Asian tiger is back with an almighty roar

It's easy to feel intimidated in Hong Kong, finds Sankha Guha. But it's impossible not to feel elated
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The Independent Travel

The Cantonese word "gwailo" is generally employed as a semi-pejorative term to describe Caucasians. The literal translation is "white ghosts". At Hong Kong International Airport, officials are redefining the term. Bent over screens, they survey the procession of fuzzy-coloured blobs stepping out of the gloom. This is the Temperature Check Station, where arrivals are scanned for symptoms of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome - Sars. The infra-red camera does not discriminate: we all show up as white ghosts on the screen. Everyone is a gwailo now. Welcome to Hong Kong after the plague.

The Cantonese word "gwailo" is generally employed as a semi-pejorative term to describe Caucasians. The literal translation is "white ghosts". At Hong Kong International Airport, officials are redefining the term. Bent over screens, they survey the procession of fuzzy-coloured blobs stepping out of the gloom. This is the Temperature Check Station, where arrivals are scanned for symptoms of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome - Sars. The infra-red camera does not discriminate: we all show up as white ghosts on the screen. Everyone is a gwailo now. Welcome to Hong Kong after the plague.

Anxieties in the region have been heightened by a new outbreak of avian influenza, or "bird flu", which has killed at least nine people in Vietnam this month. But it was the Sars outbreak of 2003 which hit Hong Kong hardest. It left more than 300 dead and cost the economy an estimated Hong Kong $95bn (£6.4bn). And yet, I suspect what hurt most was the speed with which confidence evaporated. Confidence is what Hong Kong - the most dynamic, harum-scarum, take-no-prisoners economy in Asia - is built on.

That confidence trick assails you immediately in the form of Hong Kong's grandiose airport, built on the reclaimed land of Chek Lap Kok and designed by Norman Foster (now Lord Foster of Thames Bank). The terminal, at almost 1,390 yards long, is reckoned to be the world's largest enclosed space. They moved earth, if not heaven, to build this monster. Once there was no land here at all. Now there is not just an airport but a megalomaniacal regional hub.

Driving to Hong Kong Island over the 2.2km Tsing Ma Bridge (that's more than 2,400 yards and, naturally, the world's longest road-and-rail suspension bridge) you get the impression that everything before you yields to a common purpose. Flats, offices, shopping malls, factories, hotels, flyovers, bridges. Concrete, glass and steel fill the horizon of this unreal city. Buildings are 3D bar charts vying to demonstrate ever-higher turnover, profit, wealth, prosperity - and confidence.

It is easy to feel intimidated. It is impossible not to feel elated. Future shock runs down your spine and up the bad feng shui lines of IM Pei's Bank of China Tower. Terry Farrell's inelegant Peak Tower is also part of this architects' showcase; known as the Flying Wok, it is a lumpy satellite dish of a building mounted near the top of the 1,300ft Victoria Peak. The views from the observation deck are world-class. The Peak Tram on the way down is a misnomer - not so much a tram as an outdoor lift that plunges down the side of the mountainon a roller-coaster thrill that takes you through Hong Kong's bristling concrete canyons and whistling motorways to the commercial district of Central. At the base, I get lost in the warren of interconnecting lifts, walkways and lobbies. Subway stations become shopping centres which morph into hotels then dissolve into offices. It dawns on me that the whole island is a single protean building - the corporate HQ of HK plc.

Repeatedly, I hear that, post-Sars, the famously brusque Cantonese have softened, that the pursuit of money has become less frantic, that people have more time for each other. In Causeway Bay, I alight from a tram and try to find my bearings. A noodle vendor on the pavement stops what he is doing to help me.

The city is also cleaner. People tell me about new anti-littering, anti-spitting laws enforced with draconian fines. The laws were introduced in 2002 before the virus struck. Nevertheless, Sars has become a marker of events. No cases have been reported in Hong Kong since June 2003. Confidence is returning. Not in coughs and splutters but snarling and roaring as befits an Asian tiger. Gung-ho self-belief is evident at the new Aqua restaurant in the penthouse of One Peking Road in TST (Tshim Sha Tsui). A high-speed lift whisks you to the 29th floor; Zen-minimal surfaces and murmuring pools of water greet you in the lobby and a sleek catwalk leads into the restaurant proper. An involuntary gasp follows as you react to the 21ft vertically curving glass wall/roof, which highlights the panoramic skyline of the island across Victoria Harbour. It is the most dramatic setting for a meal I have encountered. Dazzled, I prise my eyes from the view to study the menu - which is a puzzle.

There are two menus - Aqua Roma (Italian) and Aqua Tokyo (Japanese). I opt for Japanese - we are promised the seafood is flown in daily from Tokyo's Tsukiji Market. And yes, prices are accordingly eye-popping.

The Star Ferry back to Central from TST reminds me how brazenly romantic this place is as junks and fishing boats criss-cross the harbour. And yet, overwhelmed by the proportions of The Island, it is easy to overlook the 70 per cent of Hong Kong that is not under concrete.

Lamma, the third largest of Hong Kong's 260 islands, is only half an hour away but it's a world apart. This is the China of my mind's eye - an untidy mess of dwellings, shops and cafés, narrow walkways, open drains and Technicolor smells. Lamma has no high-rise structures, no cars and no roads. At weekends, the island takes on a festive air as Chinese families come to picnic, and expats come to breathe. A concrete path takes visitors along the island's spine, with views of headlands, acacia scrub, hills and coves. The splendour of earth, sky and the South China Sea is sadly interrupted by a huge power station staining the eastern coast but, undeterred, families play at Hung Shing Yeh beach and barbecue smoke drifts in the wind. In the village, rickety restaurants display squirming seafood - lobsters from Australia, tiger crabs, bamboo clams, starfish and something labelled "Big Scrampy".

The island speciality is braised pigeon. On a makeshift terrace at the Lamcombe Restaurant we order the signature dish, as well as broccoli with garlic, squid with chilli and spicy salt and minced quail in cabbage. The pigeon appears with head and beak, glazed and served with salt and lemon. Real men crunch the skull, but I wimp out. With beers, the banquet comes to HK$314 (less than £23 for two).

Back in Central, the silhouette of Hong Kong's newest landmark looms over the water. The new International Finance Centre is taking shape. Cesar Pelli has propelled an 88-storey, 415m (1,361ft) rocket into the skyline. IFC 2, as it is known, is the tallest building in Hong Kong, but it won't be for long. Already under construction, the 474m (1,555ft) Union Square on the Kowloon side will steal the crown within two to three years.

In these jittery times, the rush to raise these towers of power seems an act of heroic denial. The fears and uncertainties raised by 11 September, Sars and "bird flu" are not part of the Hong Kong game plan. This is no place for caution or caveats. Money is here and it is chasing more money. For this trick to come off, confidence must be not just high but sky high.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Cathay Pacific (020-8834 8888; www.cathaypacific.com) offers return fares for travel on or before 16 March from £580. Sankha Guha travelled with Reliance UK (020-7439 2651; www.reliancetravel.com). It offers three nights from £689 per person, based on two sharing, including flights, transfers and room-only at the Island Shangri-La.

Where to stay

Double rooms at the Island Shangri-La hotel, Pacific Place, Supreme Court Road (00 852 2877 3838; www.shangri-la.com) start from around HK$2,790 (£190) with breakfast.

Further information

Hong Kong Tourist Board (020-7533 7100; www.discoverhongkong.com).

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