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My Hong Kong
by Fred Ferretti

There was nothing quite like the momentary adventure of flying into Hong Kong. It lasted only minutes but stayed with you always. Your aluminum cocoon came in above the gray waters of the China Sea and lowered over the small knobs of shrub-covered rocks that are Hong Kong's outlying islands, and then — just like that — the city was before you, an up-thrusting forest of steel, bronze, aluminum and granite towers reflecting the bright sun. The plane banked up, wheeled right and descended steeply toward Victoria Harbor, and quickly Hong Kong's hurrying people, its bamboo scaffolding and double-decked buses, its floating village of boats and its windows hung with laundry bunting were on both sides of you. As the jet settled softly onto a thin strip of tarmac that stretched out into the harbor's waters, you became instantly and totally enveloped in Hong Kong; its heat, its cackle, its blare, its maddening traffic, its nonstop energy.

To fly in at night was an even more deliciously shivery experience, for your plane arched into a whirlpool of illumination — Hong Kong's millions of glowing windows, its steeples and ribbons of neon, its giant lighted billboards reflecting on the harbor waters and the black marble of waterfront hotels.

Flying is a most appropriate way to come into this city that is like no other in the world, a city in constant motion, ceaselessly urging you to move, see, buy, eat. Hong Kong's vigor excites and lures, and it forces you, as it did me, to return simply to jump into its midstream. Yet it is the city's beauty with which you are ultimately smitten.

I'm not at all certain which for me is Hong Kong at its most dramatic. Is it the city I see when I stand atop Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island, my arms dangling over a railing, looking through the recurring pyramids of the seven neighboring mountains and across to the China Sea, past villas wedged improbably into the slopes like precipitous stairways, through to the bright sky-blue waters of a harbor that is never at rest, out over that harbor to Kowloon, a dense anthill of a city the Chinese call the "Ninth Dragon?" Or is it the Hong Kong I watch from the Star Ferry as it muscles open a lane through that roiling harbor from Victoria to Kowloon, avoiding lighters and sampans, junks and dories, barges and yachts, jetfoils and steamers, freighters and battleships, just to get hundreds of thousands of commuters from here to there? Or is it when I'm walking, no, being carried, along Nathan Road on a Sunday morning in the sun, suddenly immersed in a river of humanity, thousands of small eddies of people, of families who have come together to parade, simply to be with one another, to talk and to window-shop, to burn incense in homage to their dead mothers and fathers in the temples of Tao and Buddha, to be seen by their neighbors and to queue up for cha and dumplings at the dim-sum teahouses? Or is it when I pause in the darkness along the harborfront promenade of Kowloon to wonder at the millions of lights, the profligate miles of neon that light up the sky and outline the skyscrapers, and the conservation of energy be damned?

There is the temptation to see Hong Kong from afar through a prism majestic and romantic, but that would be wrong. For Heung Gong — the Perfumed Port, the Fragrant Harbor — which became Hong Kong to the British tongue, is a place of such singular variety and beauty and of such exciting textures and tastes that it constantly provokes excesses of emotion and lightning flashes of remembrance. The city I know and to which I return again and again, always avidly, is a sensuous city. You taste Hong Kong, feel it, drink it in, and you want more. Certainly it is romantic, and majestic, but it is elusive, by turns crass and bawdy, charitable but greedy, subtly tasteful but often obvious and vulgar. It is utterly frenetic yet occasionally serene, a place even now of stolid mannered British colonials and eager, insurgent, elbowing Chinese, alternately elegant and common, yet always enticing.

Hong Kong is Europe in Asia. It is so small that to many cartographers, it is a mere pimple on the underside of China, yet it is a living, thriving monument to a laissez-faire capitalism in which beggars, refugees, tailors and farmers become millionaires in a single generation. Hong Kong is always at work. It asks nothing from any other territory and makes a religion of self-reliance, a commandment of earning, a god of solvency. I often fantasize about spending a year or two in Hong Kong doing nothing but watching its money grown and disappear as it is invested and squandered, gambled and husbanded, hustled and saved, for I'm fascinated by the concept of a society that exists solely to make profits.

Hong Kong is an amazing amalgam of high tech and tradition. Millions of dollars will be spent designing a skyscraper in the teeming hive of granite banks and corporations that make up the center of Victoria — Hong Kong's Wall Street, is Threadneedle Street, its Bourse — and the eventual building will be wired so that information can be transmitted to and received from anywhere in the world. But not a stone of its foundation will be laid until a Buddhist priest determines that it is canted at precisely the right angle so that the gods of wind and water will be happy with its placement. This custom is called feng shui, and it's essential to Hong Kong's construction industry. A Buddhist might eat a hamburger at any of the three dozen McDonald's in the city, but not on the first or 15th of the month, when meat is forbidden to observant Buddhists.

Hong Kong is fleets of Mercedes-Benz taxicabs, platoons of Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, and the few remnants of the city's hordes of rickshaws, which now congregate around the Star Ferry exits; it is computerized betting at the Happy Valley Race Track and clicking mah-jongg tiles in the back room of the Shanghai Club; it is a garden filled with miniature bonsai trees in the Taoist Temple of Ching Chung Koon, and the surreal roller coaster at Ocean Park; it is dining by lantern light inside a cramped floating sampan in Causeway Bay, and in luxury with meticulous tableside attention at Restaurant Petrus in the Penthouse aerie of the Island Shangri-La. Contradictory circumstances such as these give Hong Kong a perverse kind of spice.

The city is special to me in another way as well. I met my wife in Hong Kong a quarter of a century ago. That is where we courted and lunched under the eyes of an aunt-appointed chaperon, and where we were married by a West End colonial wearing a properly rumpled white linen suit, in a tiny room decorated only with portraits of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, as a fan turned the air slowly over our heads. And it is to Hong Kong that my wife and I go each year, to which we have taken our children to see our, and their, beginnings. And when we are there we are very, very young again.

We have dim sum in the new Luk Kwok, not the old one, where our wedding reception was held, but the name and the Wanchai and Causeway Bay waterfront is there. We drive out to the New Territories, to Shatin where we once picnicked among the trees and where the tiny Buddhist temple and the fishermen's shacks have been displaced by high-rise apartment buildings that look like giant milk cartons. Hong Kong must be the only place on earth where fishermen and rice farmers work in and around the water all day and then repair to their 30th floor apartments for the night. We walk along Prince Edward Road, where my wife's home once stood behind a high wall, and where we used to have coffee in a tiny shop called Luk Ok, the Green House. The coffee shop is gone and there is a school where my wife used to live, but Prince Edward Road is still there, and on some evenings that is enough.

That utterly beautiful colonial relic, the Repulse Bay Hotel, is also gone now, along with its palms and breezy terrace. But the blue cove of Repulse Bay remains, along with a façade, a duplicate of that colonial face, and we swim in its gentle waves. We share a glass of icy beer in a cabana among the tropical vines of the Dragon Inn at 19 Mile Beach. We bend over the guardrail on the deck of a Victoria Harbor steamer and shout "Sun Tak! Sun Tak! Sun Tak!" as the oars of Dragon Boat racers from the Canton suburb of my wife's birth streak past us in the waters below. We sit cross-legged in the Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island, a two-hour steamer ride from Hong Kong, eating "fish," "duck," "pork," and "beef," which turn out to be artfully fashioned from bean curd. We walk around Lai Chi Kik visiting cousins, drinking tea, eating oranges and sweet bean cakes, and I like hearing them tell me I haven't changed.

Well, I have, and so has Hong Kong. Its sprawling arched and tile-roofed colonial buildings continue to vanish, seemingly devoured by 70-story office buildings, observation towers, and hotels with revolving roof restaurants. Lanes become boulevards, and rows of small walkups with louvered windows make way for dense apartment complexes, euphemistically called estates. All of this has occurred as Hong Kong phases out its British stewardship and became in 1997 as a quasi-autonomous port under Chinese government control.

Yet even as it changes cosmetically, Hong Kong is a constant, the precarious constant the Chinese refer to metaphorically as sam guk dong is by nature unsteady. Thus Hong Kong, burdened by London in the past, has wobbled; troubled by domestic unease in the years when it became an overrun refugee haven, has wobbled; threatened with Chinese domination from Peking, has wobbled. But, the Chinese will point out, the stool hasn't tumbled, nor do they expect it to, for this fragrant harbor has withstood just about everything since its birth as a byproduct of England's Asian opium trade.

Hong Kong was a rock in the China Sea until January 20, 1841, when Britain's plenipotentiary in China, Charles Elliot, annexed the island as a sort of alternate port for British opium traders who had had thousands of chests of what the Chinese called "foreign mud" seized in Canton. Commodores followed, and Hong Kong became a true port. It was not as popular in its beginnings as Canton, to be sure — Lord Palmerston, Queen Victoria's Foreign Secretary; demeaned Hong Kong as a "barren island with hardly a house on it" — but it was a viable alternative and, happily, under British control.

Governors followed commodores, and on August 29, 1842, Hong Kong officially became a British colony, with a lease from China not scheduled to end for 155 years — which to Victorian England meant forever. The Hong Kong Guide, printed in Shanghai in 1893, noted that "For ages prior to the year 1841, it existed only as a plutonic island of uninviting sterility, apparently capable only of supporting the lowest form of organisms. Today, it stands forth before the world with its City of Victoria and a permanent population of over two hundred thousand souls — a noble monument to British pluck and enterprise."

With no restrictions to hamper them, the British quickly made Hong Kong into their major Asian trading port, and opium, tea and silks came through as if from golden spigots. By 1860 the British had leased the tip of mainland Kowloon called Tsim Sha Tsui, as well as a stretch of mainland called the New Territories — supposedly in perpetuity. More territories followed in a 99-year lease signed in 1898, and the original "barren rock" had evolved into a 350-square-mile chunk of China encompassing Victoria Island, Kowloon, the territories, and 234 outlying islands ranging from huge populated centers such as Lantau, Cheung Chau and Lamma to the tiniest of shoals. Hong Kong became the loosest, most swashbuckling of ports, and the financial core of Asia — a capitalist universe ruled by the taipans in the hongs of Jardine Matheson, Wheelock Marden, Hutchison Whampoa and the Swire Group. Hong Kong housed Asia's stock market and its gold and silver markets. There was totally unrestrained building and architectural experimentation and unprecedented real estate speculation. Those Chinese who lived in Hong Kong and those who came to it, either as refugees or immigrants, were filled with visions of hom lung, the salted dragon, which is how they referred to the city's riches.

Eventually Hong Kong came to be home to more than six million people, and every one of them, it seems, labors for a piece of the salted dragon. The city works, produces and consumes at a prodigious rate, exporting more watches than Switzerland, once importing and drinking more Cognacs and brandies than any city except Paris. When Hennessey and Courvoisier and Camus and all the other Cognac producers and bottlers introduced their X.O.'s, it was to Hong Kong that the first bottles went, because to a wealthy Chinese, there is simply nothing else to drink with friends at a banquet. Tens of thousands of shops and boutiques sell the luxury goods of Vuitton, Lancel, Loewe and Hermés, the jewels of Cartier, Buccellati, Christofle and Van Cleef & Arpels, the watches of Rolex, Vacheron & Constantin and Piaget, the clothes of Dior, Burberrys, Versace, Ungaro and Lauren, as well as ivory carvings, coromandel screens, porcelains, jades, calligraphic paintings and carved blackwood furniture. Thousands of factories turn out everything from Blackglamma minks to imitation Apple computers, silks for Bloomingdale's and Sakowitz, derivative ready-to-wear, toys and cameras, carpets for Buckingham Palace and knotted throw rugs. Twenty thousand restaurants will cook you everything room the most elegant of Malaysian bird's nests boiled in broth to Paul Bocuse's truffle soup en croûte.

And when space runs out and Hong Kong demands still more shops and restaurants and hotels and factories, well, Hong Kong simply creates more space. It builds upward or fills in pieces of its harbor, or does both. What had been tidal water slapping against the shoreline of eastern Kowloon is today East Tsim Sha Tsui, a huge wedge of concrete, steel, polished granite, bridges, gardens, hotels, atriumed malls, apartments and restaurants. For Hong Kong will do anything, move anything, legislate anything, divert anything, for commerce.

Will that continue, I wonder? Throughout Asia, there are masses living in misery. Hong Kong, too, is crowded — some would say overrun — with its own generations of Chinese and with the unceasing flow of immigrants who arrive daily from China, but there seems little misery even in the very densest parts of the city. What I feel when I see great masses of people in Hong Kong is one great mass of restless energy, and I wonder about that energy, how it will eventually manifest itself. I think about what might happen when most of the vestiges of Anglicized Hong Kong disappear and the city becomes in fact and in rule what it has been all along, not a city of Chinese but a Chinese city. I wonder about the significance of what I saw once when a citizen of Hong Kong sat resolutely in his seat at the end of a cricket match while the Britons next to him in the stands rose and stiffened to "God Save the Queen."

I think about it often, and I always conclude that except for such isolated instances of pride in self, which I think should be applauded, there will be little organic change. The Hong Kong Chinese I know do not care that much for government, any even its unwieldy new legislature government, and they suffer the Hong Kong bureaucracy only because it runs their city exceedingly well. Hong Kong is a city of entrepreneurs intent on earning a living, creating wealth for themselves. That is what Hong Kong always has been and what it will be. I say it will be that way because I hope it will, because I want Hong Kong to be always shining and green, because I want to keep going there, seeing again what makes me remember, tasting what I never forget.

Ferretti's Favorites: Hong Kong's Best Chinese Restaurants

We are asked, quite often, to recommend restaurants in Hong Kong where, indisputably, the best Chinese cooking anywhere is to be found. Following are some favorites:

Expensive

FOOK LAM MOON in Wanchai, for pure and unadorned classical Cantonese food. Perhaps the finest seafood restaurant, Chinese or otherwise, extant. TANG COURT in the Great Eagle Hotel in Kowloon. Imaginative ways with traditional dim sum, duck and pork dishes and with soups. A fine restaurant, the newest star of the elegant hotel restaurants that abound in Hong Kong. SUMMER PALACE, in the Island Shangri-La Hotel. This place, decorated with brick red trellis work, Chinese silk screens, has what may be the best dim sum service in Hong Kong, not to mention its crisp, roasted suckling pig.

Moderate

Over the Hong Kong Island lies YUNG KEE, a multi-story tradition, with incredible roasted goose. Sit downstairs for a noisy and aromatic inexpensive lunch. And for a varied menu with everything from fried rice to vegetable samosas, curried duck and fresh oysters go up to Hong Kong's fabled peak to the PEAK CAFE, where on a clear day you can see far out to Hong Kong's outer islands.

Hong Kong is for tea as well as for tea shops, tea boutiques, high teas, Chinese teas, tea, tea, tea. Mentioned in this issue already is the mannered tea, English style, in the Peninsula Hotel's lobby each day. But do not miss the Pen's Chinese tea afternoons in its SPRING MOON restaurant, classic Chinese green, oolong and black teas served with dumplings and pastries. European indeed, and served with care and panache, is the classic high tea — scones, clotted cream, cucumber sandwiches and all — in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel's CLIPPER LOUNGE. And finally, for a traditional, ageless Chinese tea experience, tea as it was decades ago in China, sip at the LUK YU TEA HOUSE on Hong Kong Island. Exotic, smoky teas and pastries.

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