It’s amazing what a nickname can do for a place. When I first visited Tai O village, otherwise known as the Venice of the East, on Hong Kong’s Lantau Island I was anticipating a collision of Gothic, Byzantine and Ottoman architectural styles.
There would be good-looking gondolieri crooning syrupy Canto tunes as they punted starry-eyed suitors along broad, vaporetto-filled waterways. Lovestruck lads would propose to their sweethearts amid the steel uprights and rusty metal chains of the Tai Chung Bridge, Lantau Island’s very own Bridge of Sighs.
Or so I thought. Instead I left with a jar of shrimp paste and a sense of disappointment. Of course, Tai O isn’t the only tourist spot that attracts visitors by comparing itself with a more illustrious destination.
1 Paris of the East
More than 20 cosmopolitan conurbations have been described (or describe themselves) as the Paris of the East. To qualify, it helps to have a decadent nightlife, fine restaurants, iconic monuments, fashionable inhabitants and an air of romance. Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, claimed the sobriquet in the 1960s – a time of miniskirts and modern cafes, jazz clubs and wine production. But that was before the Taliban.
A century ago, hedonistic living, glamorous art-deco buildings and a sense of sophistication earned Shanghai favourable comparisons with the French capital. But it was also known as the Whore of the Orient for its many vices.
Budapest is another Paris of the East contender thanks to a combination of bohemian cafe culture, awe-inspiring architecture, good food and a romantic atmosphere, particularly after dark, when the city lights are reflected in the waters of the Danube.
2 Venice of the East
The British Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, was so captivated by the vast system of canals, lakes and rivers around Alleppey, in the state of Kerala, that he christened it the Venice of the East. Waterfront warehouses and mansions are a reminder that the city, now known as Alappuzha, grew rich as a trading port. Today’s riches are extracted from tourists who glide along the backwaters in luxurious houseboats.
There are dozens more canal-strewn locations that bear similarities to the Italian tourist honeypot, including the Chinese city of Suzhou, a Unesco World Heritage site boasting a 1,770km network of waterways dating back more than 2,000 years. Legendary Venetian explorer Marco Polo reputedly gave Suzhou the ultimate seal of approval by comparing it favourably with his hometown.
3 Switzerland of the East
A handful of places vie for the title of Swiss mini-me. Blessed with soaring peaks, meadows, lakes and waterfalls, Pakistan’s Swat Valley, in the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountain range, is one such topographical twin.
There’s even a ski resort at Malam Jabba, which, despite being torched by the Taliban, who declared the winter sport un-Islamic, was rebuilt and reopened in 2011. Beefed-up security includes army checkpoints and gun-toting police, while the après-ski consists of cups of tea rather than schnapps chasers, as alcohol isn’t permitted.
Singapore is also in the running for the Switzerland of the East crown. Most of the Lion City is less than 15 metres above sea level, so the comparisons relate to economic high ground and the fact that Singapore is as clean as a whistle, in both senses of the word.
4 Rome of the East
Nowadays Old Goa in India slumbers in a state of melancholy decay, but during the 16th century it was the hub of Portugal’s eastern empire; reputedly as magnificent as Lisbon with a population larger than that of London or Paris. The dockside bustled with traders from Arabia and beyond until malaria and cholera epidemics devastated the city in the 18th century, when it was abandoned for a new capital in nearby Panaji.
It might not be built on seven hills, but modern-day sightseers visiting the Rome of the East will discover a ghost town of mildewing cathedrals, churches and convents that include the baroque Basilica of Bom Jesus and Sé Cathedral, once the largest in Asia.
5 Hawaii of the East
Based not on the size of its waves, nor any hula-dancing inhabitants, China’s Hainan Island is known as the Hawaii of the East primarily because it shares a similar latitude and climate to the 50th US state.
At Sanya’s beaches, tourists in colourfully patterned Aloha shirts imagine they’re in Waikiki as they stroll past high-rise oceanfront hotels and traffic-clogged streets to shopping malls and fast-food outlets.
The resort town has the greatest concentration of five-star hotels in China but, like its Pacific island double, Hainan still offers deserted stretches of sand, if you know where to look.
6 Athens of the East
Ancient temples and monuments perched on high ground link the Greek capital and the Indian city of Madurai, which is also known as Koodal, meaning an assembly or congregation of scholars.
The Athens of the East tag dates back to a visit in 302BC by Greek historian, diplomat and ethnographer Megasthenes, who was so taken with Madurai’s splendour that he likened it to the most important city in ancient Greece.
Coincidentally, both cities have (poorly enforced) legislation forbidding the construction of tall buildings that block views of their signature landmarks: the Parthenon and the Meenakshi Temple.
7 Pearl of the Orient
Hong Kong has been called a number of names over the years – some have even been quite complimentary. Its renowned film industry earned it the epithet Hollywood of the East and, when cold-war tensions were at their height, it became the Berlin of the East. More recently, the city has been described as the Silicon Valley of the East, although every regional IT hub worth its salt has owned that name at some stage.
Pearl of the Orient was once in vogue, but is as likely to be the name of a Chinese restaurant in Melbourne or Manchester these days. It’s hardly surprising that the world’s most vertical city is sometimes described as the Manhattan of the East, although referring to Manhattan as the Hong Kong of the West would surely be more accurate. Talking of which, Panama and Honduras have been touted as Hong Kongs of the West – as has post-Brexit London.
Now that’s what I call coming full circle.