The last time I flew into Hong Kong, the harrowing Kai Tak Airport was in its last year of operation, its runway so precariously jammed between highrises that pilots needed to double bank their 747s immediately before landing. I remember looking through the rapidly descending Boeing’s window and gazing directly into an apartment, its residents’ calm faces signalling that a 750-tonne jumbo jet a stone’s throw from their balconies was just business as usual. On the first day of my return to the city, I offer that nostalgic memory to my guide, Vivien. “Ah yes, Kai Tak,” she says, nodding and then waiting a beat. “It’s now a driving range.”
Nostalgia is not Hong Kong’s strong suit.
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Industry, on the other hand, is. It’s never been a static city but the transition from colonial outpost to gateway for burgeoning mainland China has kicked the already frenetic city into overdrive. The new airport is a marvel of efficiency and modern construction, no small feat considering the space it occupies was once ocean. Driving in from the airport to Kowloon, I pass the dizzying new Ritz-Carlton hotel—also ocean not that long ago—a 118-storey behemoth besting the 88-storey IFC tower across the harbour. It’s as if Hong Kong Island and Kowloon are squared off in a game of development chess: these two giants playing the kings, the now-ubiquitous 50-plus-storey skyscrapers relegated to the roles of pawns. The only difference is that in modern Hong Kong there’s no apparent loser as the city rides the prosperity train into the 21st century.
I’m dropped off at the Peninsula Hotel, its iconic, seven-storey colonial facade serving as an illustrious base for the modern 30-storey tower that rises out of it. I walk between the hotel’s famed fleet of signature green Rolls-Royces on my approach to the lobby (they’re modern Phantoms these days, no longer the Silver Ghosts of another era) and instantly enter a time warp. The lobby, one of the greats of the Grand Tour, soars in the way lobbies once did before actuaries and conglomerates got a hold of hotel design. An international crowd mingles around—Giada de Laurentiis is checking in beside me—and I half-expect James Bond or Archduke Ferdinand to stroll around the corner.
But up in my room, nothing’s a throwback. The richly beiged space evokes a gleaming yacht and is governed by three tablets that control every aspect of my comfort: decorative curtains, blackout curtains, room service, bespoke excursions. I’m never more than five feet from one of them, unless I cram myself into the corner of the cavernous marble shower (where it’s a good six feet).
Dizzying is an overused word, but how else to describe the scene that sprawls out in each direction from the hotel? Both Hong Kong and Kowloon are chock-a-block with luxurious commercialism, but even in this rarefied arena, Tsim Sha Tsui stands apart. It’s not just the stores—Dior, Hermès, Gucci—it’s the lines outside them that amaze. Everywhere else in the city, it’s every man for himself, whether pushing to get on the Star Ferry or cutting the cab queue, but high-end shopping is awarded a reverence usually reserved for places of worship. Orderly lines, bouncers, velvet ropes and people (“Mainlanders” scoffs one passing local) patiently waiting with literal suitcases full of cash. Waiting to buy new, better suitcases to fill with hallmarks of success.
Throw in some de rigueur jet lag and a sea of blinding-white advertisements that click on the moment the sun departs, and you have a city with no comparables: two millennia of dynastic rule overlaid with a century and a half of colonial rule, overlaid with a still-fresh layer of capitalism 2.0. Here, excavation is merely a by-product of building ever higher.
And so Hong Kong may be the most exiting place in world at this moment. Its foreignness is intoxicating in equal degrees that its sameness is comforting. A push and pull, back and forth kineticism. Forget Saudi Arabia or northern Alberta—this place has the greatest energy reserves in the world.