Time and again, talking to expatriates in Hong Kong, you run up against the same story: "I came here for a holiday - temporary posting – a week’s conference: and that was 10/15/20 years ago." There's no doubt about it, Hong Kong exerts an incredible allure, and it’s not just that the top rate of income tax is 15 per cent. A major reason to come here has to be experiencing the energy of the city. Immigrants who arrived with a few dollars in their pockets as youngsters now head international rich lists. Everybody works flat out, always with an eye open to bettering themselves and their families.
Now You Don't See it, Now You Do
If you stand on the Island tram line, which lies some way inland, you’re on what was the edge of the harbour at the start of the 20th century. Land reclamation is a Hong Kong fetish, and the buildings stretch upwards when there’s no other space. As a result, the urban landscape – by day or by night, from land or sea (or a helicopter) – is enthralling. I still grab the best seat on the ferry wherever I’m headed simply so I can have a goggle.
Never mind what they say about east meets west, Hong Kong is a Chinese city, and always has been, 1997 handover or not. And Chinese culture is heavily-oriented around food. The Michelin inspectors may be scattering stars around nowadays, but try and find a greater accolade than three or more generations yacking and guzzling and sluicing with patent delight over Saturday morning dim sum.
Souvenir Means To Remember in French
Depending on your personal net worth, and what the prices (and selection) are like at home, you may or may not rate Hong Kong as a – cliché alert – Shoppers’ Paradise. Whatever the dollars and cents, you can’t not enjoy the aerial walkways in Central that connect numerous malls, the heady brio of bargaining in a street market, or the bizarre spectacle of customers compelled to queue outside designer stores whose management think they can get away with enforcing such dire restrictions.
Oh, yeah. Even if it’s only a one-way trip on the Star Ferry, everyone should get out on Hong Kong’s raison d’etre at least once during their stay.
Not So Urban Jungle
Ten minutes’ taxi ride from the grimiest part of Wan Chai, and you can be stepping out into Tai Tam Country Park. Around four tenths of Hong Kong’s 400 square miles is officially designated green space, and being able to reach it so quickly just adds to the attraction.
And They're Off
Don’t like horse racing? Moral objections to gambling? Hate crowds? No matter on all three counts – from September to June the city goes gee gee crazy and it’s nigh impossible not to enjoy what is pure theatre. The best stadium is in Happy Valley, which is surrounded by residential blocks that practically shake as the myriad punters roar their encouragement. A private box is a possibility, but down by the rails is a thrill a minute.
Get Outta Town
Jan Morris once described Hong Kong as one of the world’s acupuncture points. It’s certainly at the very much heart of things – day trips to the former Portuguese colony of Macau, the bold and brash border new town Shenzhen, and Guangzhou (aka Canton) are all perfectly feasible.
Few guidebooks neglect to say that Hong Kong is made up of 230 plus islands. The figure keeps changing – Lantau is now joined by a bridge to Kowloon, and the sea surrounding Stonecutters was reclaimed. Most are uninhabited, but some, like Peng Chau, Lamma, and Cheung Chau, are vibrant communities. The ferry there and back costs only a few dollars, and the ride is terrific fun.
The image of the 747 landing between the tenement blocks is one of those iconic Hong Kong photos. Kai Tak, the old airport (built by a couple of entrepreneurs in 1925) closed in 1998, to be replaced by the brand new hub at Chek Lap Kok. Aircraft passengers coming in to land may not be able to spot what the runway’s nearby residents are having for dinner any more, but that’s not to say the city’s short of spectacle. Witness construction workers swarming up scaffolding made of bamboo (steel won’t bend in a typhoon), the estate agent’s office that’s barely bigger than his desk, the fung shui master loading data on his BlackBerry, the crowd of old age pensioners gauging the stock market prices on a public TV screen, the secretary adjusting her Chanel handbag as she bends to place a lighted joss stick at a wayside shrine. And so on and so forth.
The Future is Now
The handover of British sovereignty in June 1997 was certainly one of the historic events of the last century. On the surface, little has changed. There’s still an MTR station called Prince Edward, none of the roads commemorating British governors have been renamed, and Queen Victoria’s very unamused statue continues to squat in the middle of the park that bears her name (though the plinth referring to "loyal subjects" has gone). Colonial bric-a-brac aside, Hong Kong is the face of the new China, which is finally emerging from centuries of oppression and misrule to take its place at the global top table. See it while you can.