Historic Architecture

If you never ventured much beyond the waterfronts of Victoria Harbour, you might easily believe that Hong Kong is nothing more than chrome-and-glass skyscrapers, huge housing projects, shopping malls, and miles of glowing neon signs heralding countless open-fronted shops.

But Hong Kong was inhabited long before the British arrived, and some precolonial Chinese architecture still survives in the hinterlands. Several rural villages boast buildings and temples with fine woodcarving and are examples of centuries-old Chinese craftsmanship. Especially fascinating are the walled villages in the New Territories, a few of which are still inhabited, and two of which have been meticulously restored and turned into a museum of traditional lifestyle. These villages were built from the 14th through the 17th centuries by clan families to protect themselves from roving bandits, invaders, and even wild tigers. A few of the clans' ancestral halls, study halls, homes, and courtyard mansions also survive; these are best seen on walks along the Lung Yeuk Tau and Ping Shan Heritage Trails in the New Territories.

Also surviving are some of Hong Kong's temples, most famous of which is Man Mo on Hollywood Road, built in the 1840s and dedicated to the gods of literature and war. Not quite as old but surrounded by a colorful street market is the Man Mo Temple in Tai Po. Remains of old forts and garrison towns erected by the Chinese government during the Ming and Qing dynasties include foundation remnants in what is now the Kowloon Walled City Park.

Some colonial architecture also remains. Early Western-style buildings, with their long verandas and wooden shutters, were built with local materials and designed to accommodate the colony's humid climate. The Flagstaff House, in Hong Kong Park, is the oldest surviving colonial-style building, constructed in 1846 and now home to a museum of tea ware. The former Supreme Court in Central features Greco-Victorian columns and Chinese wood-beam eaves. Today it houses the Legislative Council chamber but will become home to the Court of Final Appeals at the end of 2011. Other imposing colonial buildings on Hong Kong Island include the former French Mission Building, St. John's Cathedral, the Western Market, and the Central Police Station.

On the Kowloon side, one of Hong Kong's most familiar landmarks is the 1921 clock tower next to the Star Ferry terminus at Tsim Sha Tsui; it is all that remains of the old railway station that once linked the colony with China and beyond. The Hong Kong Observatory, on a banyan-covered hill above Tsim Sha Tsui, is a handsome two-story structure with arched windows and long verandas. Built in 1883, it continues to monitor Hong Kong's weather but is closed to the public (you can catch a glimpse of it behind iron gates). The most imposing colonial structure in Tsim Sha Tsui, however, is undoubtedly the former Marine Police Headquarters, occupying a commanding position overlooking the harbor. It has been renovated into 1881 Heritage, an imposing complex housing trendy shops, restaurants, and a small boutique hotel.

Feng Shui: In Balance with Nature

Feng shui, which translates literally as "wind water," is an ancient method of divination in which harmony is achieved with the spirits of nature. Virtually every Hong Kong Chinese believes that before a house or building can be erected, a tree chopped down, or a boulder moved, a geomancer must be called in to make certain that the spirits inhabiting the place aren't disturbed. The geomancer, who uses a compasslike device as an aid, determines the alignment of walls, doors, desks, and even beds, so as not to provoke the anger of the spirits residing there. He does this by achieving a balance among the eight elements of nature -- heaven, earth, hills, wind, fire, thunder, rain, and ocean. Also considered are the spirits of yin (male-active) and yang (female-passive) forces that control our world.

Even non-Chinese-owned companies in Hong Kong comply with feng shui principles, if only to appease their Chinese employees. But it doesn't hurt to be safe; tales abound of ill luck befalling those working or living inside buildings that ignored the needs of resident spirits.

Because facing the water is considered excellent feng shui, when the Regent Hotel (now the InterContinental) was constructed, it incorporated a huge glass window overlooking the harbor, which served the dual purpose of allowing the mythical nine Kowloon dragons to pass through the building on their way to the harbor to bathe. The next best thing, if you can't look out over water, is to bring the water inside, which is why many offices, shops, and restaurants have aquariums. Another way to deflect evil influences is to hang a small, eight-sided mirror outside your window. Other Chinese touches are incorporated into modern architecture -- the HSBC bank (formerly the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank), for example, is guarded by a pair of bronze lions, protecting its occupants.

Contemporary Architecture

Construction in Hong Kong has been going on at such a frenzied pace that if you haven't been here in 20 years (or even 10), you probably won't recognize the skylines on both sides of the harbor. One of the first major changes to the skyline was the extension of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre on reclaimed land on the Wan Chai waterfront, boasting the world's largest plate-glass window at the time and a three-tiered roof said to resemble a gull's wings in flight. The 78-story Central Plaza, located near the Wan Chai waterfront, boasts an Art Deco style with eye-catching nighttime lighting that changes color with each quarter-hour, thereby giving the time. The HSBC bank, designed by British architect Norman Foster, features entire floors suspended from steel masts and a 48m-tall (157-ft.) sun scoop on the roof that uses 480 mirrors to reflect sunlight down into the bank's atrium and public plaza. Atop Victoria Peak is the Peak Tower, topped by a crescent-shaped bowl not unlike a wok. But Hong Kong Island's tallest building is the 88-story Two IFC (International Finance Centre) tower beside Hong Kong station, which at 415m (1,362 ft.) was the fourth-tallest building in the world at its completion in 2003.

All of Hong Kong's present skyscrapers will soon be eclipsed by Union Square, in West Kowloon next to Kowloon Station. The massive 1.1-million-square-meter (12-million-sq.-ft.) development will include three 75-story residential towers, the Elements shopping mall, and Hong Kong's new tallest building (International Commerce Center) housing the world's highest elevated hotel (a Ritz-Carlton, opened Dec 2010) on the 102nd to 118th floors.

Even though Hong Kong's structures are Western, they are built using bamboo scaffolding and constructed according to ancient Chinese beliefs, especially the 3,000-year-old Taoist principle of feng shui that allows humankind to live in peace with the environment and nature, ensuring good luck, prosperity, wealth, health, and happiness. Even today, most office and apartment buildings in Hong Kong have been laid out in accordance to feng shui principles (see "Feng Shui: In Balance with Nature").

No discussion of Hong Kong's buildings would be complete without a mention of its most prevalent structures: housing for its seven million inhabitants. Because of Hong Kong's dense population and limited land space, with more than 43,000 people per sq. km (2/5 sq. mile) in Kowloon, Hong Kong has long been saddled with acute housing deficiencies. Just a few decades ago, in an area called Mong Kok in northwestern Kowloon, an astounding 652,910 people were packed in per square mile. One house designed for 12 people had 459 living in it, including 104 people who shared one room and four people who lived on the roof.

After 1953, when a huge fire left more than 50,000 squatters homeless, Hong Kong pursued one of the world's most ambitious housing projects, with the aim of providing every Hong Kong family with a home of its own. By 1993, half of Hong Kong's population lived in government-subsidized public housing, a higher proportion than anywhere else in the world (today, that number stands at about 29%, as new housing is constructed by the private sector).

Most housing estates are clustered in the New Territories, in a forest of high-rises that leaves foreign visitors aghast. Each apartment building is at least 30 stories tall, containing about 1,000 apartments and 3,000 to 4,000 residents. Seven or eight apartment buildings comprise an estate, which is like a small town with its own name, shopping center, recreational and sports facilities, playgrounds, schools, and social services. A typical subsidized apartment is indescribably small by Western standards -- approximately 23 sq. m (248 sq. ft.), with a single window. It consists of a combination living room/bedroom, a kitchen nook, and bathroom, and is typically shared by a couple with one or two children. According to government figures, every household in Hong Kong has at least one TV; many have one for each member of the household, even if the house consists of only one or two rooms. More than 70% of households also have computers connected to the Internet.

But as cramped, unimaginative, and sterile as these housing projects may seem, they're a vast improvement over the way much of the population used to live and the way Hong Kong's poorest live even to this day. An estimated 100,000 live in flats that have been divided into "cage homes," tiered bunk beds encircled by wire mesh. As many as 30 occupants may inhabit a single flat.

Because of Hong Kong's land value, even families who can afford private housing often live in what would be considered cramped quarters in the West. One young woman told me she lived in Tsim Sha Tsui in a 46-sq.-m (495-sq.-ft.) flat, which she shared with four other members of her family. At the other end of the extreme, of course, are Hong Kong's wealthy class, many with villas nestled on hills on Hong Kong Island or luxury apartments in ritzy developments like Discovery Bay on Lantau Island.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.