BY Christopher Rice
April 08 2010 7:50 PM ET
Today, whenever I come across someone who has made a similar trip to Southeast Asia, usually for reasons they would define as being vaguely spiritual, this person gives me a wounded look when I tell them Hong Kong turned out to be my favorite city and that I couldn't leave the chaotic, steaming sprawl of Bangkok quickly enough. In their eyes I am a Western poseur who only stuck my big toe in the waters of Asia, a spoiled dilettante who flew to the other side of the planet only to opt for the Mandarin Oriental experience over the rugged, finding-oneself-in-the-jungle treks, of which my privileged peers are such fans.
They are partly right. I've never been one for backpacking. But to dismiss Hong Kong as being merely a Western outpost clinging to the edge of one of the most intriguing and intimidating countries on the planet or to write it off as nothing more than a museum of the British colonial era in Asia is to miss the island for the buildings.
The Chinese took possession of Hong Kong back from the British in 1997, amid widespread fears that the modern metropolis would collapse into a desiccated version of its former self almost overnight. (Indeed, if there's one statement I can remember my father making about the place repeatedly, it was "I want to get there before the Chinese take it back.") Such fears turned out to be unfounded, thanks largely to a series of sweeping economic reforms started in 1978 by Prime Minister Deng Xiaoping, in which the state maintained control of large enterprises but allowed prices to be set by the free market. Hence the financial powerhouse that many Americans have come to fear today. In 1984, as China began to map out the eventual "reunification" that would occur 13 years later when the British lease on Hong Kong and the adjoining New Territories would expire, Deng introduced the concept of "one country, two systems," which declared that Hong Kong would become a special administrative region where "the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years."
My favorite story about that period, which was related to me by one of my tour guides — a thickly accented Chinese man with the startling first name of Norman — was Margaret Thatcher's last-minute attempt to find a loophole in the lease agreement with the Chinese. According to Norman, Thatcher tried to make the case that the reversion did not in fact apply to Hong Kong Island itself but to the New Territories, a considerably larger landmass that sits between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. To this, the Chinese replied with something along the lines of "Perhaps, but good luck running Hong Kong without a water supply." Thatcher caved, Hong Kong was handed over without a hitch in 1997, and Norman repeats this story proudly to his clients in the Bird Market in Kowloon, beneath giant signs that warn visitors about the risks of avian flu.