I could talk about the museums.
I could talk about the neighbourhoods.
I could talk about the markets.
I could talk about the mass transit.
I could talk about the various historical sites where cool/gross/sad stuff happened.
I could talk about the big expensive Ferris Wheel.
But those are all things most of the world’s most prestigious cities offer, and quite honestly in all those categories I can name a city that offers better than London. New York has more interesting and iconic museums, and neighbourhoods. Amsterdam has bigger and more diverse markets. Hong Kong has better mass transit. Rome has more sites where cool/gross/sad stuff happened. Vegas has a bigger big expensive Ferris Wheel.
This isn’t to say that what London does offer on all those fronts isn’t fantastic to take in, because it really is. Camden Market, Tate Modern and the British Museum, Soho/Notting Hill/Kensington/Brixton/etc – all incredible. I would not hesitate to revisit and relive those experiences.
But what I’d like to talk about in this space is what really makes London special. What sets it apart from anywhere else I’ve had the pleasure of hanging out for a few days over the past few years. What truly made me fall head over Doc Martens-adorned heels for the city.
London loves rock n’ roll.
I wish that didn’t make London special, but let’s face it, rock n’ roll music/style/lifestyle is not the dominant cultural force it once was. To put it mildly. In fact in most parts of the globe including my home continent it’s barely maintaining any kind of relevance in society at all.
But in London, rock n’ roll surrounds you, constantly, and it’s glorious. Placards on buildings celebrating/commemorating the significant rock n’ roll moments that happened there are everywhere you look. 85% of the restaurants, coffee shops, and retail stores you walk into have rock music playing, oftentimes blasting. There’s an entire street in Soho that’s literally nothing but guitar stores and recording studios. There’s a store in Notting Hill with 5 levels of black rock band t-shirts. In Camden Town and Camden Market it seems like every other business is a punk/glam/mod/goth record and clothing store. There’s even a hotel in Soho called the Karma Sanctum Rock n’ Roll Hotel – which made for a fantastic home base for this adventure.
And all this isn’t just for show. It’s not to cater to tourists by “celebrating the past.” It’s not a city trying to project an image. It’s just how it is.
And it rules.
London’s passion for my same passion was never more apparent than the night I found myself in the legendary 100 Club on Oxford Street. I went to see a band called Mother Mother, who I do somewhat dig, but I went much more for the venue than the band. The 100 Club can lay a legitimate claim to the title of “birthplace of the British Punk movement.” Basically all my Brit rock/punk/new wave heroes have passed through there, and played that stage. It’s London’s CBGBs, but unlike CBs, it’s still open and operating as a full-time music venue. Yet more evidence of London’s appreciation for the louder faster side of auditory existence compared to other parts of the world.
Mother Mother is a Canadian band, and one that if it played my home city of Regina, Canada on a Saturday night, would draw maybe 60 people. Maybe.
But in London, on a Monday night, in the most legendary club in the city’s history, they played to a sold out crowd. A wickedly loud, adoring, completely stoked sold out crowd. I was both stunned and inspired by the enthusiasm of the Brit audience for this band.
A few nights later I’d be taking in another rock show, courtesy of England’s own post-punk/goth rockers The Horrors, at a venue not quite as storied as the 100 Club, but considerably better smelling – Royal Albert Hall. Again I was treated to a crowd completely enamored with what was happening onstage. I’ve seen live music performances in 9 countries across 3 continents, and nowhere have I seen crowds as appreciative as London.
As an aside, I have to mention the performance I personally was most appreciative of while over there, which ironically wasn’t a rock gig, but “The darkest, funniest and most debauched variety show this side of the Berlin” called The Little Death Club. It’s fair to say I’ve never been treated to a live theatre experience quite like this. A topless fire eater, a fully nude acrobat hanging from the ceiling by her (head) hair, and craziest of all, a talking mime! Oh, and yours truly also made a couple appearances on stage – moments I’m endlessly appreciative of my travel companion Ang for capturing some vid clips.
Back to the rock n’ roll, to give a shout out to the London Rock Legends Tour – a very cool guided van tour that allows you to see legendary studios, famous residences (Jimmy Page, Robbie Williams, Mick Jagger, etc), locations of notable deaths (Jimi Hendrix, Mama Cass, Freddie Mercury, etc), the Rolling Stones first apartment, Bill Wyman’s restaurant, the store where The Sex Pistols were formed, The Clash’s former stomping grounds, and of course tons of Beatles sites including Abbey Road Studios and the famous crossing, all in the span of 3 ½ hours. (And okay, maybe that caters to tourists by “celebrating the past.”)
I don’t know if I’ll make it back to London again in my lifetime. It’s an incredible place to spend a few days, but this world has a lot of incredible places I haven’t had the chance to experience yet and those places are going to take priority when considering future travel plans. But even if I don’t, I will be forever grateful to that city for being the living embodiment of the notion that rock n’ roll will never die. I left London much more sure that cliché is correct than I was when I arrived.
What a beautiful gift for a city to give a visitor.
There was a Times Square. There was a Soho. There was a World Trade Centre. There were plenty of people walking around in Yankees caps.
It may have been my first visit to Hong Kong, but it still seemed… familiar.
The truth is, I compare everywhere I go to New York City, but the fact is, even without all those namesakes, Hong Kong is a city that begs to be compared to New York City. And in my 8 days spent exploring the Fragrant Harbour, I was continually in awe of just how similar, and similarly awesome, it was to New York City. The pace and energy of the city and its residents, the vastly different feels from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, and that skyline… damn. In fact, at the midway point of my trip I posted a Facebook status declaring I might love both cities equally. Might.
There’s only one way to find out for sure – a head to head competition!
The cities will be competing in various events including Transit, Arts and Culture, Architecture, and more. And at the end, a winner will be determined. Let’s get started.
Beginning with getting to and from the airport...
Hong Kong, like every major city with any self-respect on Earth, has a cheap and convenient rail link from the airport into downtown. Oh wait, every major city… except NYC. HK takes a big early lead in this category.
I never took a cab in HK but they always seemed available, just like in NYC. Tie on that one.
Now the big one, public transit. Subway vs. MTR.
Comparing both systems as they exist in the present day, Hong Kong takes the win. Easily. Huge but easy to navigate stations, all impeccably clean, as are the trains. Much more frequent trains, even at night. And the train cars all have easy to understand electronic route boards, visible to everyone in the car, and even an LED indicator showing which side the doors are going to open. An area where the Subway catches up a bit is frequency of stations, because depending where you are in HK it can be a long walk to the next MTR station, whereas in New York, at least in Manhattan, there’s always one close by. There’s also an area where the Subway catches up in a bigger way – the Subway runs 24 hours. The MTR closes at 1 AM.
In the interest of fairness when it comes to the condition/modernization of stations and trains, one also needs to appreciate that the Subway has been in operation since the early 1900s, whereas HK had the luxury of building their system 70 years later, and therefore had access to much better technology, and had a much better understanding of the demands of the ridership. Also, the MTR only has about a third of the lines to operate as the Subway does, and about half of the track length to maintain. Both systems charge about the same per ride, but the Subway has unlimited week/month passes and the MTR does not.
All things considered it’s a close race, but the MTR comes out on top. Oh also Hong Kong has the not super practical but quite fun tram system AKA the “Ding Ding”. Definitely worth checking out especially if you can score a seat on the second level.
HK 1, NYC 0
This is an intense and super close competition. HK has the more expansive and crowded skyline, so it’s more of a spectacle, but NYC has the more iconic individual buildings, so it’s more beautiful. I’m giving the nod to NYC… during the day. Hong Kong takes it at night, because the inventive use of lighting (and lasers!) on many of the skyscrapers is brilliant, and unlike anywhere else in the world. So we have a tie. Each city gets a point. HK 2, NYC 1
New York City takes this one, and without barely breaking a sweat. Hong Kong has basically two types of buildings, big modern glass office towers, and shabby older residential buildings that all look essentially the same. NYC also has plenty of each of those, but NYC has an extra layer – the Art Deco and Art Nouveau masterpieces of the Gilded and Jazz ages. Nothing in Hong Kong can or ever will compete with the Empire State Building/Chrysler Building/Flatiron/Woolworth Building/etc/etc/etc.
HK 2, NYC 2
As important as a great mass transit system is, I personally much prefer to explore a city on foot. In a city the caliber of a Hong Kong or a New York, the areas in between your origin point and destination are almost always as rewarding as the destination itself. So which city makes it easier on the foot traveler? Hong Kong has plenty of pedestrian friendly areas, particularly on the Kowloon side, but on Hong Kong Island, especially in the district known as Central, walking can be a bit of a challenge. Huge expressways get in the way and the occasional footbridges meant to mitigate that issue are a bit too occasional. Also HK sidewalks have a tendency to just cut off, without warning, either by a building wall or a street. There’s usually a sidewalk right across the street when that happens, but good luck getting across with the traffic. Also on the Hong Kong side, you’re basically climbing a mountain to access the mid and upper levels, so unless you happen to be right where the world’s most impressive escalator system is, if you don’t like stairs, you’re going to have a bad time.
New York City is a pedestrian paradise.
NYC 3, HK 2
I have to put aside my own food prejudices to fairly assess this one. Why? Because pizza is my absolute favourite food, and cheesecake is my favourite dessert so… yeah. Putting that aside, both cities have an incredibly expansive and diverse offering of food options, and for any budget. Hong Kong of course has incredible dim sum options, and the bakeries feature a couple local delicacies – the egg tart and the pineapple bun, that will haunt my dreams until I make it back, and a glorious hot beverage called milk tea that reduced my coffee intake for the week to basically nil.
That said, I’m guessing all of those things can be found in New York City with a bit of a search, and my next time there I will do that search so I can compare.
So, I want to make this one a tie, but that’s such a cop out and I already did it once so… Hong Kong gets the edge because of the street food scene. In NYC, if you want a street snack but don’t want a hotdog, pretzel, or kabob, you’re pretty much out of luck. In Hong Kong you can find just about anything you can (or can’t even) imagine on the street. What stood out for me was the fresh fruit in the various street markets in HK. Munching a whole pomegranate is an amazing midday refresher. NYC 3, HK 3
Big Statues on an Island
So, the Statue of Liberty vs. the Tian Tan Buddha. The Statue of Liberty is beautiful, but the Tian Tan Buddha is gorgeous beyond description. Plus you get to take an epic cable car ride to get to it.
HK 4, NYC 3
From what I can tell, both cities are the promised land for people into stupidly expensive luxury brands. I’m not one of those people but it must be a tie. From what I know, both cities are the promised land for people into mass-produced cheesy souvenirs. But so is every popular tourist destination on Earth. Again, tie. Both cities have a decent vintage store scene as well. Hong Kong has a distinct edge over NYC in the number of stores that sell dehydrated fish bladders. Like, it’s not even close… but I’m not sure that’s something I’m going to take into account. What Hong Kong doesn’t have, are the types of places that feel like they cater personally to my sense of style. The glam/punk/rawk fashions of a Trash and Vaudeville or I NEED MORE or Search & Destroy don’t seem to exist in Hong Kong. On that alone, NYC gets the nod.
HK 4, NYC 4
Arts and Culture
Note: Music is not part of this as it will get its own separate event. This category is for things like museums and street performances.
I didn’t see much of either in Hong Kong.
NYC 5, HK 4
On a trip to Hong Kong, you can easily access the wonderful Lantau Island, or the historic and compelling Macau, China. Both fantastic places to spend a day. On a trip to New York City, you can easily access… um, Jersey or Connecticut.
NYC 5, HK 5
I love, looooove street markets. Walking through the crowds in the narrow passage ways and checking out the selection of food and goods at the various booths is one of my happiest places. I know this piece is about NYC vs. HK, but on this topic I need to mention that Amsterdam is thee best place I’ve seen for these markets, and second place isn’t even close to close. But this is HK vs. NYC.
NYC is a good place to stumble upon random temporary street markets, but there’s nothing permanent that I’m aware of. Chelsea Market is indoors so I can’t count that. HK has street markets everywhere. The iconic ones - Ladies Market and Temple Street, do not disappoint. Then there are the insane scenes known as “wet markets” in seemingly every neighbourhood. Easy choice on this one.
HK 6, NYC 5
The final event. Music is my #1 passion in life, and as such whenever I go on a trip I make sure a concert or two is on the itinerary. One of the huge perks of travelling is it gives me plenty of opportunities to see artists that would never in a million years bother making it to the desolate and forgotten part of the world I have to call home. But I don’t book these adventures of mine around specific shows. I don’t need to, because over a week’s time in any major city there’ll always be something happening. It’s actually part of the fun of booking trips far in advance, checking the concert listings from time to time to see who may have announced a gig.
In New York, that strategy doesn’t work for once or twice in a week, it works for literally every night I’m in town. In fact most nights I have to choose between two different shows. Or go to two different shows.
But during my time in Hong Kong… nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Whatever the Chinese word for zero is.
It’s not that there’s never a live event in HK. Sadly I missed one of my all-time faves, Teenage Fanclub, by just a couple weeks. But it’s rare. They do get quite a few of the massive tours like G n’ R/The Killers/etc, but three’s nothing as far as theatre or club venues where a touring act at that level would stop. I still very much enjoyed all my nights in Hong Kong, just not how I typically might in other parts of the world. The only live music I did see was in Wan Chai, where I checked out a couple cover bands in a couple lounges. They were… let’s just say any cover band I’ve ever seen in my home province of Saskatchewan would be in high demand on the Hong Kong bar circuit. This is the easiest call of the competition.
NYC 6, HK 6
So, with a final score of 6 to 6, we have a… winner, and it’s New York City.
Because there’s another category, one I can’t define… that I can’t even name… The feel, the vibe, the ability of a city to nourish my spirit simply by being inside of it, that automatically puts NYC at the top of any “competition.”
But no city has come as close as Hong Kong, and I can’t imagine any other city ever coming any closer. I’ve only been home for three days but I already miss it like crazy and am starting to think about how/when I might get back. Until then, I’m sure the city will be in my thoughts every day, and I will treasure the memories made during this first visit.
That’s the end of this piece. Okay bai bai.