Hong Kong’s name means Fragrant Harbor, but it owes as much to history as its famous waterfront
Hong Kong owes as much to history as to its famous waterfront
Nowhere in China is there a better example of east meets west than Hong Kong. This fabled city was founded on the international trade that cemented China’s place in the world nearly 200 years ago. The great fleets of European sailing vessels and Chinese junks peppering the deep, natural Victoria Harbor have since been replaced by soaring skyscrapers ringing the waterfront and clinging to the slopes of Victoria Peak. This mountain bursts out of the harbor rising some 1,800 feet and dwarfing the manmade edifices below. The gentle giant looms over the island like some benevolent god watching and protecting its 7.3 million-plus people who populate the 427 square miles of territory that make up the Hong Kong region.
That region includes over 200 islands in addition to Kowloon and the New Territories. These latter two districts occupy a peninsula on the mainland side of the harbor, jutting into the confluence of the Pearl River Delta and the South China Sea.
Hong Kong – sometimes nicknamed the Pearl of the Orient – is the easternmost point in one of the most important trading triangles in the world which, along with Macao and Guangzhou, have become the epicenter of manufacturing in the post-1970s-era China Miracle. In fact, Hong Kong’s geographic situation made it ideally suited not only to expand China’s historic trade in silk, silver, spices and tea in the early days, but in a global economy to become one of the world’s preeminent financial centers.
Within a two-hour radius are the two other points of that triangle. A one-hour’s ferry ride away is the famed gambling capital of Macao, another city where eastern and western cultures are also woven together in a unique mixture. Meanwhile a two-hour train trip away is Guangzhou, once known as Canton and the capital of the Pearl River Delta region.
Of course the multitudinous islands and surrounding mainland that today make up Hong Kong have been populated by humans for thousands of years. However, Hong Kong’s role as a nexus of global trade really began less that two centuries ago when it became a strategic outpost of the British Empire.
Prior to 1842 the territory had been little more than a forgotten backwater of the Qing Empire sprinkled with only a few sleepy fishing villages. But with the defeat of the Qing Dynasty in the first Opium War, the area became a British colony and that colonial heritage has been woven into the fabric of the region ever since. Traffic patterns mirror the UK (that is to say, cars drive on the lefthand side of the road) and signs are printed in both English and Chinese. Its official currency is the Hong Kong dollar, although the Chinese yuan is accepted.
China may be one country but it has two systems, a carryover from British and Portuguese colonial days in Hong Kong and Macao. In July 1997, when Hong Kong was turned back to the People’s Republic of China, it became the autonomous Special Administrative Region. As part of the historic hand-off, China agreed to allow Hong Kong (and later Macau as well) a high degree of self-determination and economic independence, effectively creating a second system which includes retaining its successful capitalist system, independent judiciary and rule of law, free trade and freedom of speech.
As one of the four Asian Dragons along with South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, Hong Kong may be one of the most industrialized and densely populated land masses in the world, but it puts a great deal of emphasis on retaining and maintaining green space, with numerous parks, natural reserves and rainforests.
It lies on the same latitude as Cuba which makes for a humid subtropical and overall pretty miserable summer, which is also typhoon season. The best time to visit is between September and April when the area enjoys its mild winters. The weather was cool when last I visited and a light jacket is a must especially when headed up to Victoria Peak.
Calling On Hong Kong
Served by most international carriers, Hong Kong International Airport is a relatively recent addition to the global aviation network. Built on an island called Chek Lap Kok – much of which was reclaimed from the sea in order to make room for the airport – the facility opened in 1998 much to the relief of fliers who had endured many a white-knuckle approach to the old Kai Tak airstrip.
Today Chek Lap Kok is the busiest cargo airport in the world and one of the key gateways into Asia, hosting 68.5 million passengers in 2015. For those travelers whose itinerary calls for a trip into the city, the airport offers a free, 24-minute shuttle bus to Hong Kong, the fastest route to the city bus station where visitors can pick up free shuttle buses to major hotels. The stations also have free, intown check in services for the airlines.
Rapid transit around town is done via the MTR, which has 10 rail lines that run throughout the region including to the Disneyland
Images: Victoria Harbor; Repulse