Just days before I arrived in Hong Kong, the locals were celebrating the Chinese New Year. It is the most important holiday of the Chinese year and pretty, colorful decorations cover the city—from peach and plum blossoms symbolizing the return of spring and “immortality” to small orange fruited kumquat trees in doorways which bring “good fortune.” It’s a fun and colorful time to visit Hong Kong, but I’m guessing by the little I’ve already seen here that really anytime of year you won’t be disappointed.
This very vibrant and dynamic city was just a collection of small fishing villages when it was claimed by the British in 1842 after the Opium War. Hong Kong was returned to the Chinese just 10 years ago in 1997 and is now what’s called a “Special Administrative Region” of the People’s Republic of China.
Today, this former fishing colony is a huge international metropolis with nearly 7 million people and still growing. I’ve seen a lot of small children in tow, too—it seems every couple has got one. And, they’re adorable—I’ve always had a soft spot for Asian babies—sorry, not all babies, really just the Asian variety.
Ninety-five percent of Hong Kongers (doubt that’s a word) are Ethnic Chinese. But there is also a large community of foreigners with Filipinos, Indonesians, and Americans being the largest immigrant groups. In fact, I managed to unexpectedly see literally thousands of these immigrants in person. On a Sunday, I decided to check out the area on Hong Kong Island known as Causeway Bay. Little did I know, this was the weekly day off and a sort of “reunion day” for masses of these islanders.
I later learned that a large number of households here in Hong Kong employ an ‘amah’ or live-in maid, most of whom are from the Philippines and Indonesia. They come here on a two-year renewable FDH (foreign domestic helper) work visa to escape the dust and poverty of their homelands and make more money than they ever would back home. Unfortunately, I’ve also read that life isn’t all smiles for them–it’s reported as much as 25% of these foreign domestic helpers suffer physical and/or sexual abuse from their employers. They work six days a week and collectively get Sundays off. It is quite a sight to behold—thousands descend upon Hong Kong’s parks and squares with their picnic blankets and snacks to catch up on each others’ lives and stories. I wanted to walk around Victoria Park, but it just became virtually impossible. At first, I thought it was some special festival going on… but apparently this is just the normal weekly routine.
Hong Kong has long been the site of confrontation between East and West. This dynamic coastal city now faces the challenges of a split Chinese identity. Expatriates have flocked here, to the “Wall Street of Asia,” where steely skyscrapers hover over ancient temples and a few remaining rickshaws. The city offers a full-on assault of sounds, sights, and smells. This manic energy is exactly what makes Hong Kong so special.
When I stood on the tip of Kowloon Peninsula and looked out across the harbor to the full expanse of the Hong Kong island skyline – I couldn’t help but think this has got to be one of the prettiest skylines I’ve ever seen… even competing with Manhattan and the Chicago skyline, which still gets me every time I return home. While other great cities like Paris and London took 10 to 20 generations to build, and New York about 500 years, Hong Kong built almost everything in the time since today’s young investment bankers were born.
Kowloon’s main thoroughfare is Nathan Road. It’s full of noise, color, lights, and crowds. It’s a bit of a sensory overload and not the spot to come for peace and quiet. There are a myriad of shops and malls full of more shops. And, just as in Tokyo, it seems there is no shortage of shoppers. Asians follow trends like the flies in Australia flocked to my face. And here in the East, they are drawn to all things cute—from the latest Japanese animated heroes to cuddly little animal phone charms. Even the most buttoned-up businessman has a little hello kitty or other little friend hanging off his Nokia wireless.
Just a seven minute, thirty cent jaunt across Victoria Harbor is Hong Kong Island. This 78 square kilometer (30 square mile) island is the Financial Center and heart of Hong Kong. It’s here that this amazing fusion of past and present collides. I walked around this canyon of modern skyscapers trying to constantly peer upwards at architectural masterpieces like the iconic Bank of China Building.
This tower rises like a glass finger pointing into the sky. Designed by I. M. Pei, this 70-story futuristic building, with its crisscross pattern reminiscent of bamboo, also observes the principles of feng shui (Chinese geomancy), as do all modern structures in Hong Kong. This is in an effort to maintain harmony with their natural environment. (Otherwise, disaster would surely strike — something no builder in Hong Kong wants to risk.)
Close by is the hard-to-miss, colorfully lit HSBC Tower. It’s said to be one of the most expensive buildings in the world (almost US$1 billion) and attracts visiting architects the world over for its innovative external structure, rather than a central core. It was constructed from prefabricated components manufactured all over the world; the glass, aluminum cladding, and flooring came from the United States. Internal walls are removable, allowing for office reconfiguration. The interior is mostly an atrium and some either love it or hate it. Can my fellow Chicagoans say “James R. Thompson Center?”
As I headed up the hillside, I caught a ride on the Mid-Levels escalator—at 800meters long, it is the world’s longest covered escalator.
I got off in Soho. This is the second city of my trip to have a neighborhood named Soho. Here it denotes being south of Hollywood Avenue. But surprise, surprise, it is a hip and cosmopolitan area full of international eateries and bars.
Because this area is all on the side of a steep hill, leave it to the Chinese to build these smart “people movers” or escalators all along the side of this mountain. No one has to overexert themselves climbing up to the bars for an after work drink.