If I add up the stamps on my passport over the years, I have spent cumulatively about six months in Hong Kong. The first time I visited the city-state in 1981, well before expiration of the 1997 lease to the UK, and reversion of HK to China, I traveled up to the border and could see Red Guard patrolling up and down the beach. Hong Kong was mainland China’s economic gateway to the West, represented by a few low-key mainland banks and emporiums. Later on, during other trips, I marveled at the number of Chinese using cell phones on the Star Ferry crossing to and from Kowloon across the harbor to Hong Kong island. Laissez-faire capitalism was alive and well.
Never have I been bored in Hong Kong, dynamic in its high energy, bustling commerce, and spectacular beauty along the harbor skyline. In the 80’s, the economy of HK was often growing in double digits year-by-year. In the 90’s, rocked by the worldwide economic slowdown and especially the financial crisis, GDP averaged about 1%, slowing to 0.4% year-to-year in the 1st quarter of ’12.
30 years ago Hong Kong instituted a currency system pegging the HK$ at approximately HK$ 7.8 to the U.S. dollar. Although there is today pressure on the peg, and some expect Hong Kong to abandon it, the more or less fixed rate of 7.8 has kept goods sold in Hong Kong comparatively cheap.
If you ask a layman like me what makes the Hong Kong economy tick, I will first tip my hat to the UK government that administered it for a century, instilling a democratic system. The people of Hong Kong rigorously defend their freedom, evident by a peaceful demonstration of 400,000 people that I witnessed on my recent visit at the end of July.
U.S. policy-makers could learn from a careful study of Hong Kong’s tax system, in which the top individual rate has long been 17%, and there is no double taxation of income earned in Hong Kong or overseas. The tax system is simple and transparent. Within bounds, the government has gotten out of the way of business innovators and job creators, resulting in Hong Kong remaining at the top of the list of the world’s freest economies (http://bit.ly/P2hRmf) and competing on the world stage as a trade and finance global powerhouse. In ‘12, Hong Kong and Singapore were No. 1 and No. 2 respectively on the Index of Economic Freedom, whereas the U.S. ranked No. 10, Japan No. 22.
If you visit Hong Kong as a tourist, as I now do, expect three principal ‘mega-attractions’.
First, you will find yourself in a veritable shopper’s paradise, the likes of which I have never found in an area so compact in geography or dense in population (in ‘11 the population was approximately 7 million, 6,300 people per square kilometer). Looking for a bespoke, or custom-tailored suit? You can have one made by some of the finest tailors in the world within a week, and in 3 fittings, at prices comparable with a high-quality off-the-rack suit elsewhere.
Second, look forward to incredibly intriguing sightseeing in the City of Nights, including the evening light-up of the skyscrapers on Victoria Harbor, Yuen Po Street Bird Garden, Temple Street Market or the view of the city from Victoria Peak.
Third, push yourself back from the dinner table before leaving for Hong Kong so you can save up your appetite for some of the most delicious dining in the world. If you are staying in Kowloon, just about any place is a safe bet in the Tsim Sha Tsui area (the tip of the island, near the Star Ferry), in any price range. You will find Michelin-starred restaurants serving Haute cuisine to simpler (and inexpensive) places on Mody Road.
At the higher end of the scale, consider, for example, the Cantonese restaurant Celestial Court at the Sheraton Hong Kong and Towers, 20 Nathan Road, Kowloon, whose executive chef, Chan Sui Kei, has over 30 years of culinary experience, including 5 years in a Chinese restaurant in Japan.
Savor from among a wide array of delectable Dim Sum including steamed lobster with asparagus, braised sea cucumber with shrimp and pork puree in abalone sauce, deep-fried prawns, coated with black and white sesame, and steamed pork dumplings topped with shrimp and crab roe.
Or delight among the wild mushroom dishes: sautéed scallops with matsutake mushroom, steamed bean curd with ganbajun mushrooms and yun-chuan ham, among a host of others.
All the best,
Warren J. Devalier