Having lived for long periods in North America, Europe and Asia, two-time author and three-time mother Cindy Miller Stephens probably always needed plenty of adaptability and versatility. Throw in some killed-the-cat-strength curiosity, plus a passion for family fun, and the recipe for her book, Hong Kong For Kids, A Parent’s Guide (2011, Blacksmith Books, 422 pages, US$18.95) soon becomes clear.
The author strives to do her readers a huge favor – telling them exactly where to go, what to do and how to get there to find fun in Hong Kong. She supplies ideas, advice and details for more than 70 one-day outings, enough to give families somewhere different to go each weekend for nearly a year and a half.
Stephens and her family have visited to trial-test each destination. “The highlights from our last five years of exploration can be found in this new edition of Hong Kong For Kids,” she said. Her new book updates and expands on a 56-outing version that appeared in 2004.
Apparently, Hong Kong has improved a lot. “Sit-down toilets (cleaner ones), baby-changing facilities, nursing rooms, indoor playrooms, malls with stroller lending facilities, and more, are all present in Hong Kong today and they were a RARE find when the first edition was written. Things are just easier than they were and the options for families are better, safer and have reached world-class status. Hong Kong Disneyland is here, Ocean Park has morphed into an international-level ocean-themed amusement park, we have bike parks, skateboarding venues, indoor ice-skating rinks, 3D movie theatres, and the list goes on and on.”
Not only does the book help anxious parents to plan family-day outings, but teachers, too, can use it for class field-trips. Tourists and local residents all make potential readers.
Stephens collects and shares so many details that she leaves other guidebook writers (even those from Lonely Planet) choking on her dust. The nitty-gritty contents include maps, driving directions, Chinese translations, where-to-get-a-bite-to-eat suggestions and word-of-mouth insider scoops.
But sadly not all the details are entirely accurate. About Lamma Island, the author says, “There is even a restaurant which specializes in pigeon, called Han Lok Yuen Pigeon Restaurant on the way to the beach. (Look for the signs as you approach the beach.)” Although signs promoting that restaurant remain on display, the place closed years ago. It lies silent and empty under thickening layers of dust, exactly the kind of detail that an updated edition should cover, but in this case missed.
More helpfully, much of the other advice translates directly into added convenience and financial savings. One important passage highlights the value for any local resident to buy an available Museum Pass “that is reasonably priced and has great benefits”. That paragraph alone may prove valuable enough for many families to recover the cost of the book. Different sections discuss economical options to visit other attractions too, including the theme parks. Used properly, this book really doesn’t cost dollars – it helps to save them.
Supremely practical tidbits of information about each destination appear under the heading “Word of Mouth”. Some of these details may prevent real discomfort. For example, on the Peak, “It is always a few degrees cooler and windier up here than down below. In the summer, this is a wonderful asset. In winter, it means you may need to bring a heavy sweater or jacket.” Likewise, in Discovery Bay, “There is no shade at the beach or the playground and therefore both can become unbearably hot in the summer months.”
Stephens tries to assess what children may enjoy – or not. At the Giant Buddha and Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island, it’s best to realize in advance that “most young children are not going to appreciate the serenity of the place or the natural beauty of the surroundings”.
Another caution pertains to the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence. “On the top floor…, very near the Children’s Corner, is a small but very difficult to experience photographic display called “The Cost of War”. It would be best to avoid showing children these photographs of the atrocities of war, as it may scare and upset them.”
At the Temple Street Night Market, different dangers lurk. “Be aware that there are a few stands set up in the market that are selling pornographic movies and paraphernalia. You will find them (for the most part) only if you are seeking them out, but you should be aware that they are there.”
The author nicely splits her attention between core-city attractions, like museums, unusual markets and urban parks, and those in rural settings, such as beaches and sites in the New Territories or on outlying islands. Some readers will be astonished that Hong Kong even has so many different and far-flung attractions.
For certain excursions, the author thoughtfully advises on where the hordes of hovering mosquitoes will be most vicious. “The mosquito population here is very high. Spray everyone in the family BEFORE you get out of the bus, car or taxi.” She fails to mention whether some mosquito swarms may be big and nasty enough to grab small children and fly off with them.
Overly cautious, Stephens warns: “Hong Kong is well known to be a vibrant and very fast moving city. Things change here constantly. Businesses come and go. Times, dates and fares change. Please check information on your chosen venue BEFORE you go by consulting its website or by calling the telephone number listed at the top of each destination description.” That disclaimer sounds a little too much like denying the entire value of the book. Readers know that circumstances change, often rapidly. Every guidebook faces the same dilemma.
Born in Miami, Stephens divided her youth between the United States and France. She has a husband, three daughters and an unusual career history that once saw her leave law school to sing country music. Since moving to Hong Kong in 1996, she has had time enough to learn her way around and to poke her nose into most of the nooks and crannies.
For families, the primary target-readers, the best thing about Hong Kong For Kids may not be all the fun they can have, but rather the closeness and cohesiveness achieved by doing so many things together.
Actually, readers can enjoy the outings in Hong Kong For Kids with or without taking children along. Really, it’s more like a Hong Kong-for-everyone book.
Approval rating: 76 per cent.
For more information: www.blacksmithbooks.com or www.hongkongforkids.net
(March 27, 2012)