LOCALS IN HONG KONG drink something called yuanyang, which is an appealing blend of coffee and milk tea, expertly strained and lightly sweetened. At Lan Fong Yuen, a no-frills Fotomat booth of a stand in the middle of the Gage Street Market, the $2.50 drink is the house specialty. As I savor my cup while trying not to get run over by the stream of honking delivery trucks pushing their way down the crowded street, it dawns on me that the beverage is a metaphor for Hong Kong.
For decades after World War II, this city was the perfect blend of East and West. Its position as a vital gateway between two worlds infected the place with a go-go philosophy and showered it in prosperity. That was particularly true during its final years under British rule, which had spanned a century and a half. And it remained largely true for a decade and a half following the 1997 handover ceremony, when Prince Charles stoically watched as the Union Jack was lowered and the red flag of China raised.
Hong Kong became part of the People’s Republic of China, but with special allowances, including permission to maintain its humming capitalist economy, under a plan called “One Country, Two Systems.” It worked because mainland China needed Hong Kong as its trade and banking portal to the West. And Hong Kong needed the mainland as its supplier of goods and grains — and even of Chinese visitors, to compensate for the devastating falloff in international tourism right after the SARS outbreak in 2003.
But as the 20th anniversary of the handover draws nearer, the early optimism and symbiosis have given way to mistrust and protests as bitter as the coffee grounds left in the strainer after the yuanyang has been poured.
Go to Hong Kong and you’ll get an earful from locals about this divide. But for a fuller understanding, you’ll also need to head north to Shanghai, the mainland city that is increasingly supplanting Hong Kong as an economic powerhouse. Both places are closer than ever to New England thanks to new direct flights from Logan International Airport (and a bit more affordable, thanks to China’s economic woes and a stronger US dollar). Simply by visiting these two booming cities and hearing their conflicting narratives, you’ll learn a lot about where things appear to be headed in this Chinese century. What’s more, you’ll get some incredible rewards as a traveler.
TOURISTS SEEKING HISTORIC ARCHITECTURE might want to look beyond Hong Kong. Aside from some beautiful old temples, the buildings here tend to be shiny and new — and neck-achingly tall. But for those interested in glimpsing the future — whether that involves architecture, fashion, food, or technology — this dazzling city does not disappoint.
Dense clumps of modern skyscrapers line the facing waterfronts of its core land masses, Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. Adorned with brightly lit signs, these towers stand as testament to the restless forward march of the place. And they come to life each night at 8 o’clock for a free show, called A Symphony of Lights, that combines music with decorative lights, lasers, and searchlights to create rays bouncing off the buildings and across the water. (A great place to see the show is from inside the InterContinental Hotel, at a window table at the Harbourside restaurant, which offers an insanely bountiful buffet that includes lobster, Peking duck, foie gras, and champagne, for a splurge price of about $112 per person.)
Even if history is hard to find in the face of all the cranes erecting ever taller buildings, it is there. For starters, you can see it in the scaffolding that sheathes the skyscrapers under construction. Instead of steel, scaffolding here is made of bamboo — amazing for such advanced buildings, but evidently it still gets the job done.
You can also feel history wafting through the incense-fumed air inside the many Buddhist and Taoist temples around the city, such as Man Mo and Tin Hau. Despite being dwarfed by blocks of hulking edifices, these treasured temples manage to offer an oasis of contemplation from the bustle just outside their doors.
You can even absorb a bit of history while making your way to certain sightseeing destinations. Perched more than 1,800 feet into the air, Victoria Peak offers the best views of the Hong Kong skyline. But half the payoff comes from the exceedingly steep ride up there on the Peak Tram. The first cable funicular in Asia, this groaning railway has been in operation since 1888. The Star Ferry has been in service even longer. It provides not only the most scenic harbor ride between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island but also — with fares as low as 35 cents — the cheapest.
There’s one more surprising piece of history that I had noticed while watching the news coverage of the protests that have erupted periodically in Hong Kong since 2014: British flags. That’s when the Chinese government quashed local hopes for democracy, making it clear that Beijing would now and forever choose candidates to be Hong Kong’s leader. That move fed into local gallows humor that posited “if Hong Kong is going to hold an election tomorrow, we will know the results today.”
When democracy protesters took to the streets in 2014 for the so-called Umbrella Revolution, they carried umbrellas, but many also waved Union Jack flags or flashed Union Jack decals. It was a not very subtle reminder to Beijing of their preference for life under the Brits and their respect for freedom of speech and the rule of law.
By the time of my visit earlier this year, all the flags and decals appear to be gone. Regardless, I find myself on a hunt for vestigial signs of British rule.
Chinese leaders let the colonial street names such as Queen’s Road remain, but they saw to it that the city was scrubbed of most other reminders of royalty. Not all of them, though.
High tea at the august Peninsula Hotel, which consistently attracts Chinese and Western crowds that snake around the lobby, is such a faithfully British experience that you wonder if you’re sitting at the Savoy in London.
You have to work a bit harder, however, to find the most unusual of these British holdover experiences. Head to a nondescript parking garage next to the Excelsior Hotel in the Causeway Bay neighborhood. Use the rear entrance that says “Car Park Office,” which leads you into the belly of an underground garage and then through a tunnel that passes under a highway, until you finally emerge onto a spit of land overlooking the harbor. If it sounds like I just gave you directions to a shady drug drop, I apologize, but that’s what it takes to get to the Noonday Gun salute. In this tradition dating nearly to the start of British rule in the mid-1800s, an elegant Hotchkiss 3-pound naval gun is fired every day precisely at noon.
A diminutive security guard, wearing earplugs and a navy blue uniform, rings a bell and fires the gun in front of my family and a handful of other tourists. As the thunderous blast resounds and the smell of spent gunpowder hangs in the air, I ask him why this particular British tradition endures. “The Chinese don’t care about this!” he says. (Although 94 percent of their population is ethnically Chinese, Hongkongers tend to mean “mainland” when they say “Chinese” or “China,” and sometimes utter it with the same tone Donald Trump uses when saying “Mexican” or “Muslim.”) I ask the guard where I might find other royal reminders. “China kicked them all out,” he replies with a laugh, lifting his right leg for emphasis. But then he scrunches his face as he remembers one more: “Queen Victoria statue” in Victoria Park, about three-quarters of a mile away.
Shockingly, my wife, three daughters, and in-laws are less interested in this royal goose chase than I am, especially now that it involves a long walk in the hot noontime sun. But they humor me with exasperated sighs as we trudge to and through the massive but remarkably quiet park, past locals silently practicing taichi or rolling balls on a British-style bowling green. After several wrong turns, we finally manage to narrow down the search for the elusive statue to a far corner. Then comes one more complication: It sits in a section of the park that has been cordoned off for a ticket-only festival of Hong Kong products.
“Screw it,” I say amid the rising chorus of sighs and plop down enough Hong Kong dollars for seven tickets. Behind the gates, there is barely an inch of green to be found, as thousands of locals are squeezed into this quasi state fair. I hoped that my girls might find some clothes to buy, since United Airlines had lost our luggage during our flight, and on day three, word had just come that my youngest daughter’s suitcase had been mysteriously rerouted to Sao Paulo. But the local products for sale turn out to be nothing more than packaged foods or small appliances, with carnival barkers from every corner commanding us in Cantonese to try and buy theirs.
As I scan this frenetic scene, I notice something surprising. At a supremely packed event catering to locals, the only non-Asian faces in the crowd belong to me and my six aggrieved family members. Suddenly, it all seems worth it. My wife and I have tried explaining to our kids that the United States represents just a small fraction of the world’s population. Now, squished in this sea of humanity, that intellectual lesson comes to life, washing global perspective over all of us.
Finding the statue now feels like an afterthought, but we shove our way toward it nonetheless. There it is. The sad old queen sits on a throne smattered with pigeon poop. “OK,” I say, channeling Chevy Chase at the Grand Canyon, “time to go.”
CHINA IS SHAPED LIKE A ROOSTER, with Beijing occupying the position of the neck. (“If you grab hold of the neck,” the saying goes, “you gain control of the country.”) Shanghai occupies the belly. Open and outward-looking, this port city for centuries served as the nation’s cosmopolitan center for commerce, culture, and pleasure. During the 1800s, craven British trading companies injected opium into every alley, and then took advantage of Shanghai’s collective stupor and climate of vice to exert control over huge chunks of the city. Before long, the Americans and French joined in to claim their turf.
It’s no wonder that after Communist leaders took control of China a century later, they effectively closed off Shanghai to the world. That didn’t change much until 1990, when the government of Deng Xiaoping, as part of its campaign to reengage China’s economy with the West, set about redeveloping the city. The idea was to turn it into a domestic version of Hong Kong, one that would be just as bustling but eminently more controllable.
Touch down in Shanghai today, and you immediately sense how well that plan worked. Its metro population of about 24 million is more than three times bigger than Hong Kong’s. By 2010, the city had eclipsed both Singapore and Hong Kong to become the world’s busiest port. It has not only aped, but one-upped, Hong Kong’s skyline, turning a vast swath of farmland into the Pudong district, a Manhattan of the East. Here, skyscrapers house not just China’s biggest banks and other companies but also a roster of multinationals. Soon the world’s second-tallest tower will open in Pudong, which is also part of a free-trade zone.
The city has managed to displace Hong Kong even in the Disney department. Shanghai Disneyland is set to open in June, three times the size of the decade-old mouse park in Hong Kong.
As fresh and glistening as so much of Shanghai is, what makes it such a special destination is its blend of old and new. This has everything to do with the Bund, a curving riverfront stretch with a number of restored Art Deco buildings built mostly in the 1920s and ’30s. Although the Brits and other colonial powers took shameful advantage of Shanghai in the 19th century, they somewhat redeemed themselves with this parting gift of elegant buildings and a wide European-style promenade along the Huangpu River.
These stately structures, highlighted by the green-pyramid-capped Fairmont Peace Hotel, are even more striking to behold because they sit directly across the river from Pudong and its the 21st-century skyscrapers (which also offer a less involved nightly show of dancing lights). The contrast creates a powerful harmony, evidence of the Chinese yin-and-yang philosophy at work.
If you prefer straight-up old, Shanghai has that, too. Old Town is a collection of historic temples and pagodas (though many were rebuilt following the destruction of World War II). Even though this can be something of a tourist trap, most of the tourists during our visit are from other parts of China, which makes the place feel more authentic to our American eyes. And despite its location in tourist-focused Old Town’s Yuyuan Garden, the Nanxiang restaurant serves up the best dumplings I’ve had in my life.
After lunch, we decide to stroll across a long bridge to the garden. Actually, stroll is not the right word. Even shuffle is too generous. Although it takes place entirely outdoors, the journey along this narrow, zigzag bridge induces enough claustrophobia to make me feel as if I’m crawling through a ventilation duct. The crowds are thick everywhere in Shanghai, but this one is bigger and involves much more shoving. Part of the problem, I learn, is that we’re crossing on New Year’s Day. There’s a local tradition of walking along this bridge each January 1 to try to shake off the evil spirits for the year ahead. Forced to choose between an evil companion or repeating that kind of claustrophobia, I’d take my chances with the spirit.
If you want even older than Old Town, take an hour’s ride out of Shanghai to Zhujiajiao. (Go by bus or taxi — although street signs in Shanghai are written in English as well as Chinese, driving is best left to natives.) This “water town” looks much as it did 400 years ago, when it was a center for rice trade, complete with Venice-style canals and gondolas ready to ferry you around.
A half day here is plenty, so you can spend more time exploring the Bund or the French Concession, a Quincy Market-type neighborhood of restored old warehouses that have turned into fashionable boutiques and trendy bistros. But be warned that there is sometimes a darker side to the breathtaking views of Pudong from the Bund. On high-pollution days, the smog basically kills the views, and worse, you can literally taste it. Only one of our four days here is that bad, and unless you plan an extended stay, you shouldn’t worry too much about it. Still, it’s sobering that the controlling Chinese government has so far failed to find a fix-by-fiat for this pollution crisis.
For obvious reasons, people in Shanghai tend to be guarded when discussing politics, but that changes when the subject turns to relations with Hong Kong. “We propped up their economy after the SARS outbreak, and they never even said thank you,” one local tells me. “Their noses always point to the sky.”
When I ask her about the complaint by Hongkongers that the Chinese government’s anti-democratic moves had exposed the hollowness of the “One Country, Two Systems” promises, she laughs dismissively. “How often did they get to vote under the British?”
Hong Kong served as the very blueprint for the New Shanghai, and these two cities are tied to the same Chinese culture and imbued with a similarly raging entrepreneurial spirit. Yet the widening divide seems less and less bridgeable. Maybe it’s time to get past the talking points and get them to sit down and listen to each other over a cup of coffee or tea. Or both.
Direct flights between Boston’s Logan Airport and Hong Kong are available on Cathay Pacific (cathaypacific.com) and American Airlines (aa.com), while Hainan Airlines (hainanairlines.com) offers direct flights to Shanghai.
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