Hong Kong

Four years after the handover, Asia's most cosmopolitan city is more sophisticated than ever. Jamie James returns to explore the many paradoxes of the former crown colony.

I was never more joyful to arrive anywhere than on my first visit to Hong Kong, 12 years ago: I was strapped into my bunk on a sailing cruise across the South China Sea that had been so rough that even the crew got green around the gills. Then, suddenly, the sea was calm. For the first time in two days I dared to peer out my porthole, and I saw a vision: We were gliding into the placid waters of Victoria Harbour, and all around us rose the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, with so much mist swirling around their spires that I couldn't see their tops. I had lived all my adult life in Manhattan, and considered myself to be sophisticated about such things, but my first glimpse of the skyline of Asia's greatest city instilled a sense of awe, like the one, I thought, that Coleridge's ancient mariner experienced when he sailed into the spectral realm.

Many cities are spectacularly sited—Naples, San Francisco, and Sydney come to mind—but there's no place like Hong Kong. On the northern side of the harbor is the peninsula, culminating in the markets and winding alleys of Kowloon; across the water to the south is Hong Kong Island, its steep hillsides crowded with soaring office towers and luxury hotels. Beyond the harbor, the outer islands of the territory glint in a golden haze. Since that first visit I've been drawn back a half-dozen times. The Far East has many great cities, of course, but none of them radiates a sense of cosmopolitan excitement the way Hong Kong does. In Tokyo or Beijing or Bangkok, one never quite shakes the feeling of being an outsider; in Hong Kong, as in New York City, visitors from anywhere in the world can feel they belong.

Four years ago, the city underwent an enormous transformation when, with much ceremony and fanfare (literally), the British crown colony was handed over to the People's Republic of China (PRC). The memories are faded now, but the years before the transition were a very jittery period. My friends in the States kept asking me, "What's going to happen?"—as if I would know. No one knew. It was a given that the city would undergo some metamorphosis: Hong Kong has always been a proof of Heraclitus' maxim "The only constant is change." Every time I have revisited the place, I've encountered a startling degree of reinvention.

My most recent visit revealed that the city had changed radically, yet in ways that no one could have imagined—if anything, it has become even more exciting and sophisticated than it was under British rule. I made a point of going back to some of the places that I remembered vividly from earlier trips to the territory, which is now known as a Special Administrative Region. I began, as most visitors do, with a tram ride up to Victoria Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong Island, to take in the spectacular panoramic views and to see the new observation deck at the Peak Tower, which had just started construction the last time I was there. It's far more lavish than the simple platform that preceded it: A showy monument in titanium, in the shape of a massive half-moon wedge sitting atop broad pillars, it vaguely resembles the Greek letter "pi" (which a Chinese friend later told me was the Chinese symbol for "profit").

Inside the tower was a commercial extravaganza, teeming with Chinese families who were shopping and flocking to entertainment venues like Ripley's Believe It or Not. I quickly escaped to the relative quiet of the deck. As I took in the city's expanse, flung out across the shining water, I remembered what a young Chinese colleague had said to me when I visited the peak a few years before the handover: "Mr. James, it will be better even if it is worse, for we will be with China again."

At the time I had smiled inwardly at the peculiarly Chinese logic behind this statement, but I understood it. My friend had expressed a political sentiment that was seldom voiced loudly but was held by most (though certainly not all) of the Chinese majority of Hong Kong: the belief that colonial status was an indignity and that the handover was not only inevitable but overdue. The paradox of post-handover Hong Kong began to dawn on me— the territory's return to the PRC had enabled it to become more freely and fully its own self, more international, but on Chinese terms. The new observation deck at Victoria Peak is minting money for its owners using American ideas, just as surely as Western businesses in Hong Kong made money during the colonial era using Chinese ideas.

It's sometimes difficult to discern the competing spheres of influence in this complex society: Businessmen in dark-blue suits and rep ties (and the occasional businesswoman), whether they're Chinese or Anglo, look much the same now as they always have, bustling in hordes along the busy streets of the financial district like some eternal, indestructible subspecies of humankind. Hong Kong's Homo prosperus has no national identity: It outlived the fall of the British empire and it will doubtless outlast the present dynasty in Beijing.

That breed's most famous temple, the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Building, is a soaring tower designed by Norman, Lord Foster, with the skyscraper's supporting steel trusses wrapped around its facade. When it was built 15 years ago, it was intended to be a symbol of the "new" Hong Kong, international and forward-looking. But in fact the building revealed the city's inescapable, underlying complexity: Lord Foster, a man not known for his humility, effectively had no choice but to consult extensively with feng shui masters to ensure the building's commercial success. (That ancient Chinese art of geomancy has played a key role in the design and positioning of most, if not all, of the city's skyscrapers.)

Just a few hundred yards east lies Lan Kwai Fong, the twisty little lane that had been the center of the city's expatriate social scene in the ten years preceding the handover. D'Aguilar Street, leading up the island's steep hillside, looked the same, bustling with office workers and neighborhood housewives, menaced by laborers trundling ungainly handbarrows overflowing with vegetables or cut flowers, shouting "Ho!" to give pedestrians just a second to hop out of their way. When I stopped at a street stall to look over the gorgeous exotic fruit, the old proprietress, spotting a lollygagging visitor as quickly as she would an overripe banana, shooed me along with an impatient gesture, as I was occupying valuable retail space. My heart was filled with gladness to see a relic of the old city unchanged; I bought a bag of litchis, but she pocketed my money unmoved.

I was going to lunch at my favorite Mexican restaurant in Lan Kwai Fong, but when I got there it was gone. I wasn't surprised: This was Hong Kong's accelerated evolutionary clock in action. Yet I was fascinated to find that One Lan Kwai Fong, the high-rise it had been located in, had become the Asian equivalent of the Fuller Building, the skyscraper at 57th and Madison where many of Manhattan's most prestigious art galleries are located. Before '97, art in Hong Kong, outside the few museums, was limited mostly to being seen and sold on the antique market, with a few mausoleums devoted to modern interpreters of the classical tradition presided over by haughty, whispering old men.

What I saw riding the elevator at One Lan Kwai Fong, however, would have fit in as comfortably at trendy galleries in Chelsea or Montrose as at the Fuller Building. At La Vong, a gallery that specializes in Vietnamese art, I was greeted by co-owner Shirley Hui, a petite, soignée lady dressed in black Chanel and pearls at midday. She told me that the most prized Vietnamese art comes from the late-colonial and early-revolutionary period in the 1940s and '50s, but she rarely deals in it. "There's such a problem with forgeries, they're so easy to do," she said, since the early revolutionary artists imitated the loose Impressionistic style of the School of Paris. "It's better to work only with the living artists." At the moment Madame Hui was exhibiting a group show of paintings by contemporary artists, brightly lit canvases, competent and colorful and devoid of anything that might be interpreted as political content, with scarcely a peasant in view.

Six floors below, Art Scene China was showing works by prominent artists from the mainland. There were some bold nudes in fluorescent reds and yellows and surrealist landscapes with figures accessorized with 21st-century technology like Palm Pilots. I asked the young woman minding the desk, chic with scarlet streaks in her hair and heavy black eyeglass frames, where I could see the work of local artists. She suggested that I have a look at a survey of Hong Kong art at the museum in the city's cultural center in Kowloon. She smiled brightly, pushing her glasses up on her nose, and said in perfect English, "You will find that most of the galleries in Hong Kong show art from outside countries. Remember, it's a small place, population less than L.A."

I did see the exhibit, and was impressed by some of the venturesome work in it; the last time I had visited the museum it was quiet as a cathedral, with a few bored-looking tourists wandering around, but this show was crowded with locals as well as foreigners. However, what puzzled me as I rode the ferry across the harbor, with the towering, fantastical spires of the skyline looming above, was how strange it was that the People's Republic of China should be referred to in Hong Kong as an "outside country," with Los Angeles as a point of reference. The much-touted "two systems" were everywhere blatantly in evidence, but what about the "one country"?

It seemed to me that the traditional spheres of influence, which used to be clear-cut—Chinese, native Anglo, enterprising foreigners—are slowly melding into a new hybrid. I knew just whom to test my hypothesis on: Nichole Garnaut, who, while she was managing Club '97 in Lan Kwai Fong, did more than anyone else to create Hong Kong's reputation as one of the most swinging cities in East Asia. Like most Hong Kongers—both Chinese and Anglo—Garnaut scoffs at the idea that the political change in the territory had any negative impact, saying that the pan-Asian economic slump that followed soon after had a much greater effect: "During the economic downturn, there was a psychological impact—it almost didn't seem right to go out. But Hong Kong now reminds me of the best pre-handover times. There is a fun energy."

Garnaut's latest venture, the chic Alibi Bar & Brasserie, radiates that fun energy, with a strong dash of cool. The dining room, upstairs, is elegant and visually stimulating, with a kinetic wall sculpture made of blond Brazilian Zebrano wood as the backdrop, and mirrored and mother-of-pearl screens here and there to diffuse the excitement throughout the room. The menu is "traditional, not architectural," says Garnaut—and authentic, with a kitchen presided over by a Frenchman, Alex Grousset, formerly executive chef at Provence in Manhattan. The funky bar downstairs incorporates tropical materials, many-hued coconut inlays, and seashell mosaics—but who can see it? On a weeknight the place was jammed tight with the city's young lovelies, and a red-velvet-roped queue lined the sidewalk.

I was struck at how heterogeneous the crowd was. In the late 1980s, one frequently saw mixed groups of business colleagues meeting for after-work beers, or occasionally for dinner, but there was always a tacit understanding that the different cultures existed side by side, more or less unaltered from their home countries. The expats hung out at smoky gin mills, drinking too much tepid beer, while the Chinese, even those who could afford to eat at Hong Kong's finest restaurants, ate noodles and drank tea at sidewalk stalls, and partied on harsh rice whiskey in private rooms. Both groups were equally puzzled (and secretly appalled) at the other's preferences. Yet here the clientele was as well-blended as a good martini. I also noticed another change: There were many more American accents here now than there were before the handover, both among the Anglos and the Chinese. Many disgruntled Brits who left before 1997 didn't come back, and their places were taken by young folks from the eastern edge of the Pacific Rim, who brought with them an insouciant indifference to the old social barriers. At Alibi everybody was flirting with everybody.

Alibi lies on the outskirts of SoHo, Hong Kong's hottest new retail and nightlife district. The area gets its copycat name from its position on the island's hillside, south of Hollywood Road. Part of the Mid-Levels district (halfway between the harbor and Victoria Peak), eight years ago it was a residential quarter, with a few porcelain shops and printing businesses—one of the quiet parts of the island where you could still wander around and see "old" Hong Kong. Then the government built a 2,600-foot-long escalator up the hill so residents wouldn't have to keep trudging up and down the steep, stepped sidewalks; once this convenience was installed, upscale new businesses began to infiltrate the narrow streets. Today there are hundreds of antiques shops, art galleries, and design studios, and about 50 recently opened restaurants and bars, ranging from swanky French dining rooms to discotheques to gay pubs.

There is something of a scandal about the name SoHo: Longtime residents associate it not with Manhattan's SoHo, nor with the touristy club scene that has built up in London in the Blair years, but rather with the red-light Soho of London's past. Some politicians in Hong Kong are trying to do away with the moniker—when the Hong Kong Tourist Association tried to post signs guiding visitors to the popular new area, members of the local council killed the use of the word "SoHo." One council member said that the word is "symbolic of bad taste, violence, and prostitution . . . If you accept the name, you accept that bars will be built." But new nightspots and retail outlets are opening almost weekly, most of them aimed at young businesspeople and creative types with cash in their pockets.

I did find enclaves of the old city that had survived intact. Wandering through semi-residential streets in Kowloon, I peeked in at doorways of private clubs, where old men in baggy shorts and undershirts, standard old-Chinese-guy attire, played mah-jongg. At the garish Buddhist temple on Hollywood Road the joss-stick trade was as brisk as always, and the customers were not all elderly, by any means: Some young people, both students and business types (who might well have been at Alibi the night before, dressed in their glad rags), were burning huge spiral hoops of incense and clanging a brass bell, perhaps in hopes of scoring good marks on an exam, or landing a promotion.

One night I made my usual pilgrimage to the Foreign Correspondents Club: If anything was immune to change, it would be the FCC. This unpretentious and untouched haven of expatriate life was as pleasant as ever, still dim and relaxing, with a cool jazz trio blowing in the corner. The scene could have come straight out of an old Warner Brothers film about the exotic Far East, with Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet sealing a deal at the bar.

Of course, making deals is what Hong Kong has always been about. One thing I had wondered about before the trip was what effect the global economy would have on the territory: If there's one thing Hong Kong is even more famous for than its food, it's the shopping. Yet today luxury designer goods are available at suburban malls, and electronics can be purchased at rock-bottom prices on the Internet anywhere in the world. How would the Hong Kong merchants keep up?

To find the answer, I headed for a remote part of the territory, far from the Kowloon-Central Hong Kong loop that keeps most visitors busy, to Stanley. Before the handover, it was a sleepy village, at least by Hong Kong standards, on the island's southern tip, far from Central Hong Kong; if tourists came here at all it was to have a look at the pretty little harbor and the prison, where the Japanese interned thousands of local residents under very grim conditions. Now Stanley is being reinvented as the latest chic shopping destination.

In the early eighties, the government of the PRC commissioned I.M. Pei to design the new headquarters of the Bank of China. The site chosen for his shimmering, elegant, spearlike tower was one of the best locations in Central (just steps away from Foster's building, which was still under construction)—the plot on which Murray House stood. This handsome red-brick Victorian was one of the earliest British public buildings in Hong Kong, originally the British officers' mess, and thus had landmark status. With typical Hong Kong ingenuity, the city decided to dismantle the building, brick by brick, and pack it safely away in a depot, to make room for Pei's skyscraper—thereby serving both history and commerce.

Now, after 18 years in storage, Murray House has finally been reconstructed, in Stanley, and the merchants installed there are demonstrating their usual resourcefulness by importing funky ethnic products from all over Asia—including the work of traditional artisans in India and Southeast Asia—which has fueled a hip, counter-chic alternative to the territory's image as purveyor of Western designer clothes and bespoke tailoring. The Far East Linen Company offers coolly designed linen clothes in deep, saturated colors, at the same cost as the boring old white ones and presented in a relaxed retro ambiance. Kashmiri Creation is an Indian shop with embroidered shawls and fabrics in lovely crewelwork patterns that can be bought by the roll, and even custom-ordered from India.

When I visited Murray House it was in the midst of a soft opening; some of the bricks still showed the numbers that had been written on them when the structure was dismantled. Workers on the ground floor were putting the finishing touches on a museum about the building itself; upstairs, I had a light meal of tapas on a terrace overlooking the South China Sea. In Central Hong Kong and Kowloon, one feels so much at the center of the world that it is easy to forget that the territory is a gateway to a great sea.

As the sun set in a beautiful crimson haze (no doubt intensified by automotive and nautical pollution), I considered the paradox: Murray House, one of the most charming heirlooms of Hong Kong's colonial era, had been locked up in the municipal attic throughout the final years of British rule, but now that the territory has been reunited with China, like the rest of the city it's open for business.

Of course, there has always been much more to Hong Kong than just business: a civilized way of life, lively discourse, and above all a sparkling energy that bubbles up everywhere. What always made Hong Kong so different from the rest of Asia was its incongruity—all that dazzling electricity pulsed within the charming yet faintly fusty confines of a British crown colony, with red pillar boxes and double-decker buses, and pictures of the queen everywhere.

The city does not look all that different now, although the queen is gone, and there's a new flag, a bland stylization of a flower that was obviously designed by committee; yet there is a palpable new sense of resolution. The first truly international generation of Hong Kongers is taking over, reinvigorating the territory's ongoing search for itself.

 

Territorial Pursuits

 

HOTELS

THE PENINSULA This grande dame of the colonial era, possibly the greatest hotel in the Far East, is situated on the harbor at the tip of Kowloon. Guestrooms are exquisitely decorated and equipped with all sorts of 007-style technology; the spa is luxurious enough for an emperor. Salisbury Road; 852-2920-2888; fax 852-2722-4170; www.peninsula.com.

ISLAND SHANGRI-LA The epitome of understated Chinese elegance, set on the edge of Hong Kong Park. The rooms are among the largest on the island, with spectacular harbor and peak views. Supreme Court Road, Central; 852-2877-3838; fax 852-2521-8742; www.shangri-la.com.

GRAND HYATT Virtually a little city within the city, with 572 rooms and eight restaurants and bars. 1 Harbour Road, Wan Chai; 852-2588-1234; fax 852-2802-0677; www.hongkong.hyatt.com.

MANDARIN ORIENTAL A harborside landmark that offers legendary old-world service. 5 Connaught Road, Central; 852-2522-0111; fax 852-2810-6190; www.mandarinoriental.com.

BARS AND RESTAURANTS

ALIBI 73 Wyndham Street; 852-2167-1676.

HABIBI This home-style Egyptian restaurant is Hong Kong's newest fashionable eating place. The ambiance is that of a Cairo bazaar coffeehouse, but plush, with a high ceiling and vaulted arches. The menu includes hot and cold mezze and baked house specialties such as tagen basilla (fresh green peas with lamb and vegetables) and tagen kosa mahshiya (stuffed zucchini with pine nuts and fresh ground beef in yogurt sauce). 112-114 Wellington Street; 852-2544-9298.

THE BOATHOUSE Occupying the former location of the restaurant Stanley's French. The Boathouse's menu emphasizes fresh seafood—spicy sea bass, mussels, and lobster—as well as pasta and steaks. 86-88 Stanley Main Street; 852-2813-4467.

SAIGON AT STANLEY Excellent fresh Vietnamese cuisine, served in a tasteful colonial setting, with rattan ceiling fans and chairs made of water hyacinth. 90 Stanley Main Street; 852-2899-0999.

PETRUS Extravagantly designed in high Parisian style, Petrus has won awards for its preparations of classic haute French cuisine. On the top story of the Island Shangri-La, it has panoramic views of the harbor. 852-2877-3838.

FELIX The Peninsula's rooftop restaurant, designed in spectacular, ultramodern style by Philippe Starck, has an innovative Pacific Rim menu. 852-2366-6251.

GALLERIES

GALERIE LA VONG One Lan Kwai Fong (13th floor), Central; 852-2869-6863.

ART SCENE CHINA One Lan Kwai Fong (seventh floor); 852-2501-0211.

SHOPPING

AEGIS Benjamin Poon's hip alternative to the city's custom-tailoring industry can do anything in leather, in a wide range of colors, from natural to brilliant dyes. In addition to bespoke leather clothing—skirts, trousers, shirts, hats, and coats—the shop can also duplicate your favorite old jacket or pair of jeans in the leather of your choice. 2310 Harbour City, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon; 852-2366-1805.

FAR EAST LINEN COMPANY In addition to its brilliantly colored clothing, the shop offers bed linens, duvet covers, and tablecloths. 9B Stanley Main Street; 852-2813-9362.

KASHMIRI CREATION Embroidered and beaded bags and clothing accessories such as those offered here are very fashionable in Hong Kong now. There is a good selection of sheer curtains at a tenth of the price they would be in the United States, and they're packable. The shop is run by an Indian woman named Baljeet Kang (Yu King House, 15 Stanley New Street; 852-2813-9550). Baljeet's mother also has a shop in the market, which sells antique Indian embroidery, tapestries, and woolen cushion covers (25 Stanley Main Street; 852-2813-7006).

Jamie James wrote about Californian art in the October 2000 issue of Departures.

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