Hong Kong. One of our favourite cities. To visit that is. I am not sure I would want to live here and don’t have an intention of finding out if I do but, it is one of those wonderful places that lives on water, enjoying a freshness and a feeling of space that relieves the concrete jungle. It must be around 15 years since either Debbie or I were here on business and we wanted to see how it had changed since the British handed it back to the Chinese.
The answer is not much. So much so we learnt that Hong Kong is not covered by our Chinese visa! We had only applied for a single entry not double. So we’ve dog-legged through China to use the maximum days allowed and finished here. The views are still remarkable: by day, skyscrapers still march up tree covered hills and blaze by night across the harbor waters constantly crisscrossed by freighters, ferries and motorised junks. The waterfront of Kowloon looking across to Hong Kong Island still remains the most absorbing view in Asia. I could sit and watch the manic energy of men and machinery for hours. At any one time, there are a hundred different little cameos to catch the eye, fire interest or engage the imagination: looking out of our hotel window, I can count 16 different craft skittling across or lumbering through the waters watched by maybe 200 people strolling, running or walking purposefully along the embankment. From time to time a great cruise liner comes to town, a maritime goliath that rivals the great structures of the tallest buildings, and everyone stops to stare as its passing.
The streets still teem with people and traffic, we still get stopped by Indian tailors trying to sell suits and shirts and by hawkers trying to sell fake Rolex. Shops still burst with shedloads of cameras, computers and watches and I would not be surprised if half the world’s stock of these items is here in Hong Kong. There are more designer boutiques than ever sitting cheek by jowl so that it requires no effort to glide seamlessly from Louis Vuitton to Dolce & Gabbana to Versace or whatever takes the fancy. Along with the most expensive western cars, it’s a strong sign that there is big money here in the wallets of people who want to flaunt it. And that is another difference: the wealth is now ostentatious and obvious.
There is still a British feel to Hong Kong but much less apparent than it was in the past. Double-decker buses, British road names, London traffic lights, English written on road signs and on the road still remain but everything else has a distinctly Chinese taste. When the British handed back Hong Kong one of the conditions was that the region would retain its free-market economy as well as its social and legal systems for 50 years so the old influence is not surprising but, at the same time, the Chinese authorities are trying to bring the ‘one country, two systems’ to as early an end as they can.
The residents still provide a cultural kaleidoscope of nations from every continent. They seem thoroughly undeterred by their new Chinese masters so that Hong Kong is the most diverse city in China on every level whether judged by ethnic origin, religion, dress, occupation, leisure activities or dining options. Long may that continue as it is one of the most attractive facets of the city.
In the evening, the buildings great and small are alight with colour: some with simple lights, others advertising products or corporate names and others still with TVs and slogans. We are debating whether the lights are more subdued than they were or whether it’s the low cloud, that has hung about the upper levels of the skyscrapers, that give us this impression but we remember the skyline being brighter, more colourful and more vibrant than it is today. On the other hand, there is now a light and laser show every night that lasts for 10 minutes which gives a wonderful impression of illuminations dancing in symphony along the whole waterfront area.
I suppose Hong Kong was bound to be different whether it had changed flags or not. After all, every great city evolves continuously. But the vibrancy, the energy and the desire to make money is still the essential DNA of this unique place. The Chinese don’t want to change that and it still remains one of my favourite places to visit.