Still daz­zling af­ter all these years

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

It was sup­posed to be for a year. That’s such a Hong Kong cliché, I hes­i­tate to write it: when I ar­rived in 1993, the colony (the word had fallen out of favour by then but the Union Jack still flew in its most re­mote cor­ners) was full of peo­ple who’d never in­tended to stay. I don’t just mean the back­pack­ing ex­pats who came for a week and lin­gered. Most of the Hong Kong Chi­nese pop­u­la­tion had fled across the bor­der from the main­land af­ter Mao came to power in 1949. They thought they’d be go­ing home soon, but they never did.

It was the most tran­sient place I’d ever en­coun­tered. For any­one who loves ex­plor­ing dif­fer­ent vis­tas, 1990s Hong Kong was per­fect. You didn’t ac­tu­ally have to travel any­where: it sim­ply recre­ated it­self around you. Land recla­ma­tion meant the shore­line shifted all the time, old (that is, more than about 30 years) build­ings came down overnight and fresh ones were sud­denly re­vealed as their bam­boo scaf­fold­ing was dis­man­tled. Mean­while, as the han­dover to China ap­proached two decades ago, new stamps and coins were is­sued with­out the Queen’s head, the red post­boxes were painted green, the flag for what would be­come the Hong Kong Special Ad­min­is­tra­tive Re­gion was de­signed with a bauhinia flower bloom­ing on it. (An or­di­nance sternly stated it must al­ways be smaller and less promi­nent when

Two decades af­ter the Hong Kong han­dover, long-term res­i­dent Fion­nu­ala McHugh picks sights that cap­ture the city’s spirit, from tiny Yim Tin Tsai is­land to the shop­pers’ paradise of Stan­ley

flown next to the na­tional flag of China.) The of­fi­cial em­blems worn by those who pa­trol fron­tiers – po­lice, cus­toms, im­mi­gra­tions, army – changed at the stroke of mid­night on June 30, 1997 – ex­actly 20 years ago on Friday – and none of us had had to move a step.

Tourists flocked to witness these dy­ing tweaks of em­pire. I got used to pro­vid­ing Hong Kong tours for friends (or friends of friends). They were as­ton­ished at how lit­tle English was spo­ken. They were amazed at how green and iso­lated parts of the New Ter­ri­to­ries or Out­ly­ing Is­lands can be – the an­tithe­sis of that span­gled, skyscrap­ered wa­ter­front you see in all the post­cards.

There weren’t her­itage trails and help­ful street signs back then, soo I’d ar­range to meet these vis­i­tors s in the gen­er­ous lob­bies of the Man­darin or the Grand Hy­att. If we were feel­ing flush we might go to the Cap­tain’s Bar or to Grissinini for its buf­fet. (Plates piled stu­pen­dously high by slen­der peo­ple is an en­dur­ing Hong Kong gas­tro­nomic sight.) Much of Hong Kong’s so­cial life took place in hotel restau­rants and bars, a sit­u­a­tion which was be­gin­ning to change.

Oth­er­wise, we’d head up to­wards Lan Kwai Fong – the main ain en­ter­tain­ment area for ex­pats – via the re­cently-fin­ished world’s s long­est outdoor cov­ered es­ca­la­tor. The city’s first cof­fee chain had opened the pre­vi­ous year to some head-shak­ing; those in the know told me that the Chi­nese wouldn’t drink cof­fee. Nor, ap­par­ently, would they con­sume wine or cheese.

You hear a lot of ex­pert pre­dic­tions when you perch in a dif­fer­ent land. Then you make them your­self. (Travel’s lessons in­clude the ret­ro­spec­tive cringe.) Mil­lions of words were writ­ten about what would hap­pen af­ter the han­dover. But no one fore­cast this: that 30 hours af­ter mid­night, at 6am on July 2, Thai­land would de­value its cur­rency and trig­ger the Asian fi­nan­cial cri­sis.

Hong Kong’s dol­lar, pegged to the US dol­lar, made it so ex­pen­sive that, de­spite the huge air­port that opened in 1998, tourists stayed away. The new gov­ern­ment was obliged to run a cam­paign en­cour­ag­ing lo­cals to be more wel­com­ing. Re­turn­ing Western ex­pats still com­ment on the in­creased friend­li­ness of the city since the head­long, shove-aside, mon­ey­mak­ing pre-1997 era. The other thing they no­tice is how much cleaner it is – a le­gacy of Sars.

Se­vere Acute Res­pi­ra­tory Syn­drome seized the Special Ad­min­is­tra­tive Re­gion in 2003, and it changed Hong Kong ut­terly. That’s when the real han­dover took place, when Hong Kong re­alised it was placed firmly within China. In­ter­na­tional tourism al­most ceased so China loos­ened re­stric­tions on vis­its by its own cit­i­zens; and they have flocked across the bor­der ever since.

Al­most ev­ery as­pect of Hong Kong you’ll no­tice to­day – the pro­lif­er­a­tion of ho­tels and ser­viced apart­ments, the restau­rants that come and go be­cause

Sun­rise over the ever-chang­ing Hong Kong sky­line

With space at a premium, Hong Kong res­i­dents cram into dense apart­ment build­ings, top; lively Lan Kwai Fong, above; Chris Pat­ten at the han­dover cer­e­mony 20 years ago, left

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