World ? Asia ? China ? Hong Kong

Hong Kong: Introduction

Every time I come to Hong Kong, I feel as though I've wandered onto a movie set. Maybe I'm an incurable romantic, but when I stand at the railing of the famous Star Ferry as it glides across the harbor, ride a rickety old tram as it winds its way across Hong Kong Island, or marvel anew at the stunning views afforded from atop Victoria Peak, I can't help but think I must have somehow landed in the middle of an epic drama where the past has melted into the present. So many images float by -- wooden boats bobbing up and down in the harbor beside huge ocean liners; crumbling tenements next to ultramodern high-rises; squalid alleys behind luxury hotels; old Chinese people pushing wheelbarrows as Rolls-Royces glide by; market vendors selling chicken feet and dried squid while talking on cellular phones.

In fact, one of the most striking characteristics of Hong Kong is this interweaving of seeming contradictions and the interplay of the exotic and the technically advanced. There are as many skyscrapers here as you're likely to see anywhere, but they're built with bamboo scaffolding. Historic trams rumble through Central, while below ground is one of the most efficient subways in the world, complete with the world's first "contactless" tickets, cards that can be waved over a scanner without even taking them out of your purse or wallet. The city has what are arguably some of the best and most sophisticated restaurants in the world, but it also has dai pai dong, street-side food stalls. Hong Kong is home to one of the world's largest shopping malls, but there are also lively street markets virtually everywhere.

Because of these dazzling contrasts, Hong Kong offers visitors something unique -- the chance to experience a vibrant Chinese city without sacrificing the comforts of home. To be sure, much of Hong Kong's Western fabric comes from the legacy left by the British, who ruled the colony until 1997, when it was handed back to China as a Special Administrative Region (thus the SAR abbreviation you'll see there and throughout this book). British influence is still evident everywhere, from Hong Kong's school system to its free-market economy, from its rugby teams to its double-decker buses, and from English pubs and tea in the afternoon to (my favorite) orderly queues. But though the city was molded by the British, it has always been, at heart, Chinese, with Chinese medicine shops, street vendors, lively dim sum restaurants, old men taking their caged birds for walks, and colorful festivals. Indeed, for the casual visitor, Hong Kong seems little changed since the 1997 handover. No doubt some visitors remain oblivious to even the most visible sign of that change: the replacement of the Union Jack and old flag of the Crown Colony of Hong Kong with the red, starred flag of China and the new red Hong Kong flag with its emblem of the bauhinia flower.

Hong Kong was founded as a place to conduct business and to trade, and it continues to serve that purpose both aggressively and successfully. Hong Kong is the "Wall Street of Asia," with banking, international insurance, advertising, and publishing among its biggest industries. Hong Kong also boasts the world's eighth-largest trading economy and is one of the world's leading exporters of toys, garments, and watches.

Little wonder, then, that as a duty-free port, Hong Kong attracts approximately 21 million visitors a year, making tourism one of its leading industries. Shopping is one of the main reasons people come here, and at first glance, the city does seem rather like one huge department store. But there's much more to Hong Kong than shopping. There's also wining, dining, and sightseeing, as well as isolated places to get away from it all.

For those who wish to journey farther afield, Macau, a former Portuguese enclave handed back to China in 1999, is just an hour's boat ride away; and vast China itself lies just beyond Hong Kong's border, making it the perfect gateway for trips to Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, and beyond.

The more you search for in Hong Kong, the more you'll find. Before long, you, too, may find yourself swept up in the drama.

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