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If you visit only one museum in Hong Kong and you're prepared to devote at least 2 hours, this should be it. Make it one of your first priorities, so you'll have a better understanding of what you see during the rest of your trip. The permanent exhibit, called the Hong Kong Story, is an ambitious attempt to chronicle the city's long and fascinating history, starting with the formation of its natural history and its beginnings as a Neolithic settlement and continuing through its development as a fishing village, subsequent transformation into a modern metropolis, and 1997 handover to China. Through displays that include dioramas, replicas of fishing boats, models, reconstructed traditional housing, furniture, clothing, and items from daily life, the museum introduces Hong Kong's ethnic groups and their traditional means of livelihood, customs, and beliefs. These include fishermen who lived their entire lives on boats, the Five Great Clans who settled in what is now the New Territories and built walled communities, the Hoklo (who worked the territories' salt fields), and the Hakka, primarily rice farmers.

You can peer inside a fishing junk, see what Kowloon Walled City looked like before it became a park, see the backstage of a Chinese opera, read about the arrival of European traders and the Opium Wars, study a map showing land reclamation since the 1840s, see how Hong Kong changed under Japanese occupation during World War II, and view a model of a family's flat in a public housing estate. Ten small movie theaters are spread throughout the museum depicting everything from Hong Kong's beginnings and the Opium Wars to its movie industry, though showings in English are limited. One of my favorite parts of the museum is a re-created street of old Hong Kong, complete with a pawnshop, teahouse, tailor's shop, and a Chinese herbal-medicine shop actually located in Central until 1980 and reconstructed here. Also on display are 19th- and early-20th-century photographs, poignantly showing how much Hong Kong has changed through the decades. Audio guides, providing commentaries on more than 100 exhibits, are available for HK$10.