Nearly seven million people are crammed into the mere 1,100 square kilometers that make up the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR). Not just a city of skyscrapers, there is also lush countryside and small rural communities.
Hong Kong Island
Colonial history and modern architecture vie for attention in
The old districts of
Happy Valley is home to the
Kowloon is flanked to the north by verdant hills forming nine peaks, hence its name, which literally means "nine dragons". At the very tip of the Kowloon peninsula lies
Beyond these districts Kowloon becomes more residential. Noteworthy are the
Although the New Territories actually account for almost 3/4 of the Hong Kong SAR region, only about a third of the population lives here, mainly in high-rise new-towns.
Once a small village famous for incense cultivation,
Yuen Long is close to the
More than 200
For the greater part of recorded history, this rocky archipelago - an erratic collection of barren ocean rock - was politely ignored by the rest of the world. A handful of farmers living in walled villages, such as Kat Hing Wai, spent their days quietly watching the rice grow, fishing, visiting the temple and playing mah-jong. It was too hot in the summer, dank in the winter, and without any horseracing, things were pretty ordinary. Then the British arrived.
Hong Kong burst onto the world stage when a pragmatic English naval officer raised the Union Jack on the shores of Western District on January 26, 1841. Captain Charles Elliot had established the perfect base for the British Empire's most profitable colonial operation: selling drugs.
Ever since Marco Polo's account of the Silk Road in the 13th century, traders had dreamed of the riches to be made from China's untapped resources. The Imperial Court in Beijing, however, wanted nothing to do with these hairy barbarians and granted them only limited trading rights. The British, forced to raise cash for their rapidly expanding empire, and eager to balance trade, turned to the one commodity the Chinese wanted but did not produce: opium, or "foreign mud."
Beijing, objecting to the vast quantities of dope flooding into their country, hit back against the drug czars, destroying thousands of opium chests. To protect this highly profitable operation, the British retaliated with customary force, and thus provoked and won the First Opium War (1839-1842).
More a squabbling skirmish than full-blown war, the incident resulted in the Treaty of Nanking (1842), a diplomatic maneuver that ceded Hong Kong Island to the British for all eternity. Kowloon was grabbed in 1860, and further jousting led to more treaties and more embarrassment for the Chinese Emperor, culminating in the July 1, 1898 Agreement that leased a swathe of land - the New Territories, stretching from Mai Po Marsh to Sai Kung - to the British for 99 years.
The clock was set for the end of colonial rule, but few colonialists would have cared, glancing up at the Clock Tower on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront, that the countdown to the handover had begun when the ink was still wet on the lease. Not when there was money to be made.
Hong Kong was not an overnight success and, after mutual agreement between the British and the Chinese ended the opium trade in 1911, the 1920s and 1930s saw steady progress rather than stellar expansion. Shanghai dominated East Asian trade throughout the period between World War I and World War II, and Hong Kong remained a relatively quiet backwater. The British had busied themselves transforming their new acquisition into an extension of merry England, building such works as the Government House (1855), and the Zoological and Botanical Gardens (1864), and continued into the 20th century, building colonial mansions up and down Victoria Peak, allowing families of traders and civil servants to escape the humidity of the summer months and enjoy the beautiful views of Victoria Harbour.
So how did Hong Kong get to be so rich and powerful? In a word: communism. During the early years of Mao's revolution (1949-1950), thousands of talented industrialists, manufacturers, and bankers fled Shanghai and set up business in cramped Kowloon quarters. The population exploded, and soon Hong Kong became a major industrial center where fortunes were made in textiles and construction. The population of residential areas such as Mongkok rocketed, while Causeway Bay, Wanchai and Central established themselves as centers of commerce and finance.
Even though rapid expansion and growth meant much of the colonial heritage was lost in the desire to build bigger and more impressive tower blocks, many places of historical interest remain, including the Colonial Duddell Street Steps, Former French Mission Building, Noonday Gun and Statue Square and the Cenotaph. European heritage, though, is just part of Hong Kong's past. Things were quiet before the British sailed into port, but there is an abundance of spiritual sites, such as the Man Fat Monastery and the Man Mo Temple, built before or during colonial rule. In particular, on the Outlying Islands, there are temples, shrines, historical nooks and crannies, eager to be explored.
Fast-forward to a wet July 1, 1997, when the British handed Hong Kong back to China, thus honoring the original 1898 lease. The Union Jack, first raised by Captain Elliot a century and a half before, was returned in driving rain to an emotional Chris Patten. With a prince, a president and a prime minister in attendance, the sun finally set over the British Empire.
So what does the future hold for this once barren, remote, useless ocean rock? Well, it still ranks as the top financial center in the region with the most open markets and the most inviting tax breaks; boasts an expanding economy, specializing in textiles, clothing, tourism, and electronics; holds one of the deepest container ports in the world; and possesses an airport - Chek Lap Kok - twice the size of JFK, capable of handling 35 million passengers a year. Not bad.
All right, so you have settled into your hotel, you have ordered room service, you are all set for your big meeting tomorrow and you are bored. What to do? Never fear, the answer is here! Movies, dance, music, museums or horse racing, one thing is for sure: Hong Kong will not disappoint.
Cantonese Opera: For the Shrill of it All In a style that critics describe as "the sound of cats mating to music," the proud tradition of Cantonese Opera is alive and well in Hong Kong. Actually, learning a little about this art form beforehand, and getting a synopsis of the plot, can make watching Cantonese Opera very bearable and even enjoyable. The costumes and stylized gestures, along with the often acrobatic dancing and high-pitched singing, make for a unique entertainment experience.
There are several varieties of Chinese Opera, among them Cantonese Opera is known to have the most outstanding physical choreography. The form is now taught in a special program at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, and performances can be seen at many venues around town. Civic theaters such as the Shatin Town Hall and the North District Town Hall will happily tell you more about upcoming shows. In addition, there is often a major opera company performing at the annual Hong Kong Arts Festival in February and March, plus regular performances at the Cultural Centre.
Canto Pop: Not Suitable for Diabetics Canto Pop is the term used to describe Hong Kong's particular brand of pop music. Think Celine Dion meets Karaoke. Sugary and upbeat, it is definitely an acquired taste! However, if a good, clean melodic puppy-love tune is the order of the day, then Canto Pop is the answer. The best way to hear Canto Pop is to ride the local buses, on which loudspeakers pipe in local radio broadcasts. For anyone hankering after a live performance, there are the occasional concerts at the Hong Kong Coliseum or the Queen Elizabeth Stadium by huge stars like Faye Wong, Andy Lau or Leon Lai.
Dance: Something for Everyone Most of the city's arts festivals feature dance as a major component. Whether it is ballet, modern dance or the traditional Chinese Lion Dance, there is usually lots of movement to be found at venues such as the Hong Kong Arts Centre, Shatin Town Hall, Kwai Tsing Theatre, and the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.
The Hong Kong Ballet performs strong renditions of classical ballets, while the City Contemporary Dance Company creates modern, innovative pieces. The colorful "Lion Dance" is usually performed at the opening of new businesses, at weddings or at other events where the organizers want to ward off evil spirits. Chinese New Year is a great time to see a lion dance on the street or near a temple.
Theatre: What a Buzz Aside from the many major international touring productions that stop off in Hong Kong, there is a lot going on in the local theater scene, both in Cantonese and English. The Fringe Club is the hub of theater activity in town. It also puts on the annual City Festival, a multi-disciplinary festival that features a blend of up-and-coming theater artists with more well-known performers. In addition, the Kwai Tsing Theatre lines up a challenging season of new commissioned works as well as classics. For an evening of cabaret or comedy, look into TakeOut Comedy Club. Viceroy Indian Restaurant also hosts a monthly British comedy evening with plenty of hijinks.
Movies: Everybody was Kung-fu Fighting Most people think Hong Kong cinema is all about violence and martial arts. For the most part, they are right. Heroes such as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan have spawned a whole slew of martial arts films with overblown tragic plots and fast action. There is variety, though, and if you look hard enough, you might find a Hong Kong film with a storyline that goes beyond tough action. Aside from seeing the latest films, sitting in a big, comfy, air-conditioned theater, such as the AMC Festival Walk, can also be a great way to escape the heat of summer. An evening is made special with a trip to the classic, two screen Broadway Windsor. The movie screened is only part of the theatrics!
As well as all the usual cinematic offerings, there is a strong independent film scene, mainly featured at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, while art house and foreign films can be found at venues such as the Goethe-Institut (mainly German-language films) and the Broadway Cinemateque.
Museums and Galleries: So Much to Do, So Little Time From the scientific rigors of the Space Museum to the modern art installations in the galleries at the Fringe Club, from the informative and unique Law Uk Folk Museum to the bizarre (and definitely worth a visit) Police Museum, there is no shortage of cultural venues in Hong Kong. Of course, there is also the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, and the fantastic Marine Land at Ocean Park, and a quick stroll through Central will reveal many intriguing little antique stores and galleries, so take your pick!
Horse Races To experience the complete insanity of a crowd in Hong Kong, a visit to one of the city's horse-racing tracks - the Happy Valley Racecourse or the Shatin Racecourse - is a must. Intense gambling and socializing mixed with the excitement of first-rate horse racing; who knows - you might come away a big winner!
ShoppingWhether you are making purchases for yourself or someone special back home, Hong Kong's shopping is infamous for its selection of style, availabilty and price range. If Hong Kong is the closest you will make it to China, check out the traditional handicrafts and fine jewelry available at the Jade Market and the historic Western Market. If style and fashion is what you seek, join the crowds along Fa Yuen Street or Granville Road to window shop and bargain in some of Hong Kong's best boutiques. For a mix of shopping, eating and people watching, an evening spent at Temple Street Night Market is not easily forgotten.
Stretch Your LegsHong Kong's warm climate and surrounding waters make water sports and beach activities a major pull. Check out the Stanley Beach Water Sports Complex for a day of fun on and near the beaches. Feel like stretching your legs? Try hiking a portion of the Lantau Trail for excellent views of the city and a chance to escape into the greener side of Hong Kong.
Clubs and DancingHong Kong's nightlife is notorious for lasting through the small hours of the morning. If you feel like dancing, check out long time favorite Joe Bananas. Live music and guest DJs are a draw at Dragon-I while the people watching from the terrace of Wagyu is an entertainment unto itself. A well poured drink is no small feat. The folks at Blue Bar and the Langham Place Hotel understand how to do it right and are sure to please.
Essential Booking Information Cityline: (+852) 2314 4228 (http://www.cityline.com.hk) URBTIX: (+852) 2734 9009 Hong Kong Tourist Association: (+852) 2508 1234 (http://www.discoverhongkong.com)
With high property prices in Hong Kong, it comes as no surprise that hotel room rates tend to be on the expensive side. This is compensated, however, by the excellent facilities and high standards of service provided by Hong Kong's modern hotels. The following areas, which are all served by the Mass Transit Railway (MTR), the local underground railway system, are the most recommended for both business and leisure travelers.
Tsim Sha Tsui This well-known tourist area at the tip of the Kowloon peninsula is bursting with hotels, and there are many swanky five-star establishments to choose from.
Hogging the limelight, the Peninsula is the grande dame of Hong Kong hotels, while the Hotel InterContinental, regarded as one of the world's best hotels, and the New World Renaissance Hotel both hold prized waterfront locations.
More internationally-recognized hotels include the Sheraton, the Holiday Inn Golden Mile, the Hyatt Regency, the Kowloon Hotel and the Hotel Miramar. The Prince and the Marco Polo, as well as the more affordable Salisbury YMCA, are also excellent choices.
Why stay in this area? Well, the waterfront has stunning views across the bustling Victoria Harbour towards Hong Kong Island, particularly at night. Then there are the huge shopping complexes, as well as the endless stores along Nathan Road, known as the Golden Mile. The area is also jam-packed with restaurants offering Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai and Italian cuisine. Fast-food establishments and food courts inside malls are also plentiful.
Located right at the Star Ferry pier is the only Hong Kong Tourist Association information center in Kowloon, and culture vultures will love the Hong Kong Cultural Centre and Hong Kong Museum of Art, both situated along the waterfront near the Star Ferry pier.
Tsim Sha Tsui East This area includes large commercial and office complexes, and smaller shopping arcades. Again, this is a touristy area with several expensive hotels. Choices include the Kowloon Shangri-La, the Royal Garden, the Regal Kowloon Hotel and the Hotel Nikko.
This area is less busy than the main Tsim Sha Tsui district, yet it is still well positioned, allowing some respite from the traffic and crowds of Nathan Road. A promenade along the waterfront, extending to Tsim Sha Tsui, provides amazing views of Victoria Harbour and Hong Kong Island.
The Hung Hom KCR train station, linking the area with the New Territories and Guangzhou in China, is nearby, while Central is easily reached by seaplane. Also in the area is the Museum of Science.
Causeway Bay This busy commercial district on Hong Kong Island is home to the Excelsior Hotel with its panoramic views of the harbor and of Kowloon peninsula, the Park Lane Hotel, which overlooks Victoria Park, and the Regal Hong Kong Hotel. All these hotels are within a few minutes walk of the Causeway Bay MTR station.
Causeway Bay is popular with locals for its Japanese department stores, trendy shopping centers and wide range of restaurants catering to all tastes and budgets.
Wanchai An interesting mix of old and new buildings, this prosperous business district is only minutes away from Central. Renowned hotels in this area are the deluxe Grand Hyatt and the Renaissance Harbour View, both situated in a prime location adjoining the Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Centre. There are also more moderately-priced hotels, such as the Novotel Century Hong Kong Hotel, Empire Hotel, Hotel New Harbour Hong Kong, and the Wesley. Other hotels include the Charterhouse, South Pacific and the Luk Kwok.
Wanchai is the nightlife district of Hong Kong with an exciting mixture of pubs, bars and nightclubs. Entertainment for theater enthusiasts is provided by the Hong Kong Arts Centre and the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.
Admiralty This up-market business and commercial district is nestled between Wanchai and Central. The luxurious Conrad and JW Marriott are situated on top of the Pacific Place complex of shops, restaurants, cinemas and offices. Behind these hotels is Hong Kong Park, which shows off its landscaped gardens and large tropical aviary. Direct access to the Admiralty MTR station is available through Pacific Place. The Tamar site, an outdoor venue for exhibitions, trade fairs, cultural events and festivals, is also close by.
Central An important center for financial and commercial activities, Central is home to some top-end hotels, including the Four Seasons and the Mandarin Oriental, another one of the world's best hotels. The award winning boutique hotel Central Park Hotel can be found here. These hotels are situated near the waterfront and Star Ferry pier, from which there is regular ferry service to Tsim Sha Tsui. Other transport links are also well represented, with the nearby Airport Express Hong Kong Station providing fast direct access to the airport. The Outlying Islands ferry piers and Peak Tram station are also within walking distance.
Central is quiet after office hours, and shops close earlier compared to Wanchai and Causeway Bay. The narrow streets of Lan Kwai Fong, with their stylish wine bars and trendy restaurants do, however, break this rule, with establishments open until the early hours of the morning. The Hotel Lan Kwai Fang is conveniently within the complex.
Lane Crawford, the "Harrod's of Hong Kong," and The Landmark, a high-priced shopping center with chic local brands and international designer boutiques, provide some of Central's best shopping opportunities.
Fortress Hill Further east past Causeway Bay is Fortress Hill, featuring more moderately-priced hotels such as the City Garden and Newton Hotel, both of which are located near the Fortress Hill MTR station. Central is only a 10-minute journey away, and Causeway Bay's shoppers' paradise is even closer. In addition, the restaurants and shops of North Point are only a few minutes' walk away.