Although the transition from British to Chinese rule hasn’t been seamless, Hong Kong’s frenetic pace continues unabated as the world’s centre for decadence and money in all its forms.
Long seen as China’s gateway to the west, Hong Kong continues to assault the senses with its aura of organised chaos.
To liken Hong Kong to a fairground is to understand the riot of tradition and colour but to underestimate the sheer volume of money that changes hands at all levels of society – from the multi-national banking corporations, the traditional trading houses, concentrated retail centres, building developers – and not to forget – the millions of gamblers who turn up at Happy Valley every Wednesday to cheer on their favourite horse!
Hong Kong revolves around money and in that regard it still serves as China’s entre to western investment, while providing a thorn in its side as the epitome of independent decadence that it eschews for its people on the mainland.
The links between history and the future are there to be seen at every turn – none more so than the Star Ferry boats that have been faithfully carrying passengers from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon and back across Victoria Harbour since 1888. Although the two sides are connected by efficient road and rail tunnels, tens of millions of people still climb aboard the humble Star Ferry vessels each year, almost to preserve their own links with the past.
Cycle rickshaws vie for road space with elegant limousines, ancient trams clank their way beneath the modern mass transit railway, shacks and waterside shanty huts cower in the shadows of burgeoning skyscrapers and sampans sway in the wash of multi-million dollar super-yachts.
More than a melting-pot, Hong Kong is a cauldron of commerce and cultures, a meeting point for every form of trade known to Man. This environment generates a huge demand for real estate – and given that the islands are geographically limited, property prices continue to soar. Only the rich can afford to live within its confines and those who fuel the infrastructure – the workers – live in unimaginably small spaces on extremely low wages in order to keep the wheels turning.
Even domestic staff, such as the ‘Amahs’ or maids, who might sleep in any available space at their place of employ, have nowhere to go on their day off and congregate in their thousands at any large public place – a dramatic sight in itself.
Whilst an abundance of Chinese flags might betray the ‘new ownership’ of Hong Kong, outwardly little seems to have changed from its colonial past. With a gap of some thirty years between our visits, there’s little to mark the evolution between then and now. The same pecking order or hierarchy exists within the community but the masters are different; the same preoccupation with trade and making a profit at every opportunity prevails and the same intensity and speed of life continues.
Shopping takes on a whole new perspective, as you’re as likely to find a high quality knock-off as the real thing and electrical goods can be found on the grey market at prices way below European rates. Food can be found at every corner; whether you want recognisable big brand fast food or local back-alley specialties; to choose from fresh crustaceans swimming in tanks in gloomy backstreet Kowloon, or presented on crisp linen tablecloth in a high-rise island restaurant; to point at the false-food display plates in cafe windows if you’re unsure of the lingo or to pluck a wrapped duck of indeterminate colour from the smoking racks in a communal kitchen – you’ll never go hungry with this adventure!
Whether you see a visit to Hong Kong as a stopover or as a destination very much depends on your propensity for pandemonium and how that might colour your life as an observer of this hub of life. Whatever your view, a trip to the Peak is compulsory in our mind, partly to escape the chaos below but more to view it from above; where the whole of Hong Kong Island lays beneath you and views to Kowloon and the New Territories beyond fade into the distant haze.
The views are stunning and encapsulate the city and all it stands for, especially at night when the sheer energy that pulses from the valley below gives a blazing insight into the powerhouse that is today’s Hong Kong.
Other neon-lit cities and financial hubs pale into insignificance, in our opinion, with that of Hong Kong and you cannot fail to be whipped up and carried along by its dynamism and vitality.
Whether you inherit some of this exuberance, zeal and passion whilst there remains to be seen – but you certainly don’t go to Hong Kong for a rest!