A detailed guide to Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen and Guangzhou

Today's Hong Kong can be divided into 4 parts: Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon peninsula, the New Territories and the numerous outlying islands. Hong Kong Island is 75 square kilometres of topsy-curvy real estate. The earliest British settlements were established here.

It is now dominated by great banks and counting houses, enormous futuristic buildings, opulent hotels, splendid residences on the Peak, surprisingly restful beach resorts, and the territory's oldest Chinese communities.

Across the Harbour - by the Mass Transit Railway, Star Ferry or via one of three tunnels - is Kowloon, with its millions of people packed into just a few squre kilometres, Tsim Sha Tsui district, the site of many hotels, bars and shops, is changing as fast as anywhere in Hong Kong, with massive developments above and below ground.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

Beyond the mountains which ring Kowloon lie the anachronistically named New Territories, leased by the British for 99 years and handed back to China, together with the rest of Hong Kong, in 1997. A heady mix of empty hillsides, bucolic landscapes and bustling developments, it's a very different side of the Special Administrative Region.

A further step into the outfield is grandted by the 230-plus outlying islands, some changing for ever - Walt Disney's second Asian theme park opened on Lantau in 2005 - and others uninhabited and unaltered since the day the Union Jack was first planted.

To the west across the silt-laden waters of the Pearl River mouth is the former Portuguese enclave of Macau, busily reinventing itself as East Asia's leisure capital.

Across the border, the Pearl River Delta, anchored by th ever-expanding cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou, is well on its way to becoming one of the great financial powerhouses of Asia.

Central and the Peak

Central - still occasionally marked on maps as "Victoria", and Chung Wan in Cantonese - is Hong Kong's business and financial hub, at the heart of the incredible cliff-face of high-rise buildings that extends along the north shore of Hong Kong Island.

Wedged between the harbour and the precipitous slopes of Victoria Peak, this is where the money is, the financial powerhouses, the glamorous high-end shopping malls, overlooked by the multi-millionaires mansions up on the Peak. It all adds up to one of the most fascinating areas of modern Hong Kong.

This is not somewhere that rests on its laurels. The construction of gigantic new buildings is never ending. Reclamation work is claiming great chunks of the harbour; one area reclaimed during the 1990s now accommodates the mammoth International Finance Centre, which has given the prestigious commercial district's orientation a decided tweak.

Central, like the rest of Hong Kong, doesn't have a great deal to offer in the way of conventional tourist sights. There are few old buildings or museums of interest, and despite the efforts of the tourist board to highlight the past with such innovations as the Sun Yat Sen Trail, most of the "landmarks" en route are simply plaques recording some building or other that has long since disappeared.

Instead, the fascination is in the contemporary, the everyday life of the place, its architecture, its amazing contrasts of scale, and the sheer energy that emanates from the crowded streets.

Yet while most of the pedestrians on Central's streets are attired for business, and giant video screens flash the latest news and financial figures from around the world to passers-by, there are still strong elements of former days, with wayside hawkers dangling novelties and knock-offs, incense sticks smouldering by tiny shrines, and delivery boys serenely pedalling through red lights with a cargo of fresh meat balanced in their bike's cast-iron basket.

Hong Kong Financial Centre

Hong Kong Financial Centre

The financial centre

The Star Ferry Pier is as good a places as any to begin exploring Central. The terminal is due to move northwards as reclamation proceeds, but having been in business sinec the 19th century - the company is likely to take the upheaval in its stride.

The green and white double deckers are one of Hong Kong's icons, and the mini voyage is one of the city's bargains, costing a mere HK$2.2 on the upper deck for an adult.

In front of the busy Star Ferry Concourse are bright red rickshaws pulle by the handful of wily ancients who still earn a living in this old-fashioned way.

These two wheeled chariots first appeared on the streets of Hong Kong in the late 1870s, but they actually originated in Japan. The first ones were designed and made by an American missionary, and the name comes from the Japanese jinrikisha, which means "man-powered wheeled vehicle".

Today, they're only useful to provide photo opportunities for tourist or for a quick ride around the block - no further. Prepare to bargain hard.

Heading straight inland, an underpass will take you on Statue Square on either side of Chater Road.

On Sundays, throngs of Filipina maids gather here on their day off in a festive, somewhat chaotic outdoor party. The 143,000 Philippine nationals, most of whom work here as maids, now form by far the single largest foreign community living in Hong Kong - over double the number of British, Canadian, Australian and American passport holders, who together total around 70,000.

The square was once graced with a statue of Queen Victoria, long transplanted to Causeway Bay, and replaced by a statue of Sir Thomas Jackson, an Irishman who managed the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation for 30 years around the end of the 19th century.

Chinese and expatriate victims of World Wars I and II are commemorated at the Cenotaph, and Hong Kong's war veterans gather here on Remembrance Dat every November.

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