On first acquaintance, Hong Kong can overwhelm. Navigate its teeming, tightly packed sidewalks and you’re met at every turn with neon signage, steam-filled canteens, molasses-slow traffic and a Babel of chatter.

Once this first sensory wave has rolled over you, though, take a deep breath and start swimming with the current, because you’ll find Hong Kong is a place to delight in. Utterly safe and fantastically well organised, it offers small moments of perfection. You may find them on a plastic stool enjoying a bargain bowl of beef brisket soup or simply gazing at the thrilling harbour vistas. You’ll find them taking afternoon tea in the cool of a five-star hotel lobby or enjoying beers in balmy, open-air party zones.

Hong Kong can nudge you out of your comfort zone but usually rewards you for it, so try the stinky beancurd, sample the shredded jellyfish, brave the hordes at the city-centre horse races, and join in the dawn t’ai chi. Escape the city limits and other experiences await – watching the sun rise from a remote mountain peak, hiking surf-beaten beaches or exploring deserted islands.

If it’s pampering you’re after, money can buy the ultimate luxuries in a city well used to serving its tiny, moneyed elite. Yet Hong Kong is also a city of simple pleasures. Most often it’s the least pricey experiences – a $2 tram or ferry ride, a whiff of incense curling from temple rafters, savouring fishing-village sundowners and seafood – that are the stuff of priceless fond memories.

City Life

As usual in this city of trade and high finance, of runaway boom and spectacular bust, the big story is money. Dependent on the flow of containers through its massive port, and global money through its banks, Hong Kong underwent a profound shock when the world’s financial system rocked its foundations. Hong Kong punters seesawed between despair and euphoria as the stock and property markets slumped and then rallied on the back of massive economic stimulus from China.

But the talk soon turned to recovery and to speculation about what a massive Chinese-government spending splurge might do for Hong Kong’s stock exchange. Hong Kong’s citizens also wondered what difference future infrastructure projects, such as the massive 30km Macau–Hong Kong bridge link, might make. The seemingly endless proposals for other such ambitious schemes, like the Guangzhou express train, also provoked complaints that tracts of the New Territories would be torn up to make way for it.

Preserving what remains of Hong Kong’s heritage has become a hot topic in a city that never seemed to care about the old being torn down to make way for the new. Recently, the government, taken aback by the anger over the recent destruction of the much-loved Central Star Ferry pier, agreed to preserve parts of the striking Wan Chai Market building.

Discontent over the yawning wealth gap in Hong Kong is another surprise trend. While Hong Kong’s public-housing dwellers suffered an uncertain year, the super rich seemed to be doing fine. In fact, public expressions of discontent grew in online chat rooms about absurd displays of wealth. A trivial detail revealed in court during the latest episode in the saga of the late billionaire Nina Wang was somehow the most significant. During a hearing over her contested will, her feng shui master revealed the duo had burned bank notes together more or less for fun.

If Hong Kong’s rich seemed to be taking leave of reality, its government at least could claim to be maintaining its economic grip. According to the Economic Freedom of the World Annual Report, 2008 marked Hong Kong’s 12th year as the world’s most free economy.

But the scorecard was not perfect. US media watchdog Freedom House downgraded Hong Kong’s press-freedom ranking from ‘free’ to ‘partly free’, in its Freedom of the Press report, reflecting concerns that the mainland was pressuring local media groups to stifle debate on sensitive topics.

While Hong Kong is far from being a true democracy, it continues to grant its citizens the extensive freedoms of commerce, expression, worship and association promised in 1997’s handover agreement. The growing number of mainland petitioners travelling to Hong Kong in 2009 to publicise grievances about corruption, repression or hardship (too often routinely ignored and even punished over the border) underscored the city’s considerable freedoms.