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By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Media Services
The crowds are so dense that people can barely move, yet no one complains, pushes or shoves.
Here in Hong Kong on Christmas Eve everyone is happy and joking, posing for pictures in their Santa hats.
Think Black Friday at the busiest mall — times 1,000 — combined with Times Square on New Year’s Eve. That only begins to describe Hong Kong on Christmas Eve when thousands take to the streets — no cars are permitted in the hotel district — to shop and shop some more until 2 a.m. (the subways run all night).
They book crazy expensive tables at hotel restaurants and move from hotel to hotel — the famous Peninsula to the oh-so-hip Mira to the Ritz-Carlton, the world’s highest hotel with its fabulous views of Victoria Harbour — to eat and snap photos of themselves by the Christmas decorations, as local school children serenade them.
Hong Kong WinterFest offers special hotel deals, light displays and night boat tours (the best way to take in the fabulous holiday lights) and is that perfect juxtaposition of Western tradition and the Eastern love of festivals, culminating with New Year’s Eve fireworks over Victoria Harbour — this year is supposed to be the biggest display ever.
There are groups of teens, families with babies in strollers and couples holding hands. And there are many tourists, but few non-Asians. The tourists have come from China to experience Christmas Hong Kong style. We join them, sipping overpriced drinks in a tony hotel so we can watch the holiday light show over the harbor as the buildings flash Merry Christmas, in green, red and white lights.
Friends (and my husband) thought I was crazy to fly around the world for just a few days to share the holidays with my youngest daughter Melanie, who was just finishing a semester in Thailand. Despite the jet lag, I was glad I did. It proved to be one of the most unusual holidays we’ve ever shared, as we ate our way across Hong Kong. (Locals say it would take 50 years to sample all the restaurants here. Read what I wrote about our food adventures in my travel diaries). We also took in the sites, celebrated and, of course, shopped till we dropped.
I’ll probably never spend another Christmas morning shopping — this time at Hong Kong’s famous Stanley Market — about 100 small shops and stalls that cater to tourists. It sells everything from your name spelled out in Chinese calligraphy and chopsticks to silk scarves and fine linens — all near the South China Sea. Those walking their dogs have dressed them up in Christmas outfits and hats.
I’ll probably never spend part of Christmas Day getting a foot massage, either. But in Hong Kong, there are reflexology shops, it seems, on every street and I can’t think of a better way to treat ourselves this holiday afternoon. Our guide suggested this shop where for just $30 our feet are first soaked in lavender and then, as we relax away the tumult of the streets, a smiling woman massages our feet and legs.
This started years ago as part of Chinese medicine, our guide Wing Lau explains, but has evolved into an affordable spa experience that “99 percent of tourists” enjoy — locals too.
We’re both on sensory overload and the foot massage definitely helps. School kids from local Christian churches (only 10 percent of the population is Christian) sing carols in English on the street, though everyone all around us is speaking Chinese.
Christmas Eve feels like New Year’s Eve except that everyone is shopping as well as partying — from the Causeway Bay with big department stores to Hong Kong’s famous Ladies’ Market, which are packed as everyone bargain hunts for “original copies” of everything from Hello Kitty mugs to designer purses in stalls that stretch for blocks. “Everyone here comes to Ladies’ Market,” Wing Lau tells us. “It isn’t just for tourists.”
There are more than 5,000 small stores and 600 stalls and each day some 750,000 people pass through this area in the Mong Kok area of Hong Kong. The stalls are surrounded by shops — one street for shoes, one street for electronics.
The shopping is particularly frenetic because it is Christmas Eve when Hong Kong residents want to be out shopping, eating and being seen. This market is a good place to hone your bargaining skills, I learn.
I buy a silk scarf (at least I think it is silk) for $15. I pick up some tiny Chinese animals to give friends — cats and pigs for $4. Mel buys a Hello Kitty thermos. We choose colorful puppets for two young cousins for the Chinese New Year.
This isn’t a leisurely stroll through markets, as I’ve experienced elsewhere in the world. It’s more like shopping as contact sport. That’s especially true when we get to Causeway Bay and the Hotel Districts where every shop — from jewelry stores with glittering gems in the window to Coach and Hermes is doing brisk business — and will until the wee hours of the morning.
We return to the hotel after a diner-style Chinese dinner at a local restaurant called Tai Ping Koon that has been around since the 19th century and specializes in western cuisine — Asian style, though I think the pigeon and sweet red beans and ice cream is an acquired taste. Tai Ping Koon is packed, as is every other restaurant, with people lining up outside.
When we get back to the Mira Hotel where we are staying, there is a big party going on in the courtyard that serves as the bar and gathering place. But we’re both too pooped. We head up to our room to bed.
But instead of sugar plums, we dream of bargains.
© 2012 EILEEN OGINTZ, DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.