December 21, 2002
Hong Kong Under China: So Far, So Good
by Donald G. Mashburn

HONG KONG — The ultimate East-West story finished its run of 156 years, when this former British crown colony was reunited with China on July 1, 1997. Now, more than five years later, how is Hong Kong doing? Has the remarriage changed Hong Kong adversely?

The answers: 1) Fine, with some reservations. 2) This is still Hong Kong, and it’s still a one-of-a-kind place.

However, many among Hong Kong's 7 million residents (98 percent Chinese) openly worry. Fears for the future hang like dark monsoon clouds over some business plans. China, however, has largely honored its 50-year agreement to let Hong Kong function, without interference, as a “Special Administrative Region” (SAR). China’s leaders appear reluctant to tamper with Hong Kong’s economy, the world's eighth largest.

Hong Kong consists of 236 islands, and Kowloon and the New Territories on the mainland. The region’s commercial center, Central District, with some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers, is on Hong Kong Island, as is historical Aberdeen, once a typhoon shelter and pirate hideout.

Aberdeen is a busy harbor for fishing and cargo boats, and also is home to a community of boat people. It’s a rhythmic floating community, where the sounds and smells of people living and working on their boats mingle, not unpleasantly, with diesel fumes and cooking food.

First-time visitors don’t expect the vivid contrast of the boat community against the surrounding high-rise buildings. But perceptive observers see Aberdeen as part of a Chinese culture and lifestyle that has all but disappeared. The government is offering incentives for the boat people to move, and this community of living picture posters could soon disappear.

Across the harbor from Hong Kong is Kowloon, home to unsurpassed shopping variety and some of the world’s finest hotels. Kowloon is chockablock with neon-adorned, brightly lit shops. Nathan Road's "Golden Mile," and side streets like Peking Road, Cameron Road, and Haiphong Road are within walking distance of major hotels.

World-class tailors, like internationally renowned Sams, are here. And street -level Chinese enterprise is seen at the Kansu Street Jade Bazaar, the main market for jade carvings and jewelry.

The larger outer islands are seeing new development. Relatively tranquil Lantau, twice the size of Hong Kong Island, lost some of its remoteness with the construction of the new airport and many high-rise apartments and commercial buildings.

But little Tai O, on the other side of the island, is largely unchanged. This quiet fishing village, with clean, narrow streets, still has open fish and vegetable markets that provide unforgettable picture-calendar images of an earlier time.

A slower-paced and peaceful bygone period is reflected in the rope-drawn boat operated by two enterprising women to ferry passengers between Lantau and a small island several yards away. Tai O, once an important source of salt and fish for China, is a picturesque slice of what life used to be in Hong Kong.

The new development hasn’t yet affected the small island of Cheung Chau, a densely populated fishing community where the only full-size vehicles on the island are a fire truck and an ambulance.

Cheung Chau’s harbor, in a picturesque old-world setting, is packed with junks and sampans that move people and cargo, and provide living quarters for some, as they have for generations. Here, the looks and sounds are those of a part of old Hong Kong that found refuge away from the hurly burly of skyscrapers and traffic jams.

Hong Kong’s remarkable variety in transportation includes boats, buses, trains and plenty of taxis. A few rickshas remain in Central District, mostly for photo-ops on weekends and holidays. The fast, air-conditioned subway links Hong Kong with Kowloon and the New Territories.

Water transportation is big business here. Cargo ships crowd parts of the world-famous harbor. Sightseeing boats “cover the waterfront.” High-speed jetcats and hydrofoils speed to distant points, including Macau, 65 kilometers away. The Star Ferry is a pleasant and scenic way to cross the harbor.

Today, Hong Kong remains much as it was six years ago — just more crowded and developed. Some locals voice concern about Hong Kong’s future in the event of a major international upheaval. Others think China sees Hong Kong as too important to risk slowing its powerful economic engine.

For now, Hong Kong is still a place like no other. Its five-plus years as a China SAR have seen some changes but few major problems. And for visitors, it’s still Hong Kong. And that says it all.