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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Hong Kong: local colour, part 2

On the subject of 'colour', I still think of Hong Kong as the classic 'vibrant cosmopolitan Asian city'. Don't you? Bangkok and Tokyo may share that title, but Hong Kong has something special, an effervescence other cities don't have. The city may not have the flamboyance of Shanghai or the audacity of Dubai but Hong Kong has a certain sizzle all its own. Once a city other Asian cities aspired to be, a city every traveller wanted to see, I wonder now if Hong Kong hasn't lost its appeal to some. Revisiting Hong Kong a couple of years ago, the city's biographer Jan Morris said: "Not long ago Hong Kong was one of travel's absolutes - history's absolutes, too. A city-state like no other, spectacularly unique, with the tallest buildings, the most extravagant shops, the grandest hotels, the busiest port and the most terrific airport - a marvellous anomaly, a historical epitome, a boast, a marvel and a show, whirling away night and day in the South China Sea. Traveller, just look at it now!" Her description of Hong Kong could apply to Shanghai or Dubai, but is that still how we see Hong Kong?


Anonymous said...

It's interesting that you referred to HK as 'the classic cosmopolitan *Asian* city - as one would never call New York 'the classic cosmopolitan North America city, or London 'the classic cosmopolitan European city'! The description is right bang-on, because (for me anyway) HK has never been that much of a cosmopolitan city - it has never lost its Asian tag. Unlike say Singapore, where there's been an obvious effort to promote multiculturalism, HK has always been Chinese to the core: the cosmopolitanism was, in a way, just a bit of an inconvenience and annoyance imposed by British colonialism!

In any case, HK was probably quite attractive 'back in those days' because it was exotic, yet easy enough to navigate around because of the British infrastructure. There wasn't any real competitors then - Bangkok and KL were light years behind in terms of development, and Shanghai was still a dump then (there was not a single skyscraper in Shanghai 20 years ago, I was told by a Shanghaiese cabbie last August). Now that Hong Kong is so openly Chinese (even the tourism board has been targetting mainly at mainland Chinese tourists, I think), why not go to Shanghai, which is much cheaper, instead? You can get closer to the 'real Chinese culture' there as well (you have easy access to very interesting places from Shanghai (e.g., Suzhou and Hangzhou, the heartland of classical China). Another challenge HK tourism is facing is the novelty factor: if you ask me where I would visit the next time I'm in Italy I'd probably say Puglia or Sicily - and I have never been to Florence or Venice! My view of HK is radical, however, and a young English couple who just visited HK for the first time and stayed at mine a couple of weeks ago thought the city was absolutely amazing; so does a long-time Swedish friend who's been working as a journalist here for a while

Lara Dunston said...

Thanks for the great insights, Lee, but New York *is* the classic cosmopolitan North American city, don't you think? It epitomizes cosmopolitanism - it's a multicultural melting pot, sophisticated in so many ways, yet it's uniquely New York and American - it couldn't be anywhere else - but it's that combination of elements that makes it such a fascinating city to explore. In contrast to some other bland characterless North American cities I won't name. To me, Paris is the classic cosmopolitan European city - some of its most intriguing neighbourhoods are the Arab quarters. Paris is both multicultural and French to the core, like Hong Kong. Like Hong Kong it also has a significant expat population.

I'm interested to know why you'd visit Puglia and Sicily over Florance and Venice. Visit them all but go off season to see how the locals live when the tourists aren't there, and get off the beaten track and into the backstreets, easy to do even in Venice and Florance. It's rather unfortunate that most travellers don't venture far off the tourist trails, although that's probably a good thing for the locals!

Liz Maxwell said...

We moved to Hong Kong just under a year ago from Abu Dhabi in the Emirates and absolutely love the place! Its the vibrancy of the city I think that appeals most. I also think its food scene is hard to beat - from a fabulous home-made bowl of shrimp noodle soup for under a pound at a totally authentic cafe on every corner, to a memorable dim sum in the stunning art nouveau teahouse, Luk Yu on Stanley St. in Central to sipping a martini on the 51st floor of the truly stylish Aqua in 'Peking One' overlooking arguably the best harbour view in the world, can Shanghai and Dubai really compete? Arriving at HK airport is a dream - hop on the airport express after collecting your bag and be in Kowloon or Central in 25 minutes. Compared to say Dubai aiport, it's miles apart. (I think I've queued for nearly 2 hours at Dubai airport over 2005-6 - what a nightmare!) As a resident and a tourist, HK offers perhaps the best integrated transport system around. Shop in Central then jump on a bus and within 20 minutes, you're walking along a sandy beach! For me, it's my ultimate cosmopolitan city still, full of colour, life and yet to sample Shanghai but it has a hard act to follow.