Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s business district “zoo”

Nestled deep in the midst of Hong Kong’s business heartland, Central, is a secret. Hong Kong does not have a real zoo but what it does have is the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, a small animal and bird park in Central. Its location is smack in the middle of the business district, on the lower slopes of Victoria Peak, so you are surrounded by a “forest” of skyscrapers whilst staring at animals and birds in cages. Last year, I came to Hong Kong to interview for my job, which I am actually leaving very, very soon. The day after, I visited this local “zoo.” I also visited it a second time when hiking down from the Peak earlier this year. It only has a couple of orangutans, by far the biggest animals there, as well as monkeys, meerkats, tortoises, and birds. But as it is free, it is decent so if you find yourself going down the Peak on foot or wandering around in Central, do visit it. Of course, it’d be better if Hong Kong had a proper zoo.






The zoo even has the scarlet ibis, the national bird of Trinidad and Tobago.

Across the road from Hong Kong “zoo” is Hong Kong Park, an impressive place that features a greenhouse, several gardens, a large carp pond, and a giant bird aviary. Like the zoo, Hong Kong Park is free as well. It is also a nice place for lunch breaks as it is close to my office.



Ideal lunch break setting
  

China · Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s miserable anniversary

July 1 was a major milestone for Hong Kong. Twenty years ago, it changed from British to Chinese hands and became the Hong Kong SAR. As a result, Chinese leader Xi Jinping was in town over the weekend, the first by him to Hong Kong. In addition, HK’s new leader Carrie Lam was also sworn in, taking over from Leung Chun-ying. But as with many other Hong Kongers, I felt very little joy or pride. I have little love for China and the Communist Party, and I see HK as having had mixed fortunes under China since 1997.

The authorities certainly understood the public mood as celebrations and decorations were muted. While there are a number of events and promotions related to the 20th anniversary of the handover, it seems that much of this has been met by a huge yawn or resignation. Who can blame people? Xi coming to town was met with probably the least enthusiastic response by people anywhere to a national leader visiting them for the first time.

On the contrary, Xi’s visit exemplified why China and its Communist regime are despised and feared. Xi appeared at certain events and his wife visited a few public places, but Xi did not speak to the public. His most notable comment was to warn Hong Kong about crossing a “red line” with challenging Chinese sovereignty and demanding independence. There was no recognition about the problems facing Hong Kong or any offer of political compromise such as opening up Hong Kong’s political system a little more. His speeches were littered with terms like the motherland and national humiliation and the Opium War. Because Chinese leaders are fond of publicly talking about negative actions committed by foreigners on China, whilst conveniently forgetting about Party atrocities like the Great Leap Forward or Tiananmen 1989.

However, as much as I dislike the Communist regime, Hong Kong cannot blame all of its problems on China. There is a lot of arrogance, greed and self-centered attitudes afflicting society, from top to bottom, as well as narrow mindedness. China may be vile at times, but it has also become a useful scapegoat. Local government officials and tycoons bear a lot of responsibility for Hong Kong’s sad state but sometimes it seems that many locals don’t hold them accountable enough.

Hong Kong has a tough job on its hand, with having to handle growing Chinese interference, not to mention threats such as what Xi uttered, while having to tackle its domestic societal and economic problems.

Hong Kong

Urban Hong Kong photo roundup

Urban Hong Kong might be crowded, cramped and noisy but it still makes for interesting sights. It is probably the most built-up urban environment in the world, especially on Hong Kong Island, which is very hilly but apartment towers line the slopes of upper Central, Sheung Wan and Mid-Levels all the way up to just below the Peak. It is an impressive sight but on the other hand, the actual living spaces in a lot of the buildings (not Mid-Levels) are not, such as older towers, especially in Kowloon but even in supposedly trendier neighborhoods like Sheung Wan. It would be nice if the authorities spent more time, effort and funds on renovating existing buildings and neighborhoods, especially historical ones.


Probably Hong Kong’s most well-known mural, located in Central


Kowloon, above and below

Tram with retro advertising

I usually don’t go to these kinds of street markets as they are too crowded for me.

Wetmarket in Central – a non-touristy aspect of an increasingly touristy part of town
“Little Indonesia” – side street in Causeway Bay

Above photo and the following two are from the inner courtyard of Yick Fat Building, a public housing estate in Quarry Bay. A scene from Transformers 4 (the one with scenes in Hong Kong and China) was shot here.

The next four photos are of Central and Sheung Wan.

Hong Kong

Is Hong Kong a world city?

To some people, this question is obvious. Hong Kong is one of the world’s greatest cities, almost on par with New York and London, basically “Asia’s World City,” according to them. But they are wrong. While this may have been true a long time ago, maybe even up to 15 years ago, despite what some people profess, Hong Kong is not and is actually moving further and further away from being a world city every single day. There are experts who have made this claim and they look at macro-political, economic and governance factors, but I think just looking at society tells its story.

Now Hong Kong is a top financial hub. It is also unique as a city-state that has its own flag, currency, administration, police, educational system, and legal system. But it is not a city that can call London and New York its peers.
First, a great city is strong in more than one area. If you look at New York, it is the US center of gravity for arts, media, advertising, business, finance, tourism and so on. London can claim a similar status for business, arts, media, education, and political power. In Hong Kong- finance, yes, but nothing else. Going through key areas, the situation is bleak. In sports, there is the Hong Kong rugby sevens annual tournament which is certainly well-known, but no other major events. Its entertainment industry used to be well-known regionally, back in the 80s and 90s, but its singers and movie stars are no longer famous outside of Hong Kong. It may be a financial hub and boast some incredibly rich tycoons, such as Li Ka-shing, one of Asia’s richest men, yet none of its companies dominate banking or finance. HSBC is not a Hong Kong company despite its name, while AIA may be one of the world’s biggest insurance companies, but it is headed by a Westerner and was spun off from AIG. Customer service is alright at best, often dismal and sometimes downright rude. You can easily find better service in Taipei, Tokyo, and Seoul. And Hong Kong doesn’t produce or develop much of anything, so there isn’t anything here that you can’t buy elsewhere.
Also, a great city should be the most important city in its own country, for example, London in the UK, Paris in France, Toronto in Canada etc. Hong Kong, however, isn’t even the most important city in China, or even the second.

Second, a great city should be multicultural. One might say Hong Kong has loads of expats, as well as Westerners and Indians who’ve lived in Hong Kong for generations, as well as a multitude of Southeast Asian helpers. But Hong Kong is still overwhelmingly ethnic Chinese (almost 95%) and its government and institutions are all run by ethnic Chinese with a thin layer of Westerners holding senior positions. Meanwhile, all those Southeast Asian helpers are temporary workers who fulfill an important role but who are not exactly part of regular society (they are not eligible to apply for permanent residency and are bound to live in their employers’ homes). Longtime Westerners may be doing alright as do some Indian business families, but a lot of South Asians who grew up here still struggle to get proper education, jobs and representation. Unlike Singapore, no non-white minority holds or has held a top governing or administrative post and there are hardly any minority faces in entertainment. On the contrary, it is common to see white expats hold positions of power in administration as well as business and education. Not that they are all unqualified, but this is both a reflection of colonial heritage and a lack of local leadership talent. Of course, by this same rationale of multiculturalism, regional metropolises like Tokyo, Seoul, and even Shanghai fall short and for the same reason, they are not really great world cities.

Third, some folks try to label Hong Kong as the perfect example of East meets West. However, the result is not so much a dynamic, unique blend, but a watered down mixture. That doesn’t mean there aren’t talented and quality people, because there are, but it’s that the society and culture does not create anything spectacular. The reason is probably due to a mix of factors like cramped buildings and streets, sky-high living expenses, animosity towards China’s growing control, and so on. There is a lot of negativity in Hong Kong between people, and I don’t mean my little rant here. The strong notorious anti-mainland Chinese sentiment still exists but I’m not just talking about that. A lot of Hong Kongers are trying to emigrate, even young people, which says something about how they perceive their future here. And to be honest, a lot of people, especially locals, some expats, and even the SE Asian helpers, don’t like it here and don’t like each other.

By being unable to be great at anything except as a business/finance hub and by failing to become truly liveable and truly integrate non-Chinese minorities, Hong Kong is not able to break out from its box. In a sense, it is already special, but more as a fading star still living on past glories.

This issue has perplexed a lot of people, including those who are more intelligent and informed than me. But in short, a city cannot be great if its only purpose is as a finance hub and that is pretty much all Hong Kong has got going for it.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong not always so modern

Hong Kong might look really sleek and modern, especially with all those tall skyscrapers in the Central business district, and fun, but underneath the facade, it is not easy. It’s a fast-paced, business-oriented city and it’s crowded with people and packed with buildings. Yes, Asia has a ton of people, but Hong Kong is much more cramped than Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul and a lot of other cities in the region.

But there are less obvious reasons why Hong Kong can be tough, and that is because in some ways it is backwards in terms of daily living.

But wait, surely that can’t be because as an international financial center and wealthy city state, Hong Kong is part of the first world right? Not exactly, judging by housing. A huge number of people, especially in Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, live in tiny spaces. Some of the poorest people even live in “cages,” which is atrocious. In addition, there are subdivided homes where an apartment is divided into compartments, each one for a tenant, which in some cases are families or couples. It’s not only limited to poor or working-class areas. There are apartments in middle-class areas where bedrooms are so small only a bed can fit into them or say, toilets are located right next to kitchens. I know from first-hand experience when I was apartment-hunting last year. And these are the poor ethnic Chinese Hong Kongers. If one looks at minorities like South Asians, there are problems with unemployment, poverty and street gangs.

Moving on, banking also comes to mind, which is surprising because Hong Kong is a financial center. Regular banking service is relatively efficient, but the problem is with certain tasks. For example, to change my address a while ago, I had to download a form from the website and mail it in. I waited a long time and eventually I found out they mailed a letter to my old address (by my relatives) saying the address change form had a problem and I had to come in to a bank branch to do it. Imagine if I hadn’t had been able to go back to my old address. To do a lot of things actually, you have to do that. Another example is that transferring money from the ATM to an account in another bank is not possible. That means you either have to withdraw cash and personally go to the ATM of another bank, or you can fill out a check but still go to another bank. In Taiwan, I could transfer money at the ATM from my account to dozens of other banks just like that.
But it’s a good thing I’m not an entrepreneur trying to start up a business because even opening a corporate banking account is almost an impossibility for some. It’s such a big problem that my workplace even had to organize an entire seminar strictly on the problem of opening bank accounts.

Another example is supermarkets, specifically checkout counters. Hong Kong is the only place in the world where supermarkets have small horizontal counters (think of a bank counter and imagine placing your basket of groceries on it). I mean, convenience stores have small counters because people usually buy one or a few items. However, when you’re in a supermarket and you’ve got a basketfull of items, your basket occupies the whole counter and the cashier is grabbing items from it, scanning them and then putting them back. I may be the only person in Hong Kong who thinks this is weird, but I’ve been to supermarkets from Trinidad to Sri Lanka to China and they all have proper counters, as in vertical and with conveyor belts and space at the back that let you pack things after they’ve been scanned by the cashier. Yes, space is limited, even in supermarkets, but it’s no reason somebody can’t modify checkout designs so that it is somewhat in the 21st century.

While these are issues at the ground level, Hong Kong also has major issues at higher levels that prevent it from being “Asia’s World City,” according to its self-proclaimed slogan. That will be another post for another day.

Books · China

Flood of Fire- book review

The Opium War is one of the most famous episodes in modern Chinese history, being the moment when China realized how feeble it was compared to the British who thrashed it in battle and forced it to open up its ports to Western traders. This came as a rude shock, putting it mildly, to the Chinese and their ruling Manchurian Qing Dynasty, and even after well over one and a half centuries, it still hasn’t been forgotten by the Chinese. Hong Kong owes its existence and prosperity to this war, because it was officially handed over to the British after the war under whom it changed from a small fishing village to the financial hub it is today.

Flood of Fire is the third and final book in Amitav Ghosh’s epic Opium War trilogy that spans India and China and features an eclectic cast of Indian, Chinese and British characters. The book sees the outbreak of the Opium War as the British launch an attack on the ruling Qing Dynasty over its ban on opium imports. As Guangdong is attacked, Hong Kong is captured and the Qing are humbled by the British navy and army, characters on all sides strive to exploit their differing situations. There are Parsi businessmen, British merchants and officers, an American sailor, Bengali soldiers, Chinese Tanka boat people, and Cantonese.

The trilogy began with a ship, the Ibis, which set sail from India in the mid-19th century with a diverse group on board, including runaways, fugitives and nobles, who dispersed after a mutiny mid-voyage. The bulk of these characters made their way to Hong Kong and Guangdong, which by then was the only point of exchange between Western merchants and China. Opium was the main import from Western and Indian businessmen, which as most of us know, caused a lot of anger among Chinese officials. But that is because many Chinese enjoyed this narcotic so much that addiction became a scourge (something that few Chinese accept responsibility for). A powerful Chinese official, Lin Zexu, (who is revered as a national hero in modern China) soon orders a ban on opium imports and burns a huge load of opium in public, bringing about hostilities that lead to a declaration of war from the British.

With such a large cast, it can be confusing at times, especially as there are several plotlines going on simultaneously, involving both sides. But most of these plots are interesting enough, though the conclusion ties them together a bit too neatly.

Indian-born Bengali Amitav Ghosh is probably my favorite novelist after I read Glass Palace, one of his novels which spanned Burma and India during the British colonial period. Ghosh has a gift for writing sweeping novels set across different but places, especially South Asia, during major historical events like the Opium War in this case, Partition (of British India into India and Pakistan), and the conquest of Burma by the British. Other books of his that I’ve enjoyed include Hungry Tide, a contemporary novel about a scientist studying Bangladesh’s vast Sundurban wetland, and this Opium War trilogy. His most recent book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable is not a novel, but a work of non-fiction, examining how climate change threaten a lot of countries, especially through global warming and unpredictable weather changes such as rising sea levels that can put coastal cities and settlements at risks.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong hiking- Braemar Hill


Hong Kong is covered with hills, and Hong Kong Island, where the main business and government offices are, is no different. It makes a very striking contrast when you have forested hills and skyscrapers juxtaposed with each other. Previously, I’ve posted about the Peak Lugard Road hike which provides the best urban sight from above in the world. Well, Braemar Hill, near North Point on the other side of the island, also provides fine urban views.
More specifically, these fine views can be seen atop a pile of boulders that form a vantage point called “hong xianglu feng” (紅香爐峰) in Chinese (according to Google Maps). What you see is on your left, Wan Chai and its distinctive Hong Kong Convention Center by the waterfront, and on your right, Kowloon. Further to the left or behind you are lush forested hills that make up Tai Tam Country Park. It was a bit hazy on the day I went there, so the views would be even better on a fine day. The dirt path to the boulders lies just off the main trail which is a concrete path.
The hike itself is not very hard, taking less than one and a half hours walking from the ground, though there are several trails that extend further south and towards higher hills. I headed up to Braemar Hill from Mount Parker Road which is several minutes’ walk west of Tai Koo MTR Station. There is an alternate route (I did it the opposite way from east to west).


It almost seems like skyscrapers grow on hills in HK

Nice view of a cruise ships and sailboats with Eastern Kowloon in the back

Black kite, Hong Kong’s most common bird of prey

Some kind of sailboat race or procession was going on 
   

The boulders from where you get the best views

The dirt path in the center, which is just off the main trail, leads to the boulders in the photo above.


It’s like you’re never far from a jungle of towers wherever you go in Hong Kong. This is at the beginning of the trail. 

 

Books · Hong Kong

The Expatriates- book review

The title alone should provide a strong clue that The Expatriates may be set in Hong Kong but isn’t exactly about Hong Kong. But in keeping with Hong Kong, the expats in question aren’t your regular entrepreneur, copy editor or English teacher as in many other Asian countries but the ones on fancy expat packages, living a charmed life in mansions with Filipino maids/nannies/cooks, and high-end dining and yacht/junk jaunts. On the one hand, it is about privileged Western (mostly white), American expats living it up in Hong Kong, but on the other, it is a story with more substance than you’d expect.

When it begins, we are introduced to the three protagonists, two of whom mask a tragic secret which surprisingly is soon revealed. Consequently, the plot drags a little in the middle, but it does pick up towards the end and builds towards what could have been a predictable ending, but instead turns into a surprising finale.

The three main characters are American women at different stages of their lives whose fate is tied together by very unfortunate circumstances. One is a young, Korean-American, Columbia grad, another is a mom of young kids, and the third is a childless wife whose marriage seems to lack more than just children. At times, the details of the pampered lives of these well-to-do expats seem obscene, being something that is miles away from our lives, not to mention the poor and working class in Hong Kong. But rather than glorify the lives of those expats, it actually almost makes us feel a little sorry, but just a little. There is a very self-aware tone throughout the narrative about feeling as if one is putting your real life on hold and not being in reality, which is true when one has a 24-hour maid who caters for your every whim. But of course, this also reflects a major disparity between the lives of the characters in this book and  the more common expat life, which is that of putting up with greater challenges and hardships than you would face at home.

The funny thing about Hong Kong is that, as tiny as it is, it can sometimes seem like it comprises two very distinct worlds. This book is only about one of them, and even then, only a small segment of this world, specifically the highest-paid expats, the ones who could live in houses and actually not even have to pay for them. Add in the fact that pretty much most of the main characters are American expats, with nary an Englishman or Australian in sight, and one could wonder how much of this actually bears any relevance to most people living in Hong Kong. But yet, somehow the story is interesting enough, the details dramatic and the plot intriguing for the most part. It is a credit to the author, a Korean-American who was born and grew up in Hong Kong.

Books · Hong Kong

Hong Kong Future Perfect- book review

Every year, the Hong Kong Writers Circle puts out an anthology of stories set in or about Hong Kong written by its members. Hong Kong Future Perfect- One City, Twenty Visions of What Is to Come is their most recent, released at the end of 2016. From the name, the theme is about the future and 20 writers have given their take on what Hong Kong will be like.

While this ensures 20 sets of different characters, settings and themes, most of them, or almost all actually, share a similar mood of a bleak, dystopian future Hong Kong, which to be fair reflects the current pessimism prevalent in Hong Kong. Whether due to an economic crash, environmental disaster  or Chinese invasion, the stories feature a future Hong Kong that is repressed, unstable, unsafe, and sterile.

The collection was quite decent in general, but a few stories really stood out. “Twenty-three” echoes the worst fears about the present by following a guy whose girlfriend goes missing after attending a rally and searches for her. In “Pearlania,” a travel reporter comes to Hong Kong on a trip arranged by a local authority, but finds that things are just too perfect, but he can’t figure out exactly how. “Island Oasis” takes the opposite view of most of the other stories as an American expat comes to Hong Kong for a better life in a future where the US is a shell of what it used to be and China is the new superpower.

Sci-fi dominates the collection, and there are some really creative ones with compelling scenarios for Hong Kong. But as you can tell from the ones I highlighted above, political stories really stood out for me. Meanwhile there were one or two that were just plain scary without any dystopian themes like the one about the girl on a first date in a restaurant where either something strange seems to be happening around her or she has gone crazy. Jason Ng pitches in with a pair of stories that center on a family during Hong Kong’s handover in 1997 and over 30 years in the future. Repression and despair dominate the stories but resistance is also a key element in a few stories. Obviously this book isn’t something you read to cheer yourself up, but what it does is to make you think a little more deeply and hope that the future doesn’t turn out anywhere as it does in these stories.

Hong Kong

Indecency at the top a reflection of society?

As we get deeper into 2017, I’ve struggled recently to focus too much on politics. It’s not that I’m unaware of major issues like Trump’s presidency, Brexit and Hong Kong’s upcoming Chief Executive election. With the US slowly descending into a political comedy, as Trump picks fights or causes controversy almost every time he opens his mouth or meets with somebody, Europe struggling, and China trying to be assertive, it’s not hard to feel that the world is going to crap. Actually it’s not, but it’s hard to think it’s getting better either. The truth is that I didn’t seem to care too much to even feel pessimistic or complain anymore. But I think I really need to shake that feeling because apathy and ignorance are probably worse than pessimism or cynicism.

A lot of people were shocked, dismayed or even revolted by the idea of Donald Trump winning the US presidency (I was quite shocked as well). Likewise, the Brexit referendum result had a similar impact on a lot of people. It’s almost as if somehow, it became alright, even laudable to be openly nasty and spout sexist, racist, and simple-minded nonsense. And it’s not just Trump. Closer to Hong Kong, you can look at the Philippines and their president who boasts of killing people and acts like a clownish tough guy, but more seriously has launched a state campaign by encouraging police and vigilantes to execute “drug dealers” in the streets. Besides the UK, far-right politicians are making headway across Europe, invoking closed borders, violence against minorities and immigrants, and extreme nationalism verging on racism. Even in Hong Kong, the localist movement (I admit a bit of sympathy) at times express stances at times that contain traces of racism and hate.

It seems like suddenly, we’ve reached the point where democratically elected leaders of countries are people championing discrimination, isolation, belligerence and misogyny. Added to this, we also have the surge of far-right movements, open hatred and violence against immigrants, and “alternative facts” – false or manipulated news that is accepted as true by many.

But honestly, I think the real danger is this is a reflection of society. There is a lot of casual racism, malice and dishonest behavior that happens all around us. Back when I used to live in China, I used to rail a lot about negative behavior, but it is apparent that callous and malicious behavior happens a lot all over. Hate crimes, for instance, seem to be on the rise in the US and Britain. Just the other day, a white American shot two Indians in a Kansas bar because he thought they were Muslims (even if they had been, it still would not be right). People seem to be indulging in the most casually obscene ways to kill others, like driving trucks into crowds of people out on the street having a good time. Cyber-bullying can become so vicious that kids commit suicide due to online taunts or extortion or their reputation tainted by being involved in unseemly incidents, even when they are the victims, which is exacerbated by social media.

Ironically, technology appears to be a big reason why there is so much ignorance and hate in society. Rather than being something to broaden our knowledge and awareness of issues and people around us, for some, technology is a tool to foster more hate and ignorance. Fake news, alternative facts, and social media all play a role in disseminating false information that ramp up hate and intolerance, and not to mention stupidity. It would be silly and amusing if it weren’t so tragic at times, like the aforementioned American who shot and killed people because of mistaken ethnic identity. While it might be faintly amusing to think the US, the world’s only superpower and supposed leader of the free world, has plunged to such depths, it’s not amusing when one thinks of the worse things that happen in the developing world, especially Asia. The governor of Jakarta, capital of Southeast Asia’s largest nation Indonesia, supposedly one of the top emerging economies, was put on trial in December for blasphemy. Remind me again what century we are living in?

I am not saying every single ignorant and racist person is a Trump or Brexit supporter, because that would be too simplistic and too lazy an explanation. Besides, it also allows us to wallow in moral complacency. In actuality, I think there were probably Obama or Hillary supporters who were not exactly good guys too. Likewise not all Brexit Leave voters are monsters or Remain voters angels. But more importantly, let’s not pretend there aren’t people in regular life spouting racist or sexist garbage or flaunting their arrogance.

Maybe I’m not expressing myself clearly – I tend to think about different things and see common strands but am unable to  tie it together well enough. But we are living in a sorry period of history, when despite widespread impressive technology and wealth and knowledge, there are a lot of people who don’t know right from wrong, who don’t know real from fake. This applies to knowledge, this applies to morals, and it applies to behavior.