A city of modern skyscrapers, the wealthiest urban centre in the People’s Republic of China; an important centre for international finance and trade, with the greatest concentration of corporate headquarters in the Asia-Pacific region, Hong Kong literally means ‘fragrant harbor’ in Chinese
By Fareeha Qayoom
Photographs courtesy of Hong Kong Tourism Board (www.discoverhongkong.com)
ong Kong (HK) tops the list of most frequently visited cities in Asia. I think there are four other cities that are in the same category: Singapore, Taiwan, Bangkok, and Dubai. HK is a unique combination of 150 years of colonial influence and 5,000 years of Chinese tradition. HK was once a ‘barren rock’ housing a collection of fishing villages when claimed by Britain in 1842 following the Opium Wars with China.
HK Island was then ceded to Britain under the Treaty of Nanking. It was returned to Chinese sovereignty on July 1st 1997, and is now a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China under a ‘one country, two systems’ principle. With a land area of 1,100 square kilometers and over 260 outlying islands, HK is compact and accessible. It consists of HK Island, separated from the Kowloon Peninsula by Victoria Harbor, and the New Territories that begin north of Kowloon and extend to mainland China boundary; (see map).
I never visited HK for fun; it was always on business; to some people, HK can be a culture shock. I never felt it, a lot of my colleagues didn’t either, even the first time they visited the place; however, I do remember the reaction of one assistant who had never traveled anywhere before in her life – not even to Karachi on business, I remember enjoying her open mouthed reaction to the city. Those business trips always had to be flying visits only and so I couldn’t pack much sightseeing, culture or shopping into my days while over there but, it is always fun to visit such a beautiful city on business.
Here’s my take on HK.
1. GOOD URBAN DESIGN AND PROACTIVE TOWN PLANNING – the Town planners are very active and involved in the city. I got a chance to explore Tsim Sha Tsui, Hung Hom, and Mong Kok in the Kowloon Peninsula and Causeway Bay, North Point and Central on the Hong Kong Island on foot. Although, the city is full of tall buildings, somehow, it still can’t beat nature – the city skyline looks cool against the backdrop of towering mountains and ocean at the front gives a whole new meaning to Hong Kong skyline – its picture perfect.
2. PLEASANT CLIMATE – You can’t see the sky – well you can, but the buildings are so tall over there…it usually blocks the sun. The weather is always mild, even in June and July; you can be out on the streets on foot, though the first time I was there, it started raining in the morning. It looked ordinary rain to me but they had posted typhoon warnings in the hotel lobby. I thought it was kind of neurotic because they had moved our meetings to late afternoon because of some light rain but what do I know? I was just a visitor. Another time, I had to visit Hong Kong in December; unfortunately, I had underestimated the winters in Hong Kong. It was cold. Brrr.
3. MODERN ARCHITECTURE – The one thing common for all districts is that all urban development is very structured, modern and uniform. There are commercial buildings, industrial buildings, and residential buildings; they all co-exist and are structured in blocks; all of them attaining a certain level height. You see a lot of construction going on each time you visit. You can get lost in the city because after a bit, all the blocks start looking the same. You can be totally disoriented and start thinking you are going in circles. You probably are! A map is essential when you are on foot.
4. EFFICIENT INFRASTRUCTURE – the first thing that hits you is the new airport when you land. It’s huge. In fact, to cross it, you have to take the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) to get from point A to B. Loads of shops dot the terminals – all top global brands are represented there. Many hotels provide a limousine shuttle service to and from the air port. However, the cheapest way to travel from the airport to your destination is probably the MTR but if you are going for the first time to HK, take the shuttle instead – it gives you the bird’s eye view of the whole city. I simply loved it and preferred walking and the MTR over taxis. I never tried the trams, however, I tried the Star Ferry once just for the experience. HK is very connected. Walking is a way of life; they even have traffic signals to regulate foot traffic. Most people walk in the city, catch a bus or a train to commute to their work places. People do run cars – seriously cool cars or maybe only seriously rich people run cars. You don’t see any ordinary cars only top of the tree brands like Lexus, Ferraris, Mercedes, Rolls etc, and of course, taxis, trams and double-decker buses on the roads.
5. SHOPPING AND ENTERTAINMENT GALORE– Hong Kong is one giant shopping mall – at least the commercial districts that I visited in Kowloon and Hong Kong Island felt like that. You can shop and have fun on a shoe string too. I never took more than PKR 5K for shopping and only shopped in the street markets. I am not a shopaholic; the only thing that I had to buy were presents for friends and family, however, all my colleagues turned into mad-shopper freaks the minute they stepped into HK. I always picked up cool ‘fake’ bargains for a song. There are street markets like Ladies market in Mong Kok and Temple market in Jordan, boutiques, departmental stores, specialty shops and high end stores like Ralph Lauren, Donna Karen etc, in Central and Causeway Bay in Hong Kong Island – do visit Sogo Department store and Times Square malls. I especially made a point of visiting a cinema each trip. Food was never high on my list of priorities but there are many vegetarian or seafood options for you. There’s the pricey Indian restaurant called ‘Gaylord’ on Ashley Street in Tsim Sha Tsui, there are some great moderate Indian and Pakistani restaurants in the spooky Chunking Mansion. I made a point of visiting the Starbucks coffee shop in Harbor City, and Hard Rock Café. You could also try the Chinese and Continental cuisines. There are hotels, restaurants and cafés to suit most pockets. I was fortunate enough to stay at four and five star hotels on company expense so never felt insecure and scared in the big city even when I had to travel alone on business. Crime is virtually none existent. ■
This article was originally published in the print edition of Valuemag, issue 3, July 2008