Hong Kong (Xiānggǎng; 香港)

What is Hong Kong? It’s a question that many artists, directors, writers and politicians have struggled to answer.

In a very broad sense, Hong Kong is a city of duality, an at-times schizophrenic place that is both Western and Chinese. On one side of the Harbour, British pubs blare rugby matches to their Western clientele, while across the water, lounges populated by lunching Chinese croon with singers belting out traditional Cantonese Opera. All the while, over on Graham Street, you can eat snake soup in one restaurant and Yorkshire pudding in another.

Yet, while there is a clear difference between the communities within the dried seafood-lined streets of the Western District and those of expat havens like Discovery Bay, Hong Kong has absorbed much of what the British brought and created a fusion of cultures that isn’t Chinese or Western, but something else altogether. The tea and food halls (cha chaan teng; 茶餐廳), serving cheap meals of sandwiches, noodles, fried rice and curries, are the result of Hong Kongese combining Chinese and Western style cooking. Local musicians sing Chinese lyrics over Western melodies, while local Triad films blend the furious action of talented Chinese martial artists with Western-style “cops-n-robbers” crime action. Ancient rituals and festivals dance down Hollywood Road as trams whiz up historical mountains and subways roar below incense-filled temples, mingling a swirl of old and new into a unique local culture.

But it’s more than just a juxtaposition of Western and Chinese cultures that defines Hong Kong. Truly, this city of multiplicity has so many fascinating characteristics born from countless corners of the world it eludes definition. Whether you’re into soaring skyscrapers, country villages, Muslim prayer sessions, dim sum, tango, haggling for a new suit, catching a cricket match, having some deer penis wine along with your whiskey or discovering bizarre dried sea creatures, Hong Kong has more than enough for everyone within its dazzling energy.

A poll once attempted to discover whether Hong Kongers felt more Chinese or Western. Their ultimate answer? “Neither – Hong Kongese.” In the end, the only answer to the question “What is Hong Kong?” is the one you find out for yourself. So get pumped, start packing those bags and come discover what Hong Kong is to you. One thing we guarantee: you will have a blast!


Early Settlers & the “Five Great Clans”
Human life in the Hong Kong area can be traced back to the Middle Neolithic era (4000 BCE – 2500 BCE), evidenced by relics like the Fan Lau stone circles on Lantau Island. In fact, Hong Kong is known to be particularly rich in artifacts from both the Neolithic and the Bronze Age (1500 – 220 BCE).

Traditional Chinese people didn’t have a presence in Hong Kong until around 221 BCE, and much of this was characterized by conflicts between various clans and ethnic groups. There is evidence that the Che people were the earliest of the area’s inhabitants and were soon followed by groups who moved in to take advantage of the area’s abundant fishing potential. Many of them, such as the Tanka, who inhabit boats and stilt homes at Tai O Fishing Village, still call the area their home.

In fact, the Tanka fisher folk were not originally boat dwellers, but were slowly forced offshore by the influx of several Han Chinese groups who ironically called themselves “Punti” (本地; local). The Punti were made up of the Five Great Clans, a set of five powerful families who settled the area with a scattering of their own walled villages.

The first clan to settle the area was the Tang. Originally arriving in the 11th century, the Tang held the position as the most powerful of the new immigrants. The Hau and Pang soon followed, creating the first Han Cantonese culture in the Hong Kong area, and these three clans were joined by the Liu in the 14th century and the Man 100 years later. To this day the descendents of the “Five Great Clans” hold considerable political and social clout in Hong Kong.

Their settlements were little more than small villages, however, and the first major Han establishment in Hong Kong came when the Southern Song Dynasty was driven to the area by the invading Mongols.
The Mongol Invasion & the Song’s Establishment in Hong Kong
The Mongols tore into China in the beginning of the 13th century, choosing a time when resistance was particularly weakened, as the Southern Song Dynasty was competing for land with the Jin Dynasty to the north. An initial alliance was formed between the Song and the Mongols, who held a common enemy in the Jin. Once the Jin were defeated, however, the Song abandoned the alliance, allowing the Mongols to consolidate their territories in the west, including the Dali Kingdom in Yunnan, and quickly turn their full attention to the Song.

With a large population, a strong economy and advanced weaponry, the Song presented a great challenge to the Mongols. During the 1250s and 1260s, the Mongols slowly chipped away at the Song’s territory and political support, with Kublai Khan exacerbating internal disputes by offering land to Song defectors. In 1268, Kublai began the siege of Xiangyang, a long struggle that ended in a Mongolian victory in 1273. The Song fell three years later, and its court soon fled to Hong Kong.

With the establishment of the Song court in Hong Kong, the economy prospered through salt, fishing and pearls as more and more Chinese came to escape conflict and famines. The last two of the Five Great Clans, the Liu and the Man, came during this time, and established villages in the New Territories that you can still visit today.

The Mongolians didn’t hold onto China for long, however, and by the 14th century the Ming Dynasty had taken control of the country. By the time the Qing Dynasty took power in 1644, the routed Ming Dynasty had fled to Taiwan. Ming loyalists were strong in the Hong Kong area, the greatest of them being Koxinga, a pirate who wreaked havoc on the Qing Dynasty coastlines for the two decades after the dynasty’s founding.

Instead of continuing a losing war against Koxinga, the Qing eventually gave up on Hong Kong. In 1661, the Kangxi Emperor commissioned the Great Clearance, requiring 16,000 people to leave the area, banning any inhabitation until 1669. Less than 2,000 people returned when the ban was lifted, and though the Qing Dynasty tried to encourage Hakka (an ethnic group of Han Chinese) migrations to the area afterwards, Hong Kong didn’t have a substantial population again until the British set up their colony.
Opium: A Prelude to War
Trade between China and Europe became regular after Portugal’s 1557 establishment of their base in Macau, just 65 km (40 mi) west of Hong Kong. The British joined the show 130 years later, bouncing off their East India Company ports along concessions on India’s east coast. By the 18th century, the British (and much of Europe) had accumulated a trade deficit with China due to their insatiable demand for Chinese products like porcelain, tea and silk; a trade demand that was not reciprocated by the Chinese. To counteract their growing trade deficit, the British introduced opium, a product the British had in endless supply from their holdings in India, and one that the Chinese soon became rabidly addicted to.

Though the Qing court issued major edicts in 1729 and 1799 banning the drug, they soon found themselves powerless to stop its import. In 1730, there were some 15 tons of opium traded. By 1773, the amount had increased to 70 tons per year, and by 1800 it was an astronomical 280 tons per year.

The insatiable demand for opium in China had spun the trade deficit on its head, with China seeing its silver tael reserves plummet. Even worse was the effect of the opium on the populace, making addicted court officials and soldiers lazy and ineffectual at their duties, severely weakening China’s governing and military power.

The situation became dire in the 1830s as opium imports (per year) surpassed 1,400 tons. Emperor Dao Guang (reign 1820 – 1850) decided on a new course of action, first issuing arrest warrants for dozens of foreign opium merchants, and then appointing the honorable Lin Zexu – governor of Hubei and Hunan – to end the opium trade once and for all. The hard-nosed Lin arrested thousands of Chinese opium dealers and called the foreign merchants to hand over their inventories. When they refused, Lin put them under house arrest and proceeded to confiscate a massive cache of 20,283 chests of opium, equal to approximately 1,700 tons and valued at 2 million pounds. After he destroyed the narcotics, Lin demanded the British merchants sign agreements not to trade opium under punishment of death. The majority refused and were forced back to England.

Unfortunately for Lin and the Qing emperor, this was not the end of their opium problem. The British crown saw their expulsion from China as a major insult from a less advanced nation and labeled the Qing court as xenophobic. On the other side of the water, the Chinese equally felt themselves superior to the foreign “barbarians,” and tensions brewed throughout the 1830s. After Chief Trade Superintendent Charles Elliot – who was sent to negotiate with the governor of Canton – was refused an audience and died of fever while exiled in Macau, British merchants angrily penned the Canton Petition, demanding the British government take a stand.

Among the 85 merchants who signed the petition, there was none more powerful than William Jardine. Jardine had graduated from medical school in 1802 and joined the East India Company as a surgeon’s mate on a trade ship. On his journeys, he engaged in personal trade, and eventually quit medicine for commerce in 1817. In 1832, he founded Jardine, Matheson & Co with James Matheson and became one of the most loathsome and unscrupulous foreigners in China. When a 1837 edict called for “Jardine and others” to be expelled from China, Jardine began an aggressive lobbying campaign for war. He appealed directly to British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerson and hired journalists and pamphleteers to push his case. Though war was opposed by Chartists in Parliament, Palmerson was convinced on military action. The narrow 271-261 pro-war majority was pushed over the edge when Sir G Thomas Staunton summarized British imperial sentiments: “If [we] submitted to insults from China, British ascendancy will collapse!”
The Opium Wars: Britain Takes Hong Kong
British warships arrived from India in 1840, and with their far superior technology captured Canton and easily routed the Chinese military. Figures cited by the historian Foster Stockwell put the British death toll at 500, compared to a staggering 20,000 for the Chinese. The next year, Captain Elliot took Hong Kong and proposed concession of the colony as the main condition for a peace treaty.

The British government was furious at first, seeing nothing of value in the small island. Elliot had been told to “obtain freedom for the British to live and trade at the five ports of Canton, Amoy, Foochow, Ningpo and Shanghai,” but Palmerson wrote, “Instead... Elliot had obtained a barren island with hardly a house upon it.”

Elliot was quickly dismissed from his position, and Britain eventually got everything it wanted with the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, including giving British citizens extraterritorial rights in Chinese ports, something not offered to Chinese in British lands. Though Palmerson thought of Hong Kong as a useless outpost that could be traded back to China for more concessions, subsequent governors of Hong Kong quickly developed the island to something worthy of a permanent interest.

Jardine’s associate James Matheson understood the importance of Hong Kong early on. In a letter to an official arguing for retention of Hong Kong, he said, “It is by far the best harbor for large ships in the vicinity of the Canton River.” A later correspondence from a Jardine, Matheson & Co representative concluded, “Many prefer the Kowloon Peninsula, but we ought to have both.”
They would have both in 1860 when the Second Opium War resulted in China’s concession of Kowloon, and in 1898, Britain was leased the New Territories for 99 years.

About 200 years later, the name of the war-mongering profiteer Jardine continues to carry with it connotations of power and commerce in Hong Kong. His name adorns street signs, building names and mountains, and his former company, Jardine Matheson Holdings Ltd, has a huge presence in China, controlling companies like Hong Kong Land, Jardine Motors Group and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group.
Early British Rule
The early years of Hong Kong required the British to essentially build from scratch as the area was full of little more than scattered fishing villages. Their first order of business was to clear out the pirate scourge, which didn’t fare much better against modern British war ships than the Chinese navy did.

The British established the city center in Central, then called Victoria. The Canton Bazaar was one of the first buildings built in 1842 as the first major trade space. The Former French Mission Building on Government Hill, now housing the Court of Final Appeal, was the first building in which British legislators met, while Queen’s Road and Hollywood Road became the city’s first roads.

Land reclamation began in 1859 at Sheung Wan, and from 1864 to 1878, a major stretch of land, including present day Causeway Bay, Wan Chai and Kennedy Town, was pulled from under the ocean. The area that today is Queen’s Road Central, a deep jungle of tall buildings, was little more than sandy coast 150 years ago.

Over its first few decades, Hong Kong struggled to grow as famines, an outbreak of the bubonic plague, and numerous typhoons rocked the area’s property and population. The early years saw a number of criminals and shady characters take up residence as well, but over time the city began to blossom into a strong community.

Hong Kong reached a population of 33,000 in 1850, and just 46 years later it had climbed to a staggering 240,000. This number escalated even further as Chinese began immigrating from the Mainland, which had fallen into chaos under the failing Qing Dynasty. The Qing finally collapsed in 1912, bringing more fleeing immigrants to Hong Kong as a gaggle of war lords, the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) and the Communist Party decimated the country in a bloody civil war.
World War II: Japanese Occupation
Six years after the Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931, their complete takeover of Shanghai drove more Chinese south and caused the population of Hong Kong to increase from about 1 million to 1.6 million between 1937 and 1941. When the Japanese invaded Hong Kong in 1941, they took the city in 17 days, with a British surrender on December 25.

The Japanese military set the tone of their occupation from day one, storming the military hospital at St Stephens College, killing doctors, raping nurses and putting the bayonet to injured soldiers. The occupation of Hong Kong continued in this harsh manner for the remainder of the war, as Chinese civilians found themselves indiscriminately killed in the early weeks and foreign residents were imprisoned at a POW camp in Stanley. The Japanese Military Yen replaced the Hong Kong Dollar, and soon the economy tanked as local businesses were usurped. Long lines for rationed food meant severe malnourishment and starvation for many, and Hong Kong’s population more than halved during these four years. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, the British tried 122 Japanese officers and soldiers in Hong Kong for war crimes, 108 of whom were convicted, and 21 given death sentences.
Post-War Boom
Hong Kong’s dwindling population was down to 700,000 at the end of World War II, but a sharp rebound saw the city once again at 1.7 million by 1947.

The 1950s in China brought even more terror and social strife to the nation, setting the stage for Hong Kong’s fast-paced growth in the second half of the 20th century. With the nation falling into communist hands, Mainland refugees began pouring into the city, increasing significantly as the Cultural Revolution ran amok in the 1960s.

Local authorities began to fear subversion by communist factions and a rise of CCP revolutionary zeal. Many communists set up “patriotic schools,” whose curriculums ran hardline pro-communist agendas, most of which were quickly shut down. Riots sparked by communist furor hit the streets in 1956 and 1967, marked by young revolutionaries marching the streets under banners of Mao slogans.

At a time when Mainland and Hong Kong tensions were at their highest, a People’s Liberation Army invasion force that was slated to enter Hong Kong was called off at the last minute by PRC Premier, Zhou Enlai.

The population boom meant that a great number of the new residents were impoverished refugees living in shanty towns in the hills on the fringes of Kowloon. Made of little more than wood, clothing and blankets densely packed into a relatively small area, these shanty towns saw tragedy when multiple fires took some 200,000 lives during the 1950s. Public housing became an obvious necessity and was seriously pursued after the 1953 Shek Kip Mei fire that left 53,000 people homeless. Today about 50% of the population lives in publicly subsidized housing. Shanty towns and squatter settlements can still be found on the edges of some of the country parks in the New Territories.

Hong Kong’s first major economic boom began as manufacturing found its way into the city in the ’50s. Toys and textiles took the majority of the production, which continued to increase through the ’70s, and it was at this prosperous time that Hong Kong’s economy began shifting towards finance. By the end of the decade, manufacturing made up about a quarter of the economy, continuing to decline through the years as white collar services came to the fore.

The increasing economy of the 1970s meant that more and more Hong Kongese were able to live middle class lives comparable to those in the West. Local restaurants quickly began developing their own fusions of Western and Chinese food, particularly at the cha chaan teng (tea and food halls), which began to serve up ramen-style spaghetti.

Entertainment also took off during the thriving ’70s, as the growing middle class sat down in front of their television sets to watch news reports and dramas every night. The theme songs from many of these dramas gave rise to Cantopop music as stars like Roman Tam, “The Godfather of Cantopop,” found their breaks and rose to fame.

Hong Kong found its place as the leading film producing country in Asia with much help from talents like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, as the city’s cinema began to take the world by storm.
The 1970s made way for wide development of Hong Kong’s transportation infrastructure as well, punctuated by projects like the Cross-Harbor Tunnel in 1972, which allowed automobiles to drive between Hong Kong and Kowloon for the first time. The MTR opened its first subway lines in 1979.

The boom in the wake of WWII was not all rainbows and lollipops, however. The driving economy and swift development opened lucrative opportunities for corruption, especially among police, fire fighters and other civil servants, who were known to require kickbacks before taking action in an emergency. Police officers often protected Triad members and drug dealers in exchange for money, and many businesses factored police bribes into their budgets. Police corruption got so bad that in 1977, when the government busted up a large police corruption ring, they ended up giving amnesty to low level officers who committed crimes before 1977 out of fear they would hardly have a force left if they prosecuted all their crimes.

Since the formation of the Independent Commission Against Corruption in 1974, Hong Kong has made monumental strides against corruption. Transparency International ranked the city as the 14th least corrupt country or territory in the world in 2012, beating out both the United States and the United Kingdom and falling just short of Canada.

The 1980s and ’90s would continue along the same upward trajectory as that of the previous decades. In fact, some have called the ’80s and ’90s Hong Kong’s Golden Era. It was an especially rich time for cinema and music, and many of the best Chinese films of all time, as picked by the Hong Kong Film Association, were filmed during this Golden Era. The 1986 film A Better Tomorrow set the standard for gangster films, a standard that was emulated by 1990s Hollywood as well. Singers like Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung showed that they could act as convincingly and passionately as they could sing on their platinum-selling records.

The excitement of 1980s Hong Kong also sat side-by-side with an unnerving look at the uncertain future. In 1984 the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed, requiring Hong Kong to be handed over to China in 1997.
The Return to China
As Britain’s 99-year lease over the New Territories edged towards its 1997 expiration date, anxiety began to seep into the city. Hong Kong Governor Murray MacLehose went to Beijing in 1979 in an attempt to extend the lease. Instead he was greeted with Deng Xiaoping’s staunch refusal. Discussions between the United Kingdom and China on the future of Hong Kong took place again in 1982, culminating in the December 19, 1984 signing of a declaration that would established Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region of China in 1997. The government and civil rights were to be left unchanged for 50 years (in 2047), at which point it would become fully integrated into the People’s Republic of China.

The people of Hong Kong had become used to a high level of social and political freedoms, albeit without full democracy, under British rule. Hong Kong had developed a vibrant, free marketplace of ideas, critical newspapers and rights to protest; liberties that are largely nonexistent in China. Many Mainland incidents, not least including a particularly notorious event in Beijing in 1989, gave the citizens of Hong Kong cause for great concern, and they now commemorate the events of Tian’anmen Square every year with a candlelight vigil.

Both sides in the handover tried to assuage the Hong Kong people that they would have autonomy. The British set the first legislative elections, and Deng Xiaoping, in a talk to visitors celebrating National Day on October 3, 1984, said:

"In the agreement we stated that no change would be made for 50 years, and we mean it. There will be no changes in my generation or in the next. And I doubt that 50 years after 1997, when the Mainland is developed, people will handle matters like this in a narrow-minded way. So don’t worry, there won’t be any changes."
"Besides, not all changes are bad. Some of them are good, and the question is what should be changed."

Though some Hong Kongers took comfort in Deng’s statement, many have had some concerns about changes under Chinese control. One particular concern came to light when in 2012 protests erupted against newly proposed curriculums that would teach what critics called an “indoctrinating version” of Chinese history.

Anticipating the eventual handover to China, the British government began slowly introducing democratic reforms to the city in 1985. That year, they hosted the first ever legislative council (LegCo) elections, but the indirect election only appointed 24 of the 46 members. In 1995 the first full elections were held and allowed half the members of the LegCo to be elected by geographic constituencies, and the other half to be elected by functional constituencies (FCs), including corporations and workers representing commercial, labor and social interest groups. Currently the Chief Executive is elected by an Election Committee composed mostly of FC members.

However, some Hong Kongers are even dissatisfied with their own form of government, and protests for universal suffrage in the Chief Executive elections (which the territory does not have) still hit the streets on a regular basis. One Hong Kong University law professor is trying to organize a takeover of Central (Occupy Central) in 2014 if the city isn’t granted universal suffrage.
Hong Kong in the 2000s
As the city enters the new millennium, some of Hong Kong’s dynamism of the past two decades has slowed down. The population rose from 6.87 million in 2000 to just 7.07 million in 2014, and much of the increase has come from Mainland Chinese immigrants, as local Hong Kong birthrates have actually dropped.

Tragedy fell upon Hong Kong in 2003 when the SARS outbreak claimed 299 lives. That same year, two of the city’s most beloved cultural icons, Leslie Cheung and his longtime friend and singing and acting partner, Anita Mui, passed away. For many Hong Kongese, the deaths of such beloved cultural icons signaled to many the end of an era and seemed to coincide with the coming of a concerning and unsure future under the rule of Mainland China.

Surveys done by the University of Hong Kong during the past decade have found that less than 30% of Hong Kongese identify themselves as Chinese citizens, while a majority identify themselves as Hong Kong citizens or “Hong Kong citizens plus Chinese citizens.” In 2012, the survey found its most striking results yet when just 16.6% of respondents said they considered themselves Chinese citizens. This result garnered strong criticism by Mainland Chinese state-run media.

Friction between Hong Kongese and Mainland Chinese rose to the forefront of controversy in January 2012 when a Hong Kong man and Mainland woman got into an argument on an MTR train after the man told the mother’s child to stop eating on the train (which is not allowed in Hong Kong but common in the Mainland). The incident, which was filmed by another passenger, heated up quickly, and the video was soon shared online. In the aftermath, Professor Kong Qingdong of Peking University went on CCTV and called the Hong Kongese “imperialist running dogs.” Hong Kongers responded by calling Mainlanders “locusts.”

Many Hong Kongese oppose the trend of Mainland Chinese mothers coming to city to have babies in order for the children to obtain local citizenship. Others also resent the fact that Mainlanders, who gave birth to 37% of babies in Hong Kong in 2010, are crowding hospital beds and putting a burden on the social welfare system. Mainland citizens also like to come to Hong Kong to purchase milk powder, which is perceived to be much safer here than in Mainland China, where there have been a number of poisonous milk scandals. This prompted the Hong Kong government to put a customs limit on milk powder to prevent Hong Kong’s own reserves from becoming depleted.

Though Hong Kong’s future is uncertain, there are many who hold high hopes that, instead of the political and social climate tightening and becoming more repressed, perhaps the city and its people’s penchant for progress and free thought may inspire positive change on the Mainland. Only time will tell, though there is no doubt that the Hong Kongese won’t lose their way of life without a fight.

Geography & Districts

Hong Kong is divided into 18 districts. For most travelers, the important distinction is between Hong Kong Island (香港島) and Kowloon (九龍半島). Hong Kong Island was the first area occupied by the British, and it was from here that much of modern Hong Kong developed. Across the Harbor sits Kowloon peninsula, and further north of Kowloon’s main city center you’ll find the area known as the New Territories (新界). Whereas Kowloon is highly urbanized, the New Territories are far more rural. Though residents of Chinese heritage are found throughout all of Hong Kong’s districts, it is Hong Kong Island that is the home to most of the city’s expats (this area is generally more expensive than Kowloon). Off the coast, some 260 islands make up the Outlying Islands. Most of them are uninhabited, but those that are inhabited – of which Lantau (大嶼山) is the largest – offer some excellent excursions.
Hong Kong Island
Hong Kong Island is divided into four districts: Central and Western (中西區), Wan Chai (灣仔區), Eastern (東區) and Southern (南區). Most of the development is on the northern side of the island around Central (中環). This was the first area of development and is currently where the main government buildings and financial institutions are located. On the western edge of Central around Sheung Wan (上環), you can still find some old Chinese areas with seafood markets and traditional medicine shops. This western edge is also home to Hong Kong University and the neighborhood of Shek Tong Tsui (石塘咀), which used to be an entertainment district known for its Cantonese opera and opium dens. Up the hills south of Central are the Mid-Levels (半山區), where there are hip bars, quirky cafes and houses that get progressively more expensive as you get to the very top of Victoria Peak.

The neighborhood of Wan Chai marks the center of the island and includes the famous Causeway Bay (銅鑼灣) shopping area and some famous parks and sports grounds. This is where you’ll find Happy Valley horse racing track and the nearby Hong Kong Stadium, where rugby matches are hosted.

The Eastern district starts on the east side of Causeway Bay. It isn’t the most interesting part of Hong Kong from a traveler’s perspective, but its most famous neighborhood, North Point (北角), has a fair amount of traditional charm.

The Southern district includes everything on the south side of Hong Kong Island. With a sparser population and clusters of mountains, this area is particularly scenic and includes plenty of great beaches and stunning vistas. Some of the best known are Repulse Bay and Big Wave Bay and the towns and villages of Stanley and Aberdeen.
Kowloon is the most crowded area of Hong Kong, while the first or second most crowded neighborhood in the world (depending on the source) is Mong Kok (旺角). Mong Kok is the northernmost area in the frantic shopping, dining and lodging district of Yau Tsim Mong (油尖旺), named after the three areas it encompasses: Yau Ma Tei (油麻地), Tsim Sha Tsui (尖沙咀) and Mong Kok. Just about all ranges of accommodation can be found here, including some of the most expensive hotels (like the Langham and the Peninsula) and the cheap guesthouses and migrant trader shops of the Chungking Mansions. Yau Tsim Mong is one of the most enticing areas of the city, but Kowloon has plenty of excitement in each of its five districts.

Just east of Yau Tsim Mong is Kowloon City. Much quieter than Yau Tsim Mong, Kowloon City is a more traditional Chinese area and is home to the site of the Kowloon Walled City, one of the most underappreciated parts of Kowloon. Venture away from Festival Walk – the upscale mall outside of Kowloon Tong MTR station – towards the roads south of Kowloon Walled City Park, and you find yourself on streets with a delicious array of restaurants, including Thai and Vietnam towns. While the large area that is Kowloon City extends to the Harbor near Hung Hum (紅磡) and Whampoa, it is the area north of Prince Edward Street that is considered the cultural heart of Kowloon City.

Farther east are the outskirt districts of Kwun Tong (觀塘) and Wong Tai Sin (黃大仙). Wong Tai Sin is home to the famous Wong Tai Sin Temple, but overall these areas are made up mostly of residences, and the farthest edges are home to great swathes of public housing; almost 90% of Wong Tai Sin’s residents live in public housing.
New Territories
Farthest out from the city, the New Territories include a few urban areas and housing estates along rolling rural terrain and country parks. There are nine districts that make up the New Territories.

The main cities in the New Territories are Sha Tin (沙田), Yuen Long (元朗), Tuen Mun (屯門), Tai Po (大埔) and Sai Kung Town (西貢). Sha Tin (in Sha Tin district) is home to malls and public housing developments, a horse racing track and a theater that often hosts Cantonese opera. East of the urban area of Sha Tin is the Ma On Shan Country Park, and even further east you can find Sai Kung Country Park extending down a strip of land to the sea. This is where some of the most beautiful and secluded beaches in Hong Kong are located. The shore of Sai Kung district is lined with beaches and towns like Clear Water Bay (清水灣), Joss House Bay (大廟灣) and Hebe Haven (白沙灣).

To the west of Sha Tin, Tsuen Wan (荃灣) and Tuen Mun border the southern tip of Hong Kong’s western half. Places like Sham Tseng (深井) town in Tsuen Wan include some of Hong Kong’s tastiest roast goose. Continue down the road, and you arrive in Tuen Mun, where the Castle Peak Bay looks out on Lantau Island.

The three northernmost areas, Yuen Long, Tai Po and North District (北區), are also three of the least densely populated. These places are known for their old walled cities and are worth a visit.
The Outlying Islands are all administered under one district called the Islands District (離島區). The largest island (larger than Hong Kong Island) is Lantau Island. Because Lantau is mostly country parks, it’s a great place for hiking or biking. You can find some excellent beaches and fishing towns here as well, including Mui Wo (梅窩), Pui O (贝澳) and Tai O. Lantau also features some of Hong Kong’s tallest mountains, which make for particularly rugged hikes. The Po Lin Monastery is alongside Lantau Peak, the tallest mountain on the island.


For years, Hong Kong contained the world’s third-largest film industry. The local cinema brings with it a special level of artistry, and the techniques and styles of Hong Kong’s filmmaking masters have influenced directors around the world, including some of Hollywood’s greatest. Martin Scorsese once said, “Hong Kong Cinema is something you can’t duplicate in any way – you couldn’t go near John Woo’s The Killer, for example. My skills as a filmmaker just can’t compete with that.” Similarly, after watching Chungking Express, Quentin Tarantino gushed, “I just started crying. I’m just so happy to love a movie this much.”

The cinema that inspired these and other Hollywood greats began in 1913 Hong Kong, when the city’s first feature film, Zhuangzi Tests His Wife, was made and directed by Lai Man-wai. During this part of the 20th century, the Chinese film industry was actually concentrated in Shanghai, but things began to change when China fell into political turmoil, beginning with the Nationalist Party’s (the Kuomintang) banning of martial arts films in 1931. Further problems came during World War II, when the Japanese occupation severely limited the film industry, and little improved after World War II as the Communist Party’s stifling and castrating grip on the Chinese film industry subjugated it to nothing more than propaganda pieces that promoted the Party. This led to a massive exodus of artists and filmmakers to Hong Kong, who looked to escape the persecutions of the CCP.
Kung fu
Early Hong Kong films often relied on traditional stories. Cantonese opera stars made the transition into film, and many pictures borrowed stories from opera. One of the earliest bases for movies was wuxia, stories about “martial heroes” roaming the earth and using their fighting skills for noble causes. They emphasized the values of righteousness, honor and, in many cases, patriotism, mostly dealing with China’s historical struggle against foreign powers and the internal strife of warring factions and warlords.

One of the longest running characters in wuxia began in 1949 when Kwan Tak-hing played the role of Wong Fei-hung (1847 – 1925), a real master of hung gar kung fu and instructor for Guangdong’s militia. Wong became a constant character in wuxia and was depicted by Tak-hing in 77 films (later depictions included those by Jackie Chan and Jet Li).

These early Wong Fei-hung ficks sparked an interest in kung fu that was taken up by the Shaw Brothers Studio, which led the way in kung fu films throughout the ’60s and ’70s.
Bruce Lee (李小龍)
By 1960, Bruce Lee had already appeared in 25 films. His father was a Cantonese Opera performer and, before he was two years old, Lee was carried on stage to play an infant in Golden Gate Girl (1941). With a history of street fights in Hong Kong, Lee went to the United States in 1959 and began teaching kung fu in California. He took roles in several TV series, most famously playing Kato in The Green Hornet from 1966 to ’67, but struggled finding work in big Hollywood films. Lee soon returned to Hong Kong, where he got his big break with a new film studio: Golden Harvest.

Formed in 1970 by two Shaw Brothers executives, Golden Harvest allotted actors higher pay and more flexibility than the Shaw Brothers. The new studio started off strong after signing Bruce Lee to a two-film contract, the first of which was the 1971 box office smash hit The Big Boss. His next film, Fist of Fury (1972), was a turning point for kung fu movies because of its commercial success. In the patriotic tradition of wuxia, Bruce Lee fights with Japanese karate students in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. The film helped the genre transition from scenes focused entirely on sword-fighting to those of hand-to-hand combat.

After Lee’s unfortunate and sudden death in 1973 (the same year Enter the Dragon was released), Hong Kong entered a period of Bruceploitation. Similar to Mainland China’s fake goods industry, Bruceploitation films made use of actors with appearances similar to Bruce’s, gave them names that mirrored his, and based their stories on those of the late actor’s films. Among the most notorious Bruce imitators were Bruce Li (Ho Chung-tao), whose hits included Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger (1976), and Bruce Le (Huang Jian Long), who starred in Enter the Game of Death (1978) and The Clones of Bruce Lee (1981). The latter picture also included Dragon Lee and Bruce Lai as crime fighters cloned from Bruce Lee’s brain tissue.
Jackie Chan (成龍)
Jackie Chan initially worked as a stuntman in several of Lee’s films, and his first starring wuxia role was actually part of a Bruceploitation film as well: New Fist of Fury (1976). In 1978, he played the role of Wong Fei-hung in the hugely popular Drunken Master, which was a major box office success in Hong Kong, and established Chan’s comedic action style. The 1980s saw Chan first test the waters in Hollywood with little success, though he remained successful domestically with The Young Master (1980), Dragon Lord (1982), and Police Story (1985). Rumble in the Bronx (1995) was his first movie of notoriety in the United States, and Rush Hour in 1998 catapulted him to international fame.
Triad Films
Another development to come out of wuxia was the “heroic bloodshed” style of movies emphasizing loyalty and brotherhood amongst criminals with a code of honor. The extreme choreography of the sword fights and gruesome bloodletting in Chang Cheh’s earlier kung fu films like One-Armed Swordsman (1967) strongly influenced this burgeoning gangster genre. But as greater China moved away from its feudal past, the modern day warriors began swapping swords for machine guns, and running around on crowded city streets rather than country plains. These became the cornerstones of the gangster-focused Triad films.

Director John Woo found some of his earliest experience working with Cheh as an assistant director on some of his films, and he had already had moderate success directing several kung fu and action movies when, in 1986, New Wave director and producer Tsui Hark provided Woo with the funding for A Better Tomorrow (1986). The plot tells of an ex-mobster who is the brother of a rising police officer. After being released from jail, he tries to stay away from crime, but his brother won’t forgive him for his actions, and his friends in the Triads won’t let him move on with his life. With bullets flying and hard-nosed characters and dialogue, this movie set the standard for Triad films. It was rated by the Hong Kong Film Awards as the second best Chinese movie of all time on their 2005 top 100 list, and singlehandedly launched the careers of John Woo and Chow Yun-fat and the trajectory of the genre.

John Woo ultimately became the quintessential heroic bloodshed director, directing Hard Boiled (1992) and The Killer (1989), which Chow Yun-fat also starred in. Along with these three movies, Chow’s most lauded works also include his roles in City on Fire (1987) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).
New Wave
In the 1970s, a number of directors started exploring alternative ways of storytelling and filming, bringing a more artistic feel to screen. These New Wave directors, led by Ann Hui and Allen Fong, also presented a more personal look into their characters, delving into more emotional and philosophical matters.

Ann Hui first came to prominence with her series about Vietnamese refugees that culminated with Boat People (1982), a film that would rank eighth of all time on the Hong Kong Film Association’s list of best movies. Not shying away from the grisly details, Boat People presented a mother who resorts to prostitution to raise her children, who in turn have to scavenge through garbage and dead corpses to look for valuables, all while refugees are targeted by the guns of the coast guard. This kind of honest look at the social issues and personal stories of the time was a hallmark of the New Wave movement.

Allen Fong’s film Ah Ying (1983) moved away from the darkness of Boat People, taking a close look at the life of a budding actress and her relationship with a teacher. Often seen throughout the film outside her drama class, Ah Ying has one of her most notable scenes when she helps her parents at a crowded and noisy fish market. The scene particularly showcases the film’s use of natural cinematography, where the smooth and produced style of many other films’ camera work is swapped for a bumpy and handheld feel.

These natural methods of cinematography became influential with later directors. In particular, Wong Kar-wai became well-known for his wild use of hand-held cameras. His piece First Love the Litter on the Breeze (1997) lightheartedly mocked the New Wave style as it followed one man through a dating video via the point of view of a swaying camera.
Second Wave
Wong Kar-wai actually made his debut in 1988 and is considered by many as the quintessential Second Wave filmmaker. Many critics of Wong blasted his work for having nothing actually happen. But Wong was quick to argue that this is exactly the point: most of his films focused more on the inner feelings of characters as they coped with problems of love and identity rather than on wild external storylines. Through discursive plot lines, Wong explored the human psyche, and most of his characters never find true love. Particularly representative of this style is Wong’s 1997 Happy Together, which ends with one character heading to the airport alone after having broken up with his boyfriend as the song “Happy Together” plays in the background. One of the few Hong Kong films to include a gay relationship, the film took many audiences by surprise in its stirring exploration of the main characters’ mindsets as they navigated their homosexual relationship in a less-than-accepting world.

Artistic films of the Second Wave began having some success in the market and were soon attracting top-tier actors. The cast members of Wong’s film Days of Being Wild (1990) made up an all-star list of the ’90’s best actors, including Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung (whom Wong worked with in multiple films), as well as Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau and Jacky Cheung.

Other independent directors like Fruit Chan stuck with little known actors. Chan filmed a number of quirky and humorous ficks, such as 2002’s Public Toilet, the story of a man who was born in a toilet and who searches toilets of the world looking for his past.
The Golden Era: 1980s-90s
All of these developments in filmmaking came together in the Golden Era of the 1980s and ’90s, when elements of different genres merged to create movies that represented the vivid culture of Hong Kong at a time when its economy was booming. From 1960 to 1980, the number of annual films made in Hong Kong jumped from 200 to 300.

Chief among the leaders of the trending New Wavers was Tsui Hark. He debuted with the 1979 piece The Butterfly Murders, which portrayed a wuxia story through a New Wave aesthetic. His 1980 work Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind firmly established him as one of the most controversial filmmakers after it was banned by the government for showing a bombing spree undertaken by high school students.

When he started his production company Film Workshop in 1984, Hark began backing blockbusters that were artistically appealing, including a number of gangster films and kung fu movies. After producing John Woo’s films A Better Tomorrow and The Killer, he soon directed and produced Once Upon a Time in China (1991), which cast Jet Li as Wong Fei-hung. The latter spawned a six-film series, the first three of which earned over HK$20 million each.

Between the years 1980 and 2000, 34 of the top 100 Chinese films of all time (as chosen by the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2005) were produced in Hong Kong. That list includes six directed by Wong Kar-wai, five by Tsui Hark and four by Ann Hui. Because the Golden Era in film happened to coincide with the Golden Era in Cantopop music, some of the top movie actors were also the top singers, and the films featured beautiful themes from their performers. Singer-actors like Andy Lau, Jacky Cheung, Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui paired songs with their movies. At the end of A Better Tomorrow III (1989) – known in Chinese as Song of Sunset – Mui’s rendition of “Song of Sunset” plays as she is whisked away from Saigon in a helicopter, dying in her lover’s arms.
The 21st Century
Unfortunately, the popularity of Hong Kong movies has seen a notable decline as the 20th century has progressed into the 21st, though not to the same degree as some more traditional cultural staples, like http://cms.pandaguides.com/system/workplace/editors/xmlcontent/editor_form.jsp#Cantonese Opera.

In 1993, Hong Kong produced 200 films, but by 2002, that number had fallen to 90, and in 2012, it reached only 53. There are a number of reasons for the decline. Some actors and directors began focusing on Hollywood after they reached fame, while others emigrated before the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China. The financial problems that came with the Asian financial crisis and Hong Kong’s rapid inflation further hurt the film industry, while reforms in Mainland China have opened up Beijing and Shanghai’s movie industries, presenting steeper competition in the Asian market.

Cantonese Opera

With a history of over a millennium, opera is the fundamental traditional form of entertainment in China. Actors perform not only singing and acting, but also show off their superb skills in acrobatics and martial arts, offering both a visual and aural sense of entertainment. Each region of China has a somewhat different local style, but they all retain the basic tenets of actors in elaborate and colorful costumes and makeup as they act out traditional Chinese stories. The two most famous forms of opera in China are surely Peking Opera (from Beijing) and Cantonese Opera, the opera of Guangdong and Hong Kong.

Before movies and television came along, Cantonese Opera was the main form of mass entertainment. Although not as popular as before, there are still three theaters in Hong Kong that hold regular plays: the North Point Sunbeam Theatre, the Yau Ma Tei Theatre and the Sha Tin Assembly Hall Theatre. If you come to Hong Kong during a holiday or festival, look out for public celebrations where there are often Cantonese Opera performances.

Cantonese Opera performances usually follow traditional stories that often revolve around ancient scholars and soldiers. Plays fall into two main styles: mou (武; martial arts) and man (文; literature and culture). Mou focuses on generals and war, and one of this style’s most famous stories is “Tale of the Three Kingdoms,” based on the period when three warlord-run states fought for control of China. Man plays involve scholars and literati and usually delve into poetic themes.

A typical traditional play might be about four hours long and include 10 or 20 fixed tunes, known as xiao qu (small songs), that are sung to express events of the story. These fixed tunes are borrowed and reused with different lyrics, and there is a large repertoire of fixed tunes in Cantonese Opera (professional actors must know about 300 by heart). A suitable fixed tune can come from any kind of music and be adapted for Cantonese opera; some tunes in modern operas even come from popular Western music, and this has lead to Cantonese Opera being dubbed an “integrated genre.”

Nearly everyone, including the majority of Chinese, find their opera (be it Peking, Cantonese or other) incomprehensible, largely because it utilizes extremely poetic language in antiquated dialects and Classical Chinese. Some theaters include English subtitles on screens, but even the acting can be confusing because there are many symbolic gestures that make up for a limited amount of props and settings.

Despite the elusiveness of the storyline, Cantonese Opera is a beautiful and wonderful experience. If you choose to see a performance, here are some elements to watch for:
There are four main categories of characters in Cantonese Opera: sang (生) represent the men, daan (旦) are the women, zing (淨) are characters with specially painted faces who often represent gods, and cao (丑) are the clowns. The characters within each category are further distinguished by age (young, middle aged, or old, with the middle aged usually representing the major roles) and profession (scholars, soldiers, royalty, or the extremely talented scholar-soldier). Female characters, once played exclusively by men, are now mostly played by women, and some women have even played male military generals. In the 1930s and ’40s, Xue Jue-xian emphasized “Six Major Roles”: the scholar-soldier (文武生), the beautiful female main character (正印花旦), the clown (丑生), the soldier (武生), the children (小生) and the secondary female character (二幚花旦). There are other character types, but these are the ones that are most commonly seen.

To identify the characters, you’ll want to look out for their particular headwear. Scholars wear black hats with wings protruding on either side, while soldiers wear simple hats and generals wear helmets with tall pheasant feathers coming out like antennae. Unmarried women have their hair in buns. If a character is frustrated or ready to give up, they will often take off their hat.
Most of the characters have what is called “white and red face” makeup, which is seen as a white face and pinkish-red makeup that surrounds the eyes and fades out over the rest of the face. You can tell a character is hot tempered if he has a red triangle covering the middle of his forehead starting from between his eyebrows. Eyebrows are emphasized in black, and eyes are surrounded in black makeup in what is called “phoenix eye” (鳳眼) style. Both men and women alike wear bright red lipstick. A completely red face usually indicates someone of extreme loyalty.
The costumes are one of the most interesting parts of Cantonese opera. Generally consisting of gowns made of bright fabrics that are ornately adorned with patterns, flowers or dragons, these outfits are tantalizing to view, especially up close. Female characters, in particular princesses and queens, have a spectacular collection of jewels in their headwear.
The band uses various kinds of traditional Chinese instruments, including several variations of Chinese zithers and violins. Some of the most common traditional Chinese stringed instruments used are the er xian (二弦), san xian (三弦), yue qin (月琴) and er hu (二胡). These instruments can often sound high pitched because they are usually tuned to a very high register. The er hu in particular is generally felt to be the most haunting and emotional of China’s traditional instrument repetoire.

The three major styles of singing in Chinese opera are ping hou (平喉), zi hou (子喉), and da hou (大喉). Ping hou is known as the “real voice,” zi hou is a falsetto voice used more often by females, and da hou is a “big voice” that combines ping hou and falsetto and is more often used by males.


Hong Kong boasts a number of talented orchestras. The highest-regarded of them is the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, and you can also find the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, the Hong Kong Chamber Orchestra, the City Chamber Orchestra, the Hong Kong Festival Orchestra and the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra performs most Friday and Saturday nights at the Concert Hall of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Tickets start at about HK$120 to HK$160. With 150 or so performances a year, they also have shows from internationally renowned conductors. The Hong Kong Cultural Centre hosts brilliant musicians all year long.

The Sinfonietta is the second most frequently performing orchestra in Hong Kong. It puts on over 90 shows per year, nearly all of them at the Hong Kong City Hall Theatre. Along with traditional symphonies, they also have specially themed and age-group oriented performances, such as the charmingly named “Good Music for Babies.”

The Hong Kong Chamber Orchestra performs about four to six large scale independent performances a year, and they also put on some collaborative and small scale performances that are set inside intimate community center settings and are usually free.

Among Hong Kong’s domestic soloists, composer and pianist Man-Ching Donald Yu is a standout. His compositions are premiered by himself and others at universities and concert halls throughout Hong Kong.
Cantopop is the most popular genre of music in Hong Kong and, in many ways, the standard for popular music in China. The music takes influence from jazz, rock, R&B and lounge music and mixes them with Chinese memes. Though it has branched out to include different styles and fast paced songs, it has traditionally consisted mostly of ballads, which still make up many of the genre’s best songs.

Cantopop began its rise to prominence in the 1960s. Previously, Chinese popular music had been dominated by opera and shidaiqu (時代曲), an early relative of Cantopop with a more traditional sound. Cantopop owes much of its early success to Teresa Teng (邓丽君), who was a leader in popularizing the new style of Chinese pop music throughout Asia and, although many of her songs were in Mandarin, she still had a major impact in Hong Kong. Dropping out of high school to begin singing, this Taiwanese legend warmed people’s hearts around the world with her sweet but strong ballads. She sang in six languages: Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese, Hokkien, Japanese, Indonesian and English. Her most famous song, “The Moon Represents My Heart,” (月亮代表我的心) remains one of the best-known songs in China to this day.

In Hong Kong, Roman Tam also had a heavy hand in the development of Cantopop. He formed his first band in 1967, and shortly thereafter went solo and dominated the scene, becoming known far and wide as “the Godfather of Cantopop.” The genre was further developed throughout the 1970s when TV dramas began airing in Hong Kong and lending their theme songs to the Cantopop theater. Other stars of that era included Sammy Hui, Alan Tam and Jenny Tseng, all of whom helped launch Hong Kong entertainment into its Golden Era. Perhaps the most representative of that era, however, are Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung, who were known and loved for their incredible life stories as much as their amazing singing and acting. They both left indelible impacts on Hong Kong society and culture.
Anita Mui (梅艷芳)
Anita was nervous as she sang “The Windy Season” at the 1982 New Talent Singing competition in Hong Kong.
Halfway through the song, she heard a bell signaling her to stop.
“How long have you been singing?” the judge asked.
“More than ten years,” she said.
“And how old are you?”
“Nineteen,” she responded.

There was a stunned gasp from the judges, who wondered how such a young talent could have been singing almost all her life. They gave her the highest score of the 3,000 contestants, starting her off on the career that would establish her as “the Madonna of Asia.”

Anita Mui began singing for money when she was about eight years old to help her family survive. The youngest of four children, her poor single mother worked while she and her sister Ann Mui sang around the city at places like the Li Yuan Amusement Park, clubs and restaurants, and on the street.

Anita eventually dropped out of school to support her family, which attracted derision from some during her early years. Many today feel that this helped prepare her to become one of the hardest workers in show-biz, a woman who would set records by performing concerts for over 30 consecutive nights on multiple occasions. Known as the “ever-changing Anita Mui” for the elaborate and gaudy dresses she characteristically wore on stage, Mui developed a sassy personality. She sold over 10 million records, including her 1985 album Bad Girl, which became 8X platinum certified (by Hong Kong standards, which means 400,000 copies sold). But she wasn’t just known for her success in singing and acting, she was also applauded for her charity work and activism, particularly for her heavy donations to care centers for the elderly and her organization of a SARS relief concert in 2003. She died that same year of cervical cancer at the age of 40.
Leslie Cheung (張國榮)
Leslie Cheung was the youngest of ten children. Similar to Mui, his parents divorced when he was young and he lived through a very troubled childhood, making his pairing and friendship with Ms Mui particularly fitting. The two would co-star in four movies and countless concerts throughout their careers.

Unlike Mui, however, Cheung grew up in a middle class family and was educated in England from age 13. Working as a bartender during his 20s, he landed his first record deal in 1977 after placing second in a contest. But it wasn’t until 1982, when he joined Capital Artists (the same year Mui joined), that his career really took off. By the time he was named Asia’s Biggest Superstar at the 2000 CCTV-MTV Music Honors, he had already won eight Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) Top 10 song awards.

Anita and Leslie’s careers seemed to mirror each other: besides all of the projects they did together both stars retired within one year of each other (both returning a year later), and both of them tragically perished in 2003. Within months of Anita’s death, Leslie jumped from the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel after struggling with depression for years.
Three Decades of Cantopop
In the late 1980s and ’90s, four big stars emerged in the Cantopop scene: Andy Lau, Aaron Kwok, Jacky Cheung and Leon Lai. Together, they are known as the “Four Heavenly Kings of Cantopop.” Andy Lau, the biggest star of the four, got his start as a television drama actor after graduating from TVB’s artist training school. From 1985 to 2005, he acted in over 100 films, which earned a total of over HK$1.7 billion, making him the most bankable box office star in Hong Kong history and leading many to brand him as representative of what they feel is an overly-commercialized and prepackaged industry.

With the rise of Mainland China’s economy, many Hong Kong stars have come to dominate the Mainland Chinese music market. Conversely, many stars from China and elsewhere in Asia have come to Hong Kong to launch their careers. The Beijing-born star Faye Wong got her start in Hong Kong, eventually becoming maniacally popular throughout China and winning the Asia Pacific Most Popular Hong Kong Artists award six times between 1993 and 2000.

Some of the most popular stars in the post-2000s include Kelly Chen, Leo Ku, Joey Yung, Miriam Yeung, and Eason Chen. Eason Chen is especially noted by his fans for his expertise in multiple instruments, including the piano, bass guitar, guitar and drums, and for writing a fair amount of his own songs (both of these qualities contrast with the majority of modern Cantopop stars).

Today, Cantopop concerts at big arenas like the Hong Kong Coliseum or the Star Hall are characterized by the swathes of rabid fans swaying glow sticks as much as by the artists and performances they host.
Live Cantopop in Hong Kong
Cantopop idols these days perform in huge arenas on international tours. If you’re interested in seeing a big concert in Hong Kong you can check out the websites for the Hong Kong Coliseum at www.lcsd.gov.hk/CE/Entertainment/Stadia/HKC and the Star Hall (aka KITEC) at www.kitec.com.hk to see what shows are coming up during your visit.

Cantopop in Hong Kong is not only limited to big artists in massive venues, however. Catching singers and aspiring stars singing old favorites at lounges and on the streets is one of the many joys of Cantopop in Hong Kong. It may be a bit more difficult than when Anita Mui was a youth, as these so-called “lunch singers” have become fewer and fewer since the 1980s and ’90s, but there are still a few old style lounge bars on the street Anita once sang on where you can find the Cantopop hopeful and nostalgic.

One of the best options is the vibrant night market Temple Street in the working class neighborhood Yau Ma Tei. It was here that aspiring artists used to sing on makeshift stages and perform Cantonese Operas, and a few aging men and women still perform these street style Cantonese Operas outside the Yau Ma Tei post office most nights at 20:00. Along the side of the street there are outdoor karaoke bars set up under tents, and crowds gather here between 20:00 and 23:00 for cheap drinks and to sing HK$20 songs. The amiable owner Hao Hao at the southernmost karaoke bar loves to have foreigners sing at her place. She has a small selection of 1950s-’80s English songs (Sinatra, Beatles, John Denver, etc) and employs one English speaking man who can help you set up your songs. He and the guests are usually happy to sing along with you or help you sing a Chinese song if you can read characters.

Further up the street, north of the Tin Hau Temple, is a stretch of lounge bars strung with Christmas lights where women sing songs from a stage similar to the clubs of old. There is a cover charge of around HK$20 (drinks are also around HK$20) and you should be prepared to tip the singers you enjoy. Tips are how the singers earn most of their take, and average donations range from HK$20 if you really like a song to HK$50 if you have a request.
Rock & Indie
Few institutions have done as much to promote rock in Hong Kong as The Underground HK. The group hosts rocking local shows at various venues throughout the city each weekend. Some of the more frequent venues they have used include Backstage Live and The Live House, where you can keep an eye out for their CD compilations and newsletter.

The scene showcases a good variety of local music through bands like My Little Airport (indie pop), King Ly Chee (hardcore), Dear Jane (punk), DP (hard rock/stoner rock) and Laura Palmer (noise pop). See what shows are coming up online at The Underground’s website (www.undergroundhk.com) or visit some of the venues in Lan Kwai Fong and the Wan Chai area. Among them, the Fringe Club, the Wanch, the Hard Rock Cafe and Sense 99 are known for hosting rock and indie shows.

One crazy band to check out is Lazy Mutha Fuka (aka LMF). Their music takes everything from punk and metal to hip hop (and more) and synthesizes it together into something uniquely awesome. If you’re lucky enough to find one of their shows you won’t be let down. Some of the original members are now performing in a hip hop group called 24Herbs.
Traditional Chinese Music
Traditional Chinese music, such as that played on the er hu and gu qin, doesn’t have much of a presence in modern day Hong Kong. Your best bet is often to catch beggars playing Chinese zithers on the street, and if you catch one (they are often quite skilled) and stop for a listen you should drop them a HK buck or two. The Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra is the city’s main traditional music troupe, and you can catch their performances at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, the City Hall Theatre and other venues a few times a month.


Hong Kong’s economy is one of the most dynamic out there. With low taxes and a low regulatory burden, Hong Kong has been rated as the freest economy in the world by the Heritage Institute’s Index of Economic Freedom for 17 straight years.

With no import or capital gains taxes, Hong Kong’s economy is driven by its trade and finance industries, which are enhanced by its relations with Mainland China.

Hong Kong is primarily a service-based economy, with services making up a whopping 93% of its GDP and 88% of its total employment. Only 1.6% of the city’s GDP and 3% of employment are manufacturing based, a massive contrast with Mainland China. The so-called Four Key Industries – financial services, trading and logistics, tourism, and professional services – constitute more than half the GDP, with trade as the largest of the four, employing 774,400 people and contributing 25% of the city’s total GDP.

Hong Kong practices an economic policy called “positive non-intervention” that was introduced by Finance Secretary John James Cowperthwaite in the 1960s and ’70s. It is essentially a hands-off policy, somewhat similar to laissez-faire economics, but the government will intervene at times when it feels intervention will generate an advantage for the economy.

Cowperthwaite explained his policy thus:
"If we cannot rely on the judgment of individual businessmen, taking their own risks, we have no future anyway... I still believe that, in the long run, the aggregate of the decisions of individual businessmen, exercising individual judgment in a free economy, even if often mistaken, is likely to do less harm than the centralized decisions of a Government; and certainly the harm is likely to be counteracted faster."

In practice, this means that in addition to low taxes and limited regulation, Hong Kong also has low government spending, with limited social spending and no military. Government spending only makes up 21% of GDP, and the national debt is only 32% of GDP. To compare, in 2012 the United States debt was 106% of GDP and the European Union’s was 87%.

Many of the drawbacks to Hong Kong’s highly competitive market include rapid inflation, unsatisfactory secondary education institutions, a small market size and lagging innovation. Land prices are a huge driving force in causing inflation in Hong Kong, which doubled in only three years from 2008 to 2011. Although some of Hong Kong’s universities, like Hong Kong University, are among the best in Asia, the city actually has a university shortage, and most high school graduates go abroad for college.
In 2012 trade income in Hong Kong totaled a massive US$947 billion, and only $7.5 billion of that came from locally-produced goods. An impressive US$435 billion came from re-exportation, which not only suggests the savvy of the city’s export businesspeople, but gives a nod to the city’s advantageous export policies, which particularly include little to no import tariffs.

Re-exportation occurs when goods are imported to a port with favorable trade policies and then re-exported elsewhere to take advantage of those policies. Over half of Hong Kong’s annual re-exports go to Mainland China, where there are high import tariffs. Machinery, appliances, telecommunications equipment and clothing make up the bulk of the re-exports. The Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) Hong Kong signed with China in 2003 has done a great deal to make trade less restrictive between the two partners.

Services were also exported for US$128 billion in 2011. Merchandising, transportation and travel each made up about one-fourth of the exported services that year as well.
Hong Kong had long been home to the fifth largest stock exchange in the world, although it is now ranked sixth or seventh after being overtaken by Shanghai’s Stock Exchange. It has been one of the world leaders in terms of IPOs in recent years, in large part due to Mainland Chinese companies going public. In 2009, it was the top exchange for IPO fund raising, powered by the success of the Agricultural Bank of China’s US$22 billion joint listing with the Hong Kong and Shanghai Stock Exchanges, then the largest IPO in the world. Hong Kong was also the number one exchange for IPO funds in 2011, if you include a major joint listing it did with the London Stock Exchange.

As with trade, Hong Kong’s financial industry is also heavily reliant on Mainland China. About 66% of the IPOs in Hong Kong in the first half of 2012 were Mainland Chinese companies. Each of China’s four major banks made IPOs on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, three of which were joint affairs with the Shanghai Stock Exchange and were among the top ten largest IPOs in history.
Tourism is the fastest-growing industry in Hong Kong. While employing 6% of Hong Kong’s workers from 2000 to 2009, it accounted for 28% of all new jobs created in the city. Perhaps the largest driving factor is Mainland tourists, who still need to apply for a special permit to visit Hong Kong and come annually in great swarms and colored hat-clad tour groups. Restrictions have been greatly loosened since the signing of CEPA, which created the Individual Visit Scheme. Since then, Mainland tourism has shot up to over 20 million visitors a year and makes up a stunning 70% of all of Hong Kong tourism. Mainland Chinese love to go shopping in Hong Kong, where no import tax makes high end fashion and technology purchases much cheaper than in the Mainland.

The government continues to take actions to try to increase Hong Kong’s tourism appeal. They are continuously redeveloping areas and turning historical buildings into preserved shopping centers. Currently, there is a large cruise ship port under construction near the airport, and it seems only a matter of time before Hong Kong becomes a major cruise destination.
Distress on the Horizon?
Concerns about Hong Kong’s economic future have been sparked by a slowdown in GDP growth in recent years and a decline in certain standards of economic competitiveness. Recently, some investors have been moving capital away from the territory. One important example of this is Li Ka-shing (李嘉誠), the 85-year-old chairman of Cheung Kong Holdings and Hutchinson Whampoa, whose US$31 billion net worth makes him the richest man in Asia. His companies, which have controlled about 15% of the market cap of the Hong Kong Stock exchange, do business in plastics manufacturing, real estate, retail, assets trading, ports, electricity and internet. Cheung Kong Holdings has recently been hit hard by a slowdown in housing sales, which fell sharply in 2013 as prices hit record highs and a new tax was introduced on some home purchases.

In reaction to the soaring prices, Li Ka-shing has been investing huge sums outside of Hong Kong and selling some of his Hong Kong properties. Since 2010, Cheung Kong Holdings has invested more than HK$140 billion (US$18 billion) in Europe, which now accounts for more of the company’s revenue than Hong Kong and China combined. Similarly, Hutchinson Whampoa invested HK$7.6 billion in Europe over the first half of 2013, compared to HK$1.4 billion in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, Li is trying to sell PARKnSHOP, Hong Kong’s second largest grocery store.

Multiple factors are causing the investment slowdown in Hong Kong and Li Ka-shing’s westward investment shift. While some are looking at Li’s actions as a sign of changes in Hong Kong’s economy, others caution against reading too much into investment strategies in the short term. Indeed, the move to Europe might reflect Europe’s economic situation as much as it reflects Hong Kong’s.As Phillip Securities director Louis Wong put it, “They’ve taken advantage of the downturn in Europe to invest in projects with good returns.”

Expats in Hong Kong

They call it “Asia’s World City,” but while Hong Kong does indeed have much diversity among its residents, it is a rather segregated city. According to an informal survey by HSBC (Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation), 80% of expats in Hong Kong socialize almost entirely with other expats. On any given night at the bars in SoHo you often feel like you are in the United Kingdom.
Expats in Hong Kong come from many different countries and spend much of their time in communities with fellow expats of their own ethnicity or nationality. According to the HSBC ratings, Hong Kong is a great place for expats because of its relatively high salaries, widespread use of English and well-developed infrastructures. Only two of those benefits apply to travelers, however, who only get to see the high prices that come with high salaries.

In 2011, a record number of work visas were approved for foreign expats looking for opportunities in Hong Kong. 30,557 people were given work visas for white collar jobs based on having skills and a job offer that met minimum standards. In addition, some 280,000 people were allowed over as domestic workers, and there are even more who do business under other visa programs.

Filipinos and Indonesians make up the largest populations of expats. Citizens of both countries living and working in Hong Kong number over 130,000. Westerners comprise a minority of the expat population in Hong Kong at less than 30,000, and thousands of them have become Hong Kong citizens over the years. Brits make up the largest of the Western nationalities, with Americans coming in a close second.

The rest of the expat population comes from Africa, with around 20,000 coming from a scattering of African countries, though Ghana and Nigeria top the list. Many of them engage in trade, importing and exporting commodities between Hong Kong and their home countries, and some 5% of them are refugees.

European and American expats generally like to hang out in the bars in the Mid-Levels areas of Lan Kwai Fong and SoHo. Many venues are almost entirely filled with Westerners. SoHo means South of Hollywood Road, so if you follow the Mid-Levels Escalators up to Hollywood Road, you’ll be in the “Gweilo Ghetto,” as some have come to calling it – the “Foreigner Ghetto.”
The bars along Shelley Street, which the escalator follows after passing Hollywood Road, and the bars just north of Hollywood Road in Lan Kwai Fong, are full of Central bankers and young tourists partying all night. SoHo, along with Lockhart Road in Wan Chai, is a good place to watch a cricket or rugby match in a British pub.

The Mid-Levels is also a haven for foreigner real estate. The expat-centered real estate company Square Foot estimated that 45% of the flats in SoHo are occupied by foreigners.

Hong Kong Island was where the British developed first, so it has remained more popular for expats than Kowloon. Central is the home of government and finance, while the south side of Hong Kong Island is also a popular place for expats, particularly the town of Stanley, which has an abundance of nice European restaurants that many have compared to the French Riviera. Stanley’s beaches, and those to the north around Repulse Bay and to the east at Shek O, are natural habitats for expats on the weekend. Housing here is highly sought after, but only available for the rich or employees of the rich. Many high level executives with multinational firms are put up here among the beachfront properties.

Some expats tire of the crowded, noisy life in downtown and want to live away from the bustle, which has lead to the ballooning popularity of a few areas in the New Territories among expats. Among the biggest draws is Sai Kung, a former fishing town just south of the beautiful Sai Kung and Plover Cove Country Parks. There you’ll find some very nice seafood restaurants and great hiking trails, as well as beaches within easy access. It’s good for a weekend trip, and housing is still cheaper than it is in Central.

Two of the most popular expat island destinations, Discovery Bay on Lantau and Yung Shue on Lamma Island, offer examples of the relative diversity of Hong Kong’s island communities. While Discovery Bay is especially coveted by families with children for its resort-like feel – its suburban streets lined with expensive hotels, bayside shopping malls and plenty of palm trees – Lamma Island is for known for its hippie and bohemian populations. Far less developed than Hong Kong Island and lacking in Discovery Bay-style shopping malls, Lamma Island is only accessible by ferry and has some of the most stunningly beautiful beaches and landscapes in the city.

Though Discovery Bay has little to offer tourists, other places on Lantau Island are great for tourism and are popular with expats.


Religion has played a very significant role in shaping Hong Kong. The British first brought freedom of religion to the territory under their Basic Law, and through the melting pot of cultures and peoples that have come to Hong Kong, the city has seen a great variety of spiritualities come through its doors.

Though religion still plays a major role in the lives of many Hong Kongers – something evidenced by its hundreds of active temples and spiritual sites – strict adherence to specific faiths has declined in recent decades as the city has become one of the poster children of China’s modern face. In fact, according to the US Department of State, 57% of Hong Kong’s citizens do not follow any religion. The remaining 43% constitute believers from Taoism to Hinduism, with around 22% of the city’s residents telling surveyors that religion was an important part of their daily lives.

Here are a few of the major religions you’ll find in Hong Kong.
Taoism, a one-time philosophy examining the Universe and humanity’s relationship to nature, has seen a great deal of Buddhist influence over its history. What began as a contemplation method concerned simply with the “Tao,” or the “Way,” (i.e. the nature of the Universe) eventually evolved into a monastic system through a meld with certain aspects of Buddhist doctrine. The Taoism of yesteryear, marked by hermits and secretive wise men and women searching for enlightenment through thought, meditation and elixirs, is now seen mostly in the form of monk-filled temples chanting around statues of immortals.

Around one million Hong Kong residents consider themselves Taoist, and the city is full of temples dedicated to those who achieved enlightenment and became immortals, Taoism’s version of Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Some major Taoist institutions to look out for are the Yuen Yuen Institute in Tsuen Wan and various Man Mo temples around the city. Taoist institutes in Hong Kong are well known for participating in or creating programs to assist the needy.
The largest religion in China, Buddhism is a direct import from India. Focused on reaching nirvana (or enlightenment), through meditation, and a strict lifestyle that avoids worldly vices and adamantly embraces respect for life, Buddhism is well known for its peaceful and compassionate image. Most believers practice vegetarianism, and the strongest practitioners focus their meditation on peace and compassion for all other life. Buddhism takes many forms and has many sects; in China the most prevalent is the Chan sect, which is known as Zen in Japan and the West.

More than one million Hong Kongers claimed to be Buddhist in 2010, a number that trumps the Taoist population by only a small margin. However, the presence of Buddhism does seem to take the day in Hong Kong, and it can be felt in nearly every corner of the city, from the beautiful Chi Lin Nunnery in Kowloon to the famous Tian Tan Buddha of the Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island. Nearly all Buddhist organizations in Hong Kong have a strong devotion to social welfare programs and assistance.
Less of a religion than a philosophy, Confucianism developed as a moral code originally meant to curb the disgraces of government leaders and realign society with a reverence for elders and proper conduct. Its spiritual side came from the deep respect it pays to the dead and to the cosmos. The sage Confucius, born in the Shandong city of Qufu, began professing his lessons from under an apricot tree to a small number of students over 2,500 years ago, and today the social tenets of his philosophy have become the backbone to nearly all modern Chinese beliefs. Familial piety and an emphasis on being (at least on the surface) ethically upstanding – the foundation of modern Chinese culture – owe their strength to Confucius and his influence.

Though many Confucian buildings in Hong Kong and China are called “temples,” their spiritual side usually consists of little more than a veneration of Confucius and Chinese ancestors. Confucian institutes in Hong Kong are more involved in education and upholding the ideals of the philosophy, which is why many Confucian institutes in Hong Kong are aimed at educating youth.
Islam is believed to have entered China as early as the 8th century via the Silk Road. While much of the Islamic influence found in the country can be seen in the north and the northwest, particularly around the area from Shaanxi to Xinjiang, it has had a strong presence in Hong Kong as well. The city’s first mosque, Jamia Mosque, was built in 1840 and originally served Punjabi Muslims who had been recruited as a police force. It is generally agreed that Islam became a part of Hong Kong culture around this time.

Today, the city is home to around 220,000 practicing Muslims, and the number is growing. Including the original Jamia Mosque, the city now boasts six mosques in total, as well as a number of Islamic organizations.
The earliest records of Christianity in Hong Kong came with the British in 1841. That year, both Catholicism and Protestantism established congregations in the city, which have since grown moderately to 353,000 and 480,000, respectively. Both, like Buddhist and Taoist organizations, are deeply involved in community and social welfare programs throughout the city and have presences in government and education.

Mormonism also has a healthy following in Hong Kong, with around 22,500 registered members (though only 5,500 are estimated to be active practitioners).

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