by Fionnuala McHugh, The Telegraph, June 26, 2017
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 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, so I’d arrange to meet these visitors 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 Grissini 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 entertainment area for expats – via the recently-finished world’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 of insane rent hikes, the endless jewellery stores and pharmacies selling milk formula, the queues – are because of domestic tourism. Disneyland (partly paid for by us taxpayers, so desperate was the government to lure it in) opened in 2005, but sometimes it can feel as if the whole special administrative region has become a theme park where you can still take a tram to Victoria Park and see Queen Victoria on her throne or peer at the People’s Liberation Army soldiers guarding what used to be the Prince of Wales barracks at Admiralty.
I hadn’t thought it would be possible to love it more than I did when I first arrived. Yes, it’s crowded. I always advise visitors to avoid the popular areas and ferries on Sundays and public holidays (Hong Kong has many of these and the dates vary every year). But it’s not difficult to slip away into the side streets and find the hidden life of one of the safest cities in the world: the night-time dog walkers, the mahjong players, a woman burning paper offerings in the shadows.
You can now buy as much wine, cheese and hand-dripped coffee as you desire. There are so many places serving delicious food that Michelin introduced its Hong Kong edition in 2009. Hotel restaurants are still excellent but the city’s dining reach has rippled out to previously undreamt-of areas: SoHo (South of Hollywood Road), Tai Hang, even Kennedy Town, which was a working-class district at the end of the tramline when I moved there in 1996 and is now worryingly hip.
Not a single day – literally not one – passes when I don’t see something funny, puzzling, stimulating. And Hong Kong continues to reinvent itself. Currently it’s an art hub, with galleries leaping out from every corner, hoping to lure mainland money. That constant shape-shifting keeps it fresh. “I see you are a tourist,” a man said, kindly, the other day on the MTR, Hong Kong’s underground network, as I was working out a route on a new line. After all these years, it’s still a traveller’s delight.
1. The Peak
Getting the funicular Peak Tram can mean a lengthy queue for just a seven-minute trip (and it’s not even the highest point on Hong Kong island). But the ascent is so steep and, on a clear day, the view is so stupendous that it manages to catch you by surprise every time. Otherwise, you can always take the bus and wind slowly round Hong Kong’s hills or, if you’re feeling energetic, walk up from Mid-Levels. The air is always cooler up here, which is why the British made it their private enclave, looking down on their subtropical possession.
2. The Star Ferry
This 10-minute journey between Hong Kong island and Kowloon has to be one of the world’s greatest travel bargains. It costs about 34p to sit on the upper deck, although I prefer the risk of being, occasionally, sprayed by the South China Sea on the lower one.
If you only do it one way, travel from Kowloon-side to Hong Kong and at night. You can coincide with the 8pm Symphony of Lights laser show, when buildings on both sides of the harbour slice up the sky. But that’s the icing on an already spectacularly glittering cake.
3. Shek O
On the eastern side of Hong Kong island, there’s a small village where I’ve been taking visitors for almost 25 years. In that time, it’s changed remarkably little, although I avoid it on Sundays, when the buses and car parks are full. Midweek, it’s still a quiet, unexpected retreat that’s an easy 25 minutes by taxi from Central district’s chaos. There’s a lovely crescent of beach, some small temples, a great view and a decent mix of local and Western places to eat and drink. This is where the surfers come when the typhoon signals go up and the sea turns tempestuous. (Not all of them return so don’t do the same.)
4. Kowloon Walled City Park
When the British added the New Territories to their Hong Kong possessions in 1898 – on a 99-year lease, which is why everything changed in 1997 – the Chinese emperor left his representative behind in a yamen, an administrative building. Around it mushroomed the infamous, triad-infested Kowloon Walled City, which was razed just before the handover. A surprisingly peaceful park, with pavilions and a moon gate, was built to mark the spot. There’s a bronze model of how the walled city looked when 100,000 people were crammed into it.
5. Yim Tin Tsai
This tiny island, about 15 minutes’ ferry ride from Sai Kung, on the eastern side of the New Territories, was the former home of the Chan clan, who were converted to Catholicism by 19th-century missionaries. By the 1990s, as Hong Kong boomed, the villagers had all moved out, abandoning their houses. In recent years, Hong Kong – long fixated with its uncertain future – has started looking at its past and Yim Tin Tsai has built its own heritage centre. The church also received a Unesco Award of Merit in 2005. The real attractions are the ghostly homes where you can still poke about, sensing the spirit of a dimly-remembered era.
6. Club 71 & InterContinental
There’s no shortage of bars in which to toast – or mourn, given a certain ambivalence among locals – the special administrative region’s 20th anniversary. Club 71, a welcoming, unglitzy venue, in a quiet alley near Central, might be apt: the figure refers to the city’s massive, anti-security law protests on July 1, 2003. But if you want to drink in the magnificent sight of Hong Kong island, a barren rock seized by British sailors in 1841, then it has to be from the lobby of the InterContinental hotel on Tsim Sha Tsui’s waterfront. On a clear night, that twinkling view can make even the most jaded resident gasp at the urban miracle.
7. Mandarins, old and new
The Mandarin Oriental, built in 1963, is so much a part of Hong Kong that it’s where the colonial-era governors used to host lunch on the second Friday of each month. (Post-handover Chief Executives have preferred to host their monthly Mandarin lunches on the second Thursday.) Lesser mortals, including this writer, have spent many hours lolling on its sofas. Although the shoreline has retreated since the 1960s, it’s still set within the city’s heart. A sister hotel, The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, which opened in 2005, is home to the superb Amber, one of Asia’s best restaurants.
Hong Kong is not the shoppers’ paradise it was several decades ago but you might as well make your purchases in a market with an interesting setting. Yes, Stanley is touristy but travelling to the village – around a coastline that’s slightly reminiscent of Amalfi – is an extra pleasure and it’s well organised with higher quality goods than other markets. Stanley Military Cemetery is nearby. It might seem an odd combination but this is worth a visit especially if you want to learn what happened to Hong Kong – a city of great comebacks – when it fell to the Japanese during the Second World War.
9. Big Buddha
When this statue was finished in 1993, it was noted that – unusually – the Buddha faces north as if blessing China in preparation for the handover. Since then, a cable car to its site at Po Lin monastery has been built. On an uncrowded weekday, it’s an enjoyable day-trip despite the cheesy “village” constructed round the cable-car exit. After a vegetarian lunch at the monastery, you can hike peacefully through fields and monasteries back down to Tung Chung, while – bizarrely but thrillingly – overlooking one of the world’s busiest airports.
10. Lo Pan Temple
This lovely little temple is my favourite in Hong Kong. It’s on a tree-lined, car-free terrace close to where I live in Kennedy Town. For a city jostling with massive edifices, it’s remarkable that this is Hong Kong’s only temple to the Chinese god of builders and carpenters. It was built in 1884 and to this day, construction workers come to pay homage on Lo Pan’s festival, the 13th day of the sixth lunar month (July 6 this year). Whatever happens to Hong Kong – be it typhoon, handover, or disease – it never ceases to renew itself.