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I went to Hong Kong twice in the early 90's. Those were epic visits: Hong Kong was still a British colony and the place had spectacular ultra-exotic energy. It just oozed cosmopolitan vibe. It was, and still is, perhaps the most beautiful major city in the world--at least from a panoramic perspective. The shopping was overwhelming back then: I brought home a Nikon camera and Seiko and Omega wristwatches at a fraction of what they were selling for in the US. And so, I was delighted at the prospect of sharing this magical place with my daughters in the summer of 2014. I bought this book and two others and we prepared for five days and five nights in wonderful Hong Kong as a digression from our month-long trip in Thailand.
This Rough Guide is fine. I used it in conjunction with the Lonely Planet Guide, and between the two I definitely felt like I had all my bases covered. This is a sturdy, small volume with a nice map and it is a concise repository of a treasure-trove of information.
But, folks, I must report that Hong Kong has changed. It is now, obviously, a Chinese city and the entire character of the place has changed. It is now harsh, extremely crowded, and has a peculiar austerity to it. I found it much less hospitable and less interesting than before. There is very little exotic about it today. I'm glad we went, but two or maybe three days would have been more than enough. We were anxious to leave after five full days. My wife and daughters declare they never want to go back; they didn't like it very much.
Here's just a brief review of what it is like now:
1) HK is now extremely expensive. Our Holiday Inn was US$300/night for a totally mediocre room without any view. By way of contrast, we had premier Five-Star rooms on the Chayo Praya River in Bangkok (at the Sheraton Golden Orchid) and in Chiang Mai (Le Meridien) for about US$100/night. There was a Rado chronograph wristwatch I had hoped to score in HK at a bargain price. The Rado dealers there were asking US$4000 for it. I bought it on eBay from a reputable dealer (Ashford) for half that price. I looked at many watches in Hong Kong, and some electronics. Hong Kong is now the LAST place in the world you would want to buy an expensive item as their prices are full MSRP or even higher. I guess the Chinese who come from the mainland are willing to pay those prices and so they keep them at those inflated levels. The merchandise at the street markets is extremely low quality stuff and the prices are not good at all. We literally left Hong Kong with only some gift refrigerator magnets and nail clippers (mine broke within days--pure junk).
2) The Current Vibe: the tourists are overwhelmingly Chinese and every place is crowded. On my prior visits there were people from all over the world, but on this trip 95% of the tourists were Chinese. The people were fine, but obviously they didn't speak much English and so there was little friendly interaction. But some of the local HK populous was scary. One night near the Star Ferry terminal my daughter put her ice cream wrapper on top of a sealed garbage bag. There was a trash can right next to this, but trash was pouring out and all over the street. Well, the lady who was collecting and sealing the bags started screaming this unbelievably loud, extended and violent Chinese rant. You would have thought my young daughter had stolen something or killed someone, it was absolutely obscene. It scared her to death. In the US, you would just call 9-1-1 and have the lunatic arrested for disturbing the peace and a psychiatric watch. (Someone suggested I should have started videoing her on my I-phone; I should have.) In any event, my daughter was traumatized. The next night at a street market some other lady started screaming at me when I made a counter-offer on a camera case. She had asked for about US$25 for a camera case you can buy on Amazon for one-fifth the price. I counter-offered approximately US$15. She starts screaming "No! No! YOU SO CHEAP!! YOU CHEAP MAN!! Go! Go!" Well, I indeed went. She was obviously trying to embarrass me. I was tempted to scream back: "Why don't you sell something other than junk, you filthy witch!"--but the kids were there. In any event, you get the idea. There were many kind and decent people, but when you run in to a few ranting crazies it still adversely flavors your experience.
We obviously had to go up the tram to the top of Victoria's Peak. You haven't been to Hong Kong if you haven't done that, right?? We had to stand in line for almost two hours in suffocating heat and direct sunlight. And we were packed in between a zillion Chinese, none of whom had any hesitation to push. It was unbelievable. And then, when we got to the top, we arrived in a multi-level shopping mall! It is almost like one of those "factory-outlet" complexes, filled with stores selling cheap quality merchandise and fast food outlets. I consider the top of Victoria's Peak to be a spiritual place, and so to see it corrupted like this was very painful and sad. I actually had a hard time even finding my way out of the building--they make it hard, they want to keep you trapped there so you buy the junk in the stores. I finally found a way out and I walked up to Victoria's Gardens. I found a little peace up there, and the incredible view. But I asked myself: What are they going to do next up there to destroy the historic ambience? When I walked back down to the outlet malls, my family was starved. We don't normally eat fast food, but I relinquished and we ate at Burger King. It was over US$30 for a few burgers. Even though we had paid for round-trip tram tickets, we fled the location by taxi.
We did enjoy some nice and reasonably priced restaurants. And we enjoyed the laser show from the promenade. The historic Star Ferry is perhaps the vestigial highlight of Hong Kong, and we crossed on it perhaps ten times.
When we returned home I noticed that my daughters didn't mention Hong Kong at all as they told people about their trip. In Thailand, they enjoyed bountiful shopping for incredible merchandise at bargain prices, smiling and gentle people, great street food, and spectacular Five-Star hotels. Hong Kong was that harsh and un-fun place that Dad made them suffer through for an eternity. Maybe they will assess it differently in the future, but I must concede: the beautiful Hong Kong I knew from twenty years ago: RIP.