Gautier Battistella - 2012-06-12
Land of tycoons, Hong Kong whets the appetites of financiers and the fantasies of day-traders. But the Pearl of the Orient also attracts those in search of adventure. In Hong Kong, it seems like everything is still possible. A tour of the city in pictures.
Do you smell the breeze that delicately strokes your face on the ferry between the island and the mainland? It’s the wind of adventure. A buccaneers’ dream, Hong Kong – literally ‘Fragrant Harbour’ – began its vertiginous ascent in the mid-19th century. After the first Opium War (1839-1842), the island fell into the hands of Great Britain and the groundwork for what would become modern Hong Kong was laid. The city remained under British rule until 1997.
Settlers, mosquitoes and adventurers: Hong Kong’s beginnings
Spiked with skyscrapers, Hong Kong is a city to be admired from above. It’s 9.30 a.m., and under a soft winter sun, we climb onto one of the world’s highest trams, the Peak Tram, en route for the top of the city. This cable car, in use since 1884, was built by the owner of a hotel on the hilltop who wanted to offer guests a quicker and more comfortable means of transportation than the usual sedan chair.
The view is spectacular from above: green and blue, sea waters and a lacework of boughs, survivors of a jungle that has never been completely tamed. And as far as the eye can see, the sea. Waters that have witnessed an epoch that no one under a hundred years old can possibly imagine. Back then, Hong Kong was little more than a mosquito-riddled island favoured by adventurers. A light wind carries sepia-coloured memories of the time when the island’s emblem brought together the British lion and the Chinese dragon.
Hong Kong, all gloss and glam?
Make no mistake. The city holds surprises where least expected. Glowing pearls of luxury boutiques are strung along the bustling Des Vœux Road. Hong Kong is one of the only cities in the world (along with Tokyo) where customers queue up in front of empty shops whilst awaiting the privilege of spending a few thousand Hong Kong dollars chez Cartier or Chanel. Now one of the premier consumers of luxury goods in the world, Hong Kong is a step ahead of Seoul and (recently) even Tokyo. But the real Hong Kong - the city that spits, gambles and guffaws - lies elsewhere.
Just a few steps away, pallid neons and flaking buildings come into view. It’s as if the schizophrenic city was intent on maintaining its suspense by refusing to be engulfed by the ambient, triumphant modernisation. Hong Kong can’t forget that it was born of the folly of a handful of fortune-seeking mercenaries and schemers. The pedigree has left a mark that can be seen today if you take the ferry in the evening and head for the mainland. There, between the smoke coming from street-side food shacks and the pungent odour of grilled tofu, the spirit of Hong Kong is present in the harried young men of the far side, sporting tight-waisted jackets and stiff smiles. You sit on a plastic stool, order spicy prawns and razor clams in oyster sauce, and wash it all down with a bottle of Tsingtao – fabulous.
Hong Kong attracts those who believe that freedom is earned through hard labour. Consider all the modern fortune-seekers who pack themselves into minuscule flats - hives for immigrants - as they work towards making their dreams come true. But rent is expensive: in Hong Kong, prices can rise as fast as skyscrapers. There are no regulations; landlords can raise rents as they see fit - even doubling or tripling them in one year! Twenty-four square metres can fetch up to € 2,500 euros (over £ 2,000) per month.
With a population of seven million and 130,000 inhabitants per square kilometre, Hong Kong is suffocating. This explains the rush towards the New Territories (between Kowloon and the Sham Chun River), a peripheral suburban area bordering mainland China.
Exile is just 45 minutes from Hong Kong Island by ferry, as Lamma and the area’s other 260 islands provide a breath of fresh air and serenity – rarities greatly appreciated by expats. Perhaps these isles are today’s ‘fragrant harbours’…