Hong Kong: Introduction

  • © Rebekka11, marcopolo.de

    © Rebekka11, marcopolo.de


There is no doubt about it. Hong Kong is a synonym for the fascination of the Far East, and everybody has a certain picture in their mind. On the one hand, there is the expectation of an extremely modern, international metropolis whose economic dynamism manifests itself in a forest of skyscrapers and where the wealthy are chauffeured around in Rolls Royces. On the other hand, visitors hope to experience the exotic atmosphere of China, the enigmatic, the unfamiliar. And, you would not be really far off there either.

This Chinese metropolis, with 155 years of British tradition, is both cosmopolitan and fascinatingly different. Here, the Chinese has been moulded by the British, striving for profit has been amalgamated with traditional Chinese values and the liberal economic atmosphere and work discipline go hand in hand with culture and pleasure. The only thing you should forget is the cliché about the city being a stronghold of criminality and secret societies - things in Hong Kong are much more orderly than in many large European cities.

The first time you visit Hong Kong, you will find coming to grips with the city somewhat challenging. The pushing and shoving on the streets, the smell of exhaust fumes from cars in the canyons between high buildings, the noise of the swarms of buses, cement mixers and pneumatic drills reverberating off the façades of the high-rises in this incessantly hectic city. Some visitors are even happy to leave after only two days of shopping and a single city tour.

A Chinese metropolis, cosmopolitan and fascinatingly different

Of course, they won’t have missed out on palaces or romantic ruins, famous museums or charming squares. Hong Kong is, after Tokyo, Asia's second-largest financial metropolis, with the highest shop rentals in the world. Its underground system is the world’s largest transport volume per kilometre, is the globe’s third-largest container port and is home to some of the highest skyscrapers on earth. But the truth is Hong Kong itself is a unique attraction, with its contrasting mountains and water, its skyscrapers and its culinary delights. It almost seems to be a miracle that this capitalist eldorado on the doorstep of the Chinese giant can function at all – on a problematic piece of land suitable for just about anything but being the site of a metropolis with a population of around seven million.

‘A barren island with hardly a house upon it’

At the beginning, this location south of the Tropic of Cancer was missing all the prerequisites for such a success story. When the British occupied the island as one of the spoils of war in 1841, they planned to establish a military base and not a large city. It soon became clear that there was a serious lack of building space and land in the surrounding area that could sustain a rapidly growing town. At the time, Viscount Palmerstone – speaking at Westminster – said that Hong Kong was just 'a barren island with hardly a house upon it'.

That is why the British expanded their booty twice: in 1860 to include the Kowloon Peninsula – ceded 'for eternity', just like the island – and, in 1898, the neighbouring section of the mainland and additional islands that were then leased for 99 years and today make up around 90 percent of the total surface area of 425 square miles. Hong Kong’s connection to the hinterland remained poor until about 1980 – and that not only because of the border.

From the outset, Hong Kong's main raison d'être was as a place to do business, and many Chinese knew how to profit from that; they left their homeland that was reeling from one crisis to the next and started to settle in Hong Kong soon after its foundation. The greatest flood of migrants took place during the Civil War and the emergence of the Communists (1945–49). Soon, the slopes of the hills were covered with gigantic settlements for poor people.

The most pressing task was to create social housing in order to prevent the colony from falling into chaos – but where could space be found for that? Efforts to create new land on embankments had already begun in the 19th century; Queen’s Road, the first to be built along the shore, is now up to 650m (2000ft) from the water. In the meantime, entire bays have disappeared and mountains moved, and Hong Kong is still expanding several square miles every year. Above all, new towns had to be built in the rural New Territories where almost half of Hong Kong’s 7.1 million inhabitants live today.

Outsiders might not find these skyscraper settlements particularly attractive but there is no alternative, especially not for those living there, many of whom experienced – at first hand – life in the slums that have now disappeared. The European luxury cars you will see on the parking levels in many of these skyscraper complexes is proof that the people living there are often amazingly wealthy. On the other hand, the 'housing cages' frequently talked about in Europe, that elderly unemployed people are sqeezed into, are only a peripheral phenomenon. The art of coping with a lack of space is, however, something that almost everybody in everybody in Hong Kong has to come to terms with, bar the extremely wealthy, who live in villas.

The second major challenge facing Hong Kong was its traffic problem. The Territory consists of 263 islands, and even the large section on the mainland is broken up by peninsulas, mountains and deep bays. Things improved considerably after 1980, with the introduction of the underground and its many tunnels. Today, there are more than 20 miles of road tunnels in addition to elevated bridges with a total length of over 12km (7½mi).

The Territory is a place of unbelievable contrasts

The third problem was the lack of drinking water; it even had to be rationed in years when the rainfall was poor. Today, the supply is guaranteed by two gigantic reservoirs that have been wrested from the sea, as well as water pipes from China. The fourth problem was the easiest on to solve: unemployment. There was plenty of experience in making money. In addition, Hong Kong had taken over Shanghai’s function as the Chinese trade, production and finance centre in 1949, and developed into China’s almost sole door to the outside world – a lucrative source of revenue for the capitalistic enclave. However, in the 1990s, almost all of the industry moved back across the border into China, and now many of the people of Hong Kong commute to work in Shenzhen.

View from The Peak: the panorama is Hong Kong's greatest marvel

Today, the territory is a place of incredible contrasts. Cutting-edge technology and Chinese traditions, metropolis and secluded mountains, noise and tranquillity – all of this tightly packed together. Offerings of oranges and incense are made to the God of Doors, the Earth and Prosperity in a small metal shrine next to the entrance of a sophisticated nightclub with hi-tech equipment. Fashionably dressed office workers with their mobile phones go to the cemetery to tend to the graves of their ancestors and a subtropical jungle, where colourful butterflies flutter around during the day and crickets chirp at night, starts immediately behind the last 25-storey skyscraper.

The most dominant feeling, however, is one of the city’s dynamism, and its talent for being able to realise ideas and plans in no time. The latest fashions can be found on the shelves here long before they have even been unpacked in Europe. But the times when Hong Kongers worked from the early hours of the morning until late at night and their only pleasure was an occasional evening playing mahjong have now gone. The city has developed into a pleasure metropolis – especially for gourmets. But the passion with which two traditional vices are cultivated has remained unbroken: horse racing and gambling in neighbouring Macau.

Macau! A visit to the oldest European outpost in the Far East is normally a part of any trip to Hong Kong. The small territory, which was returned to China in 1999 – a good two years after Hong Kong – is in no way just a miniature version of its formerly British counterpart at the mouth of the Pearl River. Even though the gigantic gambling casinos attract most tourists to Macau, and have made it famous as Asia’s Las Vegas, there are many more testimonies to its centuries-long past as a Portuguese colony here than through the much shorter British presence in Hong Kong.

Many visitors feel that both cities have become completely westernised; but this impression fades away if you look closer. Of course, many British elements have been preserved since Hong Kong’s 'return': the currency, bilingualism, the judicial system, visa-free entry and the border to the new mother, and old father, country. Thoroughfares such as Queen’s Road and Prince Edward Road have also kept their old names, but only a minority speaks more-or-less good English. The skyscrapers are 'homemade' and constructed with the help of traditional bamboo scaffolding. The city and people living in it are modern and enthusiastic about the latest technology but it would be a mistake to think that everything that is not old-Chinese is western.

As you wander through the labyrinth of skyscrapers, you will be amazed at the high level of social order. The spotless underground is absolutely safe and there are no signs of graffiti. Travel out to the islands, hike over the hills, explore the beaches. Relish the seafood and all of the other delicacies the local restaurants have to offer. If you really only have half a day, travel to The Peak, as the magnificent panorama will show you what the city and people living there have to – and have – overcome. That is the real Hong Kong miracle. 

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