Hong Kong officially returned to China from British rule in 1997 but a big royal farewell shebang and some chops on a piece of paper don’t necessarily unravel more than 150 years of history.
Yes, technically, Hong Kong and China are one country, albeit with the Special Administrative Region stamp on it — the Chinese government’s acknowledgement of economic and political differences but from the straight-up tourist point of view, does a trip to Hong Kong “count” as really experiencing China?
How much does that passport stamp really mean?
In case you didn’t know, you don’t get the official full page China stamp in your booklet when you come to Hong Kong. Consider these five primary tourist impressions and judge for yourself and by all means feel free to disagree with me and leave your comment below.
With claims such as the “world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant” under its belt, Hong Kong is a unique haven for the travelling foodie. Good eats dot the territory from the top of the mountains to the tips of the harbor (check out its latest floating restaurant, Shun Kee) and it’s safe.
Hong Kong doesn’t have the food safety issues that mainland China suffers. So you can be sure that’s really shrimp in your ‘har gow’.
When it comes to variety, however, the mainland knocks it out of the park.
While Hong Kong specializes in Cantonese eats, mainland cities offer authentic dishes from a wide range of Chinese regional cuisines. The mainland is also the place to go fulfill Chinese food fantasies. Wanna see what a deep-fried rabbit’s head looks like? Or craving fish cooked in a vat of chili oil? Gotta head to China to get it done right.
Sameness rating: It’s like comparing hanging out with Anthony Bourdain versus Gordon Ramsey. They’re both loud, candid and will challenge your limits. But you’d never confuse the two as the same.
2. Culture shock
Culture shock in Hong Kong mostly consists of head-scratching at people carrying umbrellas in the sun, wearing surgical masks and eating chicken feet dim sum.
In mainland China, you’re confronted with the reality of crotchless pants for children, facekinis and squatting.
Mainland Chinese like to squat.
Sameness rating: Mangoes and durians.
Partying on both sides of the border involves a lot of drinking. The average visitor to Hong Kong and mainland China inevitably indulges in alcoholic substances at some point. Alcohol is plentiful and ubiquitous, and it makes you more popular with locals.
Nights mostly consist of bar-hopping and club-going, with no more of a security risk other than damaging your reputation at a night’s-end karaoke session. When it comes to prices, the question isn’t whether partying is affordable, but rather, just how cheap can you go without losing your dignity?
Beers can be as low as USD30 cents per bottle in mainland China. Hong Kong is a more expensive place in which to imbibe.
Sameness rating: Travelers will wake up with thumping headaches and mild aches in their bellies the morning after a night out in both places but they’ll have more cash left over to buy back their confidence with a greasy breakfast in the mainland.
4. Interaction with locals
Tourists will find locals equal parts welcoming and curious in both Hong Kong and mainland China. Asking for directions is not too daunting a task and you’ll usually be met with a smile and real effort to help you get where you need to go.
Language is a major difference. Hong Kong people typically have a good grasp of English, so in that sense it’s easier to talk to locals and after a long history of British rule, Hong Kis are less alarmed by foreign-looking people. They’ve mastered that city slicker habit of blanking out the odd fish, especially when they’re rushing around on a workday.
Samness rating: Interacting with locals in Hong Kong and mainland China is like meeting brothers from different mothers — seems different on the surface, but really very similar.
5. Tourist-friendly services
Obtaining a visa to visit China costs a lot more than getting one for Hong Kong, so right from the start, tourists may feel like it’s more difficult to visit China than it is to visit Hong Kong.
If you stick to the major cities such as Beijing or Shanghai, Chinese tourist services are pretty much on par with Hong Kong.
International hotel chains offer the same level of services, travel agents are just as wiley and restaurant staff similarly fawning.
If tourists get into trouble, they’ll probably find local police in both places just as unhelpful and hospitals pretty much as expensive as anywhere else.
The main difference: if tourists venture into rural areas in China on their own, they’ll need to call in their survival skills if they get into any sticky situations. While it won’t be quite a Bear Grylls-level of adventure, it’s a ride.
Sameness rating: Money can buy great service in big cities, whether its Hong Kong or Shanghai. Outside of that, you’re on your own.
I admit it — i’m split on this one and a vote proved inconclusive and maybe a bit biased.
What do you think?