Hong Kong is a place of contrasts—geographically, socially and economically. Although many Asian cities claim to be where East meets West, the former British Crown Colony is probably the closest the world comes to the genuine article.
Travel to Hong Kong and scratch the cosmopolitan, high-tech surface and you'll discover vestiges of ancient China in its culture.Residents invariably live in two worlds: Skyscrapers and enormous shopping malls adjoin narrow alleys crowded with traditional vendors' stalls. Businesspeople use cell phones to consult fortune-tellers before making important decisions. Even as they are deeply into technology, they preserve ancient customs—particularly in regards to the correct feng shui of buildings. Only a few miles away, farmers and gardeners in less frequented villages in the New Territories tend their crops much as they have for generations.
Perched precariously on the edge of the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong—with its strategic deepwater harbor and proximity to the rest of Asia's most populous nation—profited for decades as the capitalist gateway for the communist giant to the north. What was once a settlement of fishing villages became one of the world's busiest international ports and business centers.
Hong Kong is a city of levels. At the top is Victoria Peak, on Hong Kong Island, from which mansions of the super-rich look out over the highrise apartments of the merely affluent. Farther down the mountain are alleys and tenements dotted with colorful balcony gardens. Living on the water itself are the remnants of Hong Kong's boat people—fishing families who traditionally spent most of their lives on their boats.
Across the harbor on the mainland are Kowloon and the suburban New Territories, which were once Hong Kong's vegetable garden and now also host Hong Kong Disneyland. Although the popular image of Hong Kong is a place where every square inch of land is crammed with high-rise apartments and office buildings, in reality 38% of all land in Hong Kong is designated as national parks and special areas. There are wonderful scenic areas and hiking routes ranging from gentle family walks to challenging long-distance trails.
This is also a time of transition for Hong Kong. Tourists and businesses from neighboring China increasingly fuel Hong Kong's economy. Hong Kong has become a popular shopping destination for Chinese visitors on holidays, weekend jaunts or en route to or from Southeast Asia.
Sights—A trip via the 100-year-old tram to the top of Victoria Peak; a ride on the picturesque Star Ferry; sightseeing from trams along the island.
Museums—Hong Kong Science Museum; Hong Kong Museum of History; Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware; Hong Kong Heritage Museum; Hong Kong Maritime Museum.
Late Night—Temple Street Night Market, with hawkers selling everything from snacks to watches to blue jeans; shoulder-to-shoulder bars and clubs in Lan Kwai Fong and along nearby Wyndham Street in Central for eating, drinking and people-watching; views of Hong Kong from Aqua Spirit.
Walks—Walking around the top of Victoria Peak to take in the magnificent views of the city and the South China Sea; hiking the Dragon's Back above Shek O; experiencing the local passion for racing at Happy Valley Racecourse on a Wednesday evening (September-June); having your palm and/or face read by fortune-tellers on Temple Street; shopping for antiques along Hollywood Road.
Especially for Kids—Cable cars, aquarium, dolphin shows and rides at Ocean Park; the aviary in Hong Kong Park; sand castles and a barbecue lunch at Shek O Beach; Hong Kong Disneyland; Hong Kong Space Museum; a ride in the Ngong Ping 360 cable cars on Lantau Island.
Hong Kong lies on China's southern seaboard and is surrounded by the mainland Chinese province of Guangdong, the capital of which is Guangzhou (formerly called Canton).
Hong Kong is divided into three distinct regions: Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territories, which include the largely rural mainland area north of Kowloon and south of the border with China and the more than 260 Outlying Islands that speckle the South China Sea. The New Territories is also home to large, high-density new towns such as Tuen Mun and Tsuen Wan, created in recent decades to handle population overspill from Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.
The whole territory covers 426 sq mi, accommodating a population of more than 7.1 million people, predominantly of Chinese descent.
There is evidence of fishing and farming settlements in the area dating back 6,000 years, but Hong Kong's history is generally documented from the 17th century, when the Manchus from the frigid northeastern regions ruled all of China. Hong Kong's location near the mouth of the strategically important Pearl River made it a favored port of call for trading vessels—and the haunt of pirates and adventurers from around the globe.
Although China regarded trade with foreigners as distasteful, it allowed the Portuguese to establish a colony in nearby Macau in the mid1550s to trade in Chinese goods; Guangzhou (also called Canton) on the Pearl River was opened to foreign traders in 1685. Uninterested in foreign goods, imperial China thrived on exports of its teas, silks and porcelain.
The situation changed in the late 18th century when British traders discovered the Chinese would buy opium, which they imported from India. When the emperor tried to end the lucrative practice, Britain seized upon the issue to expand economic trade in the region, prompting the Anglo-Chinese War of 1839-42 (also known as the Opium War). No match for Britain's warships, China reluctantly gave up Hong Kong Island to the British in 1841. Further concessions in land and trading opportunities were wrested from China in other skirmishes. It subsequently was forced to cede the Kowloon Peninsula and scores of surrounding islands—roughly 90% of Hong Kong—but in 1898 successfully negotiated the transfer so that it was done as a 99-year lease.
In 1997, when Hong Kong was transferred back to China as a Special Administrative Region (SAR), the Chinese government promised one country, two systems. For the most part, it has kept its word, but the SAR has also had to contend with a more open China and its larger role in the global economy. Where Hong Kong was once the exclusive gateway to trade with China, there are now many ports of entry.
Following an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in early 2003, government campaigns to encourage cleanliness and greater investment in city services have led to a cleaner Hong Kong. Sanitary hand-cleanser dispensers can be found alongside most elevator banks, a reminder of ongoing awareness, and toilet rolls are almost universally in place.
A more serious problem is the pollution caused in part by more than 50,000 factories just across the border in Guangdong Province, mostly built with Hong Kong investment. Many local people suffer pollution-related health problems, and each year there are a greater number of days of very high pollution, despite that the government has banned high-polluting vehicles and offered subsidies to replace diesel-powered buses and trucks to combat the problem. Still, Hong Kong offers advantages unavailable in China's buoyant economy, such as a transparent financial system. It remains a vibrant example of British order and Chinese industriousness.
Expect a wonderful mixture of colonial buildings (though these are diminishing in number), ancient Buddhist and Taoist temples and statues, traditional villages and space-age skyscrapers. The stark contrast between Hong Kong's dense urban areas and peaceful green spaces takes many visitors by surprise. Be sure you don't limit your Hong Kong experience only to urban areas—take a ferry out to one of the islands for a breath of sea air and tranquility.
Another of Hong Kong's major attractions is the Star Ferry—refreshingly inexpensive at HK$2.50 for the upper deck on weekdays—which runs between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. You may end up riding it every day of your visit, but with the city views and glimpses of harbor life it offers, there's something new to see each time.
Most sights are easy to reach via tram (on Hong Kong Island), bus, taxi or the MTR, but many of Hong Kong's famous landmarks and neighborhoods can be discovered on foot without a guide. Be sure to pick up a map or pamphlets on walking tours from the Hong Kong Tourism Board's visitors centers or in the airport by the A and B exits.
Along with New York and London, Hong Kong has a deserved reputation as one of the world's greatest shopping cities, and sleek malls abound in every corner of the territory. Even though it now has serious competition from neighboring Singapore and Bangkok, the exhaustive variety of brands and goods means it's still arguably the best Asian city to shop till you drop, and the air-conditioned malls provide a welcome solace from the frequently hot and humid weather.
Although there are bargains to be had, not every purchase will be a fantastic deal. Hong Kong is not the cheap shopping destination it once was, though it is extremely popular with visitors from mainland China, especially for luxury foreign goods that are heavily taxed on the mainland. Cash will usually get you a better price than credit cards. (Some shops charge extra for credit card purchases—about 4% on average.) All major credit cards are widely accepted. Bargaining can be done in most smaller stores but not in larger department stores.
Bargaining is the norm: When buying electronics, know exactly what you want (make and model) and know what it costs at home when on sale. Once in Hong Kong, don't buy unless the item costs less, including import duty. Before handing over any money, check that everything works, all pieces are included, the manufacturer's warranty cards are included and serial numbers on the box match those on the product. Also, confirm where your warranty is valid; it will be inconvenient to send something back to Hong Kong to take advantage of a Hong Kongonly warranty.
Most of the electronic goods sold in Hong Kong have a universal switch enabling you to adjust the voltage to the requirements of the country where you use it. Customers from countries using 110 volts will want to confirm that their purchase will be usable back home.
One of the few nods to the days of the British Empire, the Noonday Gun has been fired every day from Causeway Bay since the 1840s.
Chinese and British traditions still intertwine; barristers in formal wigs and gowns plead their cases in Cantonese.
Kowloon tailors compete for the fastest record from cloth to finished suit. Sam the Tailor on Nathan Road holds the record at 1 hour, 52 minutes for Britain's Prince Charles; more normal times are approximately 12 hours to slightly more than three days, with two fittings preferred.
Hong Kong people are the world's leading consumers of oranges; they go through more than 200,000 tons per year. Much of the fruit is initially bought as altar offerings for ancestral spirits and gods.
The Peninsula Hotel owns the world's largest Rolls-Royce fleet, with a total of 50 Brewster Green Rolls-Royces on hand to whisk guests around town and provide the most stylish airport pickups.
Hong Kong is the most vertical city in the world, with more than 1,300 skyscrapers, and high-rise buildings numbering in excess of 6,500.
Hong Kong's climate is subtropical, with hot, humid summers that can reach temperatures of 95 F and humidity close to 100%. Heavy rains May-September make the season a bad time to visit. May-October, typhoons with strong winds are likely. Ferries stop operating once a typhoon signal 8 is hoisted (signals range in escalating order: 1, 3, 8 and—rarely—9 or even 10 for hurricane-force winds), so don't get caught on an outlying island. Signal warnings are posted at ferry piers, on TV and radio, and at the entrances to many hotels and shopping centers.
From October, temperatures drop to the cool 60s F. The coldest time of year is December-February. Hong Kong does not have much, if any, central heating (just air-conditioning), which can make homes and shops cold when the temperature drops to 50 F. Clear, sunny days make October and November the best time to visit, though distant scenery may be blurred by smog that is both created locally and that blows south from China.
Dos & Don'ts
Do dress for the occasion. Hong Kong is a relatively formal city and, despite its almost year-round heat, top restaurants and clubs ask customers to dress smart casual, meaning no sleeveless shirts, shorts or open-toed shoes for men, and no flip-flops or sandals for women.
Don't forget your umbrella. Except for the winter, when Hong Kong is generally dry, south China weather is highly changeable and can get very wet, very fast.
Do get outside of the city center. There is so much more to Hong Kong than concrete high-rises, although short-term visitors could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Take a trip to the New Territories, go for a hike through any of Hong Kong's green areas or hop a ferry to one of the outlying islands. You will have a completely different view of Hong Kong if you do. An Octopus stored-value card is a boon for using public transport.
Don't forget to bargain everywhere except at standard shops, department stores and restaurants. Sellers expect it, and their first price is never their best price. If they claim it is, walk away—you can do better elsewhere.
Do leave plenty of space in the luggage you take in with you; it will soon be filled with shopping buys. Otherwise, just buy more luggage.
ATMs are plentiful around the main business areas and even near most beaches and on the islands.
Do look both ways before you cross the street. Unlike neighboring China, Hong Kongers drive on the left, like their former colonial stewards, the British. Make sure you look and then look again.
Don't spit or drop litter; both carry fixed penalty fines of HK$1,500, and there is a fine of HK$5,000 for those caught spitting.
Do take the Hong Kong Airport Express upon arrival into Hong Kong. Determine if your hotel is on the Kowloon side or Hong Kong Island, then hop off accordingly. All information is in English, the scenic ride costs less than one-third the price of a taxi, and the views are terrific.
Passport/Visa Requirements: Passports are required of U.S. travelers. Visas are required of U.S. travelers staying beyond 90 days. Proof of onward passage is required of all. Reconfirm travel document requirements with your carrier before departing. Further information is available at http://www.immd.gov.hk.
Languages: Cantonese, the dialect spoken in Guangdong province, is the main official language; English is also an official language. Mandarin Chinese (Putonghua) is not an official language, but it is widely used. In theory, English is spoken in all the main tourist areas, hotels and restaurants, although visitors may find that it or they are not always easily understood, particularly in the New Territories or remoter parts of Kowloon.
Predominant Religions: Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity.
Time Zone: 8 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (+8 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is not observed.
Voltage Requirements: 220 and 60/50 cycles. Most hotels have outlets for three-prong, two-prong and standard shaver adapters.
Telephone Codes: 852, country code
Copyright ©2017 Northstar Travel Media LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Courtesy of: Darla Logsdon
See More Sunsets Travel