While part of the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong operates as a Special Administrative Region with a high degree of autonomy, and so for most visitors it is effectively a different country. Visa requirements, laws, currency, culture and language are different from the rest of China. Since the handover from the British in 1997, Hong Kong has operated under a "One Country, Two Systems" principle, maintaining most laws and government structures from colonial times. Hong Kong enjoys many Western-style freedoms unheard of on the Chinese mainland, and many locals are proud of it. The ideals of a free and open society are firmly rooted here.
Hong Kong Island (香港島) gives the territory of Hong Kong its name and is the place that many tourists regard as the main focus. The parade of buildings that make the Hong Kong skyline has been likened to a glittering bar chart that is made apparent by the presence of the waters of Victoria Harbour. To get the best views of Hong Kong, leave the island and head for the Kowloon waterfront opposite.
The great majority of Hong Kong Island's urban development is densely packed on reclaimed land along the northern shore. This is the place the British colonisers took as their own and so if you are looking for evidence of the territory's colonial past, this is a good place to start. Victoria was once the colony's capital but has been rebranded with a more descriptive name, Central. Here you will find the machinery of government grinding away much as it always has done, except that Beijing, not London, is the boss that keeps a watchful eye. Seek a glimpse of government house (香港禮賓府) which was formerly home to 25 British governors and is now the residence of the Chief Executive CY Leung. Nearby, the Legislative Council (LegCo) continues to make the laws that organise the territory.
Rising up from Central is the Escalator and the Peak Tram. The famous 800 metre escalator passes through the hip district of Soho and takes you into the residential neighbourhood known as the Mid-Levels because it is half-way up the mountain. Up top is Victoria Peak, known locally as The Peak, the tallest point on the island where foreign diplomats and business tycoons compete for the best views of the harbour from some of the most expensive homes to be found anywhere. Most tourists do not go much further than the Peak Tram, but take a short walk to the top and you will escape the crowds and be rewarded with some of the best harbour views. It is worth investing in a good map from leading bookshops in Central if you want to enjoy some of the superb footpaths that crisscross the island.
The southern side of the island has developed into an upmarket residential area with many large houses and expensive apartments with views across the South China Sea. The island's best beaches, such as Repulse Bay, are found here and visitors can enjoy a more relaxed pace of life than on the bustling harbour side of the island. Wan Chai and Causeway Bay are the most visited neighbourhoods on the northern side of the island.
Kowloon (九龍) is the peninsula to the north of Hong Kong Island. With over 2.1 million people living in an area of less than 47 square kilometres, Kowloon is one of the most densely populated places on the planet, and has a matching array of places to shop, eat and sleep. Tsim Sha Tsui (尖沙咀), the tip of the peninsula, is Kowloon's main tourist drag and has a mix of backpacker and high-end hotels. Further north, Mong Kok (旺角) has a huge choice of shops and markets in an area of less than a square kilometre. Kowloon side, as it is often known, managed to escape some of the British colonial influences that characterise the Hong Kong Island side. Kowloon real estate prices are the highest in the world, with multiple flats in West Kowloon setting worldwide records for their multi-million dollar prices thanks to their panoramic views of Victoria Harbour.
The New Territories (新界), so named when the British leased more land from China in 1898, lie north of Kowloon. Often ignored by travellers who have little time to spare, the New Territories offers a diverse landscape that takes time to get to know. Mountainous country parks overlook New Towns that have a clinical form of modernity that has attracted many to move here from mainland China. Public transport and taxis make this area surprisingly accessible if you dare to get out and explore this offbeat place. You will not find many idyllic villages, but once you get over the stray dogs and the ramshackle buildings you will doubtlessly find something that will surprise you and cause you to reach for your camera.
The Outlying Islands (離島) are the generic label for the islands, islets and rocks in the seas around the territory. Lantau (大嶼山) is by far the largest of them and therefore often considered its own district, and is also home to the Hong Kong International Airport. Lantau hosts some of the territory's most idyllic beaches as well as major attractions such as Disneyland and the Ngong Ping cable car. Other islands include Lamma (南丫島), well known for its seafood, and Cheung Chau (長洲), a small island that used to be a pirates' den, but now attracts seafood aficionados, windsurfers and sunbathing day trippers.
Archaeological findings date the first human settlements in the area back to more than 30,000 years ago. It was first incorporated into China during the Qin Dynasty and largely remained under Chinese rule until 1841 during the Qing Dynasty, with a brief interruption at the end of the Qin Dynasty, when a Qin official established the kingdom of Nam Yuet, which later fell to the Han Dynasty.
Hong Kong Island became a British colony in January 1841, as a result of the defeat of the Qing Dynasty of China in the First Opium War. After the defeat of China in the Second Opium War, the Kowloon Peninsula was then ceded to Great Britain in 1860. The New Territories were subsequently leased in 1898 to Great Britain for a term of 99 years.
When World War II broke out, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared that Hong Kong was an "impregnable fortress". However owing to Britain's main war effort in Europe, Hong Kong was not given sufficient resources for its defense. As a result, after just slightly more than two weeks of fighting, Hong Kong was surrendered to the Japanese on 25 December 1941 and occupation lasted until the end of the war. Upon the resumption of British control all restrictions on non-Europeans owning property on prime real estate land were lifted followed by an astonishingly swift post war recovery.
After the communists took control of mainland China in 1949, many Chinese people, especially businessmen, fled to Hong Kong due to persecution by the communist government. Unlike the restrictive policies imposed by the communists in China, the British government took a rather hands off approach in Hong Kong, as proposed by former financial secretary John James Cowperthwaite, which led to a high degree of economic freedom. Under such conditions, businesses flourished in Hong Kong and its economy grew rapidly, earning it a place as one of the East Asian Tigers. Today, Hong Kong is considered to be an industrialised and developed economy, and is one of the world's most important financial centres, along with the likes of New York and London.
The massive influx of mainland Chinese refugees led to the rise of the Kowloon Walled City, which was a horrendous convolution of maze-like alleys, utter darkness, cramped space, and unsanitary conditions. There was no effective police presence inside the city itself, and it was full of triad gangs, prostitution and unlicensed physicians practising there. The Walled City was demolished in 1993, and the Kowloon Walled City Park was built on the site.
In 1984 the Chinese and British Governments signed the Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong, agreeing to return Hong Kong back to China sovereignty on 1 July 1997. Hong Kong became a special administrative region (SAR) of the Peoples Republic of China.
In accordance with the Joint Declaration, the Basic Law was enacted to serve in effect as a mini-constitution for the Hong Kong SAR. In theory, Hong Kong enjoys a high degree of autonomy in most matters except foreign affairs and defence. In practice Beijing exerts much influence in the background, however citizens are nevertheless free to keep pushing for a more democratic regime and universal suffrage.
Hong Kong mostly operates like a tiny country with its own currency, laws, international dialling code, police force, border controls and the like. It is also a member of international organisations that are normally restricted to sovereign states such as the WTO, APEC and the IOC. The Hong Kong flag is prominently flown throughout the territory, often alongside that of the Chinese mother country.
The majority of Hong Kong's population are Han Chinese (95%), mostly of Cantonese ancestry, though there are also sizeable numbers of other Chinese groups such as Chiuchao (Teochews), Shanghainese and Hakkas. A significant number of Indian, Pakistani and Nepalese live here too, and many have families that have lived in Hong Kong for several generations.
The largest groups of recent, non-Chinese immigrants are Filipinos, Indonesians and Thais, of which most are employed as domestic helpers. On Sundays, being the free day of these domestic workers, they congregate in their thousands - mostly Filipinas - in Central and Admiralty and spend the day there together, sitting talking, eating and drinking wherever there is free room. Lately whole streets have been blocked off for them.
The territory is also home to a significant number of people hailing from Australia, Europe, Japan and North America, making it a truly international metropolis.
Due to its history as part of that region, the local culture in Hong Kong is similar to that of Guangdong province. However, due to over a century of British rule, the British have also left their mark on the local culture. In addition, due to its evasion of communist ideologies when the Cultural Revolution was taking place in the mainland, locals in Hong Kong have maintained many aspects of traditional Chinese culture which have largely disappeared in the mainland. In general, locals in Hong Kong have a somewhat paradoxical identity, regarding themselves as culturally and ethnically Chinese, but at the same time considering themselves distinct from the mainland Chinese.
Hong Kong has a humid subtropical climate. Summers are usually hot, lasting from June to September, with temperatures usually exceeding 30°C, while night-time summer temperatures do not drop below 25°C . The area, with most of southern China, is affected by typhoons. Typhoons usually occur between June and September, though some typhoons may affect Hong Kong as late as October. These can bring a halt to local business for a day or less (natural disaster).
Winters in Hong Kong are generally very mild, with temperatures ranging from 10°C to 20°C, although dropping further sometimes, especially in the countryside. Christmas in Hong Kong is considered warm compared to many Western countries. Chinese New Year is notorious for cold wet weather, because winter in Hong Kong tends to start out mild and dry and then turn cooler and wetter later.
Spring starts in Hong Kong from March to May and autumn starts from September to November with an average temperature of around 20 to 25°C. Autumn is considered a more comfortable season as spring tends to be more humid and rainy.
Although most buildings in Hong Kong have air-conditioning to cope with the summer weather, winter heating is something of a novelty. During the coldest days, most locals simply wear more layers, even indoors. In a restaurant, for example, it is not unusual to see customers eating with jackets and scarves on. Furthermore, some larger Chinese restaurants keep the air-conditioning on during winter, though the temperature in air conditioned shopping malls stays the same regardless of season or weather outside.
Its quick rise as an economic power and unique mix of East and West has made Hong Kong an interesting destination to write about. Much has been written about its history, politics, economy, culture and social matters, and it has figured as an ideal background in many fictional works as well. Reading some of these books enables you to further understand the culture of Hong Kong before actually visiting it.
The period between October and December has the least rainfall, less chance of a typhoon (almost non-existent after October), less humid and more sunshine (see Climate section above for more details).
During Chinese New Year there are some extra celebratory events such as lion dances, fireworks, and parades. While most of the small family-owned shops and restaurants will close for the Chinese New Year you will find that most supermarkets, department stores and larger restaurants in the hotels remain open. The official public holiday lasts for three days.
Culture lovers will be able to feast on a multitude of cultural activities from February to April. The Hong Kong Arts Festival, a month-long festival of international performances, is held in February and March. The Man Literary Festival, a two week English language festival with international writers as guests is held in March. The Hong Kong International Film Festival, a three-week event, is held from late March to early April.
Rugby fans, and those wishing to party, should come during the weekend of the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens. This annual event brings many visitors in from around the world to celebrate the most entertaining instalment in the IRB Sevens Series. It is a giant three day sellout event that takes place between the last days of March and the beginning of April. Be aware that tickets are very hard to obtain.
There is a second round of cultural activities in the autumn lasting till the end of the year.
Christmas is also a nice time to visit as many stores and shopping centres are nicely decorated, and the festive mood is apparent across downtown areas of the city. Major buildings facing the harbour are decorated in Christmas lights to add to the festive spirit.
Hong Kong's reputation as a very crowded place is amplified during the holiday seasons. Visitors should note that it can be challenging to find a table in a restaurant during public holidays.
For its electrical sockets, Hong Kong uses the British three-pin rectangular blade plug. Additionally, some hotels will have a bathroom with a parallel three-pin outlet which is designed for use with electric shavers, but might be used to re-charge a phone or rechargeable batteries. Electricity is 220 Volts at 50 Hertz. Most electronic stores will have cheap ($15–20) adapters that will allow foreign plugs to fit into British sockets, but be aware that these will not convert voltage or frequency.
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