Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Hong Kong – Chinese, capitalist, communist, cosmopolitan and much more

I expected Hong Kong to be hot and tropical but it was cold and misty, i even had to wear my mountain jacket in bed. I spent two days there in February and I was struck by contrasting aspects of the city which is Chinese, corporate, consumerist, Communist, cosmopolitan and designer savvy.
The new rail link from the airport whisks one past vast numbers of new hi-rises  crowded together , then docks  and then into Kowloon. I stayed in a modest hotel in Kowloon, however it was an interesting area full of small work shops and little hole in the wall restaurants where I ate breakfast of noodle soup. The traditional Green temple was close by and people sold incense sticks and Bhuddist religious items in the open square. I walked straight down to the harbour front and was exhilarated by the view across the river of the hi-rises in the financial district ablaze with light and reflected into the water. My walk back was along streets  full of flashing neon lights. There was a busy night market next to the temple and one could buy any kind of computer, latest generation mobiles and tacky pictures of Hong Kong.
The next morning i walked back to the water front, this time through streets with every kind of designer shops, Luis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana, and i became a consumption refusenik and decided to give myself the challenge of buying no consumer items in Hong Kong, perhaps only possible in a very short stay. On the Hong Kong ferry I crossed the river full of boats and landed in the heart of the finance centre. Here streams of black suited financial workers were pouring out of the offices under covered walk ways for their lunch break. All the major architects seem to have built huge hi rises in this temple to modernity. There was a slim elegant building by Ceasr Pili, whereas  Jardine house is studded with circular windows and nicknamed  “the block of 1000 ass holes”. But even in the centre of the hi-rises  there are small Chinese gardens created with streams and rocks.  The Lonely Planet guide recommended visiting the Hong Kong office of development and i enjoyed a hour there following their exhibition about the future development for Hong Kong. They claimed that after public consultation new green sustainable cities of just 80 000 inhabitants would be built somehow I doubted that these ideals will survive financial pressures to create more houses cheaply.  The cathedral, a simple mid nineteenth century building is completely encircled by the temples to mammon. A contrasting building was the Museum of Tea drinking which was in an old colonial Savannah style building with two floors, a balcony and deep shuttered windows. The most interesting exhibits were in a competition that the museum had run for ceramicists over the last twenty years  challenging them to make a tea set of tray, pot, cups. This has unleashed creativity in the Hong Kong potters and entries ranged from very delicate glazed pieces to ones made to look like birds nests and one of cardboard from packing cases.
I read the south China Post newspaper to asses press freedom in Hong Kong. News from China was reported as from other provinces but the perspective seemed to be from a place just outside China. There was also a strong focus on financial news and news about corruption.  The Hong Kong census had just been published showing that Hong Kongers are older, richer and more are staying single. In Europe we are similar but are getting poorer.  Surprisingly  the violent protests in Tibet at their New Year and that the closure of Tibet to foreign tourists were reported.
I also found the Occupy Movement protesting outside the HSBC building. The camp was colourful with red paper dragons and kites and even a sofa to sit on. I chatted to the protesters who said that initially there had been a very heavy police presence but this had diminished. The head of the HSBC had also apparently been quite relaxed about the occupation in his basement- unlike the churchmen at St Pauls.  The concept of protesting against capitalism has been difficult to explain in Hong Kong, a frequent question is whether they want communism back. 
I could also see how many of the migrants to Hong Kong have a tough time with harsh employers and in the cathedral there was a place where exploited domestics could seek help, a modern form of sanctuary. I also glimpsed visible poverty seeing the washing hanging up to dry in the tenements by the hotel and I wondered how the washing would ever dry.
I was amazed by the abundance of food, one could buy any sort of dried fish or vegetables from the huge sacks in shops.  The temptation to eat was everywhere with restaurants ranging from stalls in the road to expensive ones. I had excellent fresh spicy fish.  i also found cool cosmopolitan bars where one could have wine and olives and overhear conversations about projects.
My guide book had advised me to go up The Peak on my first clear day and i had not appreciated the wisdom of this advice. After my first evening which was wonderfully clear i then experienced rain and mists swirling round the buildings so i shall have to leave The Peak for another visit. I was surprised and intrigued by the different facets of Hong Kong, it is so vibrant and lively but also so crowded and congested and well worth another visit.

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