Don't let the massive modern office towers of Hong Kong blind you to the exotic culture of this city. Even on a student-style budget you can easily scratch below the surface by joining in on a free local festival or setting out on your own walking tour.
You can get information on local events and do-it-yourself walking tours from the Hong Kong Tourist Assn. (http://www.hkta.org), which has a booth at the airport. Ask for a copy of the "Essential" guide, which includes information on tours you can do yourself by public transportation. And get a free copy of the "Five Walks" brochure, which will lead you to temples, markets and herbalists on the neighboring islands of Lantau and Cheung Chau.
The Mt. Davis Youth Hostel (Ma Wui Hall) has a free shuttle bus service from the Macau Ferry Terminal. This is the closest of the seven Hostelling International Hostels to the city center, but it's still not convenient if you want to experience the night life. What it has going for it is a terrific hilltop view. A new wing will open in early 2000. Beds in dormitory rooms cost $9. Internet: http://www.yha.org.hk.
The STB Hostel at 1/F Great Eastern Mansion, 255-261 Reclamation St., in the Mong Kok section of Kowloon, offers students with International Student Identity Cards a 10% discount. It's centrally located but could use some sprucing up. Dormitory beds are $14, twin rooms from $43. Internet is available to guests for 15 cents per minute.
MCAs in Hong Kong are like standard hotels. The YMCA International House at 23 Waterloo Road, Kowloon, is a 25-story building where guests can use the pool for free or pay a fee for tennis, squash and use of the fitness room. Single rooms with shared bath are available for men only at $28 per day. Standard twin rooms with television and air-conditioning are $61 to $98. Telephone 011-852-2771-9111, Internet http://www.ymcaintlhousehk.org, or for other Ys in Hong Kong, Internet http://www.ywca.org.hk.
If it's Tuesday, Thursday or Sunday morning, you can start your day with a free tai chi lesson at 7:15 a.m. at Middle Road Children's Playground, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, next to the Sheraton Hong Kong Hotel. (After the new year, you should check to see if the service will be continuing, by calling the Hong Kong Tourist Assn. at 011-852-2508-1234.)
Then, with your walking tour map of Kowloon, you can set out for the Bird Market on Yuen Po Street. Not only are birds sold here, but local residents also bring their pets to the market for a morning walk. In the same neighborhood you'll find the Flower Market, the Goldfish Market and Fa Yuen Street (where local shoppers buy clothing). Several blocks farther will bring you to the Ladies Street Market (clothing), and in the evening you can head for the more touristy Temple Street Night Market with its T-shirts, CDs and fortunetellers.
Crowded with local residents, small noodle shops, such as Mak's Noodle at 77 Wellington St. in the Central District, serve a meal of wonton and broth for less than $4 (you'll probably have to share a table). Mak's popularity stems from a secret family recipe that's been used for more than 140 years. For the more adventurous, snake is prepared around the corner at Ser Wong Fun, but you won't see it advertised in the window. At King Wo Tong, on Lion Walk Road in Kowloon, they have been serving up turtle soup for more than 80 years. The cost is $5. Or you can try bird's nest soup, which is expensive in most restaurants, for as little as $5.50 at Nam Sing Bird's Nest Co., 5 G/F Queens Road West, in the Western District.