Trip Report: Hong Kong and Macau
May, 2002

10 days in Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, Macau, Guangzhao (Canton)

My ten days in Hong Kong, Macau, and one stop in mainland China — Guangzhou (old Canton) — provided an interesting insight into the many contrasts of China today: British/Chinese, rich/poor, and ancient/modern.

First I visited Kowloon (which means "nine dragons"), a ten-minute ferry ride across the bay from Hong Kong Island. Even though it's on the mainland, it's part of Hong Kong and was part of the colony handed over to China in 1997.

I went in without hotel reservations, as I've done before in London and Singapore, counting on the reservation desk at the airport to deliver a good lodging value. Upon arriving at the Imperial Hotel on Nathan Road (famous as the "Golden mile" shopping+hotel district), I walked around the block to stumble upon the harbor promenade (near the famous Star ferry) and was stunned by the incredible sight of skyscrapers looming above me across the bay in the Central District on Hong Kong Island.

Guangzhou, three hours bus-ride into mainland China, was formerly called Canton and is the 6th largest city in China. Important in cuisine — dim sum (yum!) is Cantonese. Important in history — this is where the Opium Wars started. In 1773, this trade port is where the British introduced opium (from India) into China, hoping to stimulate a new line of trade to balance their purchases of tea, silk, and porcelain. In 1839, the Chinese government publicly destroyed 20,000 chests of British opium, providing the pretext for the British to send in battleships. We've still got them beat though; the Brits were only trying to addict a continent, Americans and Europeans were trying to enslave one (Africa).

Macau, formerly a Portuguese colony (just turned over to China in 1999), now a gambling resort, still has some old-world charm despite the high rises. I didn't gamble there because blackjack is the only game I would have been comfortable playing. (I don't know much about the Chinese games like pai gow and mahjong, and all I know about baccarat is what I remember from the James Bond book, Casino Real.) But the odds are better in Vegas; in Macau you can't double down — that, of course, is where you make your real money in blackjack.

Hong Kong Island is the focus of the British colony, an intensely developed city offering fabulous views and wonderful flavors of England: the tram, the place names (Queensway, Gloucester, Admiralty, Connaught), the bank execs in suits. So surprising to hear British accents coming from the mouths of Chinese speaking English. In the subway, the signs warn "Please mind the gap" just like London.

In some areas, navigating the streets was difficult. As an island, its streets evolved to be curved. As in the difference between Euclidean vs. non-Euclidean geometry (remember that from high school?), the shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line. And with skyscrapers all over, it was hard to see landmarks, and the variety of (multilingual) signage was confusing. Coming home to the nearby subway station one night, I still had to take a taxi to find my hotel — even though I knew it was within a couple blocks. (Okay, my feet were tired too.)


At one point I had the idea to try as many eel dishes as I could, but variety won out: Dim sum (BBQ pork buns and egg custard tarts are my favs) ... crab ... noodles ... anything-you-want over rice ... food-on-a-stick (squid, fish balls, sausage) ... and my favorite fresh fruits were there — lychee, rambutan, mango — and I met a new one, too, the beautiful red and green Red Dragon fruit. I have certainly decided that America needs more food courts (and street markets). One night, I was treated like a king at a 100-year old restaurant in Guangzhou, full of water tanks offering a wide choice of live seafood for one's dinner: frog, eel, fish, shrimp, lobster, scallops ...


Now that I'm getting into digital video, for a while I've been on the lookout for a tripod. At first I thought I shouldn't hassle with something that wouldn't fit in my luggage, so I bought only a tiny one for tabletop and window ledge use. But when I saw the prices in Guangzhou I couldn't resist — only 175 yuan (about US$21). In Kowloon, where prices are best for electronics, I bought a microphone (which I can use with a video camera or minidisc recorder) for HK$138 (about US$18). Also in Kowloon, I bought two custom tailored wool suits for HK$4000 (about US$500).


With the most residents per square mile of anyplace on Earth (phone numbers are 8 digits), Hong Kong handles its crowds with grace ... and lots of pedestrian overpasses, underground corridors (I walked one that must have been half a mile), and moving walkways — they even have an above-ground "Travelator" that extends to the housing high rises in the low hills that rise abruptly on the edge of the financial district.

Public transit here is very advanced. The MTR (Mass Transit Rail) is fast and frequent and goes all over, including under the bay to connect Kowloon, Hong Kong Island, and the airport. It's very much like BART, but better. The signage is excellent; inside the train, a display shows moving lights on a map — a green arrow and a blinking red light make it easy to see the next station, which way the train's going, and where it stops next. I remember reading about the white-gloved attendants who pack people into the trains at rush hour; I saw one, but not in action.


That's right, the Hong Kong evening news used street footage of police enforcing a new anti-litter ordinance. (No, I was not littering!!) I was in the background for about 15 seconds.


ATMs came through everywhere I went. Easily found at bank branches along major avenues, ATMS in Hong Kong delivered Hong Kong dollars, ATMs in Guangzhou gave up yuan (Renminbi — why does this currency have two names?), and in Macau served up Patacas. I had a dream struggling with the difference between patacas and pesetas — blame the Portuguese!


  • motorcycle taxis
  • street markets — good photos, good buys, curiosity stimulation, fresh fruit, and food-on-a-stick!
  • the Pearl River cruise for 8 yuan (about US$1) in Guangzhou
  • a refrigerator in my hotel room
  • a tiny compass that slips onto my watch band (for orienting maps)


  • heat+humidity
  • 12-hour flights, ugh
  • blisters from walking and walking and walking
  • time changes that switch day for night
  • the Chinese custom of spitting and littering
  • the vague suspicion that you've just paid the tourist price (in buying a popsicle in Macau, I asked the price and was told "ten" patacas, until I saw a price list on the wall that said 8.50)


I saw two movies during my trip: Spiderman and Star Wars. No crowds, very convenient. They sell reserved seats; you pick your seat from a computer screen layout of the theater. I noticed something interesting; when the movie ends, the crowd exited swiftly — ignoring the credits — unlike America where a significant number of the audience often lingers. Best I can figure is that English credits don't interest a largely Chinese audience (the movies are subtitled in Chinese).


The level of service is higher in many ways: my 3-hour bus trip into China came complete with a bottle of water. I bought a microphone at one store, a tiny battery lamp at another — each time, the clerks inserted fresh batteries without charge.


I saw several very large TV screens (in the MTR and on the sides of buildings). I also saw many very small portable flat screen TVs (in the camera shops ubiquitous on the tourist boulevards). What does this bode for the future? TV screens everywhere ... a culture swamped by TV advertising ... When we finally wake up to the dangers of this untested 'drug' (studies have now proven a link between violence on TV and violent behavior amongst kids), will it be too entrenched to regulate? The 'advertiser-supported' model (now spreading to the Internet) delivers free TV to each individual, it's society at large that suffers the costs (corrupted values). How can you beat that deal?


Hardly anybody wears sunglasses, though some women use umbrellas for sun protection. UV levels are reported nightly on the TV news. Most people working outdoors at length wear big hats.


  • ate at the Snake Restaurant in Guangzhou (but the taxi driver wouldn't or couldn't take me there)
  • visited the Space Museum and the History Museum in Kowloon, but on my last day, Tuesday, I found out my guidebook was wrong — they were closed on Tuesdays
  • bought a minidisc recorder in Kowloon (they cost about $300 here in San Francisco), but I didn't want to take the risk, since I also knew the AC adapter wouldn't work back home (house current in China is 220 volts)


I saw (and of course avoided) many American brands, including: Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, Dominoes Pizza, and UPS.


  • Rolex is huge in Hong Kong
  • postage stamps make great souvenirs (coins, too)
  • most hotels supply the room with a thermos of hot water for tea/coffee
  • why does one only see Caucasian mannequins?
  • no coleslaw is served at Kentucky Fried Chicken (almost as visible as McDonalds) in China
  • in Asia, they think Americans like ketchup on everything
  • every T-shirt I saw with words on it was in English

But, remember, there’s no place like home.

Happy travels,

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