HONG KONG – more fully known as the Hong Kong SAR – wears a lot of hats: despite emerging competition from Shanghai, it remains one of the world’s largest financial hubs; its modern face hides a surprisingly traditional culture; and it’s also an experiment in governance with which the mainland authorities hope to win over a recalcitrant Taiwan. There’s an unrelenting striving for wealth and all its rewards here too, though Hong Kong’s famous addiction to money and brand names tends to mask the fact that most people work long hours and live in crowded, tiny apartments. On the other hand, the city is bursting with energy and the population of seven million is sophisticated and well informed compared to their mainland cousins, the result of a relatively free press. The urban panorama of sky-scrapered Hong Kong Island, seen across the harbour from Kowloon, is stunning, and you’ll find a wealth of undeveloped rural areas within easy commuter range of the hectic centre and its perennial, massive engineering projects.
Hong Kong comprises 1100 square kilometres of the south China coastline and a number of islands east of the Pearl River Delta. The principal urban area is spread along the north shore of Hong Kong Island, which offers not only traces of the old colony – from English place names to ancient, double-decker trams trundling along the shore – but also superb modern cityscapes of towering buildings teetering up impossible slopes, along with whole districts dedicated to selling traditional Chinese medicine and herbs. The south of the island offers several decent beaches, a huge amusement park, and even hiking opportunities.
Immediately north across Victoria Harbour from Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsula – and especially its tip, Tsim Sha Tsui – is the SAR’s principal tourist trap, boasting a glut of accommodation, and shops offering an incredible variety of goods (not necessarily at reasonable prices, though). North of Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon stretches away into the New Territories, a varied area of New Towns and older villages, secluded beaches and undeveloped country parks. In addition, the Outlying Islands – particularly Lamma and Lantau – are well worth a visit for their seafood restaurants and further rural contrasts to the hubbub of downtown Hong Kong.
Hong Kong has its own separate currency, the Hong Kong dollar, which is pegged at around $8 to the US dollar and so is currently worth a little less than the Chinese yuan. Yuan cannot officially be used in Hong Kong, though a few stores will take them. In this chapter, the symbol “$” refers to Hong Kong dollars throughout, unless stated.
While the Chinese justifiably argue that Hong Kong was always Chinese territory, the development of the city only began with the arrival of the British in Guangzhou in the eighteenth century. Having initially been rebuffed in their attempts to engage in profitable trade with China, the British found a valuable market for Indian opium; Chinese attempts to stop the trade precipitated the Opium Wars; and the ensuing Treaty of Nanking (1842) ceded a small, thinly populated offshore island – Hong Kong – to Britain. Following more gunboat diplomacy eighteen years later, the Treaty of Peking granted Britain the Kowloon Peninsula, too, and in 1898 Britain secured a 99-year lease on an additional one thousand square kilometres of land north of Kowloon, later known as the New Territories.
Originally a seedy merchants’ colony, by 1907 Hong Kong had a large enough manufacturing base to voluntarily drop the drug trade. Up until World War II, the city prospered as turmoils in mainland China drove money and refugees south into the apparently safe confines of the British colony. This confidence proved misplaced in 1941 when Japanese forces seized Hong Kong along with the rest of eastern China, though after Japan’s defeat in 1945, Britain swiftly reclaimed the colony, stifling putative attempts by the residents to garner some independence. As the mainland fell to the Communists in 1949, a new wave of refugees – many of the wealthier ones from Shanghai – swelled Hong Kong’s population threefold to 2.5 million, causing a housing crisis that set in motion themes still current in the SAR: land reclamation, the need for efficient infrastructure, and a tendency to save space by building upwards.
The early Communist era saw Hong Kong leading a precarious existence. Had China wished, it could have rendered the existence of Hong Kong unviable by a naval blockade, by cutting off water supplies, by a military invasion – or by simply opening its border and inviting the Chinese masses to stream across in search of wealth. That it never wholeheartedly pursued any of these options, even at the height of the Cultural Revolution, was an indication of the huge financial benefits that Hong Kong’s international trade links, direct investment and technology transfers brought – and still brings – to mainland China.
In the last twenty years of British rule, the spectre of 1997 loomed large. Negotiations on the future of the colony led in 1984 to the Sino-British Joint Declaration, paving the way for Britain to hand back sovereignty of the territory in return for Hong Kong maintaining its capitalist system for fifty years. However, it appeared to locals that Hong Kong’s lack of democratic institutions – which had suited the British – would in future mean the Chinese could do what they liked. Fears grew that repression and the erosion of freedoms such as travel and speech would follow the handover. The constitutional framework provided by the Basic Law of 1988, in theory, answered some of those fears, illustrating how the “One Country, Two Systems” policy would work. But the next year’s crackdown in Tian’anmen Square only seemed to confirm the most pessimistic views of what might happen following the handover, especially to members of Hong Kong’s embryonic democracy movement. When Chris Patten arrived in 1992 to become the last governor, he cynically broadened the voting franchise for the Legislative Council (Legco) from around 200,000 to some 2.7 million people, infuriating Beijing and ensuring that the road to the handover would be a rough ride.
After the build-up, however, the handover was an anticlimax. The British sailed away on HMS Britannia, Beijing carried out its threat to reduce the enfranchised population, and Tung Chee-hwa, a shipping billionaire, became the first chief executive of the Hong Kong SAR. But his highly unpopular tenure proved unequal to dealing with the Asian financial crisis, recession and soaring unemployment, avian flu outbreaks and finally SARS, a baffling virus that killed 299 people and shut down the tourist industry. Public dissatisfaction with Tung coalesced every June 4 (the anniversary of the Tian’anmen Square crackdown), when about half a million people turned out to demonstrate against him – and, by extension, Beijing’s hold over Hong Kong.
This was too much for the powers in Beijing, who wanted Hong Kong to showcase the “One Country, Two Systems” approach to Taiwan – which, now that former colonial territories have been reclaimed, remains the last hurdle to China being reunited under one government. Tung was forced to stand down in March 2005, replaced as chief executive by career civil servant Donald Tsang. Despite re-election in 2007, Tsang is seen by many Hong Kongers as a bureaucrat who ignores public concerns about welfare and urban redevelopment, while favouring the demolition of Hong Kong’s dwindling antique heritage to make way for ill-planned roads and ever-larger shopping malls.
Meanwhile, local politics seem more divided than ever along pro-Beijing and pro-democracy lines, with the latter continually pushing for universal suffrage – which Beijing has promised in part by 2017. Democratic factions have, in fact, polled over a third of the vote since the handover (in 2008 they won 23 of the 30 electable seats), meaning that they hold a power of veto over bills passed through Legco. But how all parties involved will pull together in the face of China’s rising power remains to be seen.Read More
- Hong Kong Island
A 4km-long strip of the mainland ceded to Britain in perpetuity in 1860 to add to their offshore island, Kowloon was accordingly developed with gusto and confidence. The skyline here has never matched Hong Kong Island’s, thanks to Kowloon being in the flight path of the old airport at Kai Tak, though things could be changing: 2010 saw the completion of Hong Kong’s tallest building, the 484m-high International Commerce Centre (ICC), atop Union Square and the Airport Express terminal in West Kowloon. With rocketing rents and dwindling space along the North Shore, perhaps ICC marks a shift in venue for Hong Kong’s next wave of cutting-edge, harbourside architecture – though beyond its sheer height, ICC is just a large silver tower.
While Hong Kong Island has mountains and beaches to offset urban claustrophobia, Kowloon has just more shops, more restaurants and more hotels. Initially, it’s hard to see how such an unmitigatedly built-up, commercial and intensely crowded place could possibly appeal to travellers. One reason is the staggering view across the harbour to Hong Kong Island’s skyscrapers and peaks; another is the sheer density of shopping opportunities here – from high-end jewellery to cutting-edge electronic goods and outright tourist tack – especially in the couple of square kilometres at the tip of the peninsula that make up Tsim Sha Tsui. To the north, Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kok are less touristy – though no less crowded – districts teeming with soaring tenements and local markets, some of which sell modern daily necessities, others with a distinctly traditional Chinese twist.
These days, it’s not so clear-cut where Kowloon really ends. The original “border” with the New Territories to the north was Boundary Street, though now Kowloon district runs on for a further 3km or so, as the commercial emphasis shifts towards towering residential estates clustered around shopping plazas, parks and other amenities. A scattering of sights here includes one of Hong Kong’s busiest temples, the Wong Tai Sin, and its prettiest, the Chi Lin Nunnery with its Tang-style architecture and beautiful traditional garden.
The two main ways to reach Kowloon are by the Star Ferry from Central to Tsim Sha Tsui, or along the MTR’s Tsuen Wan Line, which runs from Central under the harbour and up through Kowloon, with stations dotted at regular intervals along Nathan Road.
- The New Territories
- The Outlying Islands
The Star Ferry
The Star Ferry
One of the most enjoyable things to do in Hong Kong is to spend ten minutes riding the humble Star Ferry between Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon and the pier in front of the IFC2 Tower on Hong Kong Island. The views of the island are superb, particularly at dusk when the lights begin to twinkle through the humidity and the spray. You’ll also get a feel for the frenetic pace of life on Hong Kong’s waterways, with ferries, junks, hydrofoils and larger ships looming up from all directions. Similarly fun ferries cross between Tsim Sha Tsui and Wan Chai, and Hung Hom and Wan Chai.
Hong Kong boasts a colossal range of every type of accommodation, and rooms are always available. Booking ahead is always advisable however, either to secure a better rate at the higher-end places, or because budget accommodation tends to fill up quickly. The Hong Kong Hotels Association (w www.hotels-in-hong-kong.com) features deals, packages and offers for all HKHA properties.
At the upper end of the market are some of the best hotels in the world, costing several thousand dollars a night, though less renowned places offering motel-like facilities start around $600. The lower end of the market is served by guesthouses and hostels, the bulk of which are squeezed into blocks at the lower end of Nathan Road – though there are even a few on the Outlying Islands. Always check these rooms for size (many are minuscule), whether they have a window, and whether you have to pay extra for the use of air conditioning. Even these are not that cheap, however – you’ll be lucky to find a double for less than $300, though shared dormitory accommodation can come in as low as $100–150 a night for a bed.
The Hong Kong Youth Hostels Association (w www.yha.org.hk) also operates seven self-catering hostels – mostly a long way from the centre – offering dormitory accommodation for IYHF members from $90. Finally, you can also camp for free at the 38 campsites run by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (w www.afcd.gov.hk), mostly in relatively remote sites inside Hong Kong’s Country Parks. Facilities are basic – pit latrines and tank water which must be boiled – and you’ll need to be self-sufficient. Pitches are available on a first-come, first-served basis, so get in early at weekends and holidays.
Thanks to its cosmopolitan heritage and the importance attached to eating in Chinese culture, Hong Kong boasts a superb range of restaurants. The most prominent cooking style is local Cantonese, though you can also find places specializing in Chaozhou, Hakka, Beijing, Sichuanese and Shanghai food. International options include Western fast-food chains, curry houses, sushi bars, Southeast Asian cuisine, hotel lunchtime buffets, pizzerias, vegetarian and South American.
The whole of downtown Hong Kong is thick with restaurants, and nowhere is a meal more than a few paces away. Cantonese places are ubiquitous, with the highest concentration of foreign cuisines in Central, Soho, Wan Chai and Tsim Sha Tsui. The scene is, however, notoriously fickle, with places continually opening and withering away. Outside the centre, there are several popular Western-oriented restaurants along Hong Kong Island’s south coast, while the Outlying Islands are famous for their seafood restaurants.
Dim sum is the classic Cantonese way to start the day – a selection of little dumplings and dishes eaten with tea. Many restaurants serve dim sum from early in the morning until mid-afternoon, when they switch over to more extensive menus, but the following places are particularly wellknown for their dim sum. It’s an inexpensive way to eat if you stay away from more famous establishments – perhaps $50 per person on average – but get in early at the weekends when whole families pack out restaurants. Unless otherwise stated, the places listed below are marked on the map.
Many visitors come to Hong Kong to go shopping, drawn by the incredible range of goods packed into such a small area. While some things are good value for money – particularly clothes, silk, jewellery, Chinese arts and crafts, some computer accessories and pirated software – it’s essential to research online prices for identical goods before buying, and to shop around. The farther you are from touristy Tsim Sha Tsui, the better value shopping becomes, and the less likely that you’ll be ripped off by some scam.
Drinking and nightlife
Drinking and nightlife
The most concentrated collection of bars is in the Lan Kwai Fong area on Hong Kong Island, perennially popular for late-night carousing, with drinkers spilling out onto the street. Other locations include the long-established, slightly sleazy expat scene around Wan Chai, and a scattering of options aimed at travellers in Tsim Sha Tsui. Despite its image as a cultural desert, classical concerts appear increasingly frequently at several venues, and there are a number of art, jazz and other festivals year-round.
Opening times are from 10am at the earliest and often extend well into the small hours. Some venues charge a $50–200 entrance fee on certain nights (generally Fri & Sat), though almost everywhere also offers daily happy hours at some point between 3 and 9pm – worth catching, as drinks are otherwise pricey. Live music, and sometimes even raves, can be found if you look hard, though they are unlikely to match what you’re used to back home – for details, consult free HK or Beats magazines. The gay scene, while hardly prominent, is at least more active than in other Chinese cities, given that laws on homosexuality are more liberal here than on the mainland. Unless otherwise stated, the places listed below are marked on the map.