Nowhere in China is there a better example of east meets west than Hong Kong. This fabled city was founded on the international trade that cemented China’s place in the world nearly 200 years ago.
The great fleets of European sailing vessels and Chinese junks peppering the deep, natural Victoria Harbor have since been replaced by soaring skyscrapers ringing the waterfront and clinging to the slopes of Victoria Peak. This mountain bursts out of the harbor rising some 1,800 feet and dwarfing the man-made edifices below. The gentle giant looms over the island like some benevolent god watching and protecting its 7.3 million-plus people who populate the 427 square miles of territory that make up the Hong Kong region.
That region includes over 200 islands in addition to Kowloon and the New Territories. These latter two districts occupy a peninsula on the mainland side of the harbor, jutting into the confluence of the Pearl River Delta and the South China Sea.
Hong Kong – sometimes nicknamed the Pearl of the Orient – is the easternmost point in one of the most important trading triangles in the world which, along with Macao and Guangzhou, have become the epicenter of manufacturing in the post-1970s-era China Miracle. In fact, Hong Kong’s geographic situation made it ideally suited not only to expand China’s historic trade in silk, silver, spices and tea in the early days, but in a global economy to become one of the world’s preeminent financial centers.
Within a two-hour radius are the two other points of that triangle. A one-hour’s ferry ride away is the famed gambling capital of Macao, another city where eastern and western cultures are also woven together in a unique mixture. Meanwhile a two-hour train trip away is Guangzhou, once known as Canton and the capital of the Pearl River Delta region.
Of course the multitudinous islands and surrounding mainland that today make up Hong Kong have been populated by humans for thousands of years. However, Hong Kong’s role as a nexus of global trade really began less that two centuries ago when it became a strategic outpost of the British Empire.
Prior to 1842 the territory had been little more than a forgotten backwater of the Qing Empire sprinkled with only a few sleepy fishing villages. But with the defeat of the Qing Dynasty in the first Opium War, the area became a British colony and that colonial heritage has been woven into the fabric of the region ever since. Traffic patterns mirror the UK (that is to say, cars drive on the left-hand side of the road) and signs are printed in both English and Chinese. Its official currency is the Hong Kong dollar, although the Chinese yuan is accepted.
China may be one country but it has two systems, a carryover from British and Portuguese colonial days in Hong Kong and Macao. In July 1997, when Hong Kong was turned back to the People’s Republic of China, it became the autonomous Special Administrative Region. As part of the historic hand-off, China agreed to allow Hong Kong (and later Macau as well) a high degree of self-determination and economic independence, effectively creating a second system which includes retaining its successful capitalist system, independent judiciary and rule of law, free trade and freedom of speech.
As one of the four Asian Dragons along with South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, Hong Kong may be one of the most industrialized and densely populated land masses in the world, but it puts a great deal of emphasis on retaining and maintaining green space, with numerous parks, natural reserves and rainforests.
It lies on the same latitude as Cuba which makes for a humid subtropical and overall pretty miserable summer, which is also typhoon season. The best time to visit is between September and April when the area enjoys its mild winters. The weather was cool when last I visited and a light jacket is a must especially when headed up to Victoria Peak.
Calling On Hong Kong
Served by most international carriers, Hong Kong International Airport is a relatively recent addition to the global aviation network. Built on an island called Chek Lap Kok – much of which was reclaimed from the sea in order to make room for the airport – the facility opened in 1998 much to the relief of fliers who had endured many a white-knuckle approach to the old Kai Tak airstrip.
Today Chek Lap Kok is the busiest cargo airport in the world and one of the key gateways into Asia, hosting 68.5 million passengers in 2015. For those travelers whose itinerary calls for a trip into the city, the airport offers a free, 24-minute shuttle bus to Hong Kong, the fastest route to the city bus station where visitors can pick up free shuttle buses to major hotels. The stations also have free, in-town check in services for the airlines.
Rapid transit around town is done via the MTR, which has 10 rail lines that run throughout the region including to the Disneyland Resort on Lantau Island. While there are highway connections between Hong Kong and Kowloon, one of the most popular ways to get between the two is the famed Star Ferry, the cheapest and most picturesque way to get from one side of the harbor to the other. It provides unique views of the waterfront and surrounding skylines, and is the reason National Geographic named it one of the 50 places of a lifetime.
Kowloon is also where you catch the train to Guangzhou while Hong Kong’s Central District is the convenient site of the ferry terminal to Macao.
As a major financial center, Hong Kong is one of the world’s most connected cities. However, it is wise to have a Virtual Private Network (VPN) when traveling anywhere in China. The VPN I chose for this trip worked like magic in Guanghzhou, Hong Kong and Macau. The high-speed service here mirrored the experience accessing the Internet in the US, although that has not been my experience on other travels in China. Best bet: Get with your VPN’s tech support to make sure you have all access information before you leave the States.
Hong Kong also has a Discover Hong Kong Tourist SIM card for good roaming rates. The prepaid card lasts either five or eight days and offers free local calls, free WiFi, bundles of mobile data, as well as cheap international calls and SMS messages. SIM cards are available for purchase at the airport and elsewhere. In addition, several hotels provide a phone/personal hotspot to guests, some of which can include international calling plans.
What’s On Your List?
With no sales tax or import duties, Hong Kong is known for great shopping especially for tailored clothing and electronics. Then too, it also has everything else from classic to cutting edge to the off beat. And make sure you put on your negotiating hat; bargaining is a still a must.
Travel experts suggest retail shops at Mong Kok, Tsim Sha Tsui and Causeway Bay for the most competitive prices on popular electronics and communications equipment. There is also Wan Chai Computer Centre, The Golden Computer Arcade and Golden Computer Centre.
If you’re on the hunt for some well-tailored duds, walk around Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon where tailors come in both high end and more affordable flavors. There is also a Ladies’ Market on Tung Choi Street for everything from clothes and accessories to home furnishings. A particularly special treat is the Temple Street Night Market, a popular street bazaar that cooks up the chaotic atmosphere of Old Hong Kong.
Another retail venue that comes highly recommended is PMQ, a former billet for married police officers turned shopping venue filled with local goods and boutiques. Among the many shopping offerings is GOD – Goods of Desire – what Hong Kongese call a “lifestyle concept store” and ideal for great locally produced souvenirs.
For a real scenic outlook on the city take the rackety tram to the top of Victoria Peak. The funicular struggled and jostled up the steep side of the mountain past even older cars from bygone eras that reminded me of New Orleans’ streetcars.
Nonetheless, the trip to the top is worth the effort; up here is the panorama of Victoria Harbor and the central district as well the seemingly uninhabited back of the island. Once at the summit we found (yet more) shopping and restaurants and the breathtaking views of palatial residences teetering on the surrounding peaks.
Coming back down the mountain on treacherous, twisting roads, we discovered steep staircases occasionally sprouting off at 70-degree angles hugging the mountainside. The stairs are used by workers to access the mountain for regular maintenance to avoid landslides, which are common during monsoon season.
Next stop was Repulse Bay, the most popular beach in Hong Kong. Hard by the beach is the eclectic Kwun Yam Shrine and its gallery of deities. While people could be seen lighting Joss Stick incense and bowing to the gods, the facility is now used as a lifeguard station, according to our guide.
Nearby is the Aberdeen boat district filled with Hong Kong’s fishing fleet. Our boat tour of the area was framed by posh high-rise apartment blocks towering over the harbor, contrasting starkly with houseboats and the city’s iconic floating restaurant. Then it was off to Kowloon to tour the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden and flower markets and mix among the various Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Nepalese, Middle Eastern and African ethnicities. Thousands of birds and intricately carved wooden and metal bird cages are on offer amidst the sweet chirping of the caged denizens.
Just a short walk away is the flower market where gnarled bonsai trees are juxtaposed against the colorful blooms of calla lilies, cyclamens and hydrangeas and nestled amongst fir tree bowers, wreaths and miniature Christmas trees. Both markets require intricate bobbing and weaving to thread your way through the teeming crowds.
By Kathryn B. Creedy