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.