Hong Kong – The Great Chinese Melting Pot
The vibrant and bustling seaport of Hong Kong has enjoyed a prominent part in the grand opera of Asia. Roderick Eime travelled to Hong Kong for a whirlwind tour of the sights, sounds and smells of the former British colony and discovered a bright and brassy city with a long and colourful history
The dramatic events of the mid-19th Century created Hong Kong from a string of minor fishing villages on the island that now bears its name. The British, on an expansionist roll, obtained Hong Kong Island in 1841 and then, in 1860, Kowloon on the adjacent mainland, after giving the Chinese forces of the Qing Dynasty a sound hiding in the two Opium Wars.
Prior to this, Macau had been the sole enclave for European settlement in Asia, but the new colony soon overtook the Portuguese outpost as the key regional centre for international commerce, banking and trade.
At the end of the last century, Hong Kong was back in the news with the historic handover of the British colony to the People’s Republic of China. Although many were nervous about the returning Communists, the transition was much less troublesome than many imagined and Hong Kong residents still enjoy special economic and political concessions.
The vast majority of Hong Kong’s 7 million residents are Cantonese-speaking Chinese with many arriving all the time from the mainland in search of work in the ‘Special Administrative Region’. The foreign ‘ex-pat’ population is high too with many Westerners from the USA, Canada, Britain and Australia working mainly in the financial sector. Other Asians include Thais, Filipinos, Vietnamese and Indonesians.
Hong Kong opened an ultra-modern new international airport at Chek Lap Kok near Lantau just before the handover, replacing the outdated but exciting Kai Tak airport in Kowloon. Before the new airport opened, arriving by air was a nervous affair and many will remember looking in on Kowloon high-rise residents eating their evening meal as planes approached low for landing.
Victoria Harbour still enjoys a healthy reputation as a busy maritime port, serving both commerce and leisure. It is quite common to see large luxury cruise liners in port surrounded by smaller ferries, powerboats and cargo barges. Multi star vessels from Silversea, Princess, Star Cruises and P&O are regulars in port as well as many smaller vessels operating local waters.
Hong Kong is currently subject to a great deal of redevelopment and beautification but, despite a mixed feeling about the colonial past in some quarters, a great deal of attention is being paid to preserving the heritage and cultural legacy of previous generations.
Take your pick and mix the old and new in a blend to your own liking.
Scenic Lan Tau
The nearby island of Lan Tau is a distinct contrast to the hurly-burly of Hong Kong and Kowloon. Steeped in recent and ancient history, it was the site of Neolithic and Bronze Age (~2000BC) populations and was the site of numerous strategic conflicts involving Chinese, Monguls, Europeans and pirates from the 13th Century. Densely wooded, with steep, scenic valleys, pleasant beaches (complete with lifeguards!) and delightful bays, Lan Tau is dominated by the bronze 26 metre Tian Tan Buddha (Giant Buddha), constructed in segments over three years beginning in 1990. The Buddha is part of the adjacent Po Lin Monastery and both open to the public between 10:00 and 17:45. Entrance fee is HK$23 and includes a very satisfactory vegetarian meal.
Still on Lan Tau, be sure to experience the brand new gondola lift opened as part Ngong Ping 360 tourism development that incorporates a themed village, dining, shopping and great views.
Visitors to Lan Tau can enjoy a great range of quite adventurous walks to any of the peaks and lookouts around the island. A well-located and relatively exclusive beachfront resort has operated on the island for several years at Mong Tung Wan and is a popular weekend escape for the better off Hong Kong residents.
Opened amid great fanfare in September 2005 is Hong Kong Disneyland. A joint project between Disney and the government, it is built atop a massive land reclamation project over the old, messy shipyard at Penny’s Bay and now employs around 5000 “cast members”. The US$1.8 billion construction includes the theme park, two hotels and retail, dining and entertainment facilities covering 1.26 km². The park consists of four Disney “lands”; Main Street, U.S.A., Adventureland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. Adventureland in Hong Kong Disneyland is the biggest in all of Disney’s theme parks. Admission HK$295 (adult)
"Hong Kong Disneyland stands before us as a living symbol of the creativity and imagination that are the heart and soul of Disney," said the then Disney CEO, Michael Eisner at the opening, "With a spirit of goodwill and friendship, we invite the people of Hong Kong, China and all of Asia to share in the magic, imagination and soaring spirit of Disney."
Hong Kong no longer enjoys a reputation for cheap electronic and consumer goods, in fact some items are decidedly expensive. Nevertheless, you can still enjoy an authentic and genuine Hong Kong shopping experience and gather a pile of souvenirs and trinkets without breaking the bank.
For a non-stop experience of local, urban Chinese lifestyles, look no farther than Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kok - the heart of the Kowloon Peninsula. Within these two neighbourhoods are side streets and alleys that are home to one of Hong Kong's liveliest street spectacles. Here is the bustling shopping hub of Hong Kong that everyone knows and remembers. At night, the shops are open until nearly midnight and haggling and browsing under the blaze of hundreds of neon lights is its own experience. Walking through Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kok is great fun. You'll love the ambience and the great deals you can get on souvenirs, clothing, electronic goods and much more.
Hong Kong's authentic "Chinatown" District is the thriving Western, a hive of shophouses, exotic markets and steep "ladder" lanes. This is where modern Hong Kong started, mushrooming around Possession Street where the victorious British first raised the Union Jack in 1841.
Also don’t miss; Stanley Market for silk garments, sportswear, art and Chinese costume jewellery, Edwardian Western Market for fabrics and handicrafts, Bonham Strand West for medicinal herbs and ginseng and Queen's Road West for birds’ nest soup.
Despite Hong Kong’s high density and traffic chaos, people manage to get around with a minimum of fuss. Drivers are generally tolerant and forgiving, just don’t be in a hurry as traffic doesn’t travel much faster than a brisk walk and there is always a minor jam somewhere on your route. Taxis, buses and trams all ply the busy roadways and can be useful for short trips around town, but Hong Kong’s greatest people-mover is definitely the Mass Transit Railway (MTR). Covering the Island, Kowloon, Lantau and the airport, the MTR network is fast, comprehensive and reasonably priced and conveniently avoids the turmoil in the streets above. Fares start at HK$4. Have change for the ticket machines. Tip: Airport check-in counters available in city MTR terminal.
Must See and Must Do in Hong Kong – The New and the Old
Scale Victoria Peak
High above Hong Kong Island on the 'back of the Dragon', Victoria Peak is Hong Kong's premier visitor attraction, providing magnificent harbour and city views. Arriving late afternoon enables you to experience the dazzling panorama of Hong Kong Island, the harbour, Kowloon and the hills beyond. At night, the neon-dotted skyline is another signature Hong Kong sight. The Peak also offers visitors an array of entertainment, dining and shopping options.
Take the Peak Tram
The best way to get to the top is via the Peak Tram, a funicular railway that travels a steep 373m line up the lush mountainside. The tram first operated in 1888, and once competed with sedan chairs as the most popular way up. Try to get seats at the front of the tram on the right-hand side for the best views on the journey skyward. Fare: HK$20 one way
Explore the new Maritime Museum
Opened in September 2005 in Stanley Plaza, this fascinating new complex was funded by the maritime industry as a non-profit educational institution and features extensive modern and ancient galleries of Chinese seafaring history.
Go Green at the Wetland Park
The Hong Kong Wetland Park comprises a 10,000m2 visitor centre, Wetland Interactive World, and a 60-hectare Wetland Reserve. It has themed exhibition galleries, a theatre, a souvenir shop, an indoor play area (swamp adventure) and a resource centre. The huge galleries showcase the importance of wetland on biodiversity, civilization and conservation.
Looking something like a two-headed beluga whale, the ungainly and quaint Star Ferries have been running across Victoria Harbour for over a century and are another fondly maintained part of Hong Kong’s colonial heritage. The five minute ride costs just HK$2
Double Decker Tram
Almost ignored by the HK residents as commonplace, the charming double-decker electric trams are an important part of Hong Kong Island’s history. The service is over one hundred years old and is still widely patronised by nearly a quarter of a million of the island’s commuters every day. Don’t ride in peak hour. Fare: HK$2
Sail the Duk Ling
Sail Hong Kong's scenic harbour on board an authentic Chinese junk and enjoy superb views of the city's impressive skyline. Originally owned and manned by Chinese fishermen, the Duk Ling is typical of the junks that once crisscrossed Hong Kong's waterways 150 years ago. The painstakingly restored Duk Ling is the last authentic sailing junk in Hong Kong.
Sip at Flagstaff House – Museum of Tea Ware
Experience the ancient art of the tea ceremony and learn all there is to know about tea blends, brewing and serving from an authentic master. Built in the 1840s, Flagstaff House originally served as the office and residence of the Commander of the British Forces in Hong Kong. It was converted to the Museum of Tea Ware in 1984.
Turbo Jet to Macau
If you have an extended stay in Hong Kong, a day trip at least or a night or two in Macau is a fascinating side trip. Explore the rich European cultural history that predates Hong Kong by 300 years. There’s wonderful 16th Century World Heritage architecture, great restaurants, museums and, of course, the famous gambling. Macau is definitely undergoing a huge growth spurt at the moment and enormous, Las Vegas-style casinos, tourist attractions and plush hotels are being built to cater for an anticipated rush of Asian tourists. 65kms (about 1 hour) by Turbo Jet Sea Express from the Shun Tak Centre and you’re there. Fare from HK$142.
Where to Eat:
The choice of restaurants in Hong Kong is overwhelming, there’s over 9,000. You can choose any number of ethnic flavours and standards from world-class five star Michelin to delightful (but risky) street vendors. The greatest variety is probably at Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon, whereas any of the major hotel restaurants consistently outdo each other for quality, awards and prestige. If someone else is paying, head to the Lung King Heen at the Four Seasons and order the Sauteed Wagyu Beef.
See Related Story: The World Wide Wok
Where to Stay
Five Star: Four Seasons Hotel
A staggering property. Set on a waterfront, overlooking Victoria Harbour and the financial district, Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong redefines luxury and excellence in a city renowned for exceptional accommodation. As a part of the prestigious International Finance Centre, the property offers effortless links to Hong Kong Station, with the famed Star Ferry almost at the door. From HK$620 per night.
Otherwise: YMCA International House Hong Kong
Situated in Yaumatei area, YMCA International House Hong Kong has over 400 quality guest rooms and is easily accessed from the shopping arcades and the commercial centres. With Mass Transit Railway Station right outside the door, you can be in Tsimshatsui or Central in 15 minutes. In-house restaurant and conference facilities. From HK$150 per night.
Best Times To Go
The skies are clear and the sun shines in October, November and most of December. Hot weather and rain can make June to August sticky and uncomfortable if you want to spend time outdoors. Take advantage of hotel discounts outside of high seasons (March-April and October-November). Unless you really need to, avoid travel during Chinese New Year in late January and early February.
HK$ Hong Kong Dollar
HK$8.00 = (about) US$1.00
220V with British and European connectors
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The author, Roderick Eime, is a Sydney-based travel writer and photographer and visited Hong Kong in May 2006 as a guest of the Hong Kong Tourist Board.