Mongkok is the most crowded and intense neighborhood of an incredibly crowded and intense city. It has everything good and bad about Hong Kong: markets, specialized markets, malls, giant monster malls, street life, street life including protests, mysterious private clubs, vice, and great food. When you visit Hong Kong, you utterly should take a walk in Mongkok.
If you have started to like Hong Kong, visiting Mongkok will make it better. If you’re overwhelmed by Hong Kong, Mongkok will make it worse. It has somewhat of a reputation for organized criminal activity and prostitution, so much that many crime movies are set here, but it’s also one of the most dynamic neighborhoods of the city, and is quite safe. It has a youth culture that rivals anything Harajuku can throw up, and there’s something happening on the street pretty much always.
Hong Kong is a bit of a different tourist destination, as it doesn’t have many canonical sights. The main Thing To Do there is go to Victoria Peak, the highest point on the island, and snap a photo. The second Thing To Do is go see a massive outdoor Buddha statue on Lantau Island. Beyond that, any “What to do” articles on Hongkers will list things like “eat dim sum” and “go shopping”. That’s why you need to know about neat neighborhoods to explore, because the city is an amazing urban experience.
Hong Kong is not a beautiful city, except for some views from high places. It’s expensive and crowded. Your hotel room will be tiny. I’ve stayed in some seriously crappy flophouses there. Yet the city is one of my favorites. I’ve never be able to see it all, and even within one neighborhood there are endless possibilities.
Mongkok is in Kowloon, the mainland part of Hong Kong, not on any island. Look at a map of the Hong Kong area and put a dot in the geographic center and that’s pretty much Mongkok. It has the densest population in the world, a mind-blowing 130,000 people per square kilo. Compare that to 27,000 in Manhattan. Nathan Road, the main north~south street, runs right through it and there are plenty of subway stops and buses there. Nathan Road is a good landmark–you should explore at least three or four streets off it on each side.
A good beginning is to wander the streets north of Dundas, to the east side of Nathan Avenue. There’s a chipper take-away stand called Hot.com just near the corner of Dundas and Tung Choi Street that’s addictive, among the best fish and chips I’ve ever had. Portions are small and the fish is sticks, not fillets, but the price is 33 HKD ($4.24 USD) and you get two sauce choices. I recommend the pepper and Thai, and not the cheese. I’ve never been to Mongkok without having a snack here.
So simple, but heaven
That next-door Tung Choi Street is the location of the “Ladies’ Market”, a sprawling outdoor market. I went to see if I could buy a lady, but strangely they don’t sell them there. Apparently it’s named after things for ladies, which is quite misleading. Somewhere to the north is the Bird Market, and don’t even start to tell me it’s named after items for birds. I must say, I find this system highly irregular.
Although I’m no lady, the Ladies’ Market was fun, and the stuff there wasn’t just for females, although there are plenty of handbags and jewelry and such that I gloss over. It’s known for knockoffs as well; don’t buy anything expensive here. The entire street gets taken up with stands. It’s popular with tourists, so prices aren’t the best.
Nota Bene: Mongkok is also written as Mong Kok. I trust this will not confuse you.
That bird market is up on Yuen Po Street, which is also a flower market. The bird thing is mostly a gathering place for older men who bring their cages birds here for an airing, and to fuss over them while feeding them insects. Old men and flowers are a perfect match.
Mongkok Market on Aplui Street, also known as “Men’s Street”, is a bit north of Mongkok, although I suppose this is like the Ladies’ Market and really only sells stuff for men, not men itself. There are other market streets–Goldfish Street (also on Tung Choi), one called Sneaker Street (area of Fa Yuen Street nearest to the subway), and so on, each selling what they’re named for.
For two seriously different shopping experiences, malls as a tourist destination, head to Sim City and Langham Place, each not far from Nathan Road. Sim City is full of geeks, mostly males, as the three-story building is crammed with electronics, mainly computers and cameras. This is the place to pick up an off-brand 5k video card, an extra internal hard drive, a new heat sink for your CPU, and a vintage Hasselblad film camera. Some stores here look fantastic and you can tell they care. Others are just selling parts out of huge bins. Buyer beware.
Langham Place is the opposite, a monstrous modern mall across Nathan Blvd. In Asia, the malls seem to be the opposite of what they are in the USA, where I live. Asian malls are cool, trendy, full of good food, and work hard to keep you inside. You’ll wander it, stumble by the wonderfully-named Awfully Chocolate shop. Moving on, the space opens up and crimey, it opens up. Way up. An escalator reached to the sky, about seven stories up, and I would discover that another one is above it. The whole thing is 15 stories, but perhaps half of it is open atrium-like space. Still.
I almost didn’t ascend, because I couldn’t believe the entire thing is a mall, but it is. That monster escalator reaches only the middle levels, with a wonderful food court where I ate a spicy Malaysian laksa noodle soup. The top half of the mall is called the corkscrew, and what one should do is ride up the second long escalator, then you’re able to easily walk the spiral hallway back down. Me, I did it the hard way, walking up the spiral and riding down, because I’m not a person who makes life easy for myself. The corkscrew is full of tiny little stores, very specialized, very Asian. The best shop was the last one, containing absolute random Japanese items.
Up top, up way top, is a coffee stand of course but also several restaurants, including a hip sushi joint, a German beer hall that sadly wasn’t too happening (I walked through to use their loo) and a lounge, perhaps even a nightclub, even higher. Moving to the front of this floor, looking out over the atrium, you can see all the way down. I’ve never seen a place like this before anywhere.
The view looking down on Langham Place
One of the most remarkable things about Hong Kong is how much stuff is tucked away into the giant buildings. This is a mega-crowded area, so you’ll stumble upon things like a monster mall hidden inside a building, or a major market crammed inside one building corner. I stumbled upon the Fa Yuen Street Market and Cooked Food Centre (that’s the official name), but in Hongkers there’s no telling where a market begins and ends. Inside, people are chopping and hanging meat for sale, scaling fish, and laying out produce in their stalls. The floor is tile and you can tell it needs to be hosed down several times a day.
Outside, street markets were selling produce, though I didn’t see much cooked food. One block sold nothing but seafood, each storefront here having twenty or so tubs of fresh water with twenty different sea creatures. Magnificent.
The ladies market vanishes at night, but the street, I’m so glad to report, is still pedestrian and is still used. There’s always something going on in Mong Kok, with this many people. It was like a strange street fair. Various companies set up booths and displays. Social groups use it as a meeting place. A ballroom dancing club had several couples twirling around an area while music played. A street performer was making massive soap bubbles and sending them skyward while a crowd watched, because nothing is as cool as soap bubbles. A photographer was posing couples on the street.
Dancers on the street
The most popular was a small group of dancers. I’m not sure of the organization—it’s probably a production studio, perhaps a dance studio, called “K One Studio”. They were showing off either their performers or perhaps it was their students/members. Four women, looking college-age, dressed in skirts, were dancing to some pop songs. The crowd was intense, but I’m good in crowds, and fortunately I’m taller than most Asians. At least fifty guys were vying for photos, some with serious cameras. The girls were neither (1) very cute, nor (2) very talented, but that doesn’t matter. They were cute enough and were female, and were dancing, and so guys flocked.
A bit farther north, I walked right into a political demonstration. The “umbrella movement” was Hong Kong’s response years ago to Beijing’s announcement that they would have open elections, but that the candidates would have to be approved by a Beijing-controlled local committee. The demonstrations rocked Hongkers for about a month in late 2014, then petered out. I had thought that was all finished in Hongkers but no, here is one now. People holding bright yellow umbrellas lined one side of a street in on block on the east side, while a line of equally populous police (or military? Hard to tell) were in front of them. Beyond the line of authorities was a mass of people, and into this I strode, taking photos. Many cameras were going off. The authorities saw me taking shots, looked at my white face, and did nothing.
The umbrella movement
Besides my wonderful chipper above, I don’t have favorite restaurants in Mong Kok, partly because eh, you’ll try one and it’s a winner and unless you write down the name and street, you may not find it again in this ultra-crowded area. A good example is a Hokkaido scallop ramen I had in a place on the west side that falls in the “cool” category of ramen shops (the others are “stark”, “diner-style”, and “gentrified”). Cool because it had action figures standing on the counter and some other whimsical touches. Hipsters could eat here, if I knew any.
Ramen will make you happy
Food is never a problem just about anywhere in Hong Kong; you’ll find something. Another evening I was in a non-descript Chinese diner as it was pouring rain, ordering dumplings with shrimp, dumplings with fruit powder, and congee with fish. The staff inside was functional and distant. I offer the following lessons for a generic Hong Kong diner:
Spoons and chopsticks are in the drawer under your table. Get them yourself.
But not sauce dishes.
The bill is already on the table. You don’t have to ask for it.
Pay up front.
And no tip.
On Mongkok’s west side, a bit to the north end, the atmosphere changes, and here perhaps you should watch yourself. I saw several establishments with thick and solid double doors, always closed, with the look of an exclusive club. Signs outside proclaim that no alcohol will be served to those under 18. I don’t know what goes on inside, but I bet it’s not a family place.
There’s vice in Mong Kok. A few corners had signs with pretty girls on them, advertising what’s called a “spa” here, but what goes on inside is probably not a hot stone massage. Several places had rather obvious signs outside their doorways, listing nationalities and prices. What type of girl do you want? Pick the country and pay the price.
Pick your girl, and pay your price
One block of Portland Street, to the north, was clearly different. There was no one about, no business open. I walked a bit and saw a red neon sign “massage”, and an open door to a stairway leading up. I could guess what went on there. Across the street and down a bit, another red sign. Ahead, another two or three signs. Ah, here we go. I saw no one about in this area, but it seems clear that if you don’t bother anyone here, they won’t bother you. You just want to wander through, that’s your affair.
Hong Kong in general is a very safe city, and Mongkok doesn’t seem different. The biggest hassle is the crowds; you may need to schedule some coffee breaks in your day, some down time. Chances are, you’ll leave the area with several shopping bags and a full tummy.
No matter what your schedule is on a trip to Hong Kong, plan some pure-out urban time with a walk in Mongkok. It will convey perfectly what is crazy and special about this city. Exploring Mongkok is an activity you could do over and over, coming back to mine the place repeatedly. It’s a crazy place, and I love it.