Exotic Hong Kong

The flight from Toronto to Hong Kong was long and tedious — over 17 hours of boredom. However, the final minutes provided more than enough excitement to make up for it. Mountains and a concrete jungle of tall buildings became visible as our Cathay Pacific Airways’ Airbus rapidly approached the former British Colony. Then the plane descended, made a sharp left turn, immediately followed by an equally sharp right turn — and there we were, flying beside apartment buildings.

I had a window seat and our wingtip appeared to be mere inches away from the buildings — it really was much farther but looked uncomfortably close. The clearly-visible residents were calmly having breakfast as the jetliner whizzed past them on its final approach to the world’s busiest airport, and one of the world’s most exciting cities.

Every four or five minutes, seven days a week from 6.30 a.m. to midnight, a plane lands at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak airport, reclaimed from the ocean on Kowloon Peninsula. The sound and the fury of those giant jetliners is a constant annoyance to thousands of Hong Kong citizens and tourists alike, disturbing their sleep and disrupting dtime activities. All that will end in just over two months, when Hong Kong citizens, (particularly those with bedrooms close to Kai Tak), celebrate the opening of the US$8 billion Chek Lap Kok airport on Lantau island, some 25 kilometres from downtown Hong Kong. When the new airport opens, the old one will close down and construction crews will swarm in to build more buildings and create recreational parks. Construction is an ongoing facet of life in Hong Kong. Everywhere you look, somebody’s building something.

Kai Tak has been Hong Kong’s only airport for decades and with 24 million passengers last year, has been operating far beyond its capabilities for years. In fact, In 1995, it had to refuse more than 15,000 flights, costing the city millions of dollars in tourism revenue. Chek Lap Kok will solve this costly congestion. It will be a 24-hour operation, opening with one large runway capable of handling flights carrying up to 35 million passengers. Construction is already underway for a second runway which will raise the capacity to 87 million passengers annually.

Along with the new airport comes a rush to build new hotels — 13,000 additional hotel rooms are scheduled to be completed within four years, greatly adding to the current 34,000 hotel rooms. Also in the works are new railways, subways, tunnels, roads and bridges, including one of the world’s largest suspension bridge (larger than San Francisco’s Golden Gate), linking Lantau with the cities of Hong Kong and Kowloon. There’s even a new city, Tung Chung, being built on Lantau for the thousands of workers staffing the new airport.

When British traders first arrived in the area over a century ago, they took over the small island of Hong Kong largely to protect their trade of opium into China. The huge increase in trade of all goods soon forced the British to acquire the Kowloon Peninsula on the mainland. Next came the takeover of many nearby islands, including Lantau, and an expansion into more of the mainland, now called the New Territories — done under the semi-legal guise of a 99-year lease from China. The entire area was labelled Hong Kong and designated a British Crown Colony until last summer when sovereignty reverted China.

What changes have occurred since the Chinese takeover? Very little was my impression during a recent week-long visit. On the surface, everything appears as it was — I saw only one Chinese flag and no Chinese soldiers. Newspapers, magazines and English language television still voice strong opinions on the new government’s activities.

I saw no evidence of the heavy-handed oppression by Communist overlords in faraway Beijing which had been forecast by the doom-sayers. Former British government officials and international businessmen visiting Hong Kong for the first time since the July takeover voice their surprise at the peacefulness of the transition. And the residents, 97 per cent of Hong Kong citizens are of Chinese descent, appear satisfied with the change as it stands now. As for the future? No one can predict it.

Hong Kong is one of the most exciting places I have ever visited, but not a destination for those in need of a quiet vacation.

The city is the dynamic hub of Asia, the corporate centre for Asian commerce and business — a vibrant metropolis, where the seven million residents, rich and poor, and hundreds of thousands of foreign business people and tourists appear to be on the move 24 hours a day. If you favor non-stop exhilarating action at crowded stores or markets colorful nightclubs and restaurants open until dawn. This is the place for you. One of the most fascinating markets I visited was the Jade Market with sellers hawking the precious gem in all colors, sizes and prices. Another was the Bird Market with its hundreds of exotic birds in cages.

After the stores close, the Temple Street flea market opens with anything and everything you can think of for sale: from gaudy T-shirts, fancy stemware to dreadful artwork. It’s a bargain-hunter’s dream which goes on until dawn.

If you have never visited Asia but would like to take in the flavor of this corner of the world, Hong Kong is the ideal taste test. It’s safe to walk the streets at all hours, and it’s loud, slightly polluted and crowded — and expensive unless you make careful plans. Major hotels and restaurants are very costly by Canadian standards, although alternative accommodation and eating places are clean, safe, adequate and plentiful. Rooms in a first-class hotel can top $900 a night during September-to-December and March-to-May while dinner at a 4-star restaurant will easily exceed $400 for two. When you get away from the 5-star tourist traps, accommodations and dining costs drop dramatically.

The best time for tourists to sample the delights of Hong Kong, and not break the budget, is the winter off-season — January and February. The temperatures are moderate with little oppressive humidity. And hotel prices are 30 to 40 per cent lower than in high season. An accommodation bargain for Canadian visitors is the Salisbury YMCA, with its clean but spartan rooms at about $120 a night, a fraction of the cost of major hotels.

For a more peaceful pace, travel outside Kowloon city and visit the quiet villages with their enthralling ornate temples and ‘ancestral halls,’ interesting museums and shops. As well, scattered throughout Hong Kong island and Kowloon Peninsula are large and small parks, quiet retreats of great floral beauty.