Hong Kong: What a difference a decade makes

By Polly Evans

Ten years after the return to Chinese rule, can-do optimism has brought Hong Kong roaring back to success.

For the visitor, much in Hong Kong has changed. There are the physical aspects, of course: the skyline has risen; the old Star Ferry terminal on Hong Kong Island's harbour front has been ripped down; the Peak Tower, which on clear days gives panoramic views over the city, has been revamped. But the most significant shift is that Hong Kong's tourists are now for the most part Chinese.

In 1997, 2.3 million visitors arrived from the mainland; last year that figure hit 13.5 million, constituting more than half of total visitor arrivals to the Special Administrative Region (SAR). And the mainlanders are spending.

Walk into any of the designer clothes stores in the glitzy malls of the International Finance Centre and Pacific Place, and you'll hear the shop assistants conversing with their customers in Mandarin.

At Disneyland in Hong Kong, which opened in 2005, adult Chinese mainlanders queue to spin around in giant plastic tea cups. Ocean Park, which has offered rides and wildlife attractions for three decades, began an ambitious redevelopment last year; many of its customers, too, are mainland Chinese.

Ngong Ping 360, which opened in September 2006, takes visitors closer to home with its Chinese-themed amusement village.

The zeal for all things Chinese is echoed by Hong Kong's restaurant industry. It has exploded in the past 10 years, and the recent trend is for Sino-chic. Just last month, the ultra-stylish Yun Fu opened in Wyndham Street. Its decor recalls an ancient Chinese mansion house; its menu features the cuisine of China's ethnic minorities.

Across the harbour in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hutong serves northern Chinese food with a contemporary twist among its bamboo screens and billowing silk curtains.

Establishments from the mainland such as Jin R's uber-cool Green T House, which claims to "epitomise the evolving spirit of new China", are now opening in Hong Kong. Until recently, it was Hong Kong business that expanded into China, not the other way round.

The hotel industry has shifted focus, too. Five years ago there were no boutique hotels; in those days, the towering international five-stars were the places to stay. Then JIA, designed by Philippe Starck, opened in Causeway Bay in 2004. Hotel LKF opened in the nightlife district of Lan Kwai Fong in mid-2006 followed by The Fleming in Wanchai and, in Kowloon, The Luxe Manor.

This change in the hotel scene, this idea that bigger may not be better, is a symptom of a deeper psychological shift - and it was perhaps the most terrifying disaster of the past decade, the Sars outbreak that triggered it. In this tiny territory where money has always mattered most, health and quality of life are new priorities.

Yoga and foot reflexology have soared in popularity and Hong Kong's fabulous country parks, which take up 40 per cent of its land area, are filled with hikers. And what's more, Hong Kongers in 2007 are politically active as never before. Walk around the government buildings any weekend and you'll see people demonstrating.

Hong Kong is not a democracy but, despite fears to the contrary, it's still a free society. And, slowly, those middle classes that fled in the early 1990s for Canada, the US and Australia, are returning. Things have turned out far better than they'd thought.

- INDEPENDENT

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