Asia's most exciting wellness capital mixes centuries-old traditional medicine with forward-thinking hotel spas.
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By Ann Abel
March / April 2008
Photography by Andrew Rowat
The skyscrapers of Central, as seen at night
One day in Hong Kong last summer, without trying terribly hard, I manage to do all of the following: practice tai chi at the Four Seasons in Central; have a Shanghainese medical pedicure at the Mandarin Oriental a few blocks away; take an Ashtanga class at Pure Yoga in Causeway Bay, a gorgeous studio run with an efficiency that makes New York look laid-back; have reflexology on Yik Yam Street in Happy Valley, which is to foot massage what Broadway is to theater; and, back in Causeway Bay, visit Dr. Lin, who practices traditional Chinese medicine.
His waiting room is papered with diplomas, framed magazine articles, and photos of a beatific man posing with celebrities. When it's my turn, I meet an ageless-looking doctor in yellow silk pajamas. Rather than asking why I've come, Dr. Lin looks at my tongue and feels my pulse. His diagnosis—in Mandarin, translated by his assistant, Pearl—follows straightaway: My right shoulder hurts, I think too much, I'm always thirsty, my lower back is achy, my digestion is off today, and I put too much pressure on myself.
He's right on every count.
This day, with all its delicious juxtapositions, encapsulates the wellness scene in Hong Kong right now. It's arguably the most varied and, on the luxury level, robust of that in any major Asian city. Since Grand Hyatt opened its Plateau spa in 2004, there's been a spa arms race here. Mandarin Oriental created a yoga-centric spa at its boutique Landmark hotel in 2005 and added a spectacular Shanghai-in-the-'30s-themed spa to its original Hong Kong hotel in 2006. Also in 2005, the Langham Place opened with a 41st-floor sanctuary of traditional Chinese medicine, and the Four Seasons debuted with one of that chain's largest urban spas (22,000 square feet). And in 2006, the venerable Peninsula put in a richly textured three-floor spa.
Yet despite its lusty embrace of modernity and international luxury, Hong Kong has kept its wellness traditions close to the surface. Its best spas are up-to-the-minute, but their underpinnings go back centuries—and those underpinnings are easily encountered in the city outside. Beneath neon-rimmed high-rises, pharmacists in apothecaries formulate curative teas with raw herbs. Foot-massage establishments are as common as newsstands are in New York. Many of the 6.9 million residents see allopathic "Western" physicians as well as traditional Chinese ones, who practice a form of medicine more than 23 centuries old. Spa fancy is interwoven with folkloric fact in a way I haven't seen in other Asian cities.