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Rediscover Hong Kong, "The Fragrant Harbor"

By: Marie W. Conway

Date Posted: 2000-01-15

Festivities marking the arrival of New Year 2000 in Hong Kong were nothing less than sensational! Hong Kong was one of the first places in the world - after Kiribati and Tonga, then New Zealand, Australia and Japan, among others - to ring in the New Millennium. That fact made celebrations all the more exciting. The city view was spectacular, especially at night, with the skyscrapers displaying dragons and 2000 written on them in neon lights. Fireworks were continually launched from the Happy Valley Racetrack, and the streets were packed with throngs of merrymakers waiting for the countdown to the Millennium. Restaurants and bars were crowded with locals and foreigners hoping that the celebration would be everything they had anticipated. For the majority, things turned out just as they expected. Although most people still associate Hong Kong with shopping, it is also a cosmopolitan city full of museums, theaters, restaurants, markets, and over 600 temples. The "Fragrant Harbor," as it is often affectionately called, is a translation of the Chinese characters used for Hong Kong. Today, the harbor is filled with jetfoils, ferries, sampans, and junks floating across the waters. The junks and sampans have been used as homes for thousands of years. The Portuguese and the English first recognized the great potential of Hong Kong's harbors in the early 16th Century. Though new to the Westerners, the Cantonese - centuries before - had already set up their fishing villages in Aberdeen Harbor.

It is said that, a long time ago, over 40,000 Tanka boat people from China's Fukien Province lived on the shores of Aberdeen Harbor. Even though only a few junks and sampans remain in the harbor, it is still amazing to see the unique junks floating against the backdrop of the skyscrapers. Aberdeen is also the modern day home of Hong Kong's floating restaurants, a highlight of any trip.

Hong Kong is comprised of Kowloon, Hong Kong Island, the New Territories, and 235 outlying islands. Though Hong Kong's landmass is only 1062-sq. km., it is home to over 6 million people, which makes it one of the most densely populated places in the world. Despite reclaiming 7 sq. miles of land for skyscrapers along the waterfront, less than 20% of the total land area in Hong Kong is urbanized with over 80% of the landmass devoted to farmland and national parks. One of the most unique parks is the Aw Boon Haw, formerly known as the Tiger Balm Garden, which was built by the man who created Tiger Balm lotion. Tiger Balm is supposed to soothe tired muscles and relieve headaches, among other things, and is extremely popular around the world.

Although the famous Family Mansion is no longer open to the public, several displays of mythological creatures in the park provide a unique playground for children. The highest point in the park provides a commanding view of the Causeway Bay area.

However, to enjoy the world's best night view, head for the ultimate observation point, Peak Victoria. For an exhilarating experience, take the Peak Tram to the top, which was first built in 1888. Another exciting way to become acquainted with Hong Kong's diversity is to take a ride on the upper floor of the double-decker bus or the older street trams. While the trams move at a reasonable pace, the bus drivers are at times maniacal and would not disappoint even the most ardent thrill seekers. From the upper floor, the bus often appears headed for disaster, as the drivers will narrowly miss cars, buses, and even people... Just don't eat just before riding them! Confucius once wrote, "Great food is the first happiness." Anyone who has lived in, or visited, Hong Kong knows that its culinary delights are legendary. It offers everything one's palette desires from American to Nepalese. To do as the locals, the normal greeting for a friend is the question, "Have you eaten?" It is said that Hong Kong residents actually relish any excuse to eat. And why not, since there is a delectable restaurant on every corner. For the average Chinese, eating is a passion.

While eating may be a passion, a luxurious lifestyle is always close, at any of Hong Kong's prestigious hotels, known for their legendary service, comfort, and great amenities. According to experts' estimates, some hotels can spend over $150,000 (US) in building costs per room. Such opulence makes one wonder how Hong Kong can afford to build such luxurious places. However, once one realizes that Hong Kong has over 175,000 millionaires and the highest number of Rolls Royce's and Mercedes Benz's per capita in the world, the extravagance seems "reasonable." In order for Hong Kong to keep its residents and its tourists happy, the shopping must be world class. Prada, Gucci, and Chanel are all represented in multiple locations to keep the millionaires happy, and there are markets in Stanley Beach and Causeway Bay markets for bargain hunters. The best time to buy at the markets is in the morning, as the Chinese believe the first customer of the day brings them good luck for the rest of the day. Since the first sale is extremely important, one might be able to use this as a bargaining tool. Irene Karton, a 5-year American resident of Hong Kong, says that she has noticed a gradual decline of people who are conversant in English since the Chinese take-over in July of 1997. The schools are also beginning to phase out of English instruction. Still, the international hotels have English speaking staff and most places have English signs and menus. It is not difficult to get around Hong Kong, and there are many detailed guidebooks to help one find one's way through the streets. Some of the best travel books to buy before the trip to Hong Kong are the Lonely Planet Guide, Fodor's or Frommer's.

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