With the relief that our beloved Coastal Georgia had come through Hurricane Matthew battered but not broken, my husband and I continued our journey through the Far East and moved from the People’s Republic of China to the rather more westernized Hong Kong.
Taking a “border car” from city of Shenzhen in Southern China into Hong Kong made me remember crossing “Checkpoint Charlie” back in the early 1980s from West Germany into the Communist bloc before the Berlin Wall came down. After a week in China, I could finally leave my passport in the hotel safe rather than carry it at all times in case the police wanted to check my visa and ID.
Hong Kong is on the southeast coast of China located on the Pearl River Delta and South China Sea. It consists of Hong Kong Island, plus the southern tip of the Kowloon Peninsula and more than 200 very small islands. It has expanded some in recent years not by getting more land from China but through the reclamation of land from the sea.
Hong Kong is built on a tiny amount of land. HK Island itself has just over 30 square miles, and the entire territory is only 427 square miles but with a population of about 7.5 million. Compare that to the city of Savannah — just over 100 square miles with a population of 140,000. Said another way, Hong Kong is about four times bigger but with 54 times the population.
The only way to accommodate that population is to build upwards, which they have done very impressively. The skyline is truly awesome, especially at night, and today Hong Kong is one of the most thriving and vibrant cities in the world. The panoramic view from the highest point on the island — Victoria’s Peak — is stunning. Seeing the famous harbor, incredible skyline and the mountains of China to the north really was an experience of a lifetime.
In a very big contrast to our time in China, I was surprised to hear so many British accents when we arrived in Hong Kong. The historical ties between the land of my birth and Hong Kong are strong and continue to this day. Originally, Hong Kong was a collection of fishing villages which, because of their important strategic and convenient geographic position, experienced powerful clans, marauding pirates and European traders throughout the centuries. In 1841, the British landed on the barren rocks of the northwestern coast of Hong Kong Island and defeated China’s Qing dynasty in the First Opium War in 1842. China ceded Hong Kong Island to Britain and within 60 years the rest of Hong Kong’s territory. In 1898, Britain formalized this with a 99-year lease from China, so Hong Kong became an important British colony and international trade and major manufacturing center in the early 20th century. Later on, it became and remains a global financial hub. One of my fondest memories of our trip was our visit to the famous Hong Kong Shanghai Bank (HSBC) building which my husband’s engineering company at the time helped to build in the 1980s. It lies at the very center of the skyline, guarded by the two famous bronze lions, and remains one of the numerous iconic sites to see in this beautiful city.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signed The Sino-British Joint Declaration on Dec. 19, 1984, paving the way for the entire territory to be returned to China at the end of the lease on July 1, 1997. Under the terms of this agreement, despite becoming a part of China, Hong Kong became a special administrative region under the principle of “One Country, Two Systems.” This arrangement allows the city to enjoy a high degree of autonomy, including retaining its capitalist system, independent judiciary and rule of law, free trade and freedom of speech. In other words, China is not going to destroy the goose that lays the golden egg — Hong Kong is an economic powerhouse and serves as a vital financial lynchpin between China and the rest of the world.
I must admit that I felt a significant level of relief when we crossed into Hong Kong. We were still clearly in the Far East but the vibe was very different. The smog was reduced, English is widely spoken and the signs were in English (and I mean “English” English not American English) as well as Mandarin or Cantonese. There are lots of different nationalities in this cosmopolitan city, so I was not stared at because of my blonde hair and light complexion, like I had been back in parts of rural China.
And frankly, things just work better in Hong Kong so it was more like home. For example Wi-Fi is reliable and I could access Google and Facebook again (both are banned in China). The plumbing was good and I had no worries brushing my teeth with water from the faucet. We even found a really good emergency dentist — but that is a story for another column.
I have to agree with the chef, food and travel writer and TV personality, Anthony Bourdain who said “Hong Kong is a wonderful, mixed-up town where you've got great food and adventure. First and foremost, it's a great place to experience China in a relatively accessible way.”
God bless America, and I am glad to be home!