Hong Kong: The Best of Both Worlds

Vibrant Hong Kong’s more artistic neighbourhoods are just a stone’s throw from its high-octane business districts

Hong Kong | BCBusiness
“Hong Kong is like New York on steroids,” says expatriate Canadian Elizabeth Thomson. “It never stops and it is business central, not only for Asia, but internationally.”

Vibrant Hong Kong’s more artistic neighbourhoods are just a stone’s throw from its high-octane business districts

When I first saw Hong Kong from the deck of a slow boat from Taiwan many years ago, some modest colonial-style buildings—few more than a dozen stories high—lined the magnificent shoreline. It was a dramatic, but relatively quiet port where batwing-sail junks and the ubiquitous green Star ferries that have connected Hong Kong Island to Kowloon since 1880 plied the harbour.

On a recent visit, I hardly recognized the city. Skyscrapers such as Two International Finance Centre, Central Plaza and the Bank of China Tower crowd Hong Kong Island and its steep hills, rising like the bristles on a plastic brush. Now the world’s skyscraper capital with 1,316 buildings that are 40 storeys or higher, Hong Kong is bursting with energy and activity, a city of commerce and high finance. “Hong Kong is like New York on steroids,” says expatriate Canadian Elizabeth Thomson. “It never stops and it is business central, not only for Asia, but internationally.”

STAY The recently renovated Peninsula Hotel retains a sense of place and time while being ultra-modern and elegant. Its Rolls Royce airport pickup service is an ideal introduction to the city (rooms from $780 a night; peninsula.com/Hong_Kong)
SAVOUR Otto e Mezzo is the only Italian eatery outside Italy to receive three Michelin Stars (entrees from $30; ottoemezzobombana.com). Locals recommend The Chairman for Cantonese (entrees from $22; thechairmangroup.com).
SEE Take the Peak Tram to the highest point on Hong Kong Island. At the top, an easy 3.5-km stroll (called the Peak Walk) provides views of the city, surrounding islands and the New Territories, which make up about 86 per cent of Hong Kong.
SOUVENIR Translate your company name into Chinese and get it carved on a chop, a seal made from jade, soapstone or bone. Use it on business cards or letterheads to impress Chinese contacts (from $30; Chop Alley, Man Wa Lane, Sheung Wan).
STATS Population 7,071,600; Area 1,104 k.m. sq.; Currency $1 = 7.57 Hong Kong Dollars; Time UTC+8 (15 hours ahead of B.C.)

So is there anything left of the old, loveable Hong Kong? I pondered the question one day as I dined in the venerable Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) in the old Ice House on Ice House Street—used as a cold-storage warehouse in the days before refrigeration, and itself one of the city’s few remaining heritage buildings. Fortunately, I’m assured by several “old China hands” (as expats with intimate knowledge of China’s language, culture and history are called) that the more traditional city thrives just a few blocks west of where the Ice House is located in Central, one of the city’s key business districts.

I wrap up a lengthy lunch at the FCC—something of a tradition among journalists and photographers who share notes over an eclectic menu that includes everything from burgers and Reuben sandwiches to Indian and Chinese dishes. Then, curious to discover how these last traces of old Hong Kong thrive so close to its modern hub, I set out along Hollywood Road (no connection to the California movie land, which it predates) once a depository of fine antiques and curios, in search of old Hong Kong.

There, expensive boutiques still display exquisite Asian antiques, ornate porcelains and fine carpets, and the street has become a contemporary art quarter that’s home to a slew of galleries including Studio Rouge Hong Kong, which opened last fall as a platform for both established and emerging artists of China.

I only spot one remaining trinket store, however. The Low Price Shop overflows with old porcelain teapots, ancient coins and Chairman Mao memorabilia—buttons, playing cards, statues, posters, cheap watches with the old leader waving, even “The Little Red Book,” as Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung is better known.

Thanks to its close proximity to Central and the wealth of bars and restaurants that dot the street, Hollywood Road has become a destination for entertainment, as well. Young account executives, lawyers, financiers and other sharply dressed young businesspeople earning generous salaries in this booming city pack the street.

The further west I walk, the more Eastern the area becomes, and soon Hollywood Road leads to Sheung Wan, which rates among the city’s most traditional districts. The neighbourhood is a step back in time to old China, where in places the only Western script evident are brand names—7-11, Coca-Cola, Toshiba, Sony and local businesses with eye-catching names like the Yue Chor Swallow Nest Company.

Here, European restaurants give way to noodle shops, eateries displaying glistening brown barbecued ducks and specialty shops serving boiled pig, fried goose intestines and snake soup, the latter said to be good for fighting winter cold and for boosting the libido. I spot housewives perusing traditional Chinese food shops for dinner ingredients, such as dried local delicacies such as bird’s nests (just as it sounds, these nests are often called the “caviar of the east”), black moss, lizards and desiccated seafood including abalone, scallops, shark fins, salted fish, shrimps and squid.

Unrecognizable odours seep from Chinese medicine shops stocked with dehydrated sea horses, snakes in jars and such strange potions as powdered antlers, deer penises in musty glass cases, gnarled roots and bear bile. Concoctions of snake musk, herbs, ginseng and powdered lizards, snakeskin and duck gizzards add to the distinctive aroma.

Yes, old world Hong Kong still thrives here in Sheung Wan, but as development spreads out from Central, the customs and charm that makes this city so unique and fascinating are disappearing beneath the onslaught of the 21st century. Old China hands will miss it. And so will I.

Local Knowledge

Elizabeth L. Thomson is founder and chair of ICS Trust, now part of the Orangefield Group with a staff of 70 in Hong Kong and a new Shanghai office. Her expertise is using Hong Kong as a gateway to doing business in China for Canadian, U.S. and European companies.

Is Hong Kong still a good base to do business with China?
Yes. In fact it is the top location due to physical proximity, Western culture, familiar Western common law, a reliable banking system and an experienced legal and court system.

Do you have any tips for Canadian business people looking to work in Hong Kong
Don’t send out resumés unless you intend to make a trip to Hong Kong to be interviewed personally. Don’t be concerned about not speaking Cantonese or Mandarin, as English is still the main language of business. Finding staff in Hong Kong is quite challenging for employers, so there is definitely opportunity here, although it may take a lengthy search to find the right employer.

Is it a safe place to do business?
Our banking and legal system are first-rate and essential for supporting companies doing business in China.

Does Canada have any advantages or disadvantages doing business in Hong Kong?
Canadian companies, thanks to Norman Bethune, continue to be highly regarded in China. We are about 300,000 strong in Hong Kong, so the word “Canada” is well known and respected.