The view of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour from the Kowloon Peninsula or Hong Kong Island is a snapshot of this always fascinating city. For the first-time visitor, it’s the chance to enjoy one of the world’s best city skylines. For return visitors, it is the best way to get a quick update on what’s changed and marvel once again at the boats, buildings and bustle.
In the 13 years since Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of China, much has stayed the same. The city has retained its vibrancy, and the population has grown 15 percent. That 7 million people live in 426 square miles — a third the size of Rhode Island — is all the more remarkable when you realize that more than half of that land is country park or unsuitable for building. When usable land is at this much of a premium, the only way to build is up.
In this city of more than 7,500 skyscrapers, the latest to wear the crown of the tallest building in Hong Kong is the International Commerce Centre in West Kowloon. At 1,588 feet, the 118-floor tower forms a new gateway to the harbor along with its sister building, the 1,374-foot International Finance Centre on Hong Kong Island. A new Ritz-Carlton hotel will occupy the top 16 floors of the ICC later this year, and a public observation deck on the 100th floor will allow everyone to share a view that was once the preserve of the majestic black-eared kites that swoop around the harbor.
Signs of what has made Hong Kong such a success are easy to spot: the dense urban streets and high rises packed with its aspiring residents; container ships and barges laden with goods for export; and, just half an hour away, Mainland China. The drivers of Hong Kong’s economy are the financial services sector, import/export, tourism and the shipping and logistics industries, altogether accounting for 60 percent of Hong Kong’s gross domestic product.
Hong Kong’s fortunes are tightly bound to China, which enjoyed 8.7 percent growth last year. Hong Kong itself emerged from recession in July to achieve 2.7 percent quarter-on-quarter growth in the last three months of the year. In his 2010 budget, HKSAR Financial Secretary John Tsang predicted growth of 4 to 5 percent this year.
Hong Kong is capitalizing not just on its location next to the “workshop of the world” but also on its perfect position to take advantage of the shift in the world’s economic center of gravity toward Asia, and China in particular. Fears of Shanghai becoming China’s only financial center are dismissed,citing Hong Kong’s unique position, rule of law and international reputation as an established financial hub.
No one assumes it will be clear sailing. The Hong Kong business community is worried about economic bubbles, and there are concerns about what happens when China’s $600 billion economic stimulus measures are withdrawn. However, the city’s entrepreneurs also see China as a growing market for exports, seeking to sell to the mainland’s 500 million middle-class consumers and its small army of millionaires.
Trade between Asia and the world has been the lifeblood of the city since the British took possession of Hong Kong Island in 1841. Just around the harbor from the ICC in Tsim Sha Tsui is a remnant of British rule — the marine police headquarters built in 1883, which has been converted to Hullet House, a boutique hotel.
Aside from its 13 suites, much of the carefully restored stone building can be explored on daily tours or in its five restaurants. Former police holding cells are now the cozy Mariners’ Rest bar, and the stables are a casual grill. The Cantonese restaurant, Loong Toh Yuen, is housed in a peaceful courtyard once home to carrier pigeons used by the marine policemen of Victorian Hong Kong.
The hillock the police station was built upon has been converted into a faux-Victorian shopping arcade — 1881 Heritage — adding yet another destination for shopping in a city of dedicated shoppers.
Of the 29.6 million people who visited Hong Kong last year, just under 18 million were from Mainland China. Shopping is a priority for most, whether it’s the latest designer bags, fashions, jewelry or luxury apartments. Following recent scares over the quality of Chinese-made goods, middle-class Chinese consumers also make daytrips to stock up on everyday items.
Leaving Tsim Sha Tsui by Star Ferry, the view of Hong Kong Island is changing, too. Reclamation has brought the shoreline closer, and there’s a new road between the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre and IFC. Nearby is Exchange Square, home to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, the third-largest in Asia and seventh-largest in the world.
Battling for architectural glory in the Central Business District are I. M. Pei’s elegant Bank of China Tower and Norman Foster’s HSBC headquarters. Earlier this year, HSBC’s chief executive relocated here from London, re-establishing the headquarters of one of the world’s largest banks in the place it was founded in 1865.
Across the road in Statue Square, the 1912 Legislative Council Building is home to Hong Kong’s legislature. The government, however, is moving away from Statue Square to the new Central Government Headquarters at Tamar on the waterfront between the Financial District, the People’s Liberation Army headquarters and the convention center. This prime location for the government may seem odd, but it will be a reminder of Hong Kong’s priorities. Construction on the new doorway-shaped headquarters is scheduled to be completed in 2011, ensuring the city’s bureaucrats can enjoy the remarkable sights of Hong Kong’s bustling harbor.
Info To Go
Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) is about 21 miles from Central. Connect to downtown via Airport Express train ($13, 25 minutes) or metered taxi ($45, 30–45 minutes). Departing travelers can check in at Kowloon and Hong Kong Airport Express stations. Visit www.discoverhongkong.com.
If you have limited free time in Hong Kong, a number of quick and easy options help you explore the city. The Peninsula Hong Kong has its own helipad, so hop in a helicopter for a $200 “flightseeing” tour, followed by afternoon tea or a three-course lunch in The Lobby at this gorgeous 81-year old hotel.
For a view from the water, it’s hard to beat paying 50 cents for a 10-minute ride on the iconic Star Ferry (7 Central Pier, TST Star Ferry Pier). Aqua Luna (9 Central Pier, TST Star Ferry Pier), a traditional red-sailed junk, is irresistibly photogenic and offers harbor cruises every hour in the evenings and some weekday afternoons; Saturday afternoon cruises head to Stanley with its market, the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, historic Murray House and plenty of easygoing international restaurants.
Kowloon’s Temple Street Night Market (Li Yuen Street East, Li Yuen Street West and Des Voeux Road) is crammed with colorful stalls selling novelty watches, bags, clothes and cheap and cheerful chinoiserie.
For more sophisticated but distinctly Chinese styling, try the upmarket Shanghai Tang (12 Pedder St., Central or 1881 Heritage, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon). For a modern take, G.O.D. stores, with an outlet on The Peak, meld good design with plenty of witty T-shirts, gifts and accessories. The store’s name is a play on the Cantonese word for “home” and “Goods of Desire.”
A trip on the Peak Tram to the highest spot on Hong Kong Island provides unbeatable views. Apart from the Peak Tower viewing platform and shopping, restaurants include Pearl on the Peak, Café Deco and The Peak Lookout. Stretch your legs with a one-hour hike around the hilltop, then hike — or catch a taxi, bus or the Peak Tram — back down to Central.
The elderly men who once pulled rickshaws around Central have all retired, but $7 buys you a day-pass for the double-decker Rickshaw Bus and hop-on-hop-off tours around the sights and scenes of Central, Sheung Wan, Wan Chai and Causeway Bay.
InterContinental Hong Kong
Impeccable 495-room hotel with dramatic views and destination dining at Alain Ducasse’s Spoon, The Steak House and Nobu. 18 Salisbury Road, Kowloon, tel 852 2721 1211. $$$$
Island Shangri-La, Hong Kong
Beautiful, award-winning hotel with 562 guestrooms, sumptuous restaurants and free Internet. The executive floor features a roof garden. Pacific Place, Supreme Court Road, tel 852 2877 3838. $$$$
Langham Place Hotel Hong Kong
Modern luxury hotel with 665 guestrooms. A fun approach to hospitality mixes technology with comfort. Club L offers 24-hour executive lounge privileges. 555 Shanghai St., Mongkok, Kowloon, tel 852 3552 3388. $$$
Café Gray Deluxe
Celebrated Chef Gray Kunz has returned from New York to share his version of European classics at prices that represent remarkable value. Level 49, The Upper House, Pacific Place, 88 Queensway, tel 852 3968 1106. $$$
Lung King Heen
Exquisite contemporary Cantonese, dim sum and tasting menus make it easy to explore the region’s cuisine in this 3-Michelin-starred restaurant. Four Seasons Hong Kong, 8 Finance St., Central, tel 852 3196 8888. $$$$
Excellent Argentinean steakhouse serves up the finest meat from the grasslands. A hidden gem tucked away in SoHo, close to the Mid-levels escalator. 32 Staunton St., Central, tel 852 2868 6959. $$$
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