On a steamy summer's day, Hong Kong is almost painfully beautiful. Brisk breezes thrust its pollution far out to sea and thick bulging clouds hover close to the sturdy upthrusts of the peaks on Hong Kong Island. The choppy sea in the protected harbor contrasts with the abruptly rising peaks, with their dense layering of green.
Hong Kong is one of the world's great centers for Chinese antiques. The sense that much is happening - and happening quickly and with great energy - is as evident in the antiques business as in the turbulent daily comings and goings of its 5.5 million residents.
Newcomers to Chinese antiques will find an astonishing variety of shops to choose from - Hong Kong's compact geography facilitating shopping excursions as well as creating a maelstrom of humanity. Many of the finest shops are in Hong Kong Central (on Hong Kong Island), close to fine hotels like the Hotel Furama Intercontinental and the Mandarin Hotel and minutes away from the Star Ferry - which will take you across the harbor to Kowloon and a rival selection of elegant establishments.
The adventurous and imaginative have always taken pleasure in Hong Kong Island's Hollywood Road, which has an ample number of family businesses where you may dig through dust and debris - no expectations, please! - in search of a forgotten Ming vase or of wood carvings from a Confucian temple.
The neighborhood is distinctly Chinese - as opposed to the international and more apparently British sector downtown with its shopping centers and esplanades. As a result, you'll pass coffin shops and bean curd carts, bakeries and racks of dogeared books while you make your way toward Tai Sing Company for Chinese Imperial ware or Altfield Gallery for a restored 18th-century Chinese chair or for art books from Altfield's new branch of the London booksellers Han-Shan Tang Ltd.
To explore Hollywood Road, start from its western end by the coffin shop and Art Sheen Curios. Art Sheen Curios has few pretensions. Its historic data are a little fuzzy; its abundance of carvings, bowls, and curios uniformly layered with dust is superintended by staff who dispense Handi-wipes and hot drinks along with their merchandise.
You'll have no trouble discerning the emphasis of other shops as well, for all but the fancier places are wide open to the street, with repairs, noodle lunches, and family life intermingled with the comings and goings of tourists and neighbors.
Just past Man Mo Temple - temple of the patron god of literature and god of military might - is Tai Sing Company. Outwardly there is little to distinguish this shop from other Chinese establishments along the block.
Looks, as they say, are deceiving. Tai Sing Company's unassuming exterior - and interior - are merely variations on a constant theme in Hong Kong: The very best objects are kept aside for those who know.
Tai Sing Company is known for its Imperial Ware - the Ming and Ch'ing porcelains so dominant in the Hong Kong market and of such interest to the Hong Kong (and mostly Cantonese) collectors. If you're merely sightseeing or haven't defined your own desires, it's unlikely that you'll see more than the display of decorative pieces that apparently satisfy the usual tourist's taste.
King Kong Lee, the robust and articulate proprietor of Gammon Art Gallery - one of Hong Kong's higher-priced and more respected dealers - outlines the situation clearly: ''A client must be educated - not only in Chinese art, but in his field,'' Mr. Lee says. ''Say a gentleman has $1 million and wants to buy something. What does he want to buy? I don't know. It makes no difference if he has a lot of cash or not. I want to sell him something he wants to keep - not just something he can afford.''
Just as critical a factor as knowledge is getting your financial priorities in order: No one advises buying Chinese art as an investment.
Gerald Godfrey, owner of Charlotte Horstmann & Gerald Godfrey Ltd., is outspoken on the subject of investing. ''It is absolutely the most illiquid investment you could ever have. It's the wrong thing to buy an object with the idea that it will appreciate in value. It may appreciate, it probably will appreciate, but if you look to that you will probably be disappointed,'' Mr. Godfrey says adamantly.
Many objects have of course increased in value enormously. The point, however , is that ''you shouldn't be playing with money you might need or might want quickly. If you want to sell, it's probably because you need the money, and if you need the money in a hurry, you cannot get it,'' Godfrey says.
Buy why shop for antiques in Hong Kong at all - if London and New York are closer? Why have a business here - where overhead is high and prices higher? The market is keenly competitive.
To add to the excitement of the chase - or offset its terrors - are the advantages to both buyer and seller of Hong Kong's free-port status. As Mamie Howe of Sotheby's of Hong Kong points out, ''There's no red tape for importing or exporting, and no foreign-exchange problem. Everything can be done very quickly and very easily - and there's a lot of money here.''
Besides, everybody agrees that the best Ming and Ch'ing porcelains surface in Hong Kong. This is in good part a reflection of the taste of local Chinese collectors, who prefer Ming and Ch'ing pieces above all others. The reasons for this are various, including the fact that Chinese are generally reluctant to collect tomb objects - and that includes a whole range of otherwise popular Tang Dynasty pieces.
The Chinese predilection for elegance, decorativeness, and technical brilliance means that enthusiasm is strongest for Ch'ing Dynasty works (AD 1644- 1911) where the individuality of the craftsman was erased in favor of government-enforced uniform standards.
To quote Warren King of T. Y. King & Sons, ''Most people - wisely - buy what they know.'' And whether you disparage the Ch'ing pieces for technical uniformity or admire them for the brilliant control of clay and glaze that made such uniformity possible, these objects are what Hong Kong Chinese know best.
Of course, after a certain point in knowledge and dollars, personal taste and great specialization often set in. Alvin Lo, No. 4 son of P. C. Lu, whose firm has shops in both the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong and the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon, recalls the recent sale in London of a 14th-century Blue & White piece to a Japanese collector. Though the piece ''had a good pattern and was a rare type,'' says Lo, it was also badly damaged and broken in several places. It sold for more than 70,000 British pounds, according to Lo. He opines: ''A Hong Kong collector wouldn't have paid half that much, but that buyer simply saw something other people didn't see.''
Just being in Hong Kong, of course, is an education in itself, and a stimulating one at that. Even so, the intensity of it all may leave you staring glazed-eyed at those stirring green peaks or leaning dreamily over the rail of the Star Ferry as it cruises from Hong Kong to Kowloon.
A simple and effective antidote: Take a late afternoon ferry to the Outlying Island of Lamma. In 45 minutes, you'll steam up to tiny Banyon Bay and a minute's walk will bring you to a waterside cafe and a meal of fresh fish.
As the sun begins to slide down toward the earth, sit yourself on the pier with a cold drink and enough time for some quiet contemplation. Just watch the sun set on the South China Sea. That dreamy vision alone - serenely embodying spellbinding beauty and romance - will remove all mental clutter of Hong Kong dollars and shrewd wheeling and dealing.