Hong Kong – Two Systems, One Country

Hong Kong – Two Systems, One Country

Hong Kong is a sprawling metropolis, organised with endless skyscrapers around its titular ‘fragrant harbour’. Having visited mainland China previously, I can confirm that Hong Kong certainly feels different, and not just because of the frequent bilingual signs. The legacy of British rule – ceded in 1997 – seems, in part, to remain in the everyday way of life on the streets.

Yes, China has other glitzy metropolises (e.g. Shanghai) but Hong Kong has a hybrid, colonial identity all of its own. It is proud of the fact that it’s a part of and separate to mainland China, exemplified by its status as a ‘special autonomous region’ of China, and still keen to make the still-large expat community who reside here feel welcome.

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Relations with its neighbour have been a little tense sometimes, as the people of Hong Kong enjoy certain constitutional freedoms that their mainland counterparts don’t. Add to this a language barrier of sorts – Cantonese rather than Mandarin, the language of choice across large swathes of the mainland – and lifestyle differences bleeding in to ideological ones, and you can see why it isn’t always a harmonious neighbour to China.

The old and the new

When most people think of Hong Kong they think of its world famous skyline; but that’s only one side of its story. There’s the ‘old’ side of Hong Kong too. I stayed in the Sham Shui Po area of the city, in a hostel called Mei Ho House. This building was originally part of the ‘first generation’ of Hong Kong’s public housing, which was built in the wake of the Shek Kip Mei fire of 1953 to rehouse the many people who had been burnt out of house and home.

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This was to inspire the subsequent drive in Hong Kong to build housing for low-income families who would otherwise be unable to afford in. The hostel was built in order to revitalise an ex ‘H’ block that had previously fallen in to disrepair.

The history of the building is commemorated in the hugely interesting Heritage of Mei Ho House museum. Through video footage, individual memoirs, mementos and reconstructed rooms from the 1950s right up to its latter days as a functioning public housing in the 1970s, it makes for a fascinating glimpse in to the lives of Hong Kong’s working classes in its recent, pre-independence history.

In the North of the city, an area of Hong Kong that few foreign visitors tread, an exploration of Hong Kong’s even older history can be explored via the Ping Shan Heritage Trail. This trail takes in various historical buildings, mostly dating from the 12th century and built by the Tang Clan, who settled in the area after coming over from mainland China.

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The buildings on the trail vary in scope and elegance, but all have some degree of historical or architectural interest, and the trail makes good use of bilingual signage to provide the visitor with suitable historical context. The Old Ping Shu Police Station has the added bonus of some fine views of the area, as well as nearby Shenzen, to the North of Hong Kong.

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What of the ‘new’ Hong Kong, then? Well, there’s the Tian Tan Buddha sat majestically on the Ngong Ping Plateau overlooking the city, and one of Hong Kong’s big-ticket attractions. The Buddha itself is a relatively recent construct, having been completed in 1993, purportedly to symbolise the strengthening ties between Hong Kong and mainland China, if the information signs are to be believed. Even more recent is Ngong Ping Village, which is straight out of your worst tacky theme park nightmares.

But the moment you alight from the cable car sees you accosted by people offering you a cheesy photo of you sat in the cable car back at Tung Chang station. Then you have to navigate an assault course of souvenir shops, chain restaurants and places like ‘Stage 360’, a child-oriented, behind-the-scenes experience of Hong Kong Kung Fu movies. The attempts to create a ‘themed, Chinese-style village’, meanwhile, come across as phoney, overly slick, and overly touristy.

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The Giant Buddha itself is impressive enough, as indeed are the surrounding six ‘devas’ surrounding the Buddha offering up the ‘six perfections’ necessary for enlightenment. The views are great too, and Po Lin Monastery, with its opulent hallways and detailed architecture (interior photography is prohibited) is arguably even more interesting, although it’s far from being the best Buddhist temple I’ve come across.

Then, of course, there’s the island.

As a dense cluster of skyscrapers, Hong Kong has to be up there with the very best and most breath-taking that the world has to offer. It being Easter Sunday, plenty of people from both the mainland and nearby Philippines (!) and Indonesia were in town to add to the usual tourist mix. As with the Giant Buddha, said tourists are catered for with a glitzy commercial complex for all their high street consumer needs.

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But be that as it may, ascending to the 360 degree viewing platform is still a stirring experience. The human-made, architectural behemoths at the foot of the peak provide a vivid contrast to not only the ‘fragrant harbour’ itself  but also the scruffier buildings that make up the rest of Hong Kong and the distant mountains that cloak mainland China from the naked eye.

A Unique Identity

I was only in Hong Kong for a few days, so didn’t have the opportunity to really get under its skin. But what’s clear is that, with its recent colonial past, Hong Kong is a place with a unique identity – in fact, there’s almost an inherent conflict at heart between the Oriental traditions that pulse through the streets of Kowloon and other peninsula areas and the towering, glitzy skyscrapers of the island.

Where is Hong Kong headed? No one can know for sure: tensions with the mainland remain high, and the year 2047 – when Hong Kong’s guaranteed status of autonomy expires – looms ominously. But for now, Hong Kong remains a fascinating destination – a chance to experience a slice of Chinese culture free from the ‘socialist’ system of governance enforced on the mainland.

19 Comments

  • Edmund Humphreys

    April 23, 2016 at 11:27 am Reply

    I once read an editorial that said China will swallow Hong Kong but Hong Kong will get stuck in China’s throat!

    • Joe

      April 23, 2016 at 7:30 pm Reply

      Hahaha, that sounds about right!

  • Christina Guan

    April 25, 2016 at 8:42 am Reply

    Nice post, Joe! I have quite a bit of family in Hong Kong, but the last time I visited was when I was 10 years old, so clearly a lot has changed. I just remember feeling so much culture shock (especially coming from Canada). I actually recognize a lot of the places in your photos, and you’ve really eloquently described the unique vibe of Hong Kong. Makes me keen to visit again!
    Christina Guan recently posted…Must-Visit Cities: BergenMy Profile

    • Joe

      April 25, 2016 at 9:27 am Reply

      Hi Christina, thanks for your kind words. So you have family in Hong Kong? I’m sure they could describe its unique vibe better than I can! It definitely would be a culture shock at 10 years old when coming from Canada; I tend to see it as a good bridge between the West and China, and the ideal place to start any trip around China or the Orient. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  • Melissa

    April 26, 2016 at 11:56 am Reply

    Joe, this was superbly written and highly informative. I haven’t been to HK since a trip to Disneyland when I was a wee lass. Learned so much at the end of this article and understand Hong Kong’s bubbling, sprawling culture much more now. Really interesting read – subscribing!

    • Joe

      April 26, 2016 at 1:47 pm Reply

      Hi Melissa. Many thanks for the kind words and for subscribing 🙂 I can only scrape the surface of the complexity that is Hong Kong in a blog post such as this, but I do hope it’s inspired you to revisit it one day. I didn’t go to Disneyland when I was there – have been to the ones in LA and Paris, and that’s been enough for me!

  • Nowthatsahoneymoon

    April 26, 2016 at 8:33 pm Reply

    We are visiting Hong Kong at the end of the year, glad I saw your post. Would be looking at the difference of old and new by then. Great post!

    • Joe

      April 27, 2016 at 6:19 am Reply

      Great! Hope it was of some use to you – look forward to hearing about how you get on when you do visit there 🙂

  • Kyle Bernard

    April 26, 2016 at 8:42 pm Reply

    Excellent read man! Amazing amount of history and detailed in an unbiased form.

    Hong Kong definitely has multiple sides and a very deep culture. That’s probably why so many people flock there!

    • Joe

      April 27, 2016 at 6:19 am Reply

      Thanks Kyle 🙂 I agree that it’s a one of a kind place really, which probably explains its popularity. I loved it, but I do appreciate its not for everyone 😉

  • Voyager

    April 27, 2016 at 5:12 am Reply

    We were in Hong Kong late last year and I do agree that Hong Kong does have a unique identity of its own which differentiates it from China. Your perspective on Hong Kong is very refreshing as generally the touristy side of Hong Kong comes to the fore.
    Voyager recently posted…An Incredible Trip To The Moon And BackMy Profile

    • Joe

      April 27, 2016 at 6:17 am Reply

      Thanks 🙂 Yeah, I’m lucky to have a friend living in Hong Kong who was able to give me a different slant to most first time visitors. Checking out the touristy stuff is understandable mind you – the island is undeniably impressive!

  • Lance Kerwin

    April 27, 2016 at 6:33 pm Reply

    Great post. I was in HK in July 2008 with some relatives. Although an expensive destination I still had a great time there. The views from the Victoria Peak is amazing! After reading this I realized that there are many places left unexplored. There is too much see in HK:)

    • Joe

      April 27, 2016 at 9:51 pm Reply

      Very true Lance! At first glance it seems like any other big city, but dig a little deeper and it soon becomes clear that it has more to offer than you suspect. Thanks for dropping by 🙂

  • virginie

    May 18, 2016 at 11:52 am Reply

    I went to HK in 1993, wondering how much it has changed ?! I loved the “Blade Runner” feeling it had 😉
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    • Joe

      May 18, 2016 at 2:04 pm Reply

      Imagine it would have changed quite a bit in the intervening years, though can’t say I know for definite! Know what you mean about the Blade Runner like effect that you get with its skyline, particularly at night 🙂

  • Jessica Elliott

    May 25, 2016 at 6:46 am Reply

    I absolutely loved Hong Kong and I think you captured what I love most about it. On the surface it seems like concrete and skyscrapers, but it’s so, so much more. Now I’m craving my favorite restaurant – Dumpling Pro. Thanks 😉

    • Joe

      May 25, 2016 at 11:52 am Reply

      Yes, it does require a bit of digging beneath the surface in order to uncover some of its true charms. And the food is undeniably fantastic – never got to check out Dumpling Pro. Might have to remember that one 🙂

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