Saturday, April 7, 2012

Hong Kong

I have just got back from a trip to Hong Kong.

It was the first time I go to the SAR (Special Autonomous Region) of Hong Kong. To get there I took a train from Beijing to Shenzhen, which took 24 hours, and then the subway to Hong Kong. Shenzhen is the big city right on the other side of the border from Hong Kong, which sprung up out of nowhere in the eighties after the government turned the area into a special economic zone. Shenzhen and Hong Kong are so close that the two subway systems are connected, although you have to get off and go through a border checkpoint in the middle. If it weren't for the border, which runs along a river and includes walls and barbed wire to stop people from swimming to the other side, Shenzhen and Hong Kong would probably have merged into a single mega-city by this time.

I was already aware that Hong Kong is completely different from Mainland China in all sorts of ways, so the strong feeling of being in a different country which I received was no surprise. I already knew that the currency and official languages would be different. What really struck me about the center of Hong Kong is how it looks almost exactly like the center of London, in terms of both the buildings and the atmosphere. There are even double-decker buses, as well as certain chains of shops which are only normally found in Britain. The place clearly wasn't a British colony for nothing.

I quite coincidentally arrived in Hong Kong during the weekend of the "rugby seven", a famous rugby tournament between seven nations which is held in Hong Kong once a year. The tournament is also the occasion for the city to have a huge party. It has become traditional for revelers to dress up, turning the occasion into a kind of carnival for the city's expat community and visitors.

In any case, as a result of this, I was almost unable to find a room for my first two days in Hong Kong, and I ended up staying in an infamous building called the "Chungking mansions". The building, situated in the middle of the city, is basically notorious for its collection of very cheap and low quality hostels, with names like "the pay less hostel", and as a focal point for shady businesses and people. The first few floors are taken over by little shops, restaurants and businesses run mainly by Indians and Africans. The whole building is supposed to have about 4000 full time residents. Although it is the sort of place most well to do Hong-Kongers probably won't go near, it has featured in films because of its unique atmosphere. An anthropologist who spent some time studying the place estimated that about 20% of the mobile phones currently sold in Africa pass through the Chungking Mansions, although I have no idea whether this is true.

The atmosphere within the building is certainly unusual. It reminded me a bit of Tel Aviv's old bus station, but seedier and more down-market. Although the mansions are well known for attracting a certain amount of criminal activity, I did not feel unsafe there, since there are people around at pretty much any time of the day and night, as well as security guards. The accommodation within the building is certainly cheap (though not by Mainland standards) and not too comfortable, although the owner of my hostel was as helpful as possible. What was most irritating was the lifts, which are incredibly slow and few in number. I had to wait in a queue for about ten to fifteen minutes every time I wanted to go up to the floor my hostel was on. One of the lifts also got stuck with people inside it while I was waiting in the queue, although technicians were called to unblock it immediately. The building is also a bit of a fire hazard, although standards of safety have apparently improved in recent years. In any case, as soon as the rugby tournament finished I moved to a different hostel in a more decent part of town.

A big distinction between Hong Kong and the rest of China is the level of political activism and protest allowed. Just as I was there a new Chief Executive was elected for the Hong Kong SAR. The election is not open to the entire population, but only to the members of an election committee made up of representatives of different professional categories. Incidentally, universal suffrage never existed under Hong Kong, even under British rule. On the day of the elections a small protest was held in front of the voting venue to complain about the system by which this electoral committee is supposed to represent all the citizens. Some of the protesters attempted to storm the venue and clashed with the police, just like in a good old Western country.
I personally happened to pass by a couple of street pickets held by Falun Gong, the religious cult which is banned in China and directly opposed to the Chinese government. Wandering around the city I also happened to bump into a picket protesting about the Chinese government confiscating land in Shenzhen, and the "Occupy Hong Kong" encampment, obviously modeled on the Occupy Wall Street Movement, located just under the HSBC headquarters. Of course, all of this would be out of the question in the Mainland.

Hong Kong's is also a truly cosmopolitan city, on quite a different level from Beijing. There are Indian and Pakistani communities who have lived in the city for generations and feel just as "Hong-Kongese" as anyone, and large communities of Filipino and Indonesian immigrant migrant workers. Walking around the center of Hong Kong on a Sunday afternoon, I came across a park where a few thousand Filipino women were picnicking and chatting. Most of them apparently work as maids, and Sunday is their day off.
Not far off in a square I came across a different spectacle: an African evangelical preacher on a stage, preaching to a crowd of women, again mostly from the Philippines (which is supposed to be a Catholic country, but clearly these evangelicals are making their mark even there). The preacher claimed to be a healer, and while I was watching I witnessed some improbable "miraculous healings". At some point a young woman claiming to be deaf emerged from the crowd, and after the healer touched her and prayed a while, she acted as if she had suddenly regained her hearing. The whole thing was so obviously staged that it is a wonder how anyone falls for such stuff.

Another discovery I made in Hong Kong is that the locals can actually speak Putonghua (Mandarin Chinese), although with heavy Cantonese accents and varying degrees of fluency. On the other hand, contrary to what I had been told, not everyone speaks English, although a lot of Hong-Kongers certainly do speak it extremely fluently. Underneath the international and British flair, Hong Kong is still clearly part of the Chinese world, and the locals still Chinese at heart. This was especially clear to me when I visited the peripheral suburb of Wong Tai Sin to see the temple dedicated to the deity after which the area is named. Although the center of Hong Kong feels more like London than Beijing, when I got off the subway in Wong Tai Sin, I immediately felt like I was in China again. The high rises are even taller than the ones in Beijing, reaching forty floors at my count, and they look almost as run down as well. Foreigners were nowhere in sight, and the local shopping mall felt almost like a typical mall in a Beijing suburb.


Michele said...

In my opinion Hong Kong looks much more "chinese" than Shanghai. I have travelled from Dalian down to Guangzhou and HK and i must say than Shanghai is the most western town i've seen in China. What do you think?

Ji Xiang said...

Well, the center of Shanghai looks very Westernized too. But not being British, perhaps you don't realize why the center of Hong Kong
reminds me of London so much. It's so similar to London it's almost freakish.
And also, if you live in China for a while, you realize that all of the Mainland cities are similar in some way, while Hong Kong is very different in all sorts of ways.

Tang Xiaoyan said...

Finally, i got the time to read your blog. thank you for sharing your trip to Hong kong. it is very impressive that you can get something new from the common things which happened around each travelers. maybe because you have expirenced various culture and visit different countries.
so cool.

FOARP said...

Errr . . .

1) Lived in Shenzhen and used to visit HK at least once a month, and lived in London when I did my Masters at Queen Mary, University of London, lived in Stepney Green, and still visit there at least once every two-three months.

Let me tell you Hong Kong looks very little like London, at least no part of London I'm familiar with. This has something to do with all the skyscrapers and neon (you know, the things HK is famous for), which are both pretty thin on the ground in London.

No, Hong Kong looks like Hong Kong, and is much the better for it.

2) The Rugby Sevens is a seven-a-side tournament, not a seven-nation tournament. Actually it usually features 26 teams.

3) Sure, full suffrage was never introduced in Hong Kong under British rule, unlike, say, Singapore, Malaysia, Burma and other former British colonies. The reason for this were many, but by the 70's they came down to one thing - the PRC opposed it as a step towards independence.

4) Is Fa Lun Gong "directly opposed" to the Chinese government? I'm no friend of FLG - they seem a crack-pot group - but it was the CCP that moved against them first, and had they been left alone things would likely have turned out differently. It sounds like someone identifies just a little bit too much with his CCP pals.

5) Since I doubt you checked the passport of everyone at the temple you went to, I guess by "foreigners" you mean white people, or at least non-Chinese-appearing (although this being Hong Kong, there are plenty of natives who are non-ethnic Chinese). This is rather an odd thing for a white person born into a multi-ethnic society to say - that you now see people of the same skin-colour as you (or, at least, of non-ethnic-Chinese appearance) as 'foreigners'.

Again, I would be cautious of adopting whole-sale all the attitudes and verbal tics of your Beijing friends.

5) Worth noting - it is the malls and buildings you visited in Beijing that are modelled on the ones in Hong Kong, not the other way round. If Wong Tai Sin, free of "foreigners", feels Chinese to you, bear in mind that this may be and example of where Beijing actually feels more like Hong Kong.

Also bear in mind that there is a distinct abscence of the kind of temples you may find in abundance in Hong Kong on the mainland - and that this is an example of how the mainland moved away from Chinese culture.

Ji Xiang said...

Quite honestly, while some of your points have their validity, I think some of them just rapresent an attempt to criticize for the sake of it or because my tone is insufficiently anti-PRC for your liking, especially the points about my use of the terms "direct opposition" and "foreigners".

1) I am not the only person who noticed the similarity between London and Hong Kong. I know an American who visited Hong Kong first and then London, and said that after visiting London, he understood why Hong Kong looks like it does.

2) I understand nothing about rugby, but I take your word for it.

3) Ok, I take your point. I have never heard of Burma being given the vote though. And it would certainly be a misrapresentation to say that in general terms, non-British subjects of the British empire had universal suffrage.

4) What I said about the FLG describes their current stance very well. That is all I was trying to do. I don't know who started it all, but nowadays they are indeed "directly opposed" to the Chinese government, and their propaganda which I saw in HK makes it extremely clear.

5) When I am refering to experiences I have had in China, "foreigners" means non-Chinese people. I have seen lots of other foreigners in China using the word in this way. It's quite normal that if you say "Shanghai is full of foreigners", you mean full of non-Chinese people. What would be worrying is if I called the Chinese "foreigners" even though I am in China, just like some Chinese would call me a "waiguoren" even in my own country.
Perhaps I was rather ignoring that in Hong Kong there are a few (not that many) natives who are non-ethnic Chinese. I did refer to the Indian communities elsewhere in my article, just to show that I do not ignore their existence.

6) This idea that the Mainland moved away from a traditional Chinese culture which Hong Kong has retained is only part of the truth. There are probably more people who go to temples in Hong Kong, but in many other ways, I am sure the Mainlanders have remained more tradtional. Not that being traditional Chinese is necessarily a good thing, I am just saying.

By the way, there is not a "distinct absence" of temples in the Mainland, every Chinese city has temples just like the one I saw in Wong Tai Sin. They may have been rebuilt after the Cultural Revolution, but they surely exist.

FOARP said...

1) It's fair enough to point out that Britain (as a country) influence the Hong Kong way of life in general. The problem is that London and Hong Kong are two cities which are almost nothing alike in terms of appearance.

Hong Kong lacks London's winding lanes, its open parks, its menacing council estates, its canals and ancient buildings. London lacks Hong Kong's gloriously garish neon, its towering sky-scrapers, its dense tenements and bustling alleyways, its trams and ferries. It would be nice to point out some residual similarities, but apart from the resemblance the very few remaining colonial-era buildings in Hong Kong (the LegCo is the only one I can think of off-hand) have to a few of the 1890's era buildings in London (despite vastly different settings) they really aren't that similar.

3) Elections were held in Burma in April, 1947, prior to independence.

4) I interpret "directly opposed" to mean opposed to in all aspects. The fact is that FLG and the CCP are not so different as the rhetoric coming out of each would suggest. Really, if the CCP allowed FLG to go on without interference there would likely be no dispute between the two.

5) "I have seen lots of other foreigners in China using the word in this way."

Logical fallacy ("Michael said it so its alright")aside, I really hope you haven't heard that many people simply deciding what the nationality of someone is based on their skin-colour, especially when visiting somewhere you are so obviously unfamiliar with as Hong Kong. The simple fact is that many of the people you appear to be describing as "foreigners" (i.e., white people) to Hong Kong were actually born and brought up there, or have otherwise naturalised (and these number in the hundreds of thousands). By the same token, many of the people you refrain from describing as "foreigners" to Hong Kong may well have been born on the mainland or overseas, or otherwise hold foreign citizenship (these also number in the hundreds of thousands - particularly those holding British National (Overseas) status).

Put simply: I don't think judging nationality by skin colour is acceptable anywhere, but at least in Beijing it is likely to be accurate. Not so in Hong Kong.

6) Your going to have to make you own mind up about this, but the fact is that Taiwan and Hong Kong have kept elements of traditional Chinese culture lost to mainland China. Which is more traditional is up for debate - but there is a debate.

Temples - saying a total absence would be overstepping the mark, but Buddism and Taoism are living religions in Hong Kong and Taiwan. On the mainland, they were repressed and never came back to the extent that they play a major factor in people's lives - you won't see people going to their local priests to find the auspicious day on which to do something, or burning ghost money, or any of the myriad observances found in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Ji Xiang said...

You're wrong there. People do burn ghost money in Mainland China. I have spent two Spring Festivals in the countryside, and I have seen it done there both times. I don't think it's done in cities any more, or at least I haven't seen it. But in the countryside, it's done by everyone, and that's where over half of the Chinese live.
The vast majority of foreigners in China have no experience of the countryside, and so logically enough they take what they see in the cities as rapresentative of the whole of Chinese life, but that is not the case.

In any case, Chinese culture is not entirely dependent on Buddhism and Taoism. Europeans are much less likely to go to church than Americans, does that mean that they've "moved away from Western culture"? After all, Christianity is more central to our tradition than Buddhism or Taoism to the Chinese. Mainlanders seem just as hot on Chinese medicine as anyone.
But yes, there is a debate.

When I was in this suburb of Hong Kong, I am pretty sure that all you could see were local Hong Kongers who were ethnically Chinese. I didn't hear Putonghua, and I doubt there were immigrants from the Mainland around. There were no tourists, and no non-Chinese Hong Kongers either. I am aware of the Indian and Pakistani communities who call Hong Kong home, since I mentioned them earlier in my blog entry.

I agree that I probably should have said "there were no non-ethnically Chinese people around" rather than simply "there were no foreigners around".

As an aside, I am not sure if some the white people born and raised in Hong Kong should be called foreigners or not. I've known quite a few white people who grew up in Hong Kong. It seems to me that most of them go to international schools, don't speak any Cantonese or hardly, don't relate with the local community, and don't really feel they belong. If you ask them where they are from, they will give you their parents' nationality. What's more, most of them pack their bags and go to university back in the UK, the US or wherever their parents come from as soon as they can, and then don't come back. I don't doubt there may be others who aren't like that, but if they are like that, then they can't really complain about being seen as "foreigners". I do feel that one has to do something to earn the right not to be seen as a foreigners somewhere. Learning the language is the most basic.

FOARP said...

"Learning the language is the most basic"

I assume you spoke to these people in English? Because that's one of the official languages of Hong Kong.

I firmly believe in adapting to local circumstances when one goes to a place to live there, but the local circumstances in Hong Kong are rather different to those in Beijing. English in Hong Kong has a long history. Speaking only English, therefore, does not mark one as a foreigner, whatever doubts it may cast in your mind as to the degree to which racial and cultural integration has taken place.

I guess it must also be news to a lot of people that being born in a place and growing up there isn't enough to make you a native of that place. To imply some kind of culpability on the part of an 18 year old who was born in Hong Kong, sent to an international school (along with many HK ethnic Chinese, some of whom end up non-fluent in Cantonese as a result) but cannot speak Cantonese is not a step I'm willing to take.

"most of them pack their bags and go to university back in the UK, the US or wherever their parents come from as soon as they can, and then don't come back."

As do a lot of ethnic Chinese born in Hong Kong. Relevance?

"I do feel that one has to do something to earn the right not to be seen as a foreigners somewhere."

Personally, I don't, at least not where the sub-text to this is often "that one has to do something to earn the right not to be seen as a foreigner if one's skin is a certain colour".

Ji Xiang said...

Well, let me add that it isn't a matter of skin colour, because it isn't just white people who fall under the category I am talking about, by any means. I am sure there are children of Korean or Indian parents raised in Hong Kong who fit the bill too.