Hong Kong – Sensory Overload

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

New, meets old, meets busy, meets shopping, etc

This ‘Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China’ is the fourth most densely populated territory on Earth. 1st is Macao (a short boat ride away), 2nd Monaco (but it is tiny), 3rd Singapore and then Hong Kong (HK).

HK is home to about 7.5 million people and is smaller than greater London – but HK is not a city, rather a physically diverse territory.

*Of the top-10 most densely populated countries or territories Bangladesh deserves a special mention. 166 million people are crowded into an area about 1/2 the size of Great Britain, and much of the land is a flood plain!

Evening lights around the harbour

HK consists of the actual island of Hong Kong – ceded to the British in 1842 at the end of the First Opium War (the drug trade was very lucrative). Kowloon – the mainland peninsula – was added in 1860 and then a series of ‘New Territories’ were leased for 99 years. The lease expired in 1997 and on July 1 of that year, non-democratic, hyper-capitalistic Hong Kong’s ‘sovereignty’ was transferred to communist China.

HK remains distinct under a structure referred to as ‘One Country, Two Systems.’ This means driving on the left, using HK dollars and bilingual English-Chinese signs. It also means an almost unfettered free market.

Looking down from Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island

The territory is mountainous and certainly beautiful – although very polluted and extremely busy. Compounding HK’s population density is the massive Chinese city of Shenzhen just to the north. Shenzhen only became a city in 1979 and China’s first ‘Special Economic Zone’ in 1980. It is now home to somewhere between 13 and 20 million people. In many ways Shenzhen represents China’s incredible economic transformation.

It would be difficult to draw a distinct line around the greater HK-Macao-Shenzhen-Canton economic region, but it is undoubtedly one the the most important economic zones in the world. And HK can arguably claim the most expensive housing in the world.

The territory does maintain some of it’s British Colonial feel, but the overwhelming majority of it’s population is Chinese and more specifically Cantonese. Therefore Dim-Sum (basically Chinese tapas) dominates the culinary scene.

Breakfast! (the seaweed is Japanese)

English is still taught and it is very easy to get by without speaking or reading Chinese. Public transportation is outstanding and affordable – this is particularly important as the roads are clogged with fancy private cars and run-down taxis.

*Tesla vehicles have become very popular all over the territory. Air quality is a problem, fuel quite expensive and distances short. A great place for electric cars. Even better for no cars at all!

I first visited HK in December, 1996. We flew into the old airport wedged between apartment blocks. It was a famous and nerve-rackingly short landing strip. Now the new airport, built on reclaimed land off of Lantau Island, is massive, efficient and modern. The train to centre takes all of 24 mins and costs $115 HK (about $15 US).

The historic Star Ferry, started in 1898, takes 7 minutes to cross between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon and costs $2.70 HK (0.35 cents).

The harbour area from both sides is reason enough to to visit. Most of the world’s major banks and insurance companies are located there, including a strong Swiss presence and, of course, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) which started in the territory in 1865. Early financing was through the opium trade – perhaps this is why HSBC was so comfortable laundering Mexican drug money…

*As a point of interest, ‘hong’ is the Cantonese word for a trading house or business.

HK is all about business. To this end, Hong Kong as part of communist Chinese society is as incongruent as the west doing major arms deals with Saudi Arabia – yet somehow it happens!

Of course China’s economic ‘miracle’ has transformed almost all of the region over the last 20 years. From my first backpacking trip in 1996 through China, almost none of the cities are recognizable today. China’s market shift has brought hundreds of millions out of rural poverty and has created incredible wealth.

Rotary public art

HK money has spread around the world and certainly redefined the skyline of famous cities such as Vancouver.

For fans of high-end shopping, HK is still a major destination. For me the attraction is the hustle and bustle, the green mountains peeking out between massive towers and blocks of flats, and the food! The food is outstanding and fun.

Any tour should include the entire island. There are a few spots that feel more European the Asian (specifically Stanley) and the fusion of wealth, culture and topography is fascinating. There are even a couple of beaches on the South China sea – make sure to swim inside the shark nets! HK is sub-tropical and has a humid climate, but would be far too hot for me in the summer.

For me, three days is about enough, mostly because the poor air quality bothers me. Indeed I find this to be a problem in much of Asia, with Beijing probably being the worst.

Enjoying (very) very spicy Szechuan hot pot

*As the effects of global climate change increase, the world will have to look to China for leadership. As some western countries are simply not addressing these issues, China has the opportunity to reset the global economic model by moving beyond fossil fuel addiction. We would all benefit!

Hong Kong is one of those historic anomalies that remains globally important. It is a transport, banking and and tourism hub and should be visited at least once!

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