang out in a cafe, shop in a design boutique, stroll. Just don’t expect it to stay undiscovered for too long.
Sha Tin (NT) | North of Kowloon, in the New Territories, Sha Tin has yet another famed racetrack and some higher-end hotels despite the fact that it’s essentially a suburb. Nevertheless, if you want a different sort of setting for your accommodations, it’s easy to get here on the MTR.
Sheung Wan (HKI) | Also located on Hong Kong Island, Sheung Wan is west of Central, but also has shoreline on Victoria Harbour. It’s a great place to wander, with lots of interesting shopping to fill up your time. Man Mo Temple, which is one of the things I recommend you see on your first day in Hong Kong, is here too.
SoHo (HKI) | There’s shopping in SoHo, true. However, this is a great place to come if you’re hungry. More specifically, if you’re hungry and willing to spend a little bit more on your meal than you might at some mom-and-pop hole-in-the-wall. Cuisine options run the gamut from Japanese to Italian to Mediterranean to Nepalese to, hell, I’d guess you could probably find, like, Venezuelan here. Do switchbacks up the steep streets til you find whatever strikes your fancy.
Tsim Sha Tsui (K) | On the southern end of Kowloon, Tsim Sha Tsui spreads its arms open to welcome lots—and lots—of tourists and travelers. However, there are museums, parks, hotels and restaurants aplenty, so it’s a pretty convenient place to stay, even if you are accosted every five steps by dudes trying to sell you handbags and watches. Nathan Road, one of TST’s major thoroughfares, is yet another shopping mecca.
Wan Chai (HKI) | East of Central on Hong Kong Island, Wan Chai is living down its reputation as a seedy den of iniquity. The Hong Kong Arts Center and the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre are two major elements in Wan Chai’s comeup and it’s a safe bet that the area won’t be hanging on to the ambience of its past with all the ongoing efforts to clean it up.
Yau Ma Tei (K) | Just a bit north of Tsim Sha Tsui, Yau Ma Tei has a host of great markets featuring everything from fish (for either your plate and your aquarium) to jade. Temple Street Night Market is a fun, if visually chaotic, experience.
Food Words (God help us all with these transliterations)
Cha Chaan Teng | Literally “tea restaurant,” these unfancy eateries are Hong Kong fixtures and an essential experience. Hit one up for breakfast to sample the West-meets-East mashup meals for which they became famous, like macaroni soup with egg and ham.
Char Siu Bao | Steamed barbecue pork buns.
Cheong Fan | Rice noodles in sheet form, rolled up. Slippery as hell.
Chiu-chau fan guo | A dumpling stuffed with peanuts, pork, mushrooms (and other stuff too, but those are the things that stand out most to me).
Dai Pai Dong | Open-air food stalls, each selling its own specialties, that are ever more under threat of disappearing. The name means “restaurant with a big license plate,” which refers to the licenses these food vendors were issued and had to display on their stalls. In the 1980s, the government bought back scores of licenses from aging businesspeople who couldn’t pass them on to anyone other than their spouses, thus collapsing the dai pai dong scene (or much of it).
Dan Tat | Egg custard tarts.
Har Gao | Shrimp dumplings.
Kau Kee | Restaurant of the do-one-thing-and-do-it-well school, famous for its beef brisket noodles.
Lo Bak Gou | Steamed turnip cake, finished off with a quick jump in the skillet to make it nicely browned and crispy.
Siu Mai | Pork and shrimp dumplings. Distinctive for their shape—they stand upright, with their filling visible in the middle, like a little blooming porky-shrimpy flower. Often topped a little dab of roe.
Tim Ho Wan | Renowned as the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant, Tim Ho Wan is the dim sum spot that people (or at least those who fantasize about dim sum) dream of.
Tin Lung Heen | If you want to get schmancy with your Michelin-starred dim sum, this place inside the Ritz-Carlton is the place to go.