After spending two months in Hong Kong, on Saturday I came back to Taipei. Since I had already lived in Taiwan for more than a year, I decided that it was about time to try out something else, and I chose Hong Kong. Some friends of mine asked me why Hong Kong. “There is not much to see,” one of them said. “I spent there a day and visited everything. You will get bored”, said another. Still, I do not regret
The Feeling of Coming Back To Taipei
After living in the bustling, supermodern, vibrant Hong Kong, coming back to Taipei felt like going from a big city to a town. Not that Taipei is small, but it just feels like that when compared to the gigantic cosmopolitan financial centre that is Hong Kong.
Interestingly enough, Hong Kong, despite being part of China, feels far away from it. You hardly hear any Mandarin on the street, and, as I explained in my previous post, Hong Kong has a local identity distinct from mainland China’s. Until 1997, Hong Kong was a culturally and ethnically Chinese city under British rule, and it remained somewhat isolated from the political development in the PRC and from national or social ideologies.
Hong Kong is a very international metropolis, at least when compared to Taipei. In Hong Kong, I feel quite comfortable, because I am just a person like anyone else, nothing special. In Taiwan, I feel I am perceived above all as a foreigner. Being ‘different’ has its good and bad sides. But I personally prefer when people relate to me as an individual rather than as the member of a group (in this case, a person coming from a Western country).
Hong Kong not only has a lot of tourists from around the world, but it also has a big expatriate community which seems to be quite heterogeneous. I can’t cite figures, but I saw a lot of Westerners in Central district, many of them elegantly dressed, and I believe that there is a large number of foreigners working in banks and in the service sector in general. Taiwan does not have as many foreigners – at least you don’t see as many on the streets; but it also does not have many tourists coming from outside of Asia. Hong Kong’s tourist spots such as the Peak, the waterfront, or Lan Kwai Fong, brim with tourists from all over the world. In Taipei, the major tourists spots are relatively ‘tourist-free’.
Though Taiwan is politically independent from the PRC, this place feels really Chinese. I noticed this huge difference immediately after I arrived at Taoyuan Airport. Suddenly, everybody spoke Mandarin, I could understand what people around me were talking about, while in Hong Kong I only heard the incomprehensible sounds of Cantonese. In Hong Kong, I always spoke English. And when I went to places where people didn’t speak English but only Cantonese, well, that was pretty much the end of the conversation.
In Taipei the architecture is less ultramodern than Hong Kong, which somehow gives the streets with old buildings and signboards everywhere a more Chinese appearance. The flair, the atmosphere of these two cities is truly different.
My Hong Kong Myth
I don’t know if there is any such thing as a ‘Hong Kong Myth’, and if there is, it is likely to be related to Kung Fu stars such as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, to Suzie Wong or to British colonialism and laissez-faire.
Anyway, I had my own Hong Kong myth. Many years ago I watched a short documentary about Hong Kong, and I was so fascinated by it that I wished it could have lasted for hours and hours. I lived in Italy back then, and the internet was not widespread. I was – I think – 14 or 15 years old. I clearly remember how, as an adolescent, I craved for news and information from the rest of the world which the internet has now made easily accessible. Italy was and still is quite backward when compared to other developed nations, which explains why it took longer for every household to get an internet connection. Besides, until today there is a sort of oligopoly in Italy that makes the internet way more expensive than elsewhere.
Back to the topic. I watched that documentary, and I was captivated by Hong Kong: the throbbing streets, the neon slights, the skyscrapers, the atmosphere, and all those fashionable girls did not leave me entirely unimpressed, either. It is interesting to notice how for my generation of Europeans, Asian metropolises appear modern and futuristic, while in my parents’ generation it was probably the reverse. Europe has no real modern skylines (with some exceptions in London, Paris and Frankfurt, but nothing compared to Hong Kong, Shanghai or American cities) and our cities seem to have stood still after the booming years of the post-war era.
There was also something special about Hong Kong, an ‘oriental’, exotic flair, something mysterious, alien, that attracted me. I really wanted to visit Hong Kong and experience that amazing city myself, but it seemed to me so far away that I didn’t seriously believe I’d have the chance to go any time soon.
Living In Hong Kong
As it often happens, myths are a mix of reality, imagination and wishful thinking. Typically, when one is dissatisfied with the place one lives in, other countries seem a way to have a better life, to find what one is looking for. But dreaming of, visiting and living in a place a three very different things.
In 2012 I finally had the opportunity to visit Hong Kong. I went there twice, the first time in April to apply for my Taiwan visa, and the second time around six months later, shortly before my visa expired. Both times I stayed for about a week.
During those two weeks I had an amazing time and a full schedule. I met a lot of friends, who were all very nice to me, showed me around, and I had a wonderful time with them. There is nothing better than visiting a place accompanied by nice local people.
However, living in Hong Kong has proved to be a quite different experience. I’d like to explain briefly the positive and the negative aspects of my two-month-long stay.
As to the positive sides:
1) I think that Hong Kong has such an energy and a vitality that it is impossible not to feel thrilled and electrified by it. You just take a walk and there is something going on. There are endless places to go, and, as I will show in my next post about Lan Kwai Fong, there is also a great nightlife. Well, I am definitely not a club person, but I do enjoy that kind of atmosphere on the streets. Taipei is in comparison way more sluggish, and I think that the clubbing scene in Taiwan is oftentimes way too much about ‘foreigners’ meeting locals etc. In Hong Kong, while ‘yellow’ and ‘white’ fever does exist, the clubbing scene seemed to me more international and open. Besides, one good thing about Hong Kong is the 24-hour bus service. In Taipei, you have to take a taxi.
2) Hong Kong has more things to see than I had ever imagined. First of all there are the amazing modern districts, which I love so much perhaps because there is nothing like that where I come from. However, there is also a historic heritage. Surprisingly, many colonial and precolonial buildings still exist today, hidden among the skyscrapers. In the New Territories there are also numerous old Chinese buildings: walled villages, ancestral halls, temples etc. To be honest, I thought that Taipei had more interesting places to visit than Hong Kong, but now I’ve changed my mind.
3) My flatmate was very nice and she saved several of my evenings which would have been quite boring if she had not invited me to join her and her friends. She is an artist, which also gave me the opportunity to meet people who are part of the international or internationally-connected community of Hong Kong. For instance, I met a French actor who came to our flat for dinner, and two French photographers who came to Hong Kong for a project.
4) I think that the history of Hong Kong is extremely fascinating, and staying there for two months definitely allowed me to know more about it. I often went to the library to read books, but I also tried to meet local people. In my opinion, reading and meeting people are both essential ways to understand a place better. I have to say that I knew very little about Hong Kong before these two months. When I compare the knowledge I had before and after living in Hong Kong, I can say that there is a huge difference.
Now let me talk about the bad sides.
1) The first one is definitely the fact that it’s very hard to make new friends and meet new people in Hong Kong. Fortunately, I had a Hong Kong flatmate, so my situation wasn’t that bad. But I had planned to do some interviews with local people for posts I wanted to write, and it proved very difficult. I got the impression that Hong Kongers are even busier than Taiwanese. This means that working life is fast, but social life is slow. I think that some Europeans would be surprised at the pace of social life in Asia. Because, of course, if you have to work long you have much less time for socializing. But it’s also a question of priorities. I think that Asian upbringing teaches children to value work and family more than friendships. So, this amazing, bustling city can actually be boring if you live there for a few months.
2) The second point is that Hong Kong is very expensive. Flats are tiny and rents high, and the phenomenon of cage homes and subdivided flats is so common that some time ago I saw a government ad on a bus that said something like “Subdividing flats is illegal”. Not only flats, but also supermarkets are very expensive. I think that food usually costs more than in Germany or Taiwan. The reason why I find high prices for houses and food particularly annoying is that they are the result of an oligopoly that doesn’t allow freer competition. Hong Kong is a city dominated by business tycoons, the most famous of whom is Li Ka-shing. He is the owner of Wellcome, which is one of the two supermarket chains in Hong Kong. Yes, there are only two supermarket chains in a city that has more than 7 million people! That’s because business tycoons dominate property markets and other economic activities. As a comparison, when I lived in Berlin I had five supermarkets close to my home. I could reach four of them on foot (Lidl, Kaiser’s, Netto and Rewe) and two others (Kaufhof and Aldi) were a few minutes away by bus or tram. And I did not live in the city centre, but in the suburbs. This is a typical situation for neighbourhoods in Berlin, and the competition among these supermarkets keep prices low.
3) The third thing I didn’t like about Hong Kong was the air pollution. During my first week there I got headache almost every day, and I assume it was because my body could not get used to the smog. Sometimes, the smog is so thick one can hardly breathe. Hong Kong’s climate can be extremely humid (just imagine how 97% humidity feels like, if you can!); on such days, a huge cloud of humidity descends from the sky and mixes with the smog, creating a suffocating veil covering the city. However, fortunately Hong Kong’s weather changes very often, and there are many days that are not humid, but rather cool, and the smog is less intense. You rarely have to endure bad weather for more than a few days. But I don’t know how it is going to become in the summer. I heard it is hellishly hot and humid.