Eight amazing free things to do, see, and learn in Hong Kong, from free tai chi and kung fu lessons to the art of the Chinese tea ceremony and feng shui

Free tai chi lessons in Hong Kong

The free morning Tai Chi lesson on Hong Kong's Kowloon waterfront

Challenge level

“Now mount the tiger, then grasp the swallow’s tail.” The elderly Chinese gentleman was staring right at me, his loose, ivory silk Mao pajamas flapping in the breeze.

My arms ached, my foot was twisted around backwards, and I realized with a rising sense of panic that I had no idea what he was asking me to do.

I stared beyond the barges, ferries, and sampans crisscrossing Victoria Harbour to the endless skyline of Hong Kong cloaked in morning mist, took a deep breath, and twisted my body through what I hoped at least resembled the proper movements.

Tai chi master William Ng was too kind to comment on my bull-in-the-china-store performance. He just said: “Good, good,” and swept his gaze across our pack of variously contorted tourists, some 30 of us ranged beneath the overhang of the Hong Kong Museum of Art by the Kowloon waterfront promenade.

“Tai chi brings a balance of the physical and the spiritual,” said Master Ng, explaining it as balancing one’s passive yin and active yang.

“Tai chi takes 10, maybe 15 hours to learn,” he went on, getting himself back into position beside Pandora Wu, his wife of 38 years, in matching mint pajamas. “It takes a lifetime to practice.”

Great. And we only had an hour.

“Now, get the needle at the bottom of the sea,” continued Mr. Ng as he and Mrs. Wu gracefully swooped down in unison and we neophytes struggled to emulate. “You are scooping sea,” the pair rose with their arms curled poetically and we all jerked upwards. “Looking at sky,” they offered their scooped sea to the heavens and we flung our arms up, too. “And now step forward to seven stars.”

The masters ended with their arms out in front of their chests, wrists crossed, hands lightly fisted. I looked down at myself to find that my wrists were bent improperly, fingers splayed, elbows akimbo, and I still had a foot turned around the wrong way. Also, I’m pretty sure I threw out my yang on that needle move.

So much for achieving physical and spiritual balance.

How to Be Chinese in 8 Easy Lessons

The author gets his tai chi on

Your intrepid author attempting to find inner peace at an hour way too early in the morning for him.

Tai Chi is just one of eight “Cultural Kaleidoscope” opportunities to engage the local culture sponsored by the Hong Kong Tourism Board at absolutely no cost, turning this famously expensive and futuristic city into a free classroom for quickie lessons in some of China’s ancient traditions.

If tai chi isn’t quite your speed—or you simply don’t want to get up that early for this traditional morning ritual—you can kick martial arts up a notch with a Sunday afternoon kung fu lesson in Kowloon Park.

Engage in a more sedentary study of Chinese mysteries with a class in Chinese Medicine led by a local pharmacist, or learn just how poorly laid out your living room is with an introductory course to Feng Shui.

Then there are cultural “appreciation classes” devoted to Cantonese opera (which, no matter how open-minded you are, really does take some explanation before you can appreciate it) or to the complicated art of the Chinese tea ceremony.

(This tea ceremony intro lasts about 45 minutes. If you want a three-hour version, head to the traditional tea house attached to the—also free—Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware in Hong Kong Park and ask for an excitable but earnest young man named Eddie; 011-852-2801-7177, www.lcsd.gov.hk/CE/Museum/Arts/english/tea/tea.html).

Sightseeing-oriented freebies include guided tours of the “Hong Kong Story” exhibition and the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Museum (in past years, there have also been tours of the Maritime Museum and of the Chinese Antiquities Gallery in the Hong Kong Museum of Art, so look for those to return).

The program offers a few other experiences that are no longer, as of October 2010, free, but are still good deals, including a Chinese cake-making class (HK$30/US$3.85), a Victoria Harbour cruise on the traditional Chinese junk Duk Lung (HK$100/US$13), and an Architecture Walk through Central (HK$200/US$26).

Of course, it’s also free to hike the 180 miles of trails in Hong Kong, which, contrary to popular belief, is actually made up of two-thirds green space.. » Full story

When You Go…

A Hong Kong pharmacy

Learn just what goes into those traditional Chinese medicines with a free class run by a Hong Kong pharmacist.

Info: Details on all of these are on the “Cultural Kaleidoscope” page in the “Things to Do” section of the Tourism Board’s Web site (www.discoverhongkong.com), or call 011-852-2508-1234. Though Tai Chi takes place at 8am Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, other courses and tours are offered only one or two days a week. Most last from one to three hours.

Dining: Supermarkets abound—including one in the Victoria Peak mall—for picnic supplies and hiking snacks. In the city proper, stick to noodle shacks and dim sum; simple restaurant meals will set you back $30 to $50—though I did have an incredible steak sandwich at Post 97 (9 Lan Kwai Fong, Central; +852-2186-1817; www.ninetysevengroup.com). If you go to see the Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau Island, grab a $13 vegetarian feast at Po Lin monastery.

Lodging: Bishop Lei House is cheap and convenient to the Mid-Levels escalators, but has unforgivingly hard beds (4 Robinson Rd.; +852-2868-0828; www.bishopleihtl.com.hk; $88–$235 rack rates, or from $87 online).

The Ice House is a funky boutique hotel—mod furnishings, kinky see-through showers—with kitchenettes and free broadband in the heart of the Central action (38 Ice House St.; +852-2836-7333; www.icehouse.com.hk; $129–$232 rack rates, or from $77 online).

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