In up-to-date Hong Kong, gentle old ways remain East meets West

August 14, 1994|By Jane Wooldridge | Jane Wooldridge,Knight-Ridder News Service

The 21st century has already arrived in Hong Kong.

Against the skyline, one massive tower looks like an industrial plant turned inside out, its steel structure visible for miles. Another looks like triangular blades stacked helter skelter. Less extreme but equally impressive monoliths cascade down the mountain. Beneath their imposing mass, smartly dressed men and women zip about on noiseless transit systems. Cellular phones are de rigueur.

But Hong Kong's dragon has another, gentler face. In the shadow of such modern zeal, it is easy to forget that Hong Kong is also a tropical city located at roughly the same latitude as the Hawaiian islands. Palm-filled parks are only a quick taxi ride from the business center of the Central District. A little further are serene bays that are havens for windsurfers and sailors. The 230-plus outlying islands that belong to this bustling metropolis are oases where green prevails and traditions hold fast.

These are the two Hong Kongs, one sleek and pulsating with power, the other a haven of old-style Chinese life. The two are shoved together, often side by side, creating a curious and exciting city. The excitement is heightened by anticipation of 1997, when the British will relinquish Hong Kong's control to China.

Even a quick glance reveals the fast-paced city of luxurious hotels, custom suits and endless jewelry shops, whose 5.9 million residents own the highest number of Rolls Royces per capita and drink the most cognac per capita of any culture in the world. The traditional side is more subtle, and clearly fading since I first visited eight years ago. But it still can be seen by visitors who know where to look or who simply take the time to wander.

My own strolls through the colony have led past shops selling such herbal cures as deer's tail tonic tea and into narrow markets where one can pick out a live chicken to take home for dinner. To outlying islands where families live on bright, wooden boats. To a tropical garden, just a quick walk from the business district, where elderly Chinese practice their silent tai chi exercises.

These two worlds collide even in the city's center, Victoria Harbour, buzzing with hydrofoils and fishing boats, tugs and Chinese junks-turned-tourist boats. The harbor is, quite simply, a thrill -- especially at night, when the water glitters with the reflections of the colorful lights of skyscrapers. Though one can transfer swiftly from the business district of Hong Kong island to the shopping mecca of Kowloon on the clean, safe MTR underground system, the seven-minute ride on the Star Ferry is infinitely more charming.

Generally, the closer one is to Victoria Harbour, the more urban the setting. Surely that is true in the area of Kowloon called Tsimshatui, with its Cultural Centre for performing arts, museums, neon that rivals Las Vegas, a profusion of tourist hotels and a Planet Hollywood that opened last spring. Tsimshatui is also the center of the shopper's world. Indoor shopping centers abound, but the cheap deals for which Hong (( Kong was once known are now tough to find. You can now buy camera goods as cheaply in New York, computers for about the same price in a good discount center and leather goods more cheaply just about anywhere else. But the choice of items here is mind-boggling.

I found jewelry to be a better buy here than in the States -- though it is riskier, since one can't easily run back to the jeweler if the stones aren't as valuable as promised. Custom-tailored men's suits and shirts cost about the same as good quality ready-made suits and shirts at home. Though designer styles cost as much or more than in the United States, casual clothes, factory seconds and unknown brands found in smaller shops can be a bargain.

Kowloon is also home to two of the world's most luxurious hotels. The Peninsula is the grande dame of the East, where tea is served each afternoon at 3, a dozen Silver Spur Rolls Royces are available to transport guests and white-gloved bell boys scurry about attending to every need. A new tower slated for completion this year will double the number of rooms to about 300. Just across the street is the Hong Kong Regent, a modern marvel of glass and granite with splendid views of the harbor and equally superb service.

When I first visited Hong Kong eight years ago, Tsimshatui was also graced with pockets of traditional Chinese life. Today, typical markets still exist, though they are farther from the center. In the district called Yaumatei, you can find lanes filled with fruits and vegetables, dried meats and roasted ducks, live chickens and metal shops. At the Jade Market, you can bargain for cheap rings or expensive carved antique pieces. A street market thrives at Temple Street, where each evening shoppers can look for bargains on clothing and munch on shrimp just off the brazier at the Night Market.

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