Hong Kong and Macau Reflagged

They may now be part of China, but they remain distinct—and distinctly marvelous  
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Five years ago Hong Kong was the world headquarters of the Chicken Little Society: the Commies were coming, a disastrous brain drain was imminent, the free market was in dire peril, all civil liberties were about to be dumped into Victoria Harbor. As everyone now knows, nothing of the sort happened. Although the transition from "crown colony" to "special administrative region" has not been without hiccups, Hong Kong nonetheless remains in every essential way what it was throughout the second half of the twentieth century: the most vibrant, cosmopolitan city in the Far East. Last fall I decided that it had been too long since my previous visit, so I went to have a look for myself. I made it my mission to do some of the things that visitors have always liked to do and that are worth doing more than once, as well as to discover what's new. And I wanted to spend some time in the other new special administrative region in the area, Macau, which Portugal returned to China in 1999.

I found changes, of course: There is a new flag, with a stylized flower on it. And here and there I saw gaggles of adolescent soldiers in the bright-green uniforms of the People's Liberation Army, setting out traffic cones and doing other innocuous chores. I have visited Hong Kong periodically over the past twelve years, and on every trip I have discovered a new city. I am happy to report that Hong Kong today is, if anything, even more exciting than it was before the handover, its special character intact.

It's hard to explain what makes Hong Kong so exhilarating. When I tell my friends in New York or Chicago about the spectacular skyscrapers, the beautiful parks, the great shopping and restaurants, they look at me skeptically and ask, Why should I go halfway around the world for that? Yet I persist: for twenty years I lived in Manhattan, generally reckoned to be an exciting place, but every time I visit Hong Kong, I feel like the cowboy in Oklahoma! singing about his first trip to Kansas City. Like New York and London, Hong Kong gives a visitor the immediate sensation that he has arrived at the center of everything. On the first night of my recent visit, as twilight fell through a violet mist, I strolled along a harborside walkway on the mainland, in Kowloon. The lights of the skyscrapers on Hong Kong Island gleamed brightly, a ferry hooted, deep and musical, and I felt with a shiver that at that moment no other place in the world mattered.

To begin with, as anyone who has ever visited Hong Kong can attest, there's the spectacular physical setting. To an even greater extent than Sydney or San Francisco, the city is defined by water, by its splendid harbor. And one doesn't simply look at it: part of the thrill of Hong Kong is that one is continually crossing back and forth between the Kowloon peninsula and the island, the city's two most populous districts, where tourists tend to spend the bulk of their time—though venturesome travelers who take the ferry to some of Hong Kong's outlying islands can actually find secluded beaches and quiet fishing villages. I always avoid crossing the harbor by taxi, in the crowded tunnel, and take the Star Ferry, which may be the world's greatest public-transport bargain—the equivalent of thirty cents for a brisk, pleasant cruise with the best view to be had of the city's skyline.

Hong Kong's Empire State Building, its Eiffel Tower, is the tram that goes up to Victoria Peak. This time I invited an acquaintance of mine, Jason Wordie, a young Australian-born historian who gives walking tours as a sideline, to come with me. The bus is cheaper, but riding with the tourists on the 113-year-old funicular railway is much more fun. The Peak Tram, lugging Swiss-made cars, glides up the steep mountainside as tall office towers and apartment buildings drift by. The view from the peak is so spectacular, and the lush wooded countryside so refreshing, that even local residents come up as often as they can. Hong Kong Island falls away dizzyingly at one's feet, and Kowloon looms across the harbor, which is busily plied by ships and ferries of every kind (except, alas, the junks of yore). Beyond, stretching to the horizon, lie the mountains of the New Territories, Hong Kong's northernmost district, shimmering in the haze.

At the top I found a post-handover project I wasn't sure I approved of: the new Peak Tower, a commercial extravaganza filled with shops and children's rides, in the bizarre shape of a quarter moon atop huge pillars—rather like the Greek letter pi. A friend later explained to me that it closely resembles the Chinese character for "profit": buildings in Hong Kong are designed as much to be auspicious, according to ancient principles of feng shui, as to satisfy anyone's aesthetic taste.

It was time for lunch, so I invited Jason to choose a restaurant. No place in the world serves better Chinese food than Hong Kong. On my first several visits to the city I feasted on its myriad variations—local Cantonese, fiery Sichuan, hearty Hakka, the cholesterol heaven known as Peking duck. Shanghainese cuisine has become all the rage in recent years. Yet whenever I let my friends, whether Chinese or expatriates, decide where to go for a meal, they always seem to choose Western food, which restaurants do a better job of here than they do in most Asian cities. Jason and I went to an old-time favorite, the Peak Café, which looks down on the island's seaward side. Sitting in the café's leafy garden, we fortified ourselves with oysters and beefsteaks.

Jason's academic specialty is the colonial period, specifically Hong Kong's military history, a subject about which he has published a book. After lunch we rode the tram back down for an impromptu colonial tour. We peeked in at Saint John's Cathedral (as it's called, though it's no bigger than most parish churches in England), a charming building dating back to 1847. Inside, in a dark, quiet corner, the walls are hung with colonial-era flags and pennons, which were buried to avoid capture by the Japanese during World War II. On the bluff above us was Government House, a rambling architectural hodgepodge, which was the official residence of the colonial governor from 1851 until Chris Patten, the last of the line, moved out. Now it serves as a government guesthouse and banquet hall.

From there we meandered down a footpath that led us directly to the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Building, Norman Foster's spectacular masterpiece, a soaring tower that sits on pillars, so one can walk underneath it. A pair of bronze lions flank the entrance; Jason pointed out some nicks on one of them, caused by a Japanese shell. It being Sunday, the courtyards and walkways downtown were jammed with Filipina maids on their day off, playing cards, gossiping, and singing. We saw one woman on her knees, fervently leading a prayer service in a parking lot.

Our walk concluded in Hong Kong Park, one of the city's prettiest green places. We took in the Museum of Teaware, in Flagstaff House, formerly the residence of the British military commander, a beautifully restored white mansion, pillared and shuttered in cool neoclassical style. In the park there was something of a traffic jam of weddings—perhaps a dozen parties in brilliantly colored gowns and tuxedos, waiting their turn to tie the knot at a picturesque little pavilion and be photographed by the sparkling fountains. We hiked up to the park's aviary, a favorite spot of mine, where a slice of tropical forest grows inside a vast ellipsoidal wire-mesh tent, with open wooden walkways winding through several levels. The birds wheeled over and around us, singing and cawing and screeching, and sometimes perched for a moment on the handrail to have a look at us. (Historical walking tours with Jason Wordie can be booked by visiting www.jasonswalks.com.)

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