In its multi-faceted role as a repository of traditional Chinese culture, the last jewel in the crown of the British Empire and one of the key economies of the Pacific Rim, HONG KONG
is East Asia's most extraordinary city. The territory's per capita GNP, for example, has doubled in a decade, overtaking that of the former imperial power. Yet the inequality of incomes is staggering: the conspicuous consumption of the few hundred super-rich (all Cantonese) for which Hong Kong is famous tends to mask the fact that most people work long hours and live in crowded, tiny apartments. In spite of this, the population of almost seven million is generally sophisticated and well informed compared to their mainland cousins, the result of a vibrant and free press (although self-censorship is a constant and growing concern). The territory is currently the largest trading partner and largest source of foreign investment for the People's Republic of China, a country of 1.2 billion people. And the view of sky-scrapered Hong Kong Island, across the harbour from Kowloon, is one of the most stunning urban panoramas on earth.
The territory of Hong Kong comprises an irregularly shaped peninsula abutting the Pearl River Delta to the west, and a number of offshore islands, which cover in total more than a thousand square kilometres. The bulk of this area, namely the land in the north of the peninsula as well as most of the islands, is semi-rural and is known as the New Territories - this was the land leased to Britain for 99 years in 1898. The southern part of the peninsula, known as Kowloon , and the island immediately south of here, Hong Kong Island , are the principal urban areas of Hong Kong. They were ceded to Britain in perpetuity, though the British government in 1984 saw no alternative but to agree to hand back the entire territory as one piece, so that from midnight on June 30, 1997, it has been the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China.
The island of Hong Kong offers not only traces of the old colony - from English place names to ancient trams trundling along the shore - but also superb modern architecture and bizarre cityscapes of towering buildings teetering up impossible slopes, as well as unexpected opportunities for hiking and even bathing on the beaches of its southern shore. Kowloon, in particular its southernmost tip, Tsimshatsui , is where many visitors end up staying. This is not only the budget accommodation centre of Hong Kong, but also the most cosmopolitan area of perhaps any Chinese city, with a substantial population of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. And as the territory's principal tourist trap, it boasts more shops offering a greater variety of goods per square kilometre than anywhere in the world (not necessarily at reasonable prices, though). North of Tsimshatsui, Kowloon stretches away into the New Territories, an area of so-called New Towns as well as ancient villages, secluded beaches and rural tranquillity. In addition, there are the offshore islands , which are well worth a visit for their fish restaurants, scenery and, if nothing else, for the experience of chugging about on the inter-island ferries . The islands of Lamma and Lantau , in particular, offer a relatively rural and traffic-free contrast to the hubbub of downtown Hong Kong.
Some visitors dislike the speed, the obsessive materialism and the addiction to shopping, money and brand names in Hong Kong. As in many a Western city, the locals are reserved towards strangers, and, with its perennial massive engineering projects (something else which hasn't been changed by the handover), downtown is certainly not a place to recover from a headache. On the other hand, it's hard not to enjoy the sheer energy of its street- and commercial life, which continues despite the uncertainties over the long-term future of the city