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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.