The handover of Asia’s last two European colonies, Hong Kong in 1997 and Macau in 1999, opened new eras for both places. While their colonial heritage remains obvious, the essentially Chinese character underlying these two SARs, or “Special Administrative Regions of China” is increasingly apparent: after all, Hong Kong and Macau’s population is 97 percent Chinese, the dominant language is Cantonese, and there have always been close ties – if often tinged with suspicion – with the mainlanders just over the border.
It is hard to overstate the symbolic importance that the handovers had for the Chinese as a whole, in sealing the end of centuries of foreign domination with the return of the last pieces of foreign-occupied soil to the motherland. The people of Hong Kong and Macau also widely supported the transfer of power – if only to see how much leeway they could garner under the new administration. Both entities now find themselves in the unique position of being capitalist enclaves subject to a communist state, under the relatively liberal “One Country, Two Systems” policy coined by the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.
First under colonial and now mainland Chinese rule, Hong Kong and Macau’s citizens have never had a say in their futures, so they have concentrated their efforts on other things – notably, making money. With its emphasis on economics and consumerism, Hong Kong offers the greatest variety and concentration of shops and shopping on earth, along with a colossal range of cuisines, and vistas of sea and island, green mountains and futuristic cityscapes. The excellent infrastructure, including the efficient public transit system, the helpful tourist offices and all the other facilities of a genuinely international city make this an extremely soft entry into the Chinese world.
While Hong Kong is a place to do business, Macau has leapt ahead in recent years as a haven for gambling, a veritable Las Vegas of the East, with thirty-odd casinos. Their wealth has funded a modern cityscape, but evidence of its colonial past persist in extensive quarters of Mediterranean-style architecture, along with Portuguese wine and Macanese cooking, a fusion of colonial and Chinese styles.
Visitors will spend more money here than elsewhere in China, though public transport and food are good value – even if accommodation is always pricey for what you get. Travellers on a tight budget who stay in dormitories can just about get by on HK$350 a day, though at the other end of the market in hotels, restaurants and shops, prices quickly rise to international levels.