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Houston - San Francisco - Hong Kong. A trip of twenty hours, overall. I arrive to Hong Kong at 5 p.m. on Sunday, May 25. I wondered, how would I recognize Felipe Cucker?

(Felipe Cucker is a friend who I had met through the Uruguayan Internet network. He had cordially invited me to stay with him at his home. Felipe is a mathematician, working at a Hong Kong university on a leave of absence from the University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain. I had not met Felipe personally before.)

How do we recognize each other? No problem; Felipe is waiting me with a big "JuLePe" sign.

We take the A20 bus from the airport (in the Kowloon Peninsula) to Hong Kong Island. Felipe lives in the Mid-Levels, the lower portion of Victoria's Peak. To get from the bus station (in Exchange Square) to his house, we use the "travelator", the strangest mean of mass transportation I've ever seen. (Officially called the 'Hillside Escalator Link'.) Basically, it's a system of elevated escalators and moving walkways. It's more than 800m long, the longest such system in the world.

The travelator is rather novel and efficient. It solves a big problem for Mid-Levels residents. The roads are narrow and steep, making the walk home a strenuous climb. Driving a car or minibus to the Mid-Levels is not much fun either. The travelator is aimed at solving this problem by getting people out of their vehicles entirely. It's been a smashing success. Score another first for Hong Kong. The 'travelator' is only one-way. It runs up from 10:20 am. to 11 p.m. It runs down at other times.

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Antonia, Felipe's wife, was leaving that same night with one of the kids on a flight to Barcelona. Antonia is a pleasant woman whose Spanish accent is unmistakable Catalonian. Her "L" pronunciation betrays her. :-)

The travelator is running the wrong way, so Antonia decides to take a taxi to the airport. We helped her to take her luggage down 2 or 3 blocks, to a busy intersection where she flags a taxi. Felipe mentions to me that "95%" of taxi drivers speak only Cantonese; no English. I don't know how accurate is that percentage, but out of the four taxis I took in Hong Kong, only one had a driver who could understand me.

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Despite the long flight, I feel surprisingly rested and energetic. I left my luggage at Felipe's, and we decide to go down to take the Star Ferry. We walk downhill (it's about 7 and the travelator is running upwards) to the Exchange Square and then to the ferry terminal on the harbor.

Hong Kong Island has some impressive skyscrapers. Felipe points to two: the Lippo tower (belonging to the same group involved in the recent US Democratic Party financial scandal) and The Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank Building. Designed by Norman Foster, this latter is the most expensive building in the world. It's a modular building, put together with giant Lego-like pieces. It's said the investors who financed it were anxious about Hong Kong's uncertain future under Chinese rule. They wanted a building that could be disassembled and taken out of Hong Kong in case of trouble. Like a Lego toy.

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The island of Hong Kong has been under British rule for 156 years. In 1841, the biggest and meanest drug dealers were not Colombians but British, and they had the official blessing of Queen Victoria and the empire's armed forces. At the height of the Opium Wars, the British seized Xiamen, Ningbo, Shanghai and other ports. With Nanjing (Nanking) under threat, the Chinese were forced to accept the Treaty of Nanking which ceded the island of Hong Kong to Great Britain 'in perpetuity'.

Hong Kong can thus claim to be the most successful result of dope running in history.

This didn't end the fighting or British ambitions. In 1859, the Chinese were forced to cede the Kowloon Peninsula and Stonecutters Island to the British. (Today, Stonecutters is not an island anymore. It has been joined to the Kowloon Peninsula by land reclamation.)

In June 1898, the New Territories were given to Britain on a 99- year lease, ending 1 July 1997, only 12 days from today. Note that -- according to the 1898 Convention -- the British were only 'obliged' to return the New Territories but could keep Hong Kong Island, Stonecutters and Kowloon 'in perpetuity'. However, in 1984 Great Britain agreed to hand back the entire colony to China on 1 July 1997.

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At the end of May, when I was there, one could already feel the excitement over the British colony's historic handover to China. At least 6,000 journalists from the world's media are set to invade Hong Kong for one of the last great spectacles of the 20th Century.

China resumes sovereignty over Hong Kong at midnight on June 30, ending more than 150 years of British colonial rule and Chinese national shame over the territory, taken away from Beijing during the 19th century Opium Wars.

China has agreed to let the Hong Kong government, which is to keep a high degree of autonomy after the takeover, to handle the media invasion without any interference.

The venue for the official handover ceremony will be a new extension of the Convention and Exhibition Centre. This new extension was not yet finished when I was there, and some Hong Kongers were worried it would not be finished in time. However, construction advanced day and night.

Chinese friends described me this extension as a bird-like building. It looked more like a giant blue clam to me, jutting into the sea along the Wanchai waterfront.

The celebrations will include a joint Sino-British flag-changing ceremony.

The current Hong Kong flag is blue with a small Union-Jack on the upper-left corner, similar to the flags of Australia and New Zealand. It also has a white circle towards the right, with a crowned lion (representing Britain, I presume) and a dragon (representing China?) surrounding a red and white seal.

After June 30, the Hong Kong flag will be red with a five-petal flower on the middle. I've asked several Chinese friends, but none of them knew the significance of the five petals. Recall that the flag of the People's Republic of China is red with one big star (representing the Communist Party) on the upper-right corner and four smaller nearby stars (representing four principles of communism, which I don't remember.)

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98% of Hong Kong population is ethnic Chinese, most of whom have their origins in the Guandong (Canton) province of China. About 60% were born in the colony; 35% live in Kowloon, 21% on Hong Kong Island, 42% in the New Territories and 2% on the Outlying Islands.

HK's current population is about 6.4 million. It was less than 30,000 when the British took over. Only two groups can claim to have lived in Hong Kong for a long time: the Tankas (nomadic boat people who have fished the local waters for centuries) and the Hakka (who farmed the New Territories long before the British and the Cantonese came to the region).

About 400,000 expats (expatriates, foreigners) permanently reside legally in Hong Kong.

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It's Sunday night, and Felipe and I walk towards the Star Ferry terminal. I'm surprised to see a large number of Filipino women gathering around Statue Square. Felipe explains to me that most Filipino women are domestic maids who live in their bosses' homes. Sunday is their day off, and since they don't have a home of their own, they all gather on this place. Thais gather nearby, west of the Star Ferry pier.

Filipinos provide a source of cheap labor in Hong Kong. That is likely to change since mainland China has the largest pool of cheap workers in the world -- more than a billion strong. Some speculate that China would rather replace Filipinos with their own cheap workers.

This is a very touchy issue. What will happen to 'foreigners' who were born in Hong Kong and hold Hong Kong passports? Some are half-Chinese or quarter-Chinese, but Beijing has indicated that citizenship can only be endowed on those Hong Kongers of 'pure Chinese descent'. In other words, racial purity, and not place of birth, is the deciding factor. Filipinos and Nigerians are likely targets of mass expulsion, and many British nationals may suddenly become unwelcome.

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I love boats. I love sea crossings. I had heard wonders about the Star Ferry, and it didn't disappoint me. At only 2 HK dollars (about US$ 0.25), is one of the few Hong Kong bargains. I first took the ferry from Central to Tsim Sha Tsui that Sunday night, with Felipe. What a feeling! I got to see one of the world's best harbors at its best. Every Hong Kong visitor should take the Star Ferry at least twice: once during a clear night, as I did (twice!) on that first day, and once during the day, as I would do a few days later on my second HK visit.

All the ferries have "Star" on their names: Morning Star, Celestial Star, Twinkling Star, ... They are not only fun, but an essential mode of transport for commuters; cheaper and faster than buses. Unfortunately, bicycles are not longer allowed on the ferries, I don't understand why.

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The Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront, at the very tip of the Kowloon peninsula is the main tourist attraction. It's also the place where tourists are most likely to be ripped off. About one sq. km of shops, restaurants, pubs, and topless bars charging outrageous prices are clustered on either side of Nathan Rd. The lower end of Nathan Rd. is known as the Golden Mile, after both its real estate prices and its ability to suck money out of tourist's pockets.

The Clock Tower, adjacent to the Star Ferry terminal, is all that remains of a train station that once existed at the tip of Kowloon.

The Cultural Centre is one of Hong Kong's landmarks. I was impressed by its beautiful waterfront with a magnificent view of Victoria's harbor and of Hong Kong Island skyscrapers. It's also very popular with romantic couples, based on what I saw that Sunday night. I can see why.

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It was midnight Sunday when Felipe and I returned to the Mid- Levels, after yet another fantastic ferry crossing. Problem: the travelator has changed direction and we have to climb the mountain on foot. Remember, this is only a few hours after my 20-hour trip. I haven't slept in two days, it's very hot, and the humidity is close to 100%. Well ... I slept like a koala that night. :-)

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Felipe is gone to work early next morning. I take the travelator down with my luggage, to Exchange Square. From there, back to the airport on the A20.

I'm not flying anywhere. I'm at the airport to meet other two colleagues from the University of Houston: Basheer Khumawala and Sukran Kadipasaoglu. We are supposed to travel to the Chinese border before noon.

Basheer and Sukran arrive without problems around 10:30 am. We had instructions to take a train to the Lo Wu border crossing where our Chinese hosts would be waiting at noon.

Since we have many pieces of luggage between the three, we decide to take a taxi instead.

Big mistake. The driver speaks no English and has trouble understanding our directions. He seems disoriented and wanders through the New Territories, asking directions to passersby on several occasions. He finally leaves us on a remote bus station; we don't understand a word of what he says, and he charges us 600 HK dollars. A rip-off!

The rip-off is worse than we thought. We are far from Lo Wu. Nobody seems to speak English around here. Finally, we found a nice man who tells us to follow him. We jump onto a bus after him. We end up on a different border crossing (Lok Ma Chay?). This is not where our hosts are waiting for us.

We get off the bus with all our luggage (heavy!) We cross passport control on foot, and jump on the bus again (with our heavy luggage!) on the other side. We are in China!

But we are far from where we are supposed to be. How do we get there?

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(This concludes the first Hong Kong leg of my trip. I would return to Hong Kong five days later, after a remarkable China experience.)


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