Hong Kong (香港) is a collection of islands and a peninsula in Southern China, directly south of Shenzhen in the Guangdong province. The city was named after a certain type of fragrant tree that is prevalent around the area (translation of Hong Kong is "fragrant harbor"), people have ridiculed its astonishingly high levels of pollution by dubbing it "Stink Harbor". To a degree it is true, but there has been massive cleanup efforts made by the government in the past decade.

Hong Kong was a former British colony, having been seized by the British Empire after the First Opium War and the resulting Treaty of Nanjing. At that time, it was a mere fishing village. The Second Opium War gave Britain the peninsula and more holdings inland, expanding Hong Kong to its current borders. It has since been all handed back to China and is now a "SAR", or special administrative region, and enjoys largely the same degree of unparalleled economic freedom as before.

Other than the Japanese invasion in 1941 and communist riots during the 1960's, Hong Kong has been a relatively peaceful place, and experienced phenomenal economic and population growth. There is over 6 million people packed into Hong Kong today. Hong Kong and Singapore shares the distinction of being Asia's financial centers. The old city, the island of Victoria (the original British holding), along with Kowloon (the tip of the Hong Kong peninsula) and the New Territories, the extension, make up Hong Kong, and most of it is densely packed with people.

Hong Kong is known for its wealth around Asia, and true enough, it has the highest Rolls Royce per capita in the entire world. To a degree, the whole place stinks of greed. Politics is unimportant, and the whole place is filled with apathetic money-grabbers. I don't particularly like the attitude of the people, but you have to admit there is good shopping there. Lots of good food too.

I lived there for a good part of my childhood. Hong Kong doesn't have too much manufacturing left, it is mainly a service industry and banking city, and many international companies have their Asia offices located there. Again, it is a very rich place.

It has an excellent subway and public transportation system, which is good because traffic jams are horrible there. It links the whole place so you can go almost anywhere for about US$2. Places I would recommend in Hong Kong include Causeway Bay and surroundings, the Peninsula area (Tsimshachui), and other shopping areas. Food is found anywhere. This place used to be a mecca for software piracy, but has largely died out now since the Chinese takeover. I still know a couple good stores though.

Hong Kong island was originally a fishing island, occupied only by a small village of fishermen that boated around the many bays. It, being a fairly unvaluable area, was the area chosen by China to donate to the British Empire as recompense for the Opium Wars.

The Opium Wars:
At the time, the British Empire was setttling into a lucrative trading lifestyle. One particularly worthwhile triangle was the Britain - Africa - China triangle, where British cloth and items would be traded to Africa for opium and other herbs, which would then be traded to China in exchange for silver and other commodities.

The Chinese government outlawed Opium imports, on the grounds that many people were now getting addicted and the traders were selling at exorbitant prices, damaging the people and the economy. Britain ignored the warnings.

In a fit of rage, China held several opium trading ships hostage, and threatened to burn the sailors unless its terms were met.

Unfortunately, the British Navy were sent up into the city where the men were being held and captured the whole city (Britannia Rules The Waves has a very good origin). It demanded repayment for the men that had died. Hong Kong Island was given to them in perpetuity.

But Wait! Why did we just give it back, if they gave it to us?

Well, it turned out that Hong Kond Island had no fresh water supply whatsoever. Any supplies had previously been imported from the mainland and surrounding Islands. So, rather than one useless Island for ever, Britain traded all but 100 years of HK back to china in return for 100 years of the surrounding Islands (Lamma, Peng Chau, Chung-Chau and Lantau) and the peninsula (Kowloon, a word meaning Nine Dragons, named by the Emperor himself when he visited. There were eight hills in the area, each a Dragon (see Feng Shui), and the Ninth Dragon being the Emperor himself, a Gold Dragon).

Thus, Hong Kong became a great trading centre of the world, featuring such architechtural delights as the Bank Of China, a budget skyscraper made of giant pyramids, or the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank, made of giant lego equivalent (rumour has it it could have been dissembled and rebuilt in an entirely different location with great ease). It is a great place for tourists, with a skyline to rival New York and 98% humditity (literally 98%, not American 98%, which is, in actuality, about 20% Max.).

Main tourist attractions include the aforementioned buildings and one particularly worthy of inclusion. A giant apartment building, pink, stands on one of the hills away from Central (the main district). It has also a giant hole in the middle, to let the Dragon (the hill again) view the sea at its leisure and not get angry and start moving around (seriously, this is why). Stanley Market is the place for cheap yet interesting imitation goods (I myself own several illegal T Shirts from there, Calvin and Hobbes, who were never released on T Shirt), with lots of cafes and miscalaneous. Pickpockets may be part of the crowd.

Another feature is the fact that at least 2/3s of the island remains unspoilt forest land, with paths leading through and past many an exotic bird. These can be reached primarily through Tai Tam Resevoir Road {Causeway Bay), also home to (you guessed it!) a resevoir, home to giant terrapins, American Red Eared and otherwise, some as big as 30 cm across. This lake sells terrapin food and has peddelo rides. The culinary delight for terrapins is live bloodworms, but food pellets are more common.

Finally, to end this plug for Hong Kong, there is always a (semi) relaxing ferry ride on Star Ferries, taking you across the bay to Kowloon and back, giving you a unique view of the city, with the sunlight reflecting off the 500 skyscrapers, all (most) mirror plated, and the pollution levels rising.

I just thought of about ten more things I could say, but I won't. I've bored you enough.

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!

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