HONG KONG – For years, Hong Kong, a British colony until 1997, was the window onto China, a place where Americans and Europeans would capture a tantalizing glimpse of Chinese culture.
But now this buzzing, compact, vertical city-state – the financial hub of Asia – has been transformed into China’s window for the West.
Luxury stores like Coach purses and Louis Vuitton are so mobbed with Chinese customers that velvet ropes and other traffic instruments are installed on the sidewalks for crowd control.
Outposts of McDonald’s, Timberlake, Tiffany, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger King and other western companies have pushed egg tart vendors, florists and silk shops out of gracuous stone buildings which have been replaced by opulent shopping malls and high-rises connected for aerial workshops.
Jade Market, whose snakes lurked in jars and pigs were slaughtered nearby during my visit here in the 1970s, is now a warren of touristy stalls selling pearls, jade, paintings and other items for the visitors.
World pearl prices have plummeted because surging production of high-quality freshwater pearls in the South China Sea. So, we contacted Irene and her son in Stall 278 to make our purchases.
While downtown Hong Kong feels like a more frenzied and costlier American city, this metropolis of seven million citizens – one of the most densely populated places in the world – still has much to offer visitors.
Some 28 million mainland Chinese visited here last year compared to 1.8 million visitors from the United States. Every night, 20 high-rise buildings on the Hong Kong waterfront stage a spectacular show of colored lights running up and down their sides from 8 o’clock to 8:20 p.m. You can admire the lights from the harbor promenade in Kowloon or ride a ferry to get a still better view. Our view came from the Grand Harbour Hotel where we stayed on the 36th floor.
For more than 100 years, double-decker buses and trams have been rambling back and forth across Hong Kong. They still provide one of the cheapest and most scenic ways to experience the city’s daily life with a birds-eye view. Hop on anywhere along the line, grab a seat on the upper deck and watch the panaroma unfold – outdoor markets spilling over with choy sum and bok choy, storefronts strung with glistering Peking duck, old-school barber shops, and high-rises budding from the hills. A one-way ride is just two Hong Kong dollars (slightly over 25 cents).
Central Kentucky and Hong Kong have at least one common ingredient – horse racing is big business. The horses, their stables, the work force and betting at two separate bring into the city lots of money.
The thoroughbreds run every Wednesday at Happy Valley Race Course and Sunday at Shin Tin Race Course with an ample amount of gambling, with each bet requiring a minimum of $10 in Hong Kong dollars (7.8 HK dollars to $1). Sunday’s racing, when most people don’t work, attract about 30,000 spectators to watch the horses run on grass. But the most gambling is done off-track at more than 100 Hong Kong Jockey Clubs where they can bet and watch the races on closed-circuit television.
The island of Hong Kong still has its own independent government, thanks to the democratic guidance of Britain, and thus far, China has not overly interfered with the government. We attended a demonstration in 2007 in Victoria Park where more than 10,000 Chinese peacefully protested the killing of students in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. No one was arrested and the crowd was orderly despite the presence of hundreds of policemen.
Hong Kong’s population grew rapidly in the late 1940s and the early 1950s as people fled from the Communists on the mainland after they took over in 1949, bringing money and manpower to fuel Hong Kong’s economy. Manfacturing industries were established, enabling Hong Kong to produce goods at competitive prices to send around the world. This coupled with the fact it served as a major seaport for the exchange of goods between Europe and Asia created a dynamic, vibrant, financial center in Hong Kong.
This crazy mix of commerce and culture – plus splendid modern architecture, great food and shopping, nonstop nightlife and amazing views – makes Hong Kong 15 years after its transition from British to Chinese rule still one of the world’s biggest tourist attractions.
Don Mills is journalist who lives in Lexington.