In booming Beijing, remnants of ancient China are tangible in the Forbidden City. In Hong Kong, skyscrapers symbolize one of the world's most successful economies. And in Macau, across the Pearl River Delta from Hong Kong, gambling generates more revenue than in Las Vegas.
In one trip, I visited all three places — sampling history on the mainland, the fruits of capitalism in Hong Kong, and the glitzy casinos of Macau — and experienced three very different Chinas.
For me, it was a personal journey as well as a vacation. My family left China in 1949, first for Taiwan and then the Philippines. I wasn't sure what to expect and whether or not they would accept me. I'm Chinese, but I act like a foreigner culturally. I speak my provincial dialect of Fujianese, but not Mandarin, the official Chinese language. (I also speak Tagalog, the Filipino language.) My family was part of the Chinese diaspora that left the mainland more than half a century ago. We are the overseas Chinese, living in foreign lands in our own communities, a people without a true home.
Often during my visit, someone would start talking to me in Mandarin. I know some Mandarin (I studied it for years but forgot most of it), so I would say, "I don't speak Mandarin. I speak English."
Despite this, I was surprised at how much I felt at home in China, and I felt proud of the country's economic development. This, I felt, was the future for our people.
But like most visitors, I wanted to see the country's history, too. I spent my first full day in China there at the Badaling section of the Great Wall, the same place visited by President Obama.
The wall resembles the writhing body of a dragon hugging China's hills, mountains and grasslands. Parts of the wall date back to the first century BC and it was built and rebuilt over two millennia to keep out invaders. At 3,500 miles long, it's longer than the United States is wide.
The Great Wall is in the mountains, an hour outside Beijing. I joined a tour group to see it, reserving ahead online for about $30 ($20 less than reserving through a hotel). The tour included lunch but the guide detoured us to jade and silk factories where prices gouge unwary tourists — a common practice among local operators. An alternative is to take a cab, but make sure to negotiate a price with the driver before leaving.
The Forbidden City is located in the middle of Beijing, surrounded by concentric circles of roads, across from Tiananmen Square, easily accessible by subway.
Built in the early 1400s, the Forbidden City was home to 24 emperors in the Ming and Qing dynasties. The imperial dynasty ended with Puyi, who ruled from 1909 to 1911 and was portrayed in the movie "The Last Emperor." It is called the Forbidden City because commoners weren't allowed in until 1925.
As the world's largest palace complex, it spans 7.8 million square feet, or about 135 football fields, with over 8,700 rooms. The Forbidden City is divided into the southern Outer Court, where emperors conducted state affairs and elaborate ceremonies, and the smaller Inner Court where they lived. It is believed that in the Inner Court heaven and earth met, and yin and yang — opposing yet linked cosmic forces such as dark and light, male and female — are united.
Dragons were the symbol of the Chinese emperor. On the Nine Dragon Wall on the eastern perimeter, dragons are depicted in colorful glazed tile, and giant versions of the smaller dragon carvings are found all over the palace complex.
You can rent your own audio guides at the Forbidden City, and they even have built-in GPS that automatically triggers commentary when you're near a historic attraction. But the audio and the sites aren't always in sync and the commentary only plays once. Too bad if you didn't pay attention the first time. The entrance fee is about $6 to $9 depending on the season; audio guide rentals are about $6.
Before leaving mainland China, I visited one additional historic site, taking an overnight train from Beijing to Xi'an to see the terracotta warriors. I booked a sleeper compartment, sharing it with a college student and young engineer who were eager to practice English. The first look of bewilderment on their faces after they found out I couldn't speak Mandarin soon gave way to an easy acceptance that while we're now culturally different, we do share the same heritage. They saw me as their window to the West, with the added bonus that I can see the world through the prism of the Chinese culture as well.
We talked for hours about politics, culture, the West and families. It gave me a deeper understanding of the country my parents had left. But I made a cultural faux pas by asking how many siblings they had. "None," they said. I had forgotten about the one-child policy.
At Xi'an, I bypassed tour groups and for $1 took a local bus, no. 306, from the train station to the Terracotta Warriors and Horses museum, an hourlong ride.
About 8,000 life-size terracotta warriors stand or kneel in pits at the site, along with their horses. Each warrior is unique, with variations in mustaches, top knots, armor and stance. China's first emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered these soldiers made around 246 B.C., to accompany him to the afterlife. The excavation continues.
My next stop was Hong Kong, which I have visited many times. Both Hong Kong and Macau are former colonies. Hong Kong was returned to China by Britain in 1997, and Macau was returned by Portugal in 1999. China designated them as Special Administrative Regions, giving them a degree of autonomy, using the catch phrase "one country, two systems." Each has its own chief executive and economic and political system. Hong Kong is more than 1,000 miles from Beijing, but the two former colonies are just a ferry ride from each other.
Compared to Beijing, English is more widely spoken in Hong Kong and Western customs are more common. After Beijing's prices, Hong Kong is also a shock to the wallet: $80 nightly hotel rates are considered inexpensive. In Beijing, similar rooms cost about $35.
Mickey Mouse and other Western brands and symbols are common in Hong Kong, whereas in Beijing, Chairman Mao's visage was printed on everything from decorative plates to playing cards. Soldiers were more visible on the mainland as well, a reminder of the authoritarian regime beneath the country's burgeoning economy.
Hong Kong has long been considered Asia's Wall Street but for visitors, the main pastimes are shopping and eating. Hong Kong Island, one of two main regions there, is home to the financial district, gardens, malls, and Victoria Peak, its highest hill, known for great views. Kowloon Island has the biggest concentration of shops, along with museums, hotels and restaurants. Hong Kong Disneyland is on nearby Lantau island.
Kowloon's Tsim Sha Tsui district is famous for its shopping, especially along bustling Nathan Road. Chains include Marks & Spencer department stores, kind of like a British Macy's. But if you're looking for bargains, better head back to the mainland.
Kowloon also is good for jet-lagged shoppers. The Temple Street Night Market is open from sundown to 10 p.m. and bargains can still be found. But the quality of goods is inconsistent, so buyer beware. At the very least, it's an exotic contrast to American suburban malls: Here jewelry, clothes and toys hang from booths crowded next to each other, hawkers yell on the streets, and locals and tourists jostle for the best deals.
Macau is one of the world's biggest gambling destinations and an easy jaunt from Hong Kong. It's accessible by inexpensive ferries, with free shuttle buses to take you to your hotel.
I'm not much of a gambler, but I wanted to see The Venetian hotel in Macau. I had been to the one in Las Vegas when it first opened in 1999, built at a then-staggering cost of $1.5 billion. The $2.4 billion Venetian Macau hotel boasts 3,000 suites, a million square feet of retail space and a casino floor with 870 gaming tables and more than 3,400 slot machines.
The Venetian Macau, themed on Venice, Italy, is as glitzy and over the top as the Vegas version. Singing gondoliers ply a manmade waterway inside the hotel as tourists snap pictures. Elaborate murals decorate the lobby corridor ceilings, and there is a recreation of a Venice landmark, the bell tower of St. Mark's Basilica.
But the action is in the casinos, where gamblers sit transfixed in front of rows of slot machines or pray for a windfall at the blackjack tables. On the ferry going from Hong Kong to Macau, I sat next to a tourist snapping pictures from his seat, eagerly looking forward to his gambling vacation. Like so many of the visitors here, he was from the mainland, come to sample another side of China.