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 Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch

martin DESPITE ITS UNCERTAIN FUTURE,
HONG KONG IS BOOMING AGAIN

BY MARTIN B. DEUTSCH

July 1, 1992 -- Things almost always look better in retrospect. You know, the good old days, whenever they were.

This is particularly true of many destinations I visited when I was younger: They’ve lost some of their appeal with the years. The same holds true for many of my favorite resorts and cruise ports: They ain’t what they used to be. (Or, maybe, I ain’t what I used to be.) There are exceptions, of course. Italy continues to turn me on, as do the Greek Islands. London and Paris always excite my pulse; so do San Francisco, Bangkok, Sydney and Melbourne. And I do like Tokyo.

But if there’s one place that seems to improve with time and exposure, an exception to my jaded travel palate, it’s that uneasy British Crown Colony of Hong Kong, which reverts back to its Chinese owners in 1997.

Densely packed with people and vehicles, throbbing with vitality and commerce, this tiny enclave off the South China coast is an almost casual jumble of construction and concrete, shoulder-to-shoulder buildings, and an endless mosaic of shops, malls and restaurants. This East-West melting pot of more than six million people is the world’s eleventh-greatest trading nation and its third-busiest financial center. And Hong Kong rests, often improbably, in a physical setting that offers a constant feast for the eyes, a combination of natural and man-made shapes and contours that gives the surroundings an endless drama.

Even before you land, onboard a Cathay Pacific jet making a steep, semi-circular approach to the slender concrete finger of Kai Tak Airport, which violates Hong Kong Harbour, the excitement and the sense of anticipation start to build. I’ve never been disappointed with Hong Kong, even after more than a dozen visits since 1961.

During my most recent stay, eight days in early spring, the city sat in clouds and was often doused in rain. But it didn’t matter. The mist-shrouded skyline held a powerful appeal of its own and the absence of Victoria Peak from the visible panorama hardly mattered.

But besides the seasonal cumulus, Hong Kong lies under another cloud: the impending takeover by China. What will happen when Communism meets capitalism in Hong Kong in less than five years?

When I was here previously, both two and four years ago, the pervasive mood was gloomy--and it certainly wasn’t helped by the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown in June of 1989. Several months before that, I had written about the “brain drain,” the disturbing departure of middle-class and professional Chinese, primarily to Australia and Canada. Even now, nearly 1,200 families still leave Hong Kong every week.

Despite the continuing exodus, however, I found more optimism, although guarded, this time around. The Hong Kong stock market has soared since last fall; many apartments have doubled in price in less than two years; and hotel, office, and residential construction continues unabated. The investment frenzy has to be taken as a positive sign.

This upbeat outlook is also fed by the quiet synergy that has developed between Hong Kong and South China, an area with a population of roughly 250 million, which is about the same as the entire United States. Quite a market! Hong Kong companies employ 3 million workers just in the neighboring southern Chinese province of Guangdong. Thousands more southern Chinese workers commute each day to jobs in Hong Kong. And, especially significant for a stable transition, more and more business leaders from China are joining the boards of major Hong Kong companies.

Hong Kong also was buoyed earlier this year by the remarks of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who said that Hong Kong will be allowed to retain its capitalist ways after the reannexation. Not just for 50 years, as he had earlier promised, but for 100 years. But Deng is 87 years old, and no one knows who will be in power in Beijing for the next 105 years--or how they’ll feel and act.

Meanwhile, it’s full speed ahead on all fronts. And why not? After all, the Chinese are often archgamblers, and they have great faith in luck and time. Eugene Sullivan, the American who heads the Hong Kong Tourist Association, said last April that the advent of Chinese rule “will be a comma, not a full stop.” He also reported that the territory now has 33,000 rooms in eighty-two hotels, with 36,000 rooms in ninety-five properties scheduled to be on the line by 1995.

There is also much-needed activity on the airport front. Out-of-date and overcrowded Kai Tak is due to be replaced in 1997 by a much larger facility off Lantau Island. Recent funding problems have raised questions about the timetable, but, if all goes according to plan, the new airport will handle up to 80 million passengers a year, compared to the 28 million passenger capacity of Kai Tak. The new airport will be supported with new trains, highways, bridges, tunnels and a ferry. And a new seaport on Lantau Island is stated to open in 1997.

Kai Tak, located on the Kowloon Peninsula across from Hong Kong Island, would be razed and redeveloped for commercial use. One Hong Kong tourist spokesman speculates that the real estate would quickly become the most valuable--and expensive--property in the world.

Given Hong Kong’s seemingly endless supply of energy, I don’t think China will tamper appreciably with such a lucrative economic showplace. But I don’t roll the dice, either. If I were you, I’d drop in sooner rather than later. After all, these may be Hong Kong’s good old days.

This column originally appeared in Frequent Flyer magazine.

Copyright © 1991-2006 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.