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Hong Kong: a place unlike any other

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It's a place we've all heard of, but most know little about. And that's a small shame, because Hong Kong isn't "just another city" in China. Hong Kong is a landmark, moving the world forward, and is a focus for economists, urban planners, architects, sociologists and travelers all over.

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I remember first learning about Hong Kong as a kid. I looked at the label on one of my awesome shirts. "Made in Hong Kong," it said. I thought nothing of it except that this was a far away, funny-sounding place populated by little, funny-sounding people.

That label revealed part of the story of Hong Kong, as well as its uniqueness. There's no place like it, and I've been itching to see it since I got to China.

Zhuhai and Hong Kong actually border each other by water. Sitting at opposite ends of the Pearl River Delta, a 70-minute ferry ride is all that separates us. On the day of my departure to Hong Kong, I awoke, gathered my things, and took the first ferry I could. All aboard!

The ferry was a medium-sized vessel with a large, indoor cabin holding maybe 150 people, all seated facing front. Interestingly, a Mr. Bean movie was playing on the two televisions up front.

Through the crowd, I squeezed my way off the boat and through customs. The ferry landing was on north end of Hong Kong Island in the neighborhood called Central -- the business district where that incredible Hong Kong skyline stands. From atop the bridge that stretched over the coastal streets from the ferry port to the city, I looked to my left and caught a view of Hong Kong public transport. Double-decker buses and double-decker light rail cars glided up and down the clean streets, delivering the dense population to their destinations. I made my way to the other side of the bridge, down to the street level, and began my tour.

Hong Kong's Central has its skyscrapers at your side tunneling you in as you walk its corridors past newsstands, food vendors and plenty of passersby. Taxis are as common as any vehicle, but there's also no shortage of luxury cars. Walking into a Louis Vuitton store, I saw how populated Hong Kong also is with and/or visited by rich people.

It"s not hard to see why: boasting the fifth, ninth and 14th tallest buildings in the world. The commercial success of Hong Kong is unparalleled. Here's one startling fact: When Hong Kong was handed back to China from the United Kingdom, the population of the country increased by just a drop in the bucket. But this pinprick of a region, relatively miniscule in size, increased China's GDP by 25 percent all by its wee lonesome.

I suppose I should've added historians to the list of professionals who eye Hong Kong. Its past of drugs, war, colonialism, economic success; the flight of Chinese mainlanders to its shores (by one of my student's uncles, no less -- he used a banana tree to swim the distance from Zhuhai --imagine that!), and finally, Hong Kong's return to China in 1997, all make its story like no other.

After a couple of blocks amid the giant buildings, I came across a city square. A statue of an Englishman stood proud, facing the pillared white government building surrounded by fountains, greenery and pathways. Another large park, complete with aviary, huge fish pond (with a bunch of turtles) and a museum or two lay just inland behind the fortress of downtown. Also located there is an old Anglican church -- a monument to Colonialism, but no relic. Because the ways of the West embedded themselves in the lives of the locals, within the church were Chinese worshippers.

After a length of walking about, my poor tootsies were sore. I decided to get off my feet and give another part of Hong Kong a shot. "I know," said I. "I'll take the subway to Kowloon." Turned out, what I thought would simply be a means to an end was quite an experience itself.

It was like time travel. To be in the tunnel riding under the harbor channel in the smoothest, cleanest, quietest ride you could imagine was a bit surreal. I felt like I was in a simulator of "what the year 2020 is going to be like."

Kowloon is a bustling international neighborhood opposite the channel from Hong Kong Island. Such energy it has! And this was no holiday or weekend; it was a Tuesday at 3:30, yet the scene was incredible: a rainbow of people representing Africa, India, Southeast Asia, Europe and the Americas all mingling about. Hundreds of people packed the sidewalks, and when the light changed, a parade of pedestrians and vehicles made their way. All this occurred with a backdrop of eye-catching awnings and neon signs signifying electronics outlets on every block, jewelry stores, guesthouses, small restaurants, you name it.

To be truthful, it got to be a bit much. No kidding, I had 10 Indian men approach me within a three-block walk, asking if I wanted a tailored suit. No. Nope. No thanks. Sorry. Not interested. (Unfortunately, I stuck out like a wounded baitfish to these sales sharks.) After a little while here, I headed back to the island in time to watch the sunset over the skyline from the ferry crossing the channel.

This, of course, just scratches the surface of Hong Kong, of all that I did and saw, including visiting a nearby rural island, speaking with Jehovah's Witnesses and Filipino housemaids and watching Argentine tango. See my blog articles starting here: http://newplateaus.areavoices.com/2011/05/05/hong-kong-a-different-kind-.... Or look for my book later this winter that includes a multitude of experiences and insights from in Hong Kong.

Brandon Ferdig writes a weekly blog at www.newplateaus.areavoices.com. This column is an excerpt fromhis blog during the year he spent teaching and traveling in China. His book, "New Plateaus in China," is due out this winter. Email him at brandon@newplateaus.com.

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