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Applauding the Changing Face of Hong Kong

June 23, 1991|JUDITH MORGAN

The sun--a sizzling orange--dropped behind a curtain of clouds at the edge of the China Sea. Ahead were smudges of islands made dim by the fading light. The map on the cabin screen showed that our jet was 10 minutes from Hong Kong. "Hold back the night," I prayed.

My pulse raced with excitement. This was my first trip back in too many years. Would Hong Kong have changed beyond recognition?

Would it be too dark to tell?

Suddenly, we banked and dove into a whirlpool of light: millions of sparkling windows, miles of neon, mirrored towers of bronze and glass, the firefly glow of lanterns on junks, bright streamers of laundry hung out on bamboo rods from high-rise apartments--laundry almost brushed by our wings, laundry that would surely dry faster because of our passing.

The plane touched down gently on the Kai Tak strip--its lone runway jutting into the Hong Kong harbor--and I had the urge to applaud: to cheer the feat of threading a jumbo jet through that spectacle of skyscrapers and scaffolding, to hail the audacious beauty of this ever-intriguing city.

The aircraft door opened and the night air rushed in--warm, moist, sweet. That was the first surprise. Despite booming growth and the endless reclaiming of land from the sea, the city still has its fragrant harbor, or Heung Gong, which the British tongue turned into Hong Kong.

Yet in many ways, Hong Kong has changed. I found it bigger, bolder, brighter, taller, faster, noisier, more frenzied, more upbeat, more fun.

Outwardly, its people seem almost unconcerned about what may happen when the colony reverts to China in 1997: talk of spending billions for a huge, new airport near Lantau Island is not deemed unreasonable. Undaunted by its past or future, Hong Kong focuses its estimable energy on the high-rolling business of today.

During the ride from the airport, I gawked at the crowded streets of Kowloon, at the teen-age hawkers and night markets and stalls. I gawked at the blazing billboards that flash into the black hole of the harbor and make a dazzling tunnel of Nathan Road.

Children were chattering outside movie houses. Radios blared from cars and motorcycles. Every other person seemed to be carrying a cellular phone . . . and using it. Chugging double-deck buses on Salisbury Road reminded me that this is still England in Asia.

Then I left the cacophony of the streets and stepped into the lobby of the Peninsula Hotel, with its gilt-draped columns and balustrades. Locals and travelers alike were sipping champagne at tables better known for the afternoon ritual of tea. From a balcony, violins played improbable favorites: "Blue Danube" and "La Bamba."

A stately English couple, whose tow-headed youngsters were already eyeing the banister of the grand staircase, checked in ahead of me. What childhood memories they'll have, I thought, recalling my family's stops at oddball motels from Plymouth, Mass., to the outskirts of Yellowstone Park.

Upstairs, in the hush of Room 224, I savored the jasmine tea that arrived even before my luggage. I drew back the curtains to stare toward the harbor and above to the jagged ridge of Victoria Peak, with its staircase of hidden mansions.

Part of my view was filled with the Hong Kong Cultural Center, a hulking waterfront complex built since my last visit. Its concert halls and stages have lured Jose Carreras, Joan Sutherland and other stars, many of whom cross the street to stay at "The Pen"--as the Peninsula is called--in suites with lyrical names such as Jade Flute and Gate of Heaven.

In order to rise above the Cultural Center, the six-story Peninsula is adding a tower in its rear courtyard. The addition is scheduled to open in 1993 when the venerable hotel--Hong Kong's oldest--marks its 65th year.

But that is not the most-talked-of date on the Hong Kong calendar. At midnight on June 30, 1997, the British Crown Colony will revert to China. The Peninsula already has accepted reservations for the historic moment.

"Most bookings so far are from England," said a young man at the registration desk. "Many will come for nostalgia. But for others, I think it is like reserving a room in Hawaii or Mexico to see an eclipse of the sun. People like to experience a phenomenon for themselves."

I was interested, but beginning to fade. My 14-hour flight from California was overtaking the exhilaration of arrival.

Just before going to sleep, I left a wake-up call for 7 a.m.

"Yes, Mrs. Morgan," replied a girl with a wind-chime voice. "Have a nice dream."

I already was.

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