Hong Kong and Macau Reflagged

They may now be part of China, but they remain distinct—and distinctly marvelous  

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.)

I've always been fond of Kowloon, and I was relieved to find it still its old self. After the frantic bustle of the island, the peninsula seems almost sedate. It has few impressively tall skyscrapers, as a result of building restrictions imposed when the city's airport was here, before the new terminal opened on outlying Chek Lap Kok Island, in 1998. Now Kowloon will join the island in the race to the sky—though in the meantime, of course, it has spectacular views of the island's skyline. When you alight from the Star Ferry, you're within strolling distance of the city's cultural center, a bizarre piece of public architecture that was officially opened in 1989 by the Prince and Princess of Wales. City planners tore down the train station at the peninsula's tip, leaving only the graceful clock tower, and later built a pink-tile complex of museums and theaters whose architecture is widely reviled yet which nonetheless works. The art museum has a fine collection of Chinese art, and the concert hall is home to the Hong Kong Philharmonic, probably the best Western symphony orchestra in Asia.

Perhaps the most famous symbol of the colonial era is the Peninsula Hotel, popularly known as the Pen, which opened in 1928. Its elegant pillared lobby, built according to strict classical proportions, with a string quartet playing from a balcony, is the swellest place in town to have afternoon tea. I came one evening to have a look at Felix, the hotel's chic rooftop restaurant, designed in phosphorescent, futuristic style by Philippe Starck. I met a Chinese friend of mine, a schoolteacher named Georges, at the American Bar, where we lingered over a perfect margarita for me and a Coke, presumably perfect, for him. I thought I might finally have a chance to eat Chinese food, but he wanted to take me to SoHo, an area south of Hollywood Road, where hip new restaurants and bars are always opening up. The hip new Vietnamese place we wanted to try was closed for a private party, so we went to the hip new Australian place next door, where we were disappointed by a rather bland dinner. Georges apologized for the neighborhood's silly new name. "London and New York had one," he said, "so we had to have one too. A lot of people disapprove, associating the name with London's Soho when it was a red-light district."

Hong Kong has many excellent hotels, with virtually all the major chains represented, in many cases by their premier properties. The Pen, in Kowloon, is unquestionably the grandest of the grand, with beautifully decorated rooms and extraordinary service—though local folk always point out that you get the same view from its next-door neighbor, the Salisbury YMCA, at a fraction of the cost. Across the harbor my favorite is the Island Shangri-La, which has spectacular harbor and Victoria Peak views, and the largest guest rooms on the island. Many experienced travelers swear by the Mandarin Oriental. Just a bit out of the Central district—near the Peak Tram and Star Ferry terminals, Hong Kong Park, and other spots popular with visitors—is the Wesley, a full-service hotel that is well regarded and relatively inexpensive.

Macau, forty-five minutes away by boat, has a bad reputation among Hong Kongers as a tacky place for gambling and various nefarious pursuits, but in my two days there I didn't once set foot in a den of iniquity, and I left wishing that I had allotted it at least twice as much time. Macau is small but alluring, and completely different from the big city nearby. For one thing, it's much older: in Hong Kong nineteenth-century colonial buildings count as heirlooms, but Portuguese merchants and Jesuit missionaries, in the wake of Saint Francis Xavier, began settling Macau in the early sixteenth century. Vestiges of Portuguese rule are everywhere; more than once I turned a corner into a little plaza full of perfectly preserved colonial buildings, painted bubble-gum pink and mustard yellow and lime green, with striped awnings shading their shuttered windows, and thought that I had somehow been transported to a picturesque European fishing village.

But of course I hadn't: I was in China ... sort of. Fewer than half a million people live on the little peninsula of Macau and its outlying islands, and the pace of life here, after Hong Kong Island or even Kowloon, seems tranquil. Like Hong Kong, Macau is a great place for walking, but one moves at a more languorous pace here. I poked around for a full day without a guidebook, and then looked everything up when I got back to my hotel: the towering, fantastical façade of the church of São Paolo, which is all that's left, after a fire in 1835, of what was in its day one of the most magnificent Christian churches in the world; the superb Maritime Museum, full of meticulous scale models of the ships that have sailed the seas here since ancient times; the 500-year-old temple consecrated to A-Ma, goddess of seafarers, where sailors still come to burn joss sticks and pray for a safe passage; Camões Garden, named for Portugal's greatest poet (no one knows for sure whether he even visited Macau, but there is a bronze bust of him here anyway, in a little grotto). Next to the garden is the Old Protestant Cemetery, with mossy tombstones detailing the deaths at sea of the English and American sailors buried there (poor Samuel Smith "died by a fall from aloft").

I wandered down a twisty alleyway called Rua de Ervan&aacuterios, paved, like many of Macau's larger plazas, in a sinuous black-and-white wave motif, reflecting the enclave's Iberian origins. A fat tailor dozed in his doorway; old ladies played mah-jongg; merchants selling jade and gold invited me inside their shops with a courteous wave of the hand and a duck of the chin.

I loved my hotel: the Pousada de São Tiago is constructed over and amid the ruins of the seventeenth-century Fortaleza da Barra, a fortress built by the Portuguese to defend the southern tip of the peninsula. It is almost too charming, with painted-tile floors, fine mahogany antique-reproduction furniture, and Portuguese etched-glass chandeliers. My room had a little balcony overlooking the fortress's ramparts and the South China Sea. And, quaintest of all, it had a dial telephone. If you want modern luxury, the Mandarin Oriental Macau is a comfortable, well-appointed urban resort.

At the end of my trip I realized that there has been one change for the worse in Hong Kong since the handover: the new airport. Landing at Kai Tak, the old airport, was a thrilling aeronautical experience: the plane skimmed across the South China Sea and wended its way amid the skyscrapers, landing short on the single runway, which protruded into the harbor near Kowloon. Kai Tak was dangerous and overcrowded, and the services at the terminal were basic at best, but it was one of the few airports I have ever loved. Chek Lap Kok, the new airport, is impressive and modern, and everyone hates it: it's a million miles from town and lacks character. It is also much too vast: when you see golf carts for hire at an airport, that's not a good sign.

On my first visit to Hong Kong, I arrived in Victoria Harbor on a sailing ship, after a terrible storm in the South China Sea. Coasting into the placid waters of the harbor and beholding the amazing skyline of the city for the first time was one of the most extraordinary moments in my life as a traveler. Even before I disembarked, I felt in my bones that I had discovered an inexhaustible place. So far Hong Kong hasn't let me down.

For more information about Hong Kong, call the Hong Kong Tourist Association, at 800-282-4582, or visit its Web site at www.discoverhongkong.com. The Macau Government Tourist Office maintains a Web site at www.macautourism.gov.mo and is otherwise represented in the United States by Integrated Travel Resources, in Los Angeles, at 877-622-2800.