The Orient success: Ten years after Britain gave up sovereignty, Hong Kong is booming

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The Independent Online

For all its air-conditioned shopping malls and reputation as a global city, Hong Kong at street level can feel impenetrable. English is not widely spoken; everyday life is conducted in Cantonese. People bump past you. The steaminess, the crowded streets, the miles of overhanging neon signage and the grimy high-rise tenements make it feel like some nightmare city of the future. Still, there's something exhilarating about the energy and the bustle and, in its way, it's beautiful.

It had been raining for a week when I arrived. Hong Kong was hot, overcast, humid, and – as usual – choked with people. I was splashing up and down in the side streets of Wan Chai looking for somewhere to eat supper. There is no shortage of restaurants here, but summoning up the courage to go into one of the tiny places with steamed-up windows and dangling displays of duck, pork and cuttlefish is another matter. Night was falling, but around me people were still shopping at the innumerable tiny shop fronts for marble worktops, zinc sheeting, bathroom fittings, dried scallops, fruit, perfume and television sets. A half-naked man carried an enormous plastic bag of meat strips over the handlebars of his bicycle.

Finally, I found somewhere with a bilingual menu. "Cow's tendon with rice sticks/noodles. Cow's stomach with rice sticks/noodles. Cow's offal with rice sticks/noodles. Cow's pancreas with rice sticks/noodles. Only cow's tendon. Only cow's stomach. Only cow's offal. Only cow's pancreas."

There's a lack of squeamishness about the Cantonese, a pragmatism about food, money and politics that I think helps to explain Hong Kong's prosperity. Reading the menu gave me the gloomy sense of belonging to an effete, has-been culture that complains about working long hours and will eat only white meat. I went into a noodle shop and ordered by pointing at what the other diners were having. I ended up with two enormous bowls by accident, and fled without finishing either.

When I asked a Cantonese friend about pancreas the next day she praised it in terms that made me know I'd hate it. "Is it like liver?" I asked. "Not like liver. Much looser."

It is a fascinating time to be in Hong Kong. Ten years ago tomorrow, the Union Flag was lowered for the last time here and the banner of the People's Republic went up in its place. In the years leading up to the 1997 handover, those Hong Kong citizens who were able to applied for foreign passports and snapped up boltholes in Vancouver, London, Sydney, Auckland and elsewhere. People prophesied doom, and on the day of the handover itself, journalists waited on the border to watch the Chinese tanks roll in. The new landlords, after all, were the butchers of Tiananmen Square and notoriously intolerant of dissent on the mainland. What would they make of their noisy, crowded, materialistic and immensely profitable new possession?

In fact, the tanks never arrived. The People's Liberation Army sent its troops by truck to secure the territory, and those gloomy prophecies remain so far unfulfilled. The city seemed to have the same bustling energy I remembered from my last visit five years earlier, but I wanted to get a better sense of the place as it stands in this odd interlude between its British past and its Chinese future. Hong Kong's special self-regulated status will elapse in 2047 and the independence it currently enjoys, mainly in law and economic policy, will be surrendered to Beijing. But that date seems a long way off – too far to worry about – and there's a lot of business to be done in Hong Kong in the meantime.

The sun had come out when I took the Peak Tram from its terminus in Hong Kong Central (on the north coast of the island) and bumped up the steep slopes. Hong Kong is notoriously unsentimental about its heritage. These pretty wooden carriages – and the Star Ferry, and the trams on Des Voeux Street – have lasted not because they're old, but because they're useful. The clanking tram docked at the top in a complex of shops and restaurants. The rule of thumb for developers here seems to be uproot the old, and, if in doubt, put in a shopping mall.

I went up to the lookout point on the roof where, each Saturday, there's a free tai chi class. The instructor, William Ng, wore a headset and white silk pyjamas, and coached 20 of us through the Yang short form: Grasp Sparrow's Tail, White Crane Spreads Wings, Play Guitar. I know it looks poncey, but I love tai chi. It's the antithesis of Western exercise – pounding your knees to oblivion in an air-conditioned gym while watching MTV with the sound off. It's elegant, restorative, deceptively hard.

By mid-morning, the viewing platform on the Peak building was overrun with people, so I schlepped up for another half an hour, past some of the most expensive real estate on the planet, until I reached what used to be the garden of the British Governor. The house that once stood here was torched by the Japanese when they occupied Hong Kong during the Second World War.

A path winds through a pretty garden and up, almost to the summit, 1,800ft above Hong Kong harbour. I looked down on the bay. The noise of cicadas was so loud I mistook it at first for the sound of construction.

Either the mountains or the skyscrapers alone would be an impressive sight. Together, they make up one of the great views on earth. Below me were the improbable, futuristic buildings of the financial centre, the residential skyscrapers that look like they've been stretched to twice their natural height, then the bay itself – boatyards, ships carving white grooves into the water, the towers of Kowloon, and beyond them the steep, green mountains of the New Territories. On my back, a cool breeze blew in from the South China Sea.

From here, it's obvious why Hong Kong is so covetable. It's a fantastic anchorage, perched on the edge of a vast landmass, with a labour force drawn from the most populous and industrious country in the world. And it is easy to see why China and the UK both craved it.

On the way down from the Peak, I stopped in the Botanical Gardens and looked at the memorial to the victims of the SARS epidemic in 2003. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome thrived in the crowded territory and claimed 300 lives. Many of the u o people commemorated here are doctors who died because they carried on treating patients in spite of the risk.

Hong Kong faced the disease and the economic downturn that followed with a characteristic blend of stoicism and nous. They changed the law to make it easier for visitors to come from mainland China – and to compensate for the drop-off in Western tourists. On Hong Kong's subway, I noticed visitors from the mainland on their way to the new HK Disneyland on Lantau Island. They stuck out like country cousins, dressed in mismatched outfits – replica Brazil shirts and cheap dress shoes.

Now, in 2007, Hong Kong is booming again. Many of those people who left before the handover have come back. And they have come to shop. I suspect that the genuine designer goods are as expensive here as they are in Britain, but there is a whole gamut of ways to spend cash: haggling over things in a rowdy street market, having clothes made to measure by a high-street tailor, or exercising your plastic in the air-conditioned luxury of one of the city's many upmarket malls, with designer clothes and high-tech boy toys to drool over.

I'm not a natural shopper. After two hours in Central, I was the proud owner of new underpants, two shirts that I'll never wear, a pair of pyjama bottoms that turned out to be much too small, a box of 1,000 Chinese flash cards, a phone card for calling the Philippines, and some nail clippers.

My most useful purchase was an Octopus card. This is Hong Kong's version of London's Oyster card, valid on the swish, air-conditioned underground and the ferries to the outlying islands – and many other minor purchases. However, my bad luck with food continued when I used my Octopus to buy lunch at a fast-food shop in the underground. I ended up with a tray of boiled rice, gloopy mushrooms and what looked rather like segments of bone marrow.

To compensate, that night I went to Opia, a restaurant in Jia, the new Philippe Starck-designed boutique residence in Causeway Bay, where the rooms start at 2,000Hkd (£140). I ordered the tasting menu. Then, under soft lighting, I drank fine wines and stuffed my face with seared foie gras, tempura fried quail, and spiced duck breast. Upmarket Hong Kong is now a seriously rich place, at least partly because of the legal and financial system installed by the British. As I dined, I felt as though I'd arrived in the international version of the city.

Hong Kong Island makes up just a fraction of the territory's total area, which includes more than 260 other islands. The next morning I caught a ferry from one of the piers at Central and headed to Cheung Chau island, hoping to spend part of the day escaping the 21st century and getting a flavour of an older, more traditional place. I'd been warned not to make this trip on a weekend as it gets crowded, but I was so early that the ferry was empty. Out on the water, the air was certainly fresher; the other islands loomed eerily in the mist. There were junks with their sharply raked sterns and a couple of fishermen wearing bamboo hats teetering in a tiny rowboat as they hauled in their catch.

I reached Cheung Chau after about 40 minutes. The guidebook had led me to expect a rural idyll, but though it has no cars, it's a bustling little fishing town on the narrowest stretch of the island, with a mass of two-storey houses, a couple of Taoist temples, and backstreets ripe with the smell of dried seafood. The homely local restaurants along the front were just opening and families were arriving for brunch. I was suddenly overcome with terrible dim sum envy, but I hadn't the heart to sit there eating on my own, so I went for a walk instead.

It wasn't a massive success. There's a pleasant wooded area at the other end of the island, but the air was wringing with humidity. Most of the traditional architecture has gone. They don't really do rustic charm in Hong Kong – and when they do try to conserve some part of their heritage, they tend to kill its spirit in the process. As I continued my walk, I passed a 3,000-year-old stone carving that had been encased in a grotty plastic box for protection. The climax of my trek was to be a secret cave, supposedly once a hideout for the notorious pirate Cheung Po Tsai. When I arrived, I discovered it suffocated by concrete paths, loos, bins and picnic tables.

Then, at the tip of the island, I hopped on a tiny wooden kaido and paid Hkd3 (20p) to chug back to the town past the traditional moored houseboats where some families still live. Laundry flapped on the decks in the damp air and, about 100 yards away, a drummer kept time as the oarsmen of a carved wooden dragon boat practised for an upcoming festival. I felt like I'd found what I'd come for.

The ferry docked in Central and I crossed the bay to Tsim Tsa Tsui on Kowloon, the peninsula that projects out towards Hong Kong Island. The streets around here and in Mong Kok are full of cut-price electronics shops. They're also among the most densely populated urban areas on earth. As soon as I emerged from the subway on to Nathan Road I was besieged by the importuning peddlers of snide Rolexes and men offering me tailored suits. It was all a bit intimidating, but I persisted, waving away all offers as I passedthrough the crowds. After my brush with luxury in Jia's restaurant, I wanted to see what life was like in steerage: I'd come to visit Chungking Mansions, a vast warren of guesthouses, restaurants and shops that has become legendary in Hong Kong.

Chungking Mansions is the cheapest place to stay in Hong Kong and is also reputed to be a decent place to get Indian food. Personally, given the apparent squalor of the place, I'd rather eat cow's tendon.

From the street, Chungking Mansions looks almost organic, like an ant hill; inside, it resembles the living quarters of a large and filthy container ship. It's one of the places where Hong Kong prostitutes once entertained GIs on leave from Vietnam.

In the lobby I met an English traveller called Giles who told me it was the worst place he'd ever stayed in his life. I went up to his hotel on one of the upper storeys. He was paying 100Hkd (£7) to sleep in a cramped room with five strangers. The bunk beds had purple sheets. A grumpy backpacker was reading on one of them. It was grim, but not as bad I'd feared. It looked to me like a very nice Thai prison.

Contrasts are part of life in every big city, but they seem so immediate and energising in Hong Kong: shopping mall to street market, foie gras to cow pancreas, Philippe Starck-designed bed linen to a room that smells like Jack Sparrow's underpants.

I kept on going up Nathan Road. My dim sum itch wouldn't leave me, so I went into a big restaurant complex that included a place called the Choi Fook Royal Banquet. It was a huge hall, decorated for wedding receptions, with maybe 50 tables of diners, some of them occupied by three generations. My ordering hoodoo was in abeyance and they brought me tea, delicious choi sum in oyster sauce, turnip buns and shrimp in gooey ravioli.

Back outside, I was hit by a blanket of damp heat and caught the Star Ferry back to Hong Kong Island. It's cheap, wooden, solid and as iconic as London's Routemaster bus. On the water it was cool;I admired the skyline and the peak where I'd stood.

We disembarked at Central Pier. The place was jammed with Filipina maids on their day off, picnicking, chatting in Tagalog, showing each other pictures of home. Their presence here indicates how the territory has fared since handover: most middle-class Hong Kong families can afford a live-in Filipina maid.

Outside the Legislative Council building, two Chinese acrobats performed in dragon costumes on a stage set up for the 10th anniversary celebrations. There was a sea of bunting. The flag of Hong Kong – a bauhinia flower on a red background – flew beside a slightly bigger flag of the People's Republic. The disparity in size was no accident, but I was more struck by the fact that, apart from a lone cenotaph, there was little evidence that this had once been a British territory. Typical of the place, I thought: even an anniversary is not an occasion for nostalgia.

'A Blow to the Heart' by Marcel Theroux is published in paperback by Faber and Faber on 5 July (£7.99)

Travellers' Guide

GETTING THERE

Hong Kong is served from Heathrow by Cathay Pacific (020-8834 8888; www.cathaypacific.com), British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; www.virgin-atlantic.com), Qantas (08457 747 767; www.qantas.co.uk), Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; www.airnz.co.uk) and low-cost carrier Oasis Hong Kong Airlines (0844 482 2323; www.oasishongkong.com).

Regional departures are available with airlines such as KLM/Air France (0870 507 4074; www.klm.com) via Amsterdam or Paris; and Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com) via Dubai.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico. co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).

STAYING THERE

The Fleming, 41 Fleming Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong (00 85 23 607 2288; www.thefleming. com.hk). Doubles start at HK$1,582 (£101), room only.

VISITING THERE

The Peak Hong Kong, Victoria Gap (www.thepeak.com.hk).

Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, Victoria Peak (00 85 22 530 0154; www.lcsd.gov.hk/parks/hkzbg).

Hong Kong Disneyland, Lantau Island (00 85 21 830 830; park.hongkongdisneyland.com).

EATING & DRINKING THERE

Opia Restaurant, Jia Boutique Hotel, 1-5 Irving Street, Causeway Bay (00 85 23 196 9100; www.jiahongkong.com).

Choi Fook Royal Banquet Restaurant, Pioneer Centre, 750 Nathan Road, Kowloon (00 85 22 766 0886).

MORE INFORMATION

Hong Kong Tourism Board: 020-7533 7100; www.discoverhongkong.com/uk

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