Hong Kong: 'A living fusion of East and West'

This week's Chinese New Year is a chance to celebrate Hong Kong as Asia's top tourist destination
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The Independent Travel

When the last Governor of Hong Kong sailed off into the sunset of the British Empire, some teary-eyed expats said Chris Patten should also turn off the lights. At midnight on 30 June 1997, he surrendered control of this capitalist growth on the underbelly of a communist giant. Doomsayers forecast that Beijing would soon ruin the territory it lost to British opium-traders in 1840, while the city of Shanghai would usurp its place as the entrepôt of Asia.

But five years since the flag of the People's Republic replaced the Union Jack, the lights are burning brighter than ever across one of the world's most spectacular cities. To celebrate, this week's Chinese New Year festival was the biggest ever neon blitz on both sides of Victoria Harbour, a blazing show of dancing mares to welcome the Year of the Horse. And the price of a ticket is just HK$1.70 (16p) for an seven-minute ferry ride through million-dollar views.

Where opium barges and tea clippers once raced across the bay, you can now board the Star Ferry or hire a sampan or junk to dodge container ships of every nation as they compete to serve this gateway to the vastness of China beyond. For despite the mainland's economic growth, Hong Kong remains the key conduit for China's trade, the top travel destination in Asia and the greatest Chinatown on the planet.

It may sound strange to call this Chinese city, now reporting to Beijing, a "Chinatown", but if that implies an enclave of refugees, striving successfully to make better lives, then the term fits. "Hong Kong is a living fusion of East and West," declares Duncan Pescod, a long-time British resident and deputy commissioner for tourism. "You can go out to the Wong Tai Sin temple, have your fortune read with bamboo sticks and within an hour be back in the world's most densely populated urban area, having a meal in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Central's Lan Kwai Fong." Even after 20 years, the "buzz of the place" still infects him. "You wake up each morning and feel you can achieve something," Pescod says.

Whether you are a regular or first-time visitor, the following pages will help you achieve more, from the locals' favourite sports – shopping and eating – to the beaches and beauty of country parks that cover 40 per cent of Hong Kong.

Like previous visitors, I remember the "buzz" began on the white-knuckle descent every plane had to make between high-rise buildings and flapping laundry, down to Kai Tak airport. Today's approach is less dramatic, but the spectacle more profound, at Chek Lap Kok, perhaps the world's best airport and largest enclosed space. The striking new facility sits on reclaimed land – a Hong Kong speciality – beside nearby Lantau Island, the largest of the city's 260 islands.

Capped by a massive bronze Buddha, Lantau is levelling more ground for another world icon, Mickey Mouse, scheduled to land in 2005. Hong Kong has secured Asia's second Disneyland after Tokyo, the most successful theme park worldwide. Few did more to lure Mickey than Mike Rowse, the most senior British member of Hong Kong's post-1997 administration, until he renounced his citizenship last August and became Chinese.

"It wasn't a sudden 'Road to Damascus' thing," explains Rowse, head of investment promotion agency InvestHK. "But rather a summary of the past 30 years of my life. I was proud of being British, but at every fork in the road I had turned down the one marked Hong Kong/China." Cynics suggest he eyes future promotion – only Chinese nationals can hold the top jobs – but Rowse says his move came in recognition of the opportunities he has already enjoyed in this "free and open" meritocracy.

While transparency remains an alien concept over the still maintained border with his new motherland, Rowse lists the enduring strengths that make 3,000 multinationals choose Hong Kong as their regional headquarters. If God granted the best deep-water port along China's coast, he credits the British for "rule of law, an independent judiciary, separation of powers and free flow of information and money", and Hong Kong's own people for low taxes: "The list of taxes we don't have is longer then the taxes we do."

Rowse's investment agency now looks to mainland China for more business, as does the tourist board. After years of looking down on their less sophisticated, communist cousins, Hong Kongers now realise they have money in their pockets.

"I was so excited, my wife and I had to pinch ourselves to remind us it wasn't a dream," recalls Zhang Songshou, a retired cadre member from Nanjing. Zhang was among 4.5 million arrivals from China last year, the fastest rising group in a total of 13.7 million that made 2001 a record year for tourism, despite cancellations following the 11 September attacks in New York.

"Hong Kong didn't let us down," adds Zhang. "The food and service were so good, and the city is so civilised and orderly, it must be the good influence of the British. People queued up for buses, unlike on the mainland where there is always a fight, and police always helped us with directions, even to cross the street! And no one threw rubbish into the harbour."

If the highlights of his visit were the sharp contrasts with home, they also highlight the changes sweeping Hong Kong, for decades a refugee society. "From the Seventies to the Nineties, most people were planning to leave, to Australia or Canada," says British analyst David Dodwell. "That only turned around in late 1996, and now, for the first time, people are starting to see Hong Kong as a long-time home. There is increased concern about the environment, thank God! People are more middle-class and less entrepreneurial. They used to want cash in their pockets, to invest elsewhere, but now they want better housing and infrastructure."

Residents – and tourists – revel in Hong Kong's compact diversity. "This is one of the most densely populated areas anywhere, but in 20 minutes I can be sitting on a beach or hiking in the wilds on a mountain akin to the Lake District," says Dodwell. "Everything can be reached by public transport. I don't need a car and don't have one, but I can indulge a wide range of interests."

If you have to pick just one, indulge in Hong Kong's foremost interest. A global survey last year showed that while Americans eat out at restaurants 4.5 times a month, the British just 1.8 times, and the Russians a miserly 0.3, Hong Kongers top the charts with an average of 8.7 sit-down meals out a month. With more than 8,000 restaurants to choose from, catering to every budget and taste, go and find out why.