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, tech-heavy 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 the city delves deeply into technology, it preserve ancient customs—particularly in regards to the correct feng shui of buildings. Only a few miles/kilometers 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 wealthy look out over the high-rise 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/centimeter 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.
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 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/1,104 sq km, accommodating a population of more than 7.4 million people, predominantly of Chinese descent.
Parts of Hong Kong, including Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, are among the most densely populated areas in the world. The two are separated by the historically important Victoria Harbor, a naturally sheltered deepwater port (Hong Kong, or Heung Gong, means "fragrant harbor" in the local Cantonese dialect); it is abuzz with luxury liners, cargo ships, ferries and pleasure junks.
At the southernmost tip of Kowloon is Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong's most prominent tourist district. Tsim Sha Tsui's main traffic artery is Nathan Road, a bustling, neon-lit strip of camera shops, tailors, souvenir vendors, upscale boutiques, hotels, restaurants and bars known as the Golden Mile. Nathan Road continues north through Jordan, Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kok, areas also notable for their retail outlets and nightlife.
On the north side of Hong Kong Island, directly across the harbor from Tsim Sha Tsui, Central district is the financial and commercial heart of the city. The densely packed, middle-class residential neighborhood above Central but below the heights of Victoria Peak is aptly called the Mid-Levels.
Directly east of Central is Wan Chai—once a bawdy entertainment district but increasingly becoming a more affordable eating and drinking option than Central's Lan Kwai Fong and Wyndham Street. It's perhaps best known as the location for the 1961 film The World of Suzie Wong.
Next in line is the bustling shopping district of Causeway Bay. Directly inland behind Causeway Bay nestles Happy Valley, an exclusive residential district and site of the more dramatic of Hong Kong's two racecourses (the other is in Sha Tin in the New Territories) and Hong Kong Stadium, which hosts major sporting events.
Prime real estate and sandy beaches characterize the southern part of Hong Kong Island. Several of the Outlying Islands, with a decidedly Mediterranean atmosphere, can be reached by ferry. The largest is Lantau, which can also be reached from Hong Kong Island and Kowloon by road and rail via a suspension bridge. Lantau is the site of Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok.
The picturesque islands of Lamma, Peng Chau and Cheung Chau are also popular weekend getaways. Another popular getaway area is the Sai Kung Peninsula in the New Territories, where there are weekend houses and a country atmosphere around quiet or even deserted villages.
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 mid-1550s 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 the government banning high-polluting vehicles and offering 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 both order and 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.
More traditional and historic sights are located in the New Territories north of the Kowloon Peninsula. Causeway Bay is also a fascinating strolling-and-shopping site, although it can get extremely crowded on Saturday and Sunday, during evenings and on public holidays.
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.
The main nightlife hot spots are Central's Lan Kwai Fong and SoHo areas, Wan Chai and, across the harbor, Kowloon's Tsim Sha Tsui and Knutsford Terrace. Wan Chai's reputation for naughtiness is overblown these days: For every tacky go-go bar, there is at least one stylish watering hole or delightful restaurant contributing to the area's gradual makeover.
Should you feel the need to venture into one of the Wan Chai and Kowloon hostess clubs, beware of the outrageous minimum and cover charges that are used to stiff customers for just one or two drinks. Inquire about pricing policies before going in and be prepared for some heavy marketing upon entering some of the more upscale locales (for example, a waitress may try to interest you in a full bottle of expensive whiskey or bring around other luxury items). Some bars are multilevel, with different offerings on each floor (one complex may offer separate disco and karaoke floors, as well as romantic settings). Pay for each round of drinks as it arrives—running a tab is an invitation to rip-offs.
Many pubs and clubs, especially in Wan Chai, have rather loose closing times, which doesn't seem to concern the authorities. Where closing times aren't specific, assume "late" means when the last customer drops or the bar manager has had enough.
Family celebrations, social occasions and business meetings all revolve around food, usually at one of the city's 10,000 or so restaurants. In fact, Hong Kong is so keen on wining and dining that a local greeting translates as, "Have you eaten yet?" Cantonese cuisine dominates, but Hong Kong also boasts plenty of restaurants serving regional Chinese cuisines, from Beijing to Shanghai to Yunnan to Sichuan. Other Asian cuisines—such as Thai, Indonesian, Malay and Japanese—also abound.
Dim sum is a must for any visit to Hong Kong—many Chinese restaurants serve it a la carte at lunch. In older restaurants, waiters push small trolleys around the room, carrying different dishes in bamboo steamer baskets or on plates. Look inside the baskets and point to what you want; the waiter will serve you and add a stamp to your bill. The traditional trolleys are slowly disappearing, however. Most restaurants now have English-language request forms on which you circle the dishes you want.
Favorite dim sum choices are siu mai (an open dumpling containing pork and shrimp), ha gow (dumplings with steamed prawns inside) and cha siu bao (steamed barbecued pork buns). Try a daan taat (egg tart), a Portuguese-style egg custard, for dessert. If you see coconut cake listed, it won't be angel-food cake with coconut frosting, but rather a delicious, creamy pudding, usually served in small blocks that look like tofu.
Dim sum restaurants tend to get rather crowded, especially on Sunday. Most won't take reservations, so get there early and be prepared to wait. If you are concerned about the use of MSG in a restaurant, it's wise to ask your hotel concierge to check ahead and write down in Chinese the fact that you do not want it used in dishes served to you.
The nightlife district of Lan Kwai Fong in Central has several stylish restaurants, but it has some competition from SoHo, which has a host of trendy bars and restaurants. Like the New York City neighborhood, its name is derived from its location—in this case, South of Hollywood Road. Take an opportunity to ride the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator, which is the longest outdoor covered escalator in the world (0.5 mi/0.8 km long). A five-minute ride from Queen's Road Central on the escalator delivers you to the hub of the action on Staunton and Elgin streets. Many restaurants are located nearby. There are also restaurants and bars along Wyndham Street just above Lan Kwai Fong.
Beautiful Lamma Island is spectacular at night—many people take private boats to the island and then stop off for a fabulous fresh seafood dinner, where diners can select their meal from huge fish tanks. You can also take the ferry over. Most of the seafood restaurants are at the small village of Sok Kwu Wan, so be sure to get the correct ferry or you'll end up at the busier Yung Shue Wan on the other side of the island. And be sure to keep an eye on your watch—the last boat back to Central leaves around 10 or 11 pm, depending on the day of the week. Specialties vary from restaurant to restaurant, but some of the great dishes are garlic king prawns, deep-fried squid, garoupa (a local fish) and scallops.
Cheung Chau—a half-hour ferry ride from Central by fast ferry—also has seafood restaurants, which cater chiefly to locals, so it better suits budget-conscious diners. There are especially popular restaurants along the waterfront north of the ferry pier, with fine views across the harbor to Lantau Island.
Restaurants are generally open for breakfast around 8 am, lunch 11:30 am-2:30 pm and dinner 6-10 pm, but there are many exceptions. Most close for a few hours between lunch and dinner. Hong Kongers generally eat lunch 1-2 pm—businesspeople keep to a strict hour-long lunch break—and tend to start dinner as late as 9 pm, though families often begin filing into restaurants around 7 pm.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one excluding drinks, tax and tip: $ = less than HK$200; $$ = HK$200-$400; $$$ = HK$401-$700; and $$$$ = more than HK$700.
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