Hong Kong, city of contrasts

Originally a fishing port, Hong Kong was no bigger than a small town when it came under British rule in 1841. It slowly grew until after the Second World War when the population started to explode in a rapid succession of about one million people every decade.

Today, the city is home to nearly seven million residents and extends itself in an organised fashion along the harbour that surrounds it. The city is a marvel of modern architecture, its urban fabric forever being altered to fit the city’s growing size and population. Immense skyscrapers hosting banks and multinational head offices are in constant competition to emerge in a saturated skyline.

The buildings create the most familiar image of Hong Kong, with the hillside and the Peak behind. But there is another image of equal importance that exists in a different kind of space – a space hidden between the towering buildings, on the pulsating streets and in the vibrant markets. It’s the space where the people really live.

Hospitality creates warmth
Hong Kong is a land of diversity. With relatively few raw materials, the people themselves have proven to be Hong Kong’s greast natural resource. Through hard work and dedication, the people have made the city famous for its exported goods – electronics, clothing and toys.

But perhaps what is most striking is their renowned hospitality. Polite almost to a fault, they aim to please on a level practically unmatched anywhere else. Whether your visit to Hong Kong is business or pleasure, you’ll always find a warmth from the people you meet.

Hong Kong’s character shows itself like no other. A visit to any other city in the world would never prepare you for this metropolitan masterpiece. From my hotel room in Kowloon overlooking the city, my mouth hung open as I was struck by the view out my window. Dazzling lights chasing each other across the city. Small boats and big ships scurrying around the harbour. Normal activity for an early evening around a harbourfront city perhaps, but it was fast approaching midnight. Had I not known better, I would have sworn the city was exhaling as the day officially came to an end.

The next day, I continued to peel away at the heart of Hong Kong Island. Some of the tallest buildings in the world can be found here standing shoulder to shoulder. Looking upward, you’d think you were standing in downtown Manhattan.

Yet despite their clearly western influence, most of Hong Kong’s structures were built using traditional bamboo scaffolding and constructed according to ancient Chinese beliefs. In particular, feng shui has played a part in the principles of the city’s construction. The 3,000-year-old philosophy is essential to life in the city, allowing the residents to live in peace with the environment and nature.

The skyscrapers seem oddly out of place sometimes. How does such a traditional society allow its people and architecture to converge in such a dizzying way? The truth is Hong Kong’s verticality was most likely born out of necessity. After all, Hong Kong is constantly getting bigger while the harbour stays the same size. The shortage of land made it difficult to accommodate the ever-growing population. The solution was to go vertical.

Next page: Building reflects history

The changes in Hong Kong’s building styles has been a reflection of its history, as well as a practical solution to the city’s problems and issues today. By 1993, half of the population lived in government-subsidized public housing. That’s a higher proportion than anywhere else in the world.

So what does that mean for the middle-class Joe? Limited choices. Smaller accommodation. Often more than one family share an apartment, esthetics taking a backseat to the need for four walls and a roof. It’s the architecture of domestic life and community in this thriving city.

Hong Kong is divided into four areas: Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, The New Territories and Outlying Islands.

Kow-loon is the hinterland. It’s where you’ll find yourself sleeping at night and where you’ll spend most of your time shopping. An experience not to be missed is visiting any one of Kowloon’s vivacious markets: the Ladies Market, the Night Market, the Flower Market – even the Goldfish and Bird Markets!

Walking through any one of them is so captivating you may find yourself buying things before you realise it. This includes knockoff watches, silk pyjamas, flashy toys, scarves, sunglasses – and a suitcase to carry it all home in.

The New Territories may be new but, unfortunately, are quite boring unless you fancy a tour through suburbia. And extending well beyond the harbour, far from the neon glow, are the rural villages that dot the Outlying Islands. They are the layers of sedimentary history and culture formed over the years long before the lofty skyscrapers made their mark. Here, though, is a picture of what life must have once been like.

Escape from urban towers
Lantau is the biggest of the Outlying Islands. In fact, it’s almost twice the size of Hong Kong Island. Amazingly, only about 45,000 people live on Lantau, compared with Hong Kong Island’s 1.4 million. Lantau is an excellent island to escape from the city. Need a reason? Tai O, a tiny village built partly on Lantau and partly on a small island about 15 metres from shore.

Until the mid-1990s, the only way to cross was via a rope-tow ferry pulled by elderly women. What makes Tai O so wonderful is the stark contrast it is to Hong Kong Island. Houses perch ever so carefully on stilts along the waterfront. Fish are laid out to dry along pathways. People pace themselves at a saunter. And the tallest building reaches no more than a second storey.

In many ways, life goes on in Tai O just as it has for decades. It is the closest you’ll get to the original thread from which Hong Kong’s urban fabric was sewn – one last reminder that Hong Kong is forever changing.

Together, the architecturally stunning metropolis of Hong Kong and its people have matured and affected each other enormously over the last century, coexisting in a symbiotic relationship that has allowed them to grow while still maintaining their own uniqueness.