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GUIDE TO CHINA

HONG KONG


Telephone code: a 0852 Population: 7 million Area: 1092 sq km

A curious anomaly, Hong Kong is both an energetic paragon of the virtues of capital­ism and a part of the largest Communist country in the world. A British colony since the middle of the 19th century, Hong Kong was handed back to China on 1 July 1997 amid much fanfare and anticipation.

While many tourists view Hong Kong as one giant shopping mall, the New Territories and Outlying Islands continue to offer coun­try parks, tranquil village life and clean beaches. At first glance the territory may ap­pear as Western as a Big Mac; however, with 95ck- of its population ethnic Chinese, man}' traditions from the Middle Kingdom remain. You'll also find a thriving arts community and a growing number of excellent museums.

Despite its return to the motherland. Hong Kong's political and economic system, are still significantly different from those of the People's Republic of China (PRC). Thus. much of the general information you've read elsewhere in this book (about visas, currency, accommodation, international phone calls etc) does not apply to Hong Kong.

Most visitors should have few problems getting around Hong Kong - English is widely spoken and most street signs are bilingual. Although increasingly used since the handover, Mandarin is spoken by less then half the population - most speak Can­tonese as their native tongue.

HISTORY & POLITICS

European trade with China stretches back over more than 400 years. Trade mush­roomed during the 18th century as Euro­pean demand for Chinese tea and silk grew. However, as the Chinese were largely self-­sufficient, the balance of trade was un­favorable to the Europeans - until they began running opium into the country.

While the drug had long been used medi­cinally in Asia as well as in Europe, addic­tion swept China like wildfire. The British, with a virtually inexhaustible supply of the drug from the poppy fields of Bengal, devel­oped the trade aggressively and by the start of the 19th century opium formed the basis of most of their transaction, with China.

China's attempts to stamp out the trade, including confiscating a huge British store of the drug, gave the British the pretext they needed for military action against China. Two British gunboats were sent in and man­aged to demolish a Chinese fleet of 29 ships. The ensuing first Opium War'A Cut much the same way and, at its close in 1841, the island of Hong Kong was ceded to the British.

Following the Second Opium War in 1860, Britain took possession of Kowloon Peninsula. Finally, in 1898, a 99-year lease was granted for the New Territories. What would happen after the lease ended in 1997 was the subject of considerable speculation.

In late 1984 an agreement was reached: China would take over the entire colony in 1997, but Hong Kong's unique free enter­prise economy would be maintained for at least 50 years. Hong Kong would become a Special Administrative Re,-ion (SAR) of China with the official slogan, ‘One country two systems'.

Nervousness grew as the handover date drew near. Both people and capital began to flee to safe havens overseas. A belated at­tempt by Britain to increase the number of democratically elected members of Hong Kone's Legislative Council (Legco) caused China to threaten to dismiss the council al­together and appoint leaders approved by Beijing.

And it did just that. On 1 July the new Provisional Legislative Council took office, composed of Hong Kong representatives appointed by Beijing. Former shipping magnate. Tung Chee-hwa, himself a refugee to Hong Kong after 1949, was given the post of Chief Executive.

The first incident to test the degree of au­tonomy Hong Kong has from Beijing oc­curred in January 1999, when Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal argued that mainland Chinese applying for residency in Hong Kong could be wanted legal status if one of their parents was a Hong Kong resident. The Hong Kong government did not agree, and asked Beijing for support in disallowing the court s decision. Beijing complied. Regard­less of whether or not immigrants would aid or hinder Hong Kong's prosperity, many ob­servers were concerned that letting Beijing overrule the court's appeal of the law did not bode well for future issues and judicial pro­cedures based in democratic process.

There's a strong sense of pride among the Hong Kong people that they are no longer a colony of Britain, combined with a new con­sciousness about being Chinese. The gulf be­tween China and Hong Kong in education, public services, lifestyle, language and econ­omy, however, makes the twinning of these two entities almost absurd. At this point in time, it's very difficult to see what Hong Kong will become, other than to suggest its position as a dynamic city may fade and be gradually overshadowed by Shanghai.

ORIENTATION

Hong Kong's 1092 sq km are divided into four main areas - Kowloon, Hong Kong Is­land, the New Territories and the Outlying Islands.

Hong Kong Island is the economic heart of the colony, but comprises only 7% of Hong Kong's land area. Kowloon is the densely populated peninsula to the north - the southern tip of the Kowloon Peninsula is Tsim Sha Tsui, where herds of tourists congregate. The New Territories, which of­ficially include the more than 230 Outlying Islands, occupy 91% of Hong Kong's land area. Much of it is rural and charming with some clean beaches, opportunities for ex­cellent walks and few tourists.

INFORMATION

Tourist Offices

The enterprising Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB; www.discover hongkong.com ), on the ground floor. The Centre, 99 Queen's Rd Central, is open Sam to 6pm daily, and is definitely worth a visit. The staff are efficient, helpful and have reams of information most of which is free. You'll also find an office at the airport and in Kowloon, at the Star Ferry Con­course. HKTB's multilingual Visi­tor Hotline (Tel: 2508 1234), open 8am to 6pm daily, is helpful whether you're lost or need shopping advice (including which retailers are reliable HKTB members).

China Travel Agents in Hong Kong

China Travel Service's head office (CTS: Tel: 2853 3888, fax 2541 9777), Ground floor. CTS House, 78-83 ConnauLht Rd Central, as well as its numerous outlets around Hong Kong, is a good place to get visas and book tickets for mainland China.

Visas

Most visitors to Hong Kong can enter and stay for three months without a visa - six months if you have a UK passport, But be­ware - these visa regulations could change in the next few years. If you do require a visa, apply at a Chinese embassy or con­sulate before arriving.

For tourist visa extensions. inquire at the Immigration Department (Tel: $ 2824 6111). 2nd floor. Wan Chai Tower Two. 7 Gloucester Rd, Wan Chai. Extensions are not readily granted unless there are extenu­ating circumstances - cancelled flights, ill­ness, registration in a legitimate course of study, legal employment, marriage to a local etc.

Hong Kong is still the best place to pick up a visa for China, and this will probably continue for a while. For more information on this see the Facts for the Visitor chapter.

Be aware that if you visit Hong Kong, from China you will need to be on a multiple-entry visa to re-enter China, or else will have to get a new visa.

MONEY

Currency

The unit of currency in Hong Kong is the HK dollar, which is divided into 100 cents. Bills are issued in denomi­nations of S20. $50. $100, $500 and $1000. Coins are issued in denominations of $10, $5. $2, $1, $0.50, $0.20 and $0.10.

Exchange Rates

The Hong Kong dollar is pegged to the US dollar at a rate of US51 to HK$7.80, though it is allowed to fluctuate a little.

All major and many minor foreign curren­cies can be exchanged in Hong Kong. Foreigners can open bank accounts in various currencies (or in gold!), and international telegraphic transfers are fast and efficient. International credit cards are readily ac­cepted and ATMs are scattered throughout the city, including in the airport.

Banks give the best exchange rates, but these vary from bank to bank and three of the biggest - HSBC. Standard Chartered and Hang Seng Bank - levy a HK$50 commission for each transaction. Licensed moneychangers are abundant in tourist dis­tricts and are open late, but they give rela­tively poor exchange rates. These rates are clearly posted but if you're changing sev­eral hundred US dollars or more, you might be able to bargain. Avoid the exchange counters at the airport; they offer some of the worst rates in Hong Kong.

The half-dozen moneychangers operat­ing on the ground floor of Chungking Man­sions on Nathan Rd in Tsim Sha Tsui usually offer good rates. Worth trying is Wing Hoi Money Exchange (Tel: 2723 59d8), ground floor, shop No 9B, Mirador Arcade, 58 Nathan Rd. Tsim Sha Tsui. They'll change just about any currency for you as well as travelers cheques.

Costs

Hong Kong has become an ex­tremely pricey destination, but if you stay in dormitories and eat budget meals, you can survive (just barely) on HK$250 per day.

In general, tipping is not expected in Hong Kong. Most upmarket restaurants and hotels add a 109e service charge and with taxis the norm is to round up the fare.

If you're shopping in the Tsim Sha Tsui tourist zone, bargaining is essential. In de­partment stores, retail outlets or in the street markets of Mongkok and Sham Shui Po, however, everything has a price tag and bargaining is not accepted. You can always try to bargain for your accommodation if you're staying at a private guesthouse or smaller hotel.

POSTS & COMMUNICATIONS

Post

All post offices are open from Sam to 6pm Monday to Friday and Sam to 2pm Saturday. They are closed on Sunday and public holidays.

If you want to receive mail in Hong Kong, have it addressed to GPO Hong Kong, which is just west of the Star Ferry terminal. Poste restante letters are held for two months.

Telephone

Local calls in Hong Kong are free on public phones and cost HK$1 per minute on pay phones.

To call Hong Kong from abroad, the country code is 852. To call abroad from Hong Kong, dial $ 001, then the country code, area code and number. Phone rates are cheaper from 9pm to 8am on weekdays and all weekend. You can make interna­tional direct-dial calls to almost anywhere in the world from public phones, but you'll need a phonecard. These are available as stored-value cards (HK$70 and HK$100) and as Hello Smartcards (five denomina­tions from HK$50 to HK$500). The latter allow you to call from any phone – public or private, by punching in a PIN code. You can buy them at 7-Eleven and Circle K con­venience stores, Mannings pharmacies and Wellcome supermarkets.

For directory assistance dial 1081 and for international dialing assistance call 10013.

Fax

Many hotels and even hostels have fax machines and will allow you to both send and receive faxes for a 10% surcharge. If dialing your own fax for an overseas transmission, use the international fax code (001).

Email & Internet Access

Most hotels and plenty of guesthouses have Internet ac­cess. If the place you're staying at doesn't, there are plenty of cybercafes scattered throughout the territory and in most places logging on is free if you buy a drink or snack. Try Avanti Network Cybercafe (Tel:3101 6363), The Broadway. 54-62 Lockhart Rd, Wan Chai, on Hong Kong Island, where HK$30 buys you an hour online, a drink and a snack. Also try the Pacific Coffee Company, which has a number of cafes around Hong Kong.

Free Internet access is available at most public libraries in Hong Kong. The main li­brary (Tel: 2921 2555) is in the High Block of City Hall, opposite Queen's Pier in Central. You'll find a list of other branches at w www.lcsd.gov.hk .

TRAVEL AGENCIES

There are lots of travel agencies in Hong Kong. For competitive prices try:

Phoenix Services Agency (Tel:2722 7378, fax 2369 8884) Room A, 7th floor. Milton Mansion, 96 Nathan Rd. Tsim Sha Tsui

Hong Kong Student Travel (Tel: 2730 3269) Room 835a, Star House. 3 Salisbury Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui

Traveller Services (Tel: 2375 2066. fax 2375 2050, www.trnveller.com.hk .) 1012 Silvercord Tower One. 30 Canton Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui

MEDIA

Hong Kong has two local English-language daily newspapers, the South China Morning Post and the Hong Kong Standard. Also printed in Hong Kong are the Asian Wall St Journal, the International Herald Tribune and USA Today International. Imported news magazines are readily available.

There are two English-language and two Cantonese TV stations. Star TV, a satellite TV broadcaster, has some English pro­gramming. There's also a variety of English radio stations to choose from.

MEDICAL SERVICES

Medical care is generally of a high standard in Hong Kong, though public hospital staff are grossly underpaid and facilities stretched. Attendance at out-patient clinics is on a first-come, first-served basis and costs HK$195 per visit. Private hospital treatment is expensive but not exorbitant, and you'll have less of a wait for treatment.

The general inquiry number for hospitals is Tel: 2300 6555. The Hong Kong Medical Association (HKMA) maintains a MediLink hotline (Tel: 90000 223 322) with recorded in­formation about access to medical consulta­tion Private hospitals with 24-hour emergency services include the Matilda & War Memorial (Tel: 2849 0700. 24-hour help line: 2849 0123), 41 Mt Kellett Rd, The Peak, Hong Kong Island, and the Baptist (Tel: 2339 8888), 222 Waterloo Rd. Kowloon Tong, Kowloon.

Emergency

The general emergency phone number for ambulance, fire and police is 999. You can dial this on pay phones without a coin.

CUSTOMER SERVICE

TEL: 1800-884-7579

CONTACT INFOMATION

Visa Express
3120 Southwest Freeway
Suite 108
Houston, TX 77098
Toll Free: (800)884-7579
Tel: (713)529-0400
Fax: (832)779-2346
E-mail : support@visaexpress.net