Studying the map over breakfast, it looks easy. You board the legendary Star Ferry at the Tsim Sha Tsui terminal in Kowloon, motor across Victoria Harbor toward the skyscrapers lining Hong Kong Island’s financial district, then disembark and stroll a few blocks into the heart of Central, the city’s birthplace. In reality, by the time you’ve figured out that Central’s freeway-esque thoroughfares can only be crossed by pedestrian walkways, gotten lost in one of the luxury-brand-filled malls into which the walkways deposit you, stumbled into Statue Square and made your way through the hundreds in the plaza beneath Norman Foster’s HSBC building, and ridden the 2,600-foot-long escalator up to historic Hollywood Road, you’ll be lucky if you haven’t missed lunch.
If you’ve a taste for urban life in extremis, you’ll be in heaven. Hong Kong is composed of three parts acquired by the British beginning in 1841: the eponymous, mountainous island; Kowloon peninsula; and the New Territories, which include the region north of Kowloon plus roughly 230 islands (leased for 99 years in 1898, an arrangement that precipitated the 1997 handover). Each has its own allure. Hong Kong Island offers an intriguing architectural mélange, ranging from 19th- and early 20th-century works such as St. John’s Cathedral and the former Supreme Court to Foster’s remarkable 1985 machine-for-business and I. M. Pei’s sharp-angled Bank of China Tower. Amidst the cheek-by-jowl vernacular buildings and the steep, skinny streets of Central’s Lan Kwai Fong and Soho districts, you find the hippest nightlife, and at Stanley and Repulse Bay, delightful beaches. In Kowloon, the density borders on the surreal: Monstrous, grimy apartment structures—–hung with laundry, crisscrossed by bamboo scaffolding, and seemingly about to collapse—–line the main artery, Nathan Road, over which a montage of visually cacophonous signage unfurls like a neon thunderhead. In the New Territories (apart from suburban development), there are historic Chinese villages, abundant country parks, and peace.
Overwhelming? Absolutely. But the public-works projects that pepper the city’s history have delivered a surprisingly manageable metropolis. Whether you’re ascending to Victoria Peak, the island’s high point, on a 19th-century trolley line or riding the comprehensive MTR subway to sightsee in Sheung Wan or attend the Sha Tin racecourse, Hong Kong’s pleasures are easily grasped.
To put things in perspective, we spoke with Hong Kong native Rocco Yim, whose Rocco Design Architects Ltd. is one of the city’s most prolific architecture firms, responsible for the graceful Citibank Plaza, Number One Peking Road skyscrapers, and dozens of other local and international projects. We talked about Hong Kong’s development, urban terrors and pleasures, and future challenges.
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