This former British imperial enclave (situated at the mouth of the Pearl River Delta, on the southwestern coast of China) has undergone a sustained period of reflection and change since the hand-over from British colonial to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
Hong Kong's role as the gateway to China is more uncertain than ever, with the Bamboo Curtain a distant memory, World Trade Organisation (WTO) accession opening the entire mainland to foreign economic penetration and China enjoying unrestrained growth while Hong Kong emerges cautiously from long-term recession.
Hong Kong has also become far more Chinese than ever before, with many expats departed and a Beijing-facing government presiding over the Filipinos, Indians, Malays, Indonesians, Nepalese and other minorities that make up the city's rich ethnic patchwork.
Nevertheless, the Hong Kongers resist assimilation, enviously spying the rampant capitalism across the border while jealously guarding their separate freedoms and identity. The call for greater democracy is growing louder, while controversial laws establishing a new goods and service tax and a ban on smoking in public places occasion much debate, as does the protracted and costly construction of new legislative headquarters.
With the political reasons for its creation fast receding into history, Hong Kong's geographical oddity comes into focus. The few square kilometres of territory conceded to the British now top the UN list for urban population density.
Hong Kong Island itself is the core of the old imperial possession, with Kowloon just across the harbour forming the other half of the main conurbation. Further north are the New Territories, leased from China in 1898, which form a slightly more rural hinterland. And around this main focus are the large islands of Lamma and Lantau and the smaller Outlying Islands that complete the patchwork.
This assortment of pinnacles and paddies sits in range of the South China Sea's typhoon alley. In winter and early spring, the climate can be mild and fresh but, in May, the ever-present humidity skyrockets and summer is both hot and frequently wet. Typhoons hit during summer and early autumn and, even without them, ferocious rainstorms fall intermittently. Hong Kong is not the ideal summer holiday destination.
The city's economy, which suffered since the Asian economic crisis of 1997, has recovered and is showing renewed vitality. The tourism industry is leading the way. Strong international marketing enabled tourism to recover vigorously from the 2003 SARS outbreak, and Hong Kong welcomed 23 million visitors during 2005, a year-on-year rise of 7.1%.
A large proportion of these extra visitors came from mainland China, though Hong Kong is looking over its shoulder at resurgent neighbour Macau, whose unprecedented tourism makeover presents a genuine threat to Hong Kong's regional supremacy.
In the proverbial scale of Cantonese values, money comes first. And Hong Kong still has plenty of that. Hong Kong has a more determined sense of its separate identity than ever before, although it remains a thrustingly commercial city, whose dedication to fast money has never been greater.
However, its economic future lies, undoubtedly, in aligning itself closely with the Pan-Pearl River Delta cities, who are working together to create an economic power zone in southern China, Hong Kong and Macau.
Away from the business of making money, and its traditional fine dining, great shopping and world-class hotels, Hong Kong has its unsung natural beauties, in the shape of looming mountains, secluded islets, white beaches, hiking trails and island landscapes.
The Special Administrative Region (SAR) government branded the entire city as ‘Asia's World City' in 2003. Visitors can judge how true that is but, unquestionably, Hong Kong remains unique.
Tourist InformationWalking Tours
Walking tours of central Hong Kong usually involve elbowing one’s way through crowds of shoppers. But the Hong Kong Tourism Board (tel: 2807 6543; website: www.discoverhongkong.com/), does have a couple of itineraries, with ‘Heritage and Architectural Walks’ in Hong Kong Island Kowloon, and varied other theme walks/hikes for the outlying islands. Guides and a rental audio commentary system are available. The walks take from two to four hours. The HKTB Visitor Hotline (tel: 2508 1234) or any tourist office provides details. Other operators such as Gray Line Tours (tel: 2368 7111; website: www.grayline.com.hk/) or Splendid Tours and Travel (tel: 2316 2151; website: www.splendidtours.com/) also run HKTB-approved tours. Details of these are available on the Hong Kong tourism board’s website, categorised by theme.
Walkers wishing to range further afield have plenty of well-trodden routes for penetrating the rural New Territories and backwoods of Hong Kong Island, such as the 100km (60-mile) MacLehose Trail, the 50km (30-mile) Hong Kong Trail, or even the 3.5km (2.2-mile) Peak Trail. But bottles of water are essential for any trekker attempting these routes during the summer.
Numerous themed bus tours are listed on the Hong Kong Tourism Board website (see above), including Hong Kong unique experiences, touring Hong by night, touring Hong Kong’s outlying islands and Hong Kong culture and heritage tours. Tours vary in duration, departure point and cost - for details, visitors should contact the HKTB’s Visitor Hotline (tel: 2508 1234) or the Tour Reservation Hotline (tel: 2368 7112) or visit www.discoverhongkong.com/. Gray LineTours (tel: 2368 7111; website: www.grayline.com.hk/), Splendid Tours and Travel (tel: 2316 2151; website: www.splendidtours.com/) and Sky Bird Travel Agency (tel: 2736 2282; website: www.skybird.com.hk/) all offer similar bus tours of the city.
Boat tours of Hong Kong’s waters are provided by several companies. Hong KongWatertours (tel: 2155 2088; website: www.chinaetravel.com/) provides a variety of harbour and island tours, while Star Ferry (tel: 2118 6241; website: www.starferry.com.hk/) provides daytime and evening ferry tours. Harbour tours take around 2 to 3 hours. Hong Kong Watertours has pick-up points throughout Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, although the tours sail from Queen’s Pier on Hong Kong side or the Kowloon Public Pier on Kowloon Side. The Star Ferry tours sail from the Star Ferry terminals on either side of the harbour. For a nostalgic sailing on a converted junk boat, the Aqua Luna (tel: 2116 8821; website: www.aqualuna.com.hk/) offers a semblance of Hong Kong past.
Helicopter trips are available for those wanting to discover the city skyline from above. Contact Heli Hong Kong (tel: 2108 9898; website: www.helihongkong.com/) for further information.