Travel Tales

Hong Kong, Shoppers' Paradise

As our plane descended on the long skinny runway and I saw water on both sides, I was sure we were going to end up ditching in Victoria Harbour. While I held my breath, I managed to see tall odd shaped business buildings and skyscrapers all around Central. After much needed sleep, I put on my comfortable shoes to wander off on an exploration tour. It was a hot, humid, rainy, spring day when I meandered around the very crowded streets finding myself in a shoppers' paradise. There was everything imaginable: windows full of European fashions and Chinese wares. I entered a shop and bought a lovely silk Susie Wong dress. Then I walked into another shop and bought two gorgeous strands of pearls. Next, I wandered into a jewelry store full of jade and jadeite trinkets, buying a pair of green jade earrings. At the following shop, I had my eye on two huge Chinese vases and pondered how I was going to get them back home without breakage. I decided not to burden myself. Control is the better word! So I consoled myself with taking the ferry over to Kowloon for some sightseeing.

The city of Hong Kong with its seven million residents is quite beautiful all lit up at night but can be a little dangerous. Earlier in the day, I had worn out my feet walking miles everywhere, as I tend to do. I like to immerse myself in local color to get a better feeling for the place. I detest tours of any kind. I am too much of a free spirit to be told how to interpret what I see. But I had gone for a long walk on the promenade along the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront, then up the hilly slopes stopping off at a bird aviary to admire the ocean below, and take photos and rest. I took a wrong turn, losing my way and ending up in a seedy side of town where hundreds of women were cooking on their hibachis on the sidewalks. The smoky aromas invaded my hungry nostrils, and as men were eyeing this blue-eyed blond, I started feeling quite uncomfortable, especially since I couldn't find my hotel. When I asked, "where is the Hilton?" the women would not even acknowledge me and kept on cooking their vegetables. As it began to get dark I began to panic. Then I broke into a run since I figured the hotel was near the ocean, I could get to the bottom of the hill and hail a taxi.

After the first day's harrowing experience I decided to stay close to the Hilton for the rest of my shopping, and reluctantly booked sightseeing tours so as not to get sold into white slavery. Some places are not for women traveling alone, and this is one of them.

Hong Kong, which means "fragrant harbor" after the fragrant trees which abounded, was a British colony since 1843, and the first settlement was known as Victoria City. Just about every shop owner speaks English, which was a relief since I do not speak a word of Cantonese. It gained its sovereignty to the People's Republic of China in 1997, and is governed as a special administrative region under the Basic Law of Hong Kong. Under the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, it will have a high degree of autonomy until 2047, at which times it reverts to Communist China. It still retains its own legal system, currency, immigration laws and international sports teams, but it remains to be seen whether the Communist government will permit such freedoms at a later date.

This area became an important trading region during the Tang and Song dynasties. In the 19th century it began to attract attention to China and the rest of the world when it was ceded to Britain after the Opium Wars. Tea, silk, and Asian luxuries were introduced in Europe by the Portuguese sailors. Hong Kong had been a trading port ever since the British occupation, but its position declined greatly after the United Nations ordered a trade embargo against the People's Republic of China as a result of the Korean War. A textile industry was established taking advantage of the new pool of cheap labor from China. During this time, the economy grew rapidly. In the 1970s, it began to move away from this type of industry replacing it with a developing banking economy. This led Hong Kong to quickly become one of the wealthiest territories in the world, (not lost on the Communists) enjoying low rates of personal and corporate taxation.

There are eight public universities in Hong Kong and a number of private institutions based on British and American systems. It is definitely a city with a cosmopolitan flavor where East meets West, and not for the faint of heart.

Hong Kong currently enjoys a high degree of religious freedom, a right protected by its constitutional document: the Basic Law. There is a strong Confucian influence, a sizeable Christian community of about 500,000, divided between Catholics and Protestants, and many followers of Buddhism and Taoism. There is estimated to be 3,000 Jews and a scattering of Hindus, Sikhs and Bahais. In some homes, it is not unusual to see a crucifix as well as a statute of Buddha. But with the transfer of Hong Kong to the PRC, a communist atheist country, there are now concerns over this religious freedom. The Catholic Church is still free to appoint its own bishops, unlike mainland China where bishops are appointed by Beijing; although an illegal part of the Roman Catholic Church which still maintains its contact with the Vatican.

Few historical buildings remain in Hong Kong, instead the city is a centre for modern architecture and its famous skyline. It has to be one of the most impressive and exciting cities I have ever visited.


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