I’ve been living in Hong Kong one year now. I cannot say that I love it here, but I am so glad to be having this adventure.
I felt like a deer caught in the headlights for my first four or five weeks. I was adjusting to an onslaught of density of buildings, people, smells and noise. I was trying to find my way around on public transit, which I swear is way easier to do here in Hong Kong than it is in Ottawa. Everyday things like trying to figure out how to get a pair of trousers altered when you don’t speak the language was an adventure, and frequently still is. And the food, well, that’s a whole world in itself.
I guess I am settled here now, but it still feels like one big exploration. There are times when I yearn for the familiar. But it’s also kind of fun now to walk through some places feeling like I look like a local!!
I LOVE the weather here! I have no regrets whatsoever about leaving Canada’s winter behind. Sure, it’s meltingly hot here right now and when I spend a day out and about in the city, I cannot wait to get home and have a shower. But I’m perfectly happy with winters that get no colder than 15-degrees Celsius — on the plus side of zero.
I love the parts of Hong Kong that are bustling with street shops and markets. Even Mong Kok, one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, has its appeal in the rows of tiny shops, frequently grouped together so you get all the kitchen stores on one block and all the plumbing stores on another. You really have to know what you are looking for because these tiny spaces are densely packed labyrinths. I try to look purposeful and not too much like a voyeur in these shops.
I hate the blocks and blocks and blocks of high-end designer malls that have overtaken Hong Kong. Just how many Chanel and Louis Vuitton stores does a city need? (About ten of each apparently, sometimes two in the same mall.) There is no end to designer handbag, jewelry and clothing stores. Recently, I was looking for my bank on a mall directory, and I marked the way with: OK, past the Dior, Cartier will be on the left, past Gucci, up the escalator above the Versace and there’s the bank! This kind of consumerism is a deep mystery to me.
One of the biggest surprises has been my failure with the food here. I have not been won over by Cantonese food. I still struggle with the local foods I find in the markets. While I at least recognize many of them now, I am not able to prepare them properly. A lot of Chinese cooking is steamed, wokked or deep-fried, but I have a 25-year old electric stovetop that pretty much dictates what I can and cannot do and that doesn’t include two of these three cooking methods. Western food is readily available here but ever so expensive; there is no shortage of meats, packaged goods, deli and dairy, but I figure I spend easily 50% more on it than I would in Canada. Many local people eat out all the time here, partly because their apartments are too small for kitchens and partly because they work all the time, and yes, you can do that really cheaply in cha chaan tengs (here is a good article about these local eateries) but these can be pretty intimidating for Westerners. Obviously, there is a world of other restaurant choices in HK and I mean that literally. Restaurants are absolutely everywhere and there is every possible type of food you can imagine. It is not my mission to eat my way through Hong Kong so my experience is limited, but I do find a mixed bag when it comes to quality among mid- to high-end restaurants. So I am struggling along with my Chinese-adapted Western style of cooking, occasionally punctuated with splurges on familiar meats and vegetables. My culinary repertoire has become awfully dreary.
It has been especially interesting living in a pseudo democracy. Being here during the Occupy movement was fascinating. A number of issues became clear through it all. I learned that there is no real governmental representation of the people here; that the lawmakers (as members of the Legislative Council are called) are not really accountable because not all are elected; that there are two camps – the pan-Democrats (no clue why they are called “pan”) and the Beijing loyalists; and that Beijing is indeed ruling the roost. The head guy here has zero communication or people skills, but it doesn’t matter because he was appointed by Beijing and they like him and that is where his loyalties lie. I learned that there is a stark divide between the haves and the have-nots; housing for the majority of the population is a major crisis here because all laws are tilted in favour of the developers and landlords, so rents rise at arbitrary and robber-like rates and there’s not a thing the tenant can do about it. I learned that there is a paucity of talent in leadership skills. Lawmakers’ techniques seems to be limited to filibustering or following like sheep. The Occupy movement likewise suffered from lack of leadership. While the movement’s spontaneity was exciting at first, it quickly became apparent that these people had no leader, so their disparate causes and intentions were never really harnessed into an effective message. Nor did they have an exit plan. The biggest outcome from all that seems to be a much higher awareness of the deep divides in this society. I have yet to see any response to addressing any of those issues seriously, and the recent defeat of the electoral reform package put forward by Beijing puts the “one country, two systems” claim in serious doubt.
Of course, you could say a lot of the same things about other democracies, but there’s something much more pervasive here, something more rooted in culture and education and experience. For better or worse, I think Hong Kong will soon be just another Chinese city.
But I’m really glad to be here!! The city is thrilling with its myriad offerings, including the ability to get out of it and into amazing countryside in about 20 minutes in any direction. The people are good, solid, and courteous. It’s a miracle of verticality, the 70-story apartment buildings and the way the city has been built up on a mountain that is essentially Hong Kong island. It’s a whirl of sights and noise and crowds but once you get into the city’s rhythm, you see how efficiently it all seems to work. There are still so many places I want to explore here, and if the rest of our time here (Paul has a three-year contract) flies by like this past year, I’ll be lucky to get to most of it. We are happy here and I am happy with the way we have adjusted. Two years to go – bring it on!