On the surface, it's an urban landscape without much charm, offering the same upscale shopping malls and boutiques found in Paris, London or Shanghai. But the small curious nooks are what makes it unique, and the beautiful greenery and hiking trails, largely unknown to tourists.
Occupied by the United Kingdom in 1841, Hong Kong was formally ceded by China the following year. The New Territories - originally the rural area to the north of Boundary Street in Kowloon - were added in 1898 under a 99-year lease. This lease was due to run out in 1997, so pursuant to an agreement signed by the People's Republic of China and the UK on 19 December 1984, Hong Kong became the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the PRC on 1 July 1997. In this agreement, China has promised that, under its "one country, two systems" formula, Mainland China's socialist economic system and Communist dictatorship will not be imposed on Hong Kong and that Hong Kong will enjoy a high degree of autonomy in all matters except foreign and defense affairs for the next 50 years. According to pro-democracy supporters, the phrase a high degree of autonomy has become something of a standing joke since.
Hong Kong is divided into a number of distinctly different districts.
Internationally, there is really only one way to get into Hong Kong -- through the modern Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) which is also called Chep Lap Kok, the name of the small island it was built over. Despite initial teething troubles when opened in 1997, the airport is modern and efficient.
The fastest way to the airport is the Airport Express train that zips you in and out from the Kowloon and the Central district. It only take some 23 minutes on the train, and there are plenty of baggage handlers to help you with multiple heavy bags, into/out of the train and to a taxi. No tipping them either. Each way costs HK $60-$100, or a round trip for HK $110-$180, depending on the distance travelled. After arrival, free shuttle buses connect to major hotels in Kowloon and Central. It is connected to the subway system at Central.
The various Airbuses are cheaper but slower bus services to the city. Lines A11 and A12 go to the Island ($40), while A21 goes to Kowloon ($45). Alternatively, take bus S1 to Tung Chung ($3.5) and connect to the ordinary MTR for a cheap and zippy ride to the city (Kowloon $17, Hong Kong $23); and if you're feeling lucky, you can even try to hop on to the Airport Express shuttle buses!
A taxi from the airport to the city will cost you around $300 depending on your exact destination. It's much cheaper and probably faster to take the train to the city first and only then hop on a taxi.
Crossing the border to Mainland China puts you in Shenzhen, a well-developed boomtown.
Hong Kong's transportation is highly developed, to the point where often the hardest part is choosing your means of transport.
The Octopus payment card (八達通, Bat Dat Toong in Cantonese) is the heart of the public transport system. The Octopus is a contactless smart card that you can tap on card readers, and it will deduct the right amount. The contactless smart card can be detected by machines even when inside the wallet or bag, which makes it very convenient. Chalk it up to Hong Kong's fast pace and efficiency. Octopus can be used on essentially all forms of public transport (except taxis) and increasingly other places such as convenience stores, restaurants, vending machines and parking garages.
It is highly advisable that even tourists get a card when in Hong Kong, as it has a fully refundable deposit on the card and on unused credit. The basic adult Octopus costs HK$150, including a HK$50 fully refundable deposit. You can also get back any unused value when you return the card.
In addition to the Airport Express Octopus (see above), you can also buy a 24-hour pass for HK$50 at any MTR station; however, this is valid only on MTR lines.
Hong Kong's Mass Transit Railway (MTR) underground network is the fastest way to get around Hong Kong, but what you gain in speed you lose in views and (at least for short distances) price. There are five lines, with the most important ones for visitors being the busy Tsuen Wan Line (red), which tunnels from Central to Kowloon and down Nathan Rd to the New Territories and the Island Line (blue) which runs along the north coast of the Island. The new Tung Chung Line (yellow) is the fastest way to Lantau and one of the cheapest ways to the airport when coupled with the S1 shuttle bus.
Note that in Hong Kong, a subway is a underground walkway, not the underground railroad.
The Kowloon-Canton Railway (KCR) connects Kowloon to Canton (Guangdong) in mainland China, but is also an important commuter line. The main KCR East line currently terminates in Hung Hom to the east of Tsim Sha Tsui, but an extension to Tsim Sha Tsui, eventually linking up to the newer KCR West line, is under construction.
The narrow double-decker city trams trundling on the north coast of Hong Kong Island are a Hong Kong icon. Trams are slow and the route -- which follows along the coastline a century ago, long since pushed inland by reclamation -- is tortuous, but with a flat fare of only $2 even if you travel the full 1.5 hours from end to end, they're the cheapest sightseeing tour around.
In a league of its own is the Peak Tram, Hong Kong's first mechanized transportation method opened back in 1888. The remarkably steep 1.7-km track up from Central to Victoria Peak is worth at least one trip despite the comparatively steep price ($20 one-way, $30 return; return tickets must be purchased in advance).
There are three flavors of bus available in Hong Kong, operated by a multitude of companies. While generally easy to use (especially with Octopus), signage in English can be sparse and finding your bus stop can get difficult. Buses are pretty much your only option for traveling around the south side of the island and Lantau.
The large double-decker buses cover practically all of the territory, stop frequently and charge varying fares depending on the distance. The first seats of the upper deck offer great views.
Van-sized public light buses carry a maximum of 16 passengers (seats only) and come in two varieties, red-striped minibuses and green-striped maxicabs (aka green minibuses). Minibuses can pick up and drop off passengers anywhere the law allows, while maxicabs follow a fixed route from point to point as fast the traffic will allow (and then some). The green number 1 maxicab down from the Peak to Central is particularly exhilarating.
Note that if paying in cash, the exact fare is required and no change can be given. Paying by Octopus is much easier.
A vast fleet of ferries plies between the many islands of Hong Kong. The granddaddy of them all and an attraction in itself is the Star Ferry, whose most popular line travels between Kowloon and Central nearly continuously, and offers amazing views (especially when coming from Kowloon). Upper deck seats costs HK$2.20, lower deck HK$1.70, both payable with Octopus (and a quarter of the viewless MTR fare for the same trip!).
Ferries to Lamma, Lantau and other islands depart from a variety of ports, but the largest and most important terminal is at Central adjacent to the Star Ferry. Ferries are usually divided into fast ferries and slow ferries, with fast ferries charging around twice to price for half the journey time, although not all destinations offer both kinds of service. Example fares for trips from Central to Yung Shue Wan (Lamma) are $10/15 slow/fast, and to Mui Wo (Lantau) $10.50/$21. Note that all fares increase around 50% on Sundays and public holidays.
Taxicabs are plentiful, clean and efficient. They were just recently (2003) rated as the cheapest of all big cities in the world. Not good news for the drivers, but good for the tourist. Fares start at HK $15, and you can ride for 2 kilometers before additional $1.40 per 200m increments start ticking. A ride all the way across the island will cost no more than $80. By comparison, the same distance rides in NYC or London would be close to double. Also, no tipping is expected, although most people do usually leave over any small change to the driver.
Life is made slightly more difficult by the fact that there are 4 different flavors of taxi. Three can be distinguished by color: red taxis serve the Island and Kowloon, green taxis serve the New Territories (only) and blue taxis serve Lantau (only). In addition, red taxis are based in either the Island or Kowloon, and may refuse to take you to the wrong side -- and if they do take you, they will charge you twice the bridge/tunnel toll so they can get back! But you can use this to your advantage by picking a taxi from homebound taxi rank in places like the Star Ferry pier or Hung Hom station.
There are no extra late-night charges. Baggage will cost you $5 a pop (at least if the driver helps you with it) and naturally all tolls are payable. Wearing seat belts is mandatory.
Renting a car is almost unheard of in Hong Kong, with reason as the traffic is heavy, the road network very complex and parking well nigh impossible... but if you must, expect to pay over $600/day for even a small car.
Cantonese is the language spoken by 90% of the people in Hong Kong. Though Hong Kong is a former British colony, the degree of English proficiency is limited among non-professionals such as restaurant workers. However, most taxi drivers, street vendors, etc. are fluent enough for sufficient communication. English is fluently spoken among the business community and at tourist destinations such as hotels and certain restaurants.
Most Hong Kongers are not fluent in Mandarin, but can comprehend it to a certain degree. Mandarin proficiency is increasing, especially after the reunification with the mainland.
The Hong Kong dollar is the common currency. The exchange rate is currently fixed at 7.8 HKD per 1 USD. Issued by several different banks, these multicolored, and increasing in size, paper bills come in denominations of:
Some shops do not accept the $1000 bill since there was a counterfeiting case several years ago. The notoriously heavy coins come in units of $10, $5, $2, $1, 50 cents, 20 cents and 10 cents.
The use of the small coins and change has been reduced due to the innovation of the Octopus card. Originally used just for transit payments for subways and buses, it now is used all over the city, for purchases in any amount at 7-11, McDonald's, fast food, pharmacies, copying machines, vending machines, etc. It has changed the speed and ease of small transactions in Hong Kong, and does away with many of the small coin transactions.
The Night Market is a set of street blocks in Kowloon barricaded after end of day working hours, with vendor tables in the street selling almost anything (usually until midnight). Lots of touristy stuff, but also some bargain items like Chinese silk pajamas, toys and cheap leather goods.
Perhaps the number one highlight of Hong Kong is the cuisine. Not only is it a showcase of traditional and modern Cantonese cuisine, it hosts most of the special Chinese cuisines. There are also excellent Asian and Western restaurants as well.
Above all, Hong Kong is known for its dim sum (點心), delicately prepared morsels of Cantonese cuisine served from a neverending procession of carts and eaten with tea. Dim sum is a breakfast or lunch dish most often eaten on Sundays.
Wet markets are still prevalent. Frozen meat and vegetables are frowned upon, and most markets display freshly butchered beef and pork (with entrails), live fish in markets, and more exotic shellfish, frogs, turtles and snails. Maids who cook for their employers usually go to the market everyday to buy fresh ingredients, just like the restaurants.
Western gourmet supermarkets:
The 24 hour convenience store 7-Eleven can be found anywhere:
Drinking is not something the locals are generally big on - unless you're talking hugely overpriced XO brandy - but the western expats do their best to make up for them. The traditional hotspot for both eating and drinking with westerners is Lan Kwai Fong in Central. Wan Chai is also fun, if slightly sleazier. There are also drinking spots in Kowloon and in some of the outlying towns. These all tend to be pretty expensive though - up to USD10 for a drink in some places!
This is not the place to come if you're a real ale fan. Although some local companies - notable the South China Brewing And Bicycle Repair Company - do attempt it, the climate is far from ideal. Stick to Hoegaarden instead, which is tasty and widely available.
To really go to town, spend a few hundred HK$ drinking in the Felix bar at the top of the Peninsula Hotel, Kowloon-side. Possibly the best view in the world, especially from the gents'!
Of course you can get a cold lager - usually Chinese Tsing Tao (pronounced 'ching doe' in Cantonese), Carlsberg (they have a local brewery) or the Filipino brand San Miguel - pretty much anywhere, and off the beaten track it will be much cheaper.
Accommodations in Hong Kong tend to be on the small side, probably one step larger than in Japan. However, there is a good range of rooms from USD $75 and up. Of course, Hong Kong being the affluent city in the 1980s, there are luxurious five star hotels, such as the Peninsula, Mandarin Oriental and Shangri-La.
There is a large movement for the Cantonese speaking folks to learn Mandarin, because of more links with and visitors from mainland China.
You need a work visa in Hong Kong to be paid, and until recently one spouse with a work visa automatically allowed the other spouse to work. As of July 2003, this has changed so that the spouse does not get the privilege, and must be sponsored by an employer. This was largely a reaction to the economic slump and high unemployment. Some fear it will make Hong Kong less attractive to expats.
As Asian cities go, Hong Kong is one of the safest, in terms of crime and personal safety. However it does have its share of petty crime, but it can be avoided with some street smarts.
Watch your purse and wallet at all times. When in restaurants, do not sling your pack or purse behind your chair. Clutch any bags or purses in front of you when on the buses and subways.
Some goods in shops on Nathan Road selling electronics, cameras and gadgets are overpriced and deceptively sold. Compare prices before you buy.
One of the most odd causes of sickness are the extreme temperature changes between 95 degree humid weather and the 65 degree air conditioned buildings and malls. As a result, some folks get cold symptoms after moving between the two extremes so much. It is not unusual to have to don a sweater or covering once indoors to stay warm.
Tap water should not be considered completely safe to drink. Most people boil or filter the water first, or buy inexpensive bottled water.
Because of recent concerns about SARS, there are hygiene stations around town, which have hand sanitizing gel and alcohol sprays. You're wise to use them in busy areas such as shopping malls, elevators and public areas, just to be safe.
Westerners say Hong Kong can be a pretty rude city with the large crowds, pushing, shoving, and crowdedness -- just like New York or Los Angeles. However, it can be best described as hurried and aggressive, but not mean spirited. Most folks know a modicum of English, since it was a British colony, so you don't have to worry about offending anyone by speaking English. However, it really depends on where you are in Hong Kong, some people do resent foreigners a bit and will call them "gwai lo" (ghost/devil) behind their backs. However, unlike certain other offensive racial names, this one has largely lost its negativity.
Manners and Etiquette
Manners are very important to Chinese. However, their ideas of good and bad manners are completely different to Western ideas. For example, it's somewhat acceptable to chomp and slurp your food, talk quite loudly in public, or point out to someone how fat they are -- and don't expect a "thank you" if you hold a door for someone, or give up your seat on the bus/train.
Hong Kong has communications facilities as modern as any in the world. Post is quick, cyber cafes can be found, though they tend to be Internet gaming parlours rather than ones catering to expats and backpackers. Pacific Coffee shops have free Internet terminals that you can use.
If you have a GSM telephone, you can easily buy a prepaid SIM card to use in your phone. It can be bought with cash -- no passport or any identification is needed. Since cell phone penetration rate here is over 90%, you will quickly find it a necessity.