FX Excursions

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Hong Kong: Open For Business

Apr 1, 2011
2011 / April 2011

Visiting Hong Kong is not unlike putting your finger in a wall socket and leaving it there for about a week. Simply put, Hong Kong is electrifying, fully as much so as larger cities like Tokyo, New York and London.

Powered by 7 million residents jammed into 426 square miles, this subtropical East-meets-West entrepôt on the South China Sea has morphed in recent decades from a low-cost manufacturing center into a major financial center and lucrative roost for multinational corporations. Nearly 6,600 foreign and Chinese mainland companies operate in the city, according to the agency Invest Hong Kong.

Fears that the People’s Republic of China would simply roll over Hong Kong when the former British colony returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 have not materialized. Beijing oversees the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region behind the scenes, to be sure. But the “one country, two systems’’ structure has largely held up. Hong Kong has considerable local autonomy, with foreign policy and defense handled by China. It also benefits from an independent civil service, a judiciary steeped in English common law and a wide-open economy that differs markedly from China’s hybrid form of state capitalism. The SAR is led by a chief executive chosen by an 800-person election committee and approved by China, and a legislature, half of whose members are popularly elected.

Hong Kong has been tied to southeast China culturally and linguistically for generations. Since the market reforms of China’s Deng Xiaoping starting in 1978, Hong Kong has grown ever closer economically to the border boom town Shenzhen and Guangdong province’s capital, Guangzhou (formerly Canton). This is where the textile factories and electronics plants of Hong Kong relocated to find low operating costs.

Today, the Pearl River Delta region is the world’s factory floor. China exports goods through Hong Kong, making Hong Kong the planet’s largest re-exporter. The city’s deepwater seaport is one of the world’s busiest, churning with giant cargo containers and festive cruise ships. Sparkling Hong Kong International Airport, aka Chek Lap Kok, was the busiest cargo airport in the world in 2010, moving 4.1 million tons of goods while handling 50.9 million passengers. Business-minded Hong Kong residents credit the mainland — thanks to its surging 8 to 10 percent annual growth rate — with helping to pull the city out of the 2008–2009 global downturn. However, Hong Kong still plays an important role for China by arranging initial public offerings for mainland companies on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, the world’s seventh-largest.

While 95 percent of Hong Kong’s permanent residents are Cantonese-speaking Han Chinese, some 560,000 expatriates, led by Filipinos, Americans, Britons, Japanese and Australians, live and work here, helping to give the city a cosmopolitan quality. Many expats work in financial services. Hong Kong’s deep-pocketed banks include the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp. and Hang Seng Bank. The city’s financial clout is further enhanced by the SAR government’s Exchange Fund of foreign currency reserves, which touched $300 billion in 2010.

As a quintessential city of commerce, Hong Kong famously keeps government’s hands off business. In 2010, the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal named Hong Kong “the world’s freest economy’’ for the 17th consecutive year. The big exception to the laissez-faire gospel is the Hong Kong government’s annual release of public land to the private sector. This fuels a dynamic real estate market and a booming construction sector.

After opening the 1,362-foot-high Two International Finance Center in 2003, Hong Kong doubled down and built the even-higher International Commerce Center, a vertiginous 1,588-foot skyscraper that with the IFC forms twin portals at the water’s edge. The ICC, the world’s third-highest building, is the signature structure in Kowloon West Cultural District, an ambitious performing arts complex rising on reclaimed land. Kowloon West is expected to open in stages from 2015.

Also at harborside in Kowloon is the former site of the now-demolished Kai Tak Airport. Notorious for harrowing landings that skimmed right by neighboring high-rises and concentrated the minds of the most seasoned pilots, Kai Tak is being redeveloped as a site for offices, residences and the city’s second cruise ship center, designed by Norman Foster. It’s set to open from 2015 to 2021.

Hong Kong is also home to a thriving hospitality industry led by some of the most highly regarded hotels in the world. Peninsula, Mandarin Oriental and Shangri-La are all headquartered in Hong Kong. Many other international players operate swanky 5-star hotels here. High-profile global brands are joined by nimble Hong Kong firms such as Swire Hotels, which opened the stylish boutique hotel The Upper House in 2009 and 4-star “business lifestyle’’ hotel EAST in 2010. EAST was born near parent Swire Properties’ Island East, a popular business complex in the Tai Koo district, a new destination for companies migrating from Central, the city’s traditional Central Business District, for more modest rents.

Upscale hotels compete intensely to conjure the “wow factor.’’ At press time, Marriott Corp.’s Ritz-Carlton was scheduled to open a showcase hotel on the highest floors — levels 102 to 118 — of the ICC. Previews promise a spectacular property with a fitness center and indoor pool on the 118th floor and nine ESPA treatment rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows affording sweeping views of Victoria Peak, the cityscape and Victoria Harbour from the new world’s-highest hotel. Mandarin Oriental spent $150 million in 2006 to refurbish its circa-1963 property in Central, then tweaked the hotel some more in 2009, while parent Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group opened the new Landmark Mandarin Oriental, also in Central. The InterContinental, with three-story-high picture windows framing the Hong Kong Island skyline from Kowloon, has added cabanas, a health-minded spa menu and a teak deck dining pavilion to its three outdoor infinity pools. Right next door to the hotel, the New World Center complex of shops, residences, offices and restaurants is being demolished and will be completely rebuilt.

One of the globe’s great food towns, Hong Kong offers uncountable hole-in-the-wall restaurants for good casual eating, and innovative fine dining is concentrated in luxury hotels. Indeed, the city’s hotel restaurants have collected nearly as many Michelin stars as Sunset Boulevard has Hollywood stars, with menus that range from traditional Cantonese to pan-Asian fusion, international fare and oh-so-trendy molecular cuisine. Two of the InterContinental’s restaurants — Spoon by Alain Ducasse and the Cantonese restaurant Yan Toh Heen — each snared a 2011 Michelin star, as did the Island Shangri-La’s Summer Palace, while Mandarin Oriental’s Pierre earned two stars for its modern French fare. At the Four Seasons Hotel, Cantonese restaurant Lung King Heen won the highest-possible three Michelin stars.

Of course, shopping for goodies ranging from tailor-made suits to gold jewelry to handmade shoes has long been a popular draw. Retail therapy is still abundantly available, sometimes in new locations. Last year, the glassy, nine-level iSquare mall arose on the former Nathan Road site of the Hyatt Regency Kowloon. A short stroll away, a hilltop corner long occupied by the Hong Kong Marine Police was transformed in 2009–2010 into 1881 Heritage, a glistening shopping complex that combines historic architecture with of-the-moment designer shops such as the Chinoiserie-themed Shanghai Tang.

Striving to diversify its economy and burnish its appeal to upscale travelers, Hong Kong eliminated import duties on wine in 2008. Overnight, the city became a major player in the global fine wine trade. Posh properties such as Crown Wine Cellars, ensconced in refurbished 1930s British military bunkers, lure prosperous customers to tastings, wine auctions and dinners. In 2010, China and Hong Kong together became the world’s largest market for Bordeaux wines by value, with mainland sales jumping 98 percent and Hong Kong sales 126 percent from 2009.

Info to Go

Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) is a 23-minute ride on the Airport Express, the best way to get to Kowloon and Central (about $12 one way, $23 round trip). Both Airport Express city stations include airline check-in counters (though not for U.S. airports). The city’s MTR subway is inexpensive, clean, swift and easy to use, with bilingual touch screens. The Octopus Card, pre-paid and encrypted, is recommended for public transit. Visit www.discoverhongkong.com/eng.


One of the enduring pleasures in visiting Hong Kong is taking public transport, a colorful, diversified and reliable system that includes the modern MTR subway, slender old double-decker trams, the Peak Tram funicular on Victoria Peak, London-style double-decker buses and, best of all, the Star Ferry.

The Star Ferry has been running inexpensive (about 26–39 cents), winsomely funky and admirably safe service across Victoria Harbour since 1888. Before bridges and tunnels, it was the main way to cross. With vintage, no-frills docks in Tsim Sha Tsiu, on the Kowloon side; in Wan Chai, the much cleaned-up old red-light district where the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre soars above the harbor; and at a nicely designed and well-run terminal in Central, the system covers inner-city Hong Kong like a tea cozy.

The Star Ferry was the setting of the first meeting between William Holden and Nancy Kwan in the 1960 movie The World of Suzie Wong, and its green-and-white, lozenge-shaped boats — with hand-operated windows and long, reversible lacquered benches — look and feel like they must have back then. It’s fun to take the morning ferry — and the morning air — and even more fun to make a night crossing and drink in the neon advertisements and illuminated outlines of the skyscrapers in Central and Admiralty. Unpretentious and efficient, the Star Ferry is one of those rare transit systems that can be called endearing.

Just the Facts

Time Zone: GMT + 8
Phone Code: 852
Currency: Hong Kong dollar (HKD)
Entry/Exit Requirements: U.S. citizens need a passport valid for at least one month beyond period of stay; no visa is required.
Official languages: Chinese and English
Key Industries: Banking, financial services, shipping, real estate, construction, tourism


InterContinental Hong Kong

Spacious, fully wired guestrooms, stunning waterside views from the Lobby Lounge and star-studded restaurants distinguish this Kowloon classic. 18 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, tel 852 2721 1211, $$$$
Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong

Lovingly refurbished, this elegant 5-star boasts a CBD location and toothsome cuisine, from the fine-dining Pierre to the snug Chinnery bar. 5 Connaught Road, Central, tel 852 2522 0111, $$$$
The Upper House

Located above the JW Marriott, the designer high-rise aerie offers large guestrooms and spa-like bathrooms. Pacific Place, 88 Queensway, Admiralty, tel 852 2918 1838, $$$$


Bistro Manchu
Enjoy Northern-style Asian food in a lively ambience. Lamb, beef and noodle dishes are nicely and simply prepared. 33 Elgin St., Soho, off the Mid-Levels escalator, tel 852 2536 9218 $$

Bo Innovation
Self-described “demon chef’’ Alvin Leung, trained as an engineer, cleverly deconstructs Chinese classics and
Self-described “demon chef’’ Alvin Leung, trained as an engineer, cleverly deconstructs Chinese classics and employs a tattooed, pierced staff. Elevator from 18 Ship St., 2nd floor, J $$$

Café Gray Deluxe
American chef Gray Kunz dishes out modern European fare with fresh, local produce; enjoy the panoramic 49th-floor views. The Upper House, Pacific Place, 88 Queensway, Admiralty, tel 852 3968 1106, $$$$



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