Some "world" cities welcome you with open arms and you find yourself hard pressed to have a bad time. Hong Kong isn't one of those. I'm writing this after being told for the umpteenth time by someone I advised to stopover for a couple of days in the S.A.R. that they didn't "get" Hong Kong and had a terrible time. And so here I am again after yet another three fabulous days in Honkers sitting in a dark and smoky internet cafe musing on why that could be. Here are some thoughts on the matter:
Hong Kong is confusing.
Hong Kong is a dense and multi-layered place. It's so dense, in fact, that in the densest parts there are no footpaths. People get around by walking through the interconnected skyscrapers via purpose-built pedestrian flyovers. Very confusing, especially if it's your <10th time.
Hong Kong is split in half. There's Hong Kong Island and then there's Kowloon. They're separated by a shipping lane. A couple of subway lines and underground freeways connect the two -- but there are no bridges! Only the island is "really" Hong Kong, but Kowloon is Hong Kong, too. Confused? Thought you'd be.
Ever accidentally gone the "wrong way" on a subway only to realize after one stop, gotten off, crossed the platform, and all was well? (Hello Tokyo I'm talking to you!) You can't do that in Hong Kong at the larger stations. The MTR optimizes for passenger transit, so walking "across" the platform at an exchange will actually put you on a completely different line.
Everyone dodges left. If you're from Australia, Japan, or the UK, this is not a problem, because that's how you dodge at home, too. But if you're from anywhere else, you operate the steering of your automobiles with your left hand (someday someone will explain that to me so it makes sense) and as a result you automatically dodge right. Prepare for a lot of pedestrian-on-pedestrian action. Or buy an (excellent) coffee from one of the local chains, find a pew, and enjoy the chaos in the areas where there are a lot of Chinese mainland tourists dodging right just like you!
Hong Kong is a city of districts. The plumbing district(s). The fashion district(s). Hong Kong is also a series of huge, endless malls that connect with other huge endless malls on the aforementioned pedestrian flyovers. So not only do you often find yourself in a street full of identical-seeming shops, but you've arrived there after transiting from the subway through a mall and have no idea where you are in relation to anything else in the "outside" world.
The solution is to talk to people -- especially young people -- in English and simply ask directions. Hong Kong is unique in Asia in that well-known landmarks are locally known by their English names almost as well as their local Cantonese names. Even if all other communication fails, repeating the name of your destination a few times almost always elicits a helpful mime or two. Under no circumstances attempt to "read" the Cantonese name aloud (assuming you don't speak Cantonese, that is), as pretty much without exception that will be more confusing for everyone involved.
Hong Kong is hot.
Of course, you knew that going in, because it's a tropical place, and you thought you packed accordingly. But what you didn't know was that in Hong Kong, at the height of summer, when it's both blisteringly hot and 100% humidity outside, that the air-conditioning in any given building is likely to be set to c-c-c-c-c-cold. There are so many intersecting reasons for this that unwinding it all is impossible: fashion (i.e. suits all year 'round); culture (if you've got it, flaunt it); social status (the projection of); face (the preservation of). This means that you can make yourself seriously ill if you don't dress for jungle-hot-wet and arctic-dry-cold on any given day. The shock to your body of the transition from outside to frigid air-conditioning and back again is believed by the locals (firm believers in Traditional Chinese Medicine) to induce 'flu remarkably quickly in even the hardiest of constitutions. Whatever the medical reason, the baleful health results can't be denied.
Even though your idea of "warm weather wear" is probably everyone's idea of appropriate clothing where you come from, your gear won't cut it in Hong Kong. Take your lightest weight suit and your most up-to-date tie (or the sartorial equivalent). And that's just so you won't stand out at McDonald's.
The solution becomes apparent when you notice (probably on your first exit on the Kowloon side from the Star Ferry) the profusion of tailor shops. These are generally excellent, educated about what's hot and what's not, professional, and many deliver in astonishingly short time-frames. But do educate yourself on the characteristics of tailoring cons.
Hong Kong has already made your guidebook obsolete.
Relying on any printed guide to Hong Kong's hotels, restaurants, or night-clubs is a way to have a very mediocre experience that costs you way more than you ever intended to spend. I don't know whether it's Feng Shui or just the most advanced marketing system in the world, but any location that's mentioned anywhere in print will raise its prices to catch the "wave" and then lower them when the wave subsides. You may try the obvious "Aha!" and work from guidebooks that are several years old; there have been some reports of success with that method but the obvious caveats apply.
The solution is to immediately source the latest issues of Hong Kong's excellent mostly-free English-language listings magazines. If you're quick enough, you can "catch" the wave of fad and fashion rather than get swamped by it, or worse, pay the prices asked at the "top" of it.
Hong Kong is actually an "Early Adopter".
Most countries and cultures like to think of themselves as ahead of the curve in the gadget stakes. Or if not actually "ahead" then at least "keeping up". But the sad, ego-destroying fact is, that unless you live in Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul, or Tokyo, your iPod, laptop, cellphone, USB thumbdrive, PDA, and similar gadgetry is hopelessly out of date. And your little dog, too! Unless you enjoy schoolchildren laughing and pointing, do not attempt to utilize your portable computing hardware in any Hong Kong public space. Keep that weak shit hidden in your hotel room where no-one can see it. You have been warned.
Of course, the upside to this is the amazing universal WiFi coverage (free WiFi in every government building and at the airport, incredibly cheap everywhere else) and the best bandwidth in the hemisphere.
Hong Kong is spread over dozens of islands.
Remember what I said before about Hong Kong being split "in half"? That's what we euphemistically call a "lie". I was just easing you into the reality of Hong Kong being actually spread over dozens of little islands. To really enjoy it you're going to have to visit at least 3 (preferably 4 or 5) of them. Getting "stuck" in Central for three weekdays thinking that skyscrapers are all there is to Honkers would be hell. A hell full of swanky top-brand shops, to be sure, but a hell nonetheless. But if one of those days is spent traipsing through Hong Kong's plentiful greenery after a stunning boat ride, followed by a seafood dinner that can't be beat, then it starts to make sense why so many people love this place.
Finally, Hong Kong is intense.
Like an old single malt or a particularly strong exotic roast, too much of a good thing can be terrible. So it is with this most concentrated and detailed and intense of city experiences. On longer-term business or working stays, make extraordinary efforts to "decompress" at any and every opportunity. Realize (for example) that you are in the most "central" location in Asia, and fully one half of the world's population (and the fascinating and varied places they live) are less than 3 hours away by air.
So keep the points above in mind, and enjoy Hong Kong!