Hong Kong Sampler

Despite economic setbacks and the SARS outbreak, Hong Kong is still full of energy -- and bargains.


November 16, 2003|By Jane Engle | Jane Engle,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Approaching Hong Kong by air in the daytime is unforgettable. The city looks like a forest of Erector-set towers gleaming against dark hills. The parade of nearly identical skyscrapers, honeycombed with windows, seems endless. It's Manhattan on steroids.

An East-West trading center since the mid-19th century, Hong Kong remains a major international crossroads -- but a troubled one. Much of its elite class fled before the British territory reverted to Chinese control in 1997. The ensuing Asian recession, plus competition from China's booming Guangdong province, has sapped some of its economic strength. Real estate prices, once among the world's highest, have plummeted.

Then came the outbreak, first reported widely in March, of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which decimated tourism, one of Hong Kong's top five industries, before the World Health Organi-zation declared it to be contained here in June. Tourism overall has recovered, although Americans are still skittish; 13 percent fewer of us visited in August than in the same month last year.

Tempted by one of many post-SARS bargains, my partner, Wesla, and I visited Hong Kong in September for the first time. We plunged into a bustling, beguiling city of more than 7 million, boasting New York's density and hustle and San Francisco's nautical, hilly setting.

We saw few non-Asian faces and encountered only a handful of Americans, who usually account for more than 8 percent of Hong Kong's long-haul visitors. On the streets we saw only one person, besides sanitation workers, wearing a mask, as was common during the SARS outbreak.

As for our deal: For $2,508 total for two on Virgin Vacations' "Hong Kong & Singapore Budget Fling," we spent three nights in Hong Kong and four nights in Singapore. Our package included airfare, transfers, luxury hotels, a half-day Hong Kong tour and trip insurance.

In Hong Kong, we found a friendly, energetic, endlessly fascinating city that barely betrayed its troubles. Take our guide: Daniel Fung of PC Tours and Travel waited more than four hours to greet us at Hong Kong's sleek but cavernous $20 billion Chek Lap Kok airport.

Fung said Virgin Vacations forgot to tell him it had changed our airline and flight times. ("It was definitely a miscommunication," a Virgin Vacations spokeswoman told me after I returned. I had not identified myself as a reporter when traveling or making the arrangements.)

Unfazed, Fung briefed us on our package details in a New York minute. Then he grinned broadly and added: "Welcome to Hong Kong. Spend lots of money."

As it turned out, there were enough bargains that we didn't have to spend all of our money.

Our hotel, the 700-room Kowloon Shangri-La on Kow-loon peninsula just across from Hong Kong Island, was one of those bargains. Sans package, the published rate for our elegant room on the 19th floor, with partial harbor view, was nearly $400 per night. Service was flawless; a pot of hot tea in a wicker basket and two pears awaited us.

Also awaiting us, unfortunately, was a typhoon warning. An average of six typhoons a year come within 500 miles of Hong Kong, mostly in late summer or September. This one passed us by without harm. Meanwhile, offices, shops and schools shut down and traffic halted -- but the venerable Peninsula Hotel, a few blocks away, continued to serve afternoon tea in its opulent lobby. Of course we indulged.

Patronized by glitterati for generations, the Peninsula is marking its 75th anniversary by offering 25 percent off many items, including tea. For $37 for two, we sipped its signature-blend and fragrant camomile teas; nibbled on three tiers of exquisite pastries, scones and finger sandwiches served by waiters in white brocade jackets; and strained, over the din of conversation, to hear the string quartet playing in the balcony. It was less formal than I had expected but still oh-so-British.

We had arrived by cab but had to make our way back to our hotel by foot in the rain. Taxis had stopped moving.

Shopping wonderland

The next morning, we went to the Tsim Sha Tsui pier, where Star Ferries depart for the eight-minute trip to Hong Kong Island. We hoped to grab some dim sum at Jade Garden restaurant. It has two branches in Kowloon; this one is near the pier. It was a short but challenging walk from our hotel because subway construction for a Kowloon-Canton Railway extension, expected to open next year, has torn up sidewalks and streets.

To kill a few minutes before the restaurant opened, we entered a nearby shopping mall.

Unwittingly, we had fallen down the rabbit hole into the capitalist wonderland of Harbour City, one of the world's biggest shopping areas, sheltering more than 700 high-end stores.

Prices on the few goods we checked were about the same as in the United States. But that's beside the point: Everything is here. No time to jet to London? Marks & Spencer is steps away. We'll always have Paris, so why rush over there? Yves Saint Laurent and Lalique are here.

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