The map below shows the location of the airport before it moved to Lan Tau Island around 1997.
Hong Kong Island
Hong Kong Island accounts for about 10% of Hong Kong's total area. The island has an area of 100 square km and is therefore a little smaller than, say, the city of San Francisco. About 1.2 million of Hong Kong's 6.1 million people (including 200 000 westerners) live on the island.
A history of Hong Kong for web surfers in a hurry:
In the 18th century, British traders began paying their Chinese trading partners in opium rather than silver. Within a few decades the drug had so devastated southern China that the Emperor outlawed the trade. The British traders' opium sheds near Canton were confiscated and the British responded with gunboats, winning the first Opium War in just 4 weeks. China was forced to reimburse the British government for the lost opium and to cede the island of Hong Kong to the British crown 'for eternity'.
The decay of the Chinese Empire was exploited by the British and in the Treaty of Peking (1860) they extended their territory to the Kowloon peninsula. The New Territories were the final addition, leased to Great Britain for 99 years from 1898. The lease thus expired in 1997 and China resumed sovereignty over all of Hong Kong, quite smoothly so far. All together, Hong Kong adds up to about 1000 square kilometers, while Hong Kong Island is about 100 square kilometers and the original Kowloon concession about 10 square kilometers.
This photo shows Central, Hong Kong's financial district. The tall dark building with the rugby posts on top is the Bank of China building, one of the world's ten tallest when it was built and a creation of Pei, the guy who did the pyramid in le Louvre, Paris. Just over the water you can see a bit of Kowloon.
The south side of the island is very different from the north: much less developed, clean, pretty and expensive. In fact rents are higher in Hong Kong than anywhere else in the world, with expats typically paying up to about US$10000 per month for a modest 3 bedroom apartment.
The most exclusive residential area on the island is The Peak. Repulse Bay runs a close second, with the island's best beach and a cute collection of Buddhist statues such as these.
Note how this kind dragon is helping Catherine to balance the heavy stone ball on her head..
Here are some of our Hong Kong friends (colleagues of Catherine):
It's probably thanks to Hong Kong's high levels of pollution that we sometimes get spectacular sunsets like this. Our apartment in 'Tai Hang Terrace' had great views towards the financial district - it was on the 20th floor.
Our new apartment in the basement of the French school has a pretty good view (below), too, wouldn't you say? We're looking west across Happy Valley towards the Peak. It's very unusual to be living on the north side of the island and yet to have such a green view. On the left is the new campus of the French International School (FIS) where Catherine works.
And if you'd care to take a look inside our humble abode, check out the photo below...
The apartment above was the last one we lived in before leaving HK but we actually lived in 5 different places during the 6 years we were there. We started in a 40 storey tower block on a little island of the south coast of Hong Kong island - we were on the 23rd floor looking south over the ocean. There were about 40 towers in that housing estate, each with 40 floors, with 8 apartments per floor and maybe 6 people in each apartment, on average. Let's see... 40*40*8*6=77 thousand people living in just that one housing estate! You can start to believe that parts of Hong Kong have about the highest population densities in the world - up to 400 thousand people per km² in Kowloon's 'corridor of death' (polluted air). We left that apartment after just 6 months - Catherine was going out of her mind not because of the population density but because of the interminable noise as people moved into the new tower and remodelled the apartments to suit their own personal fung shui beliefs.
We were lucky enough to then get an apartment in the British Army Barracks in Stanley Fort - there was space there for a limited time between the British army moving out and the Chinese army moving in after the handover in 1997. This was a great apartment with beautiful views (see below), peace and quiet, and lots of westerners living there - potential friends.
We were forced to leave Stanley Fort just when apartment prices were at their peak - our next apartment (Tai Hang Terrace) cost us about 2200 USD per month for a 55m² (600 sq ft) apartment with leaky ceilings. It was so cramped that I had my knees nearly against the TV when watching it from the other side of the living room.
Then we were lucky enough to get a small room in the French school (still at high cost) and finally we could not resist moving into what was the headmaster's apartment (top of this page) when he left to live in a new building elsewhere on the campus.
Kowloon and Stonecutter's Island were annexed by the British in 1860 - the original Kowloon concession had an area of about 10 square km. Most of Hong Kong's hotels and shopping arcades are located in Kowloon. Parts of Kowloon such as Mongkok have the highest population density of any place of earth, with population densities up to 400000 people per square kilometer or 3 square meters of living space per person. Mong Kok is a great place to go if you want to experience what life in a typical Chinese city is like. Kowloon also has some of the world's worst air = the west side of Kowloon is known as the 'Corridor of Death' because of the high incidence of respiratory problems there. Building heights in Kowloon have been limited by the proximity of Kai Tak airport but now that the new airport is open these restrictions will no doubt be relaxed and the population density and pollution levels will no doubt climb even higher...
The New Territories
We haven't explored the New Territories properly yet, but we have visited Sai Kung, a very unspoiled and picturesque corner of Hong Kong. Here's a picture of Sai Kung.
The Outlying Islands
Hong Kong includes dozens of inhabited islands of which the biggest is Lantau - actually about twice as big as Hong Kong Island. It's quite undeveloped and sparsely populated for the time being, but with the opening of Hong Kong's new airport on Lantau's west side (and the world's longest road/rail suspension bridge) this is likely to change...
This small Portuguese colony was established long before the Brits took Hong Kong, so it has much more of a European atmosphere with plenty of quaint old buildings and narrow streets. Jetfoils link Hong Kong to Macau in about an hour and it's a popular destination for gamblers and Grand Prix enthusiasts. China resumed sovereignty of Macau in December 1999, without incident. I expect there will be a clampdown on triad activity there - there have been many triad-related murders in Macau over the last year or two.
One strange thing about Macao: cars drive on the left. Now, can anyone explain that to me??
The worst aspect of living in Hong Kong is undoubtedly the POLLUTION (or is it the high cost of accommodation?). For the full story, click HERE. For other observations on Hong Kong, read on...
Hong Kong Newsletter (written October '94)
After two months in Hong Kong, it's time to look back and give some of our impressions...
The weather (the second worst facet of life here).
- Hot, humid and rainy when we arrived (it seemed to rain every other day). The rains stopped around mid September and the oppressive heat and humidity (air conditioning running 24 hours a day, instant sweat when you step outside) started to weaken in in early October. Now the weather is just about ideal, except that most days are hazy. Blue skies are rare. The temperature is destined to continue falling to around 10°C in December - cold and damp. Rain should resume around January, with a rapid switch from cold, damp winter to hot, humid summer in around March. No real spring. We haven't experienced a typhoon yet, though our trip to Boracay was affected (see below). Typhoon season ends around now (October). We haven't yet had a "black rain warning" on TV - a warning that torrential rain is on the way and that everyone should stay indoors. The fact that you always have to go UP several steps before you can go down into Hong's impressive metro system (the trains were made in England) may be an indication that rains can be really heavy...(or is it a Fung Shui thing?) Friends have told us that in one recent year it rained for six months in Hong Kong NONSTOP! Best time to come is therefore around November/December.
- This is related to the weather, of course, or is it? It seems that many places here run their air conditioners even in the winter. It's bad enough in the summer, always having to carry a sweater around so that you don't freeze when you go in a restaurant - in the winter people probably have to wear an overcoat to eat out? I had a sore throat for the first month of my time here - I'm sure it was because of the air conditioners.
- It's good! British double-decker buses everywhere (see "pollution" above), taxis, electric trams along the island's north shore, and the shiny metro system (not to mention all the ferries). The taxi drivers usually don't speak a word of English, so you have to be ready to show your destination in Chinese written characters if you don't want the taxi driver to just drive away. Actually the taxi drivers don't seem to understand Cantonese either - at least not mine. I've been trying for two months to get them to understand Ap Lei Chau but I don't seem to be able get the intonation just right. With nine different ways of pronouncing each syllable, each of which can carry a different meaning, Cantonese isn't the world's easiest language! Example: the Chinese word "see" can mean, according to the intonation, 'poem', 'to tear', 'history', 'to try', 'matter',' time' or 'market'!
The amahs (housemaids).
- The social gathering of thousands of Filipino women amahs in Hong Kong's financial district every Sunday is one of the most amazing phenomena that we have seen in Hong Kong. The babble of voices sounds like a crowded aviary - in fact they seem to attract flocks of birds to the nearby trees. These social gatherings are not appreciated by Hong Kong's businessmen as they leave the financial district in a frightful mess (rather surprising given that they are meant to be professional housekeepers...) There are more than one hundred thousand Filipino housemaids in Hong Kong!
- We like the Chinese! Chinese account for 98% of the HK population and we think they (at least on the island) have class, elegance, a sense of humor and (in Catherine's words) a superior intellect. There are a few fat people in Hong Kong... and they are all white! Fat Chinese just don't exist! Despite the food, which is mostly fried. Hong Kong Chinese are also mostly quite young - it's logical as most of Hong Kong's people are political or economic refugees from China who arrived here in the last twenty years, and older people are less likely to want to go through the upheaval of emigrating. I guess older people would have more trouble finding work, too, though there very little unemployment in Hong Kong. Chinese people seem to love children and take advantage of Hong Kong's (temporary?) immunity from China's one child policy. This seems to be one of the many differences between Chinese and Japanese - the Japanese seem to be more "modern" in valuing freedom over family (controversial stuff here!)
- We're disappointed - Cantonese food doesn't seem very healthy and it's not specially cheap. Most food is fried food and you can eat any kind of meat you want... as long as it's pork. Maybe we just haven't found the right places, dishes and times yet (I think Dim Sum is boiled rather than fried, but it's served for lunch rather than for dinner).
- Everyone will tell you that Hong Kong is a shopper's paradise but that you need to bargain for everything in Hong Kong. That's not our impression - are we just being naive? Prices are often comparable to the US, though sometimes much less - it's possible to find cheap, high quality clothing ... and McDonalds burgers. I just bought this Macintosh computer and paid a little more than I would have done in the States. There are plenty of flashy shopping malls. You can buy just about everything here, even Marmite, though it's hard to find lettuce! Also, we can't mention prices without mentioning once again the amazing cost of accommodation here (higher here than anywhere else in the world). We had a lot of trouble finding a decent apartment for as little as US$2200 (1500 pounds) per month - many gwailos (white ghosts, as the Chinese call us) live in Repulse Bay, where the minimum rents are around US$15000 (10000 pounds) per month!! Oops! I nearly forgot to mention the most important commodity of all (for Catherine, that is): wine! It's hard to find decent, affordable wine here.
- Hong Kong does now have a cultural scene, or so we're told. But as yet we've been too busy to explore it - we haven't even been to the cinema yet. On TV we have about nine stations, two of which are in English and two of which are sometimes in English. We have Star, Star Plus, World and Pearl. There are some decent movies and fewer ads than in the States (where there are ads every 5 minutes).
- Surprisingly, about 40% of Hong Kong is park land, even on Hong Kong island. That's because HK is so mountainous that there are lots of places where they can't build their sky-scrapers. Because the parks are mostly hilltops, they are somewhat barren, the minerals having been washed away by the heavy rains, but we hike a lot anyway when the weather is bearable (October to February).
Cockroaches, snakes, rats...
- We were expecting to see plenty of these, but have been "disappointed". Only a couple of small green snakes - none of the fifteen foot monsters that live in the hills and sometimes appear in the French School. No rats or cockroaches where we live though I think there are plenty in the older parts of Hong Kong such as Wan Chai. Actually I've only seen 3 rats in these two months: one in the food hall of our local mall, one in the North Point area on the north side of the island and ... one in front of the Grand Hyatt hotel! There's worse: our friends swore they saw a rat getting out of a taxi!