Few cities ignite the senses as does Hong Kong, offering an intoxicating blend of tradition and modernity, and colonial history alongside a vibrant Chinese culture.

Hong Kong is fuelled and inspired by constant immigration, from mainland China, from elsewhere in Asia and from the four corners of the world, with more than 7.3 million souls simultaneously focused on top dollar and bottom line in an area rather smaller than the English county of Berkshire and less than half the size of the American state of Rhode Island. Cosmopolitan yet integrally Chinese, Hong Kong’s inhabitants are defined by what’s written on their business cards. Off duty, they may go shopping, play tennis and basketball on courts perched atop skyscrapers, or pinball their way between the bars and clubs crammed hugger-mugger in the numerous nightlife zones; everyone here is all too aware that Time’s winged chariot doesn’t so much hurry near as overtake on the inside lane.

Hong Kong took an extended bath in the limelight at the end of the 20th century, with a dignified return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 which marked the end of a colony, an era and an empire. It’s all history now. Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China, with a key role to play in the spectacular growth of the Chinese economy, although it remains markedly different from the mainland: the “one country two systems” pledge is clearly working, despite concerns and protests over certain issues. Within this framework, Hong Kong’s peculiar, cosmopolitan blend of Chinese and Western, and its prosperity, continue to thrive.

For the first time, though, it is facing real competition from its neighbours. The economic revolution in the Pearl River Delta has catapulted entire new cities like Shenzhen onto the world map. And Macau’s former lackadaisical ambience has been transformed by the arrival of a dozens of glitzy casinos which pull in more patacas than those in Las Vegas. Does the former Crown colony have the stamina to keep up? The smart money is saying: you bet.

Outsiders may see Hong Kong’s people as materialistic and sometimes brusque. But there are reasons for this, including an obsession with success.

The people of Hong Kong are variously described as being the most business-minded, materialistic, competitive and restless population on the planet. Few other cities have such a complex, unsettled history. It is a place that moves at lightning speed because time is money, and every minute costs. Though it can sometimes infuriate, life in Hong Kong is addictive, and even those who have escaped to more peaceful places – vowing never to return – have been drawn back like iron filings to a magnet. Even the most jaded visitor usually finds something seductive about it.

Hong Kong’s 7.3 million people are packed into just 1,103 sq km (426 sq miles), and certain areas have some of the world’s highest population densities. During rush hour, overwhelming crowds of commuters squeeze themselves into trains and buses. Lunch hour is a feeding frenzy, as thousands of office workers dash for restaurants, jostling and barging their way into tiny noodle shops and delicatessens. Elbowing strangers, jumping queues and honking horns in traffic jams (often complemented by deafening construction sites and roadworks) are unavoidable features of daily life here.

As a major trading port situated on the fertile Pearl River Delta, Hong Kong has long been a magnet for immigrants in search of a better life. New arrivals continue to flood in from China and overseas, all sharing one dream: to make money quickly and to enjoy spending it. This continual injection of new blood is part of what gives Hong Kong its excitement and intensity. For those seeking a settled, peaceful existence, Hong Kong will be a hard slap in the face. This place resounds with rags-to-riches tales of entrepreneurs who built up their business empires from scratch, and this promise of success is in the minds of almost every immigrant who heads here.