I spent in Hong Kong around half a year and I have grown fond of it. Hong Kong is still one of my favourite places, along with Berlin and London. Recently, I read news that made me worry about the future of the Fragrant Harbour, and I will write about it in another post. But now, I would like to explain why I think Hong Kong is a great city to live in, and why I miss it.
1 – International Atmosphere
Hong Kong is the right place to understand the real meaning of the word cosmopolitan. In the throbbing streets and in the vitality of its way of life one can feel the global vocation of the former British colony, which deserves to be included in the list of the great world cities of all times, together with Rome, Constantinople, London, Paris and New York. If you want to live a myth, then Hong Kong is the right choice.
Hong Kong is one of those curious and fascinating anomalies of history which developed by chance, naturally and pragmatically, without plan and method. Following the First Opium War (1839-1842), Commodore Sir Gordon Bremer of the British Royal Navy occupied Hong Kong in the morning of 26 January 1841. At that time, Hong Kong was nothing more than a village at the periphery of China’s Guangdong (=Canton) province, with a population of fishermen and farmers that didn’t exceed 7,500 residents (Tsang 2004, chapter 2).
From that day on, the mix of British colonialism and Chinese-Cantonese culture created a blend that can only be described as ‘unique’. In fact, uniqueness is the distinctive trait of Hong Kong.
|Street of Hong Kong in 1895|
Hong Kong was the first Chinese city to modernise, and to adopt some aspects of Western culture with a spontaneous and unaffected simplicity. Hong Kong wasn’t a place for ideologies; it was a place where knowledge and ideas flowed freely and intermingled. Though it was a British colony, Hong Kong was not culturally or ethnically swallowed up by foreign elements. Hong Kong’s ‘Chineseness’, strengthened by constant waves of immigration from mainland China, was never endangered, and the Western community was at any point a minority. Throughout its colonial history, Hong Kong’s Chinese population constituted around 95% of the total residents (ibid., chapter 8). Neither Chinese-Cantonese culture nor language were destroyed by the long and deep contact with the rest of the world.
Despite racial segregation (which was common in the entire British Empire at the time), Hong Kong’s society was pluralistic, and the Chinese and Western communities influenced and enriched each other. Many Chinese became wealthy, and by the end of the 19th century a class of rich Chinese businessmen had risen. Two of the wealthiest men in the colony were Kwok Acheong and the Eurasian Robert Hotung (ibid., chapter 5), who was also the first non-Westerner to be allowed to live in the exclusive area of Victoria Peak.
For over about one century and a half, Hong Kong was one of the most exciting and progressive Chinese cities. It was a refuge for Chinese revolutionaries and freethinkers, a gateway to the West, and a place of encounter and experimentation.
Hong Kong’s golden age were the three roaring decades from the 1970s to the 1999s, an era of unprecedented economic development and prosperity. It was also a period of openness; racial segregation was finally overcome, and while mainland China was marred by political instability and internal strife, Hong Kong was a free, stable and wealthy metropolis, an integral part of the increasingly globalising world.
|Hong Kong’s skyscrapers, towering over old buildings and statues|
Although the future of Hong Kong remains uncertain, the present couldn’t be more exciting and enthralling. The cosmopolitan character of Hong Kong struck me even more after I lived in Taipei for a year. In the Taiwanese capital, the population is mostly Han Chinese; one sees few ‘foreigners’, and they are still perceived as something exotic and unusual. Moreover, Taipei doesn’t have a large number of tourists, and the major sites are not as crowded as a European like me would expect.
|Victoria Park, with the statue of Queen Victoria surrounded by skyscrapers|
In Hong Kong, there are many foreigners, tourists from all over the world, mainland Chinese, and all of them enrich the city and make it lively and energetic. Hong Kong is a motley ensemble of different worlds that encroach each other on a tiny space – there are areas like the legendary Lan Kwai Fong, expats hubs that look like pieces of London transplanted to Asia; there are districts that are almost entirely Chinese; there are areas for the super rich, and suburbs that resemble the countryside; there are islands which couldn’t be more different from the urban jungle; there are the shopping streets and squalid cage homes, the tourist sites and the unknown gems, the rooftop slums, the islands, the temples and churches, and the list could be much longer. Hong Kong is a city of contrasts that mesmerises and bewitches the visitor with its unique charm and its unparallelled energy.
|Lan Kwai Fong|
2 – Skyline and Architecture
Hong Kong’s skyline is the symbol of the city’s dynamism and prowess. I never had enough of looking at the beautiful skyscrapers and the waterfront in Victoria Harbour. For a person like me, born in Sicily, a place full of ancient ruins and old buildings, but with barely any ultra-modern architecture, Hong Kong’s futuristic design is a miracle of urban planning and human creativity. I loved to walk on the Avenue of Stars near Kowloon Clock Tower and enjoy the skyline, with its many distinctive buildings. When one looks at old pictures, which show a city built in Western, colonial style, one cannot help but marvel at the breathtaking transformation that Hong Kong has experienced in just a few decades.
|Kowloon Clock Tower|
Apart from the modern buildings, Hong Kong also boasts a large number of old constructions, both Chinese and Western (here you can see old pictures of Hong Kong).
Therefore, Hong Kong offers a variegated and original ensemble of different architectonic styles, organically merged into a captivating, unique city landscape.
3 – Parks
Hong Kong is a concrete jungle, densely populated and full of skyscrapers. And yet, the Hong Kong administration has thoroughly understood the modern principle of creating ‘natural’ areas where the stressed residents can relax and take a rest from the hectic city life, the traffic and the air pollution: the park. Apart from the famous Victoria Park, near Causeway Bay, there are a myriad of smaller parks scattered all over the city. For instance, close to my former home – which was located in the periphery – there was a small park which gave city life a different quality. Thanks to the wonderful warm weather, one can go jogging or take a walk nearly all year long.
4 – Public Transport
Hong Kong has one of the world’s best public transport systems, perhaps the best I have ever seen. The MTR is clean, always on time, and very efficient, and it covers almost the whole city. What I love about the MTR is that the trains come every 2 or 5 minutes, even in the outskirts. I do not like to wait for 10 or even 20 minutes for a train. The buses, too, are clean and punctual. In addition, there is a tram system that covers Hong Kong island. The tram is rather slow, but it is extremely convenient, and it just belongs to the flair and the history of the city.
|MTR station, with the characteristic symbol. Many MTR stations include
huge deparment stores and have huge residential complexes on top
(which makes sense, since the residents are MTR users and department
|Buses and trams|
What would a party metropolis be without a night transport service? Fortunately, the Hong Kong administration has decided that in order to be a first-class global city, like London and Berlin, it simply needed a night bus service. Therefore, you can party all night at Lan Kwai Fong and go back home in the middle of the night without any problem.
5 – Friends and Cats
What would life abroad be without good friends? From this point of view I was very lucky in Hong Kong. I met a lot of nice people there, whom I would like to thank with this post, since I’m not very good at showing this kind of feelings in person. Most especially, I should thank my flatmate, a Hong Kong artist with whom I shared a flat for half a year. I never felt lonely in Hong Kong, because when I went back home in the evening she was there, and we often had long talks, sometimes even until 1 or 2 am. It was like having a kind of family there.
I should also thank my language partner, who is a flight attendant at Cathay Pacific, the famous Hong Kong airline. She was really nice to me, and she showed me many places in Hong Kong, about which I will write in the future. I always waited for her to come back from one of her travels to New York, New Delhi, Tokyo, Singapore, Paris, Rome etc. – what a glamorous life, one might say (but whether she thinks so, I doubt) – , and I was happy when I received her message where she told me when we could meet. The last time I saw her was a few months ago, when she came to Taipei on a trip. What a pity we had no more chance to meet since that day. In the cold European winter, the tea she gave me to prepare milk tea still warms me.
Last but not least, my flatmate’s cat. We called her ‘my wife’, because she always wanted to play with me. When I returned home, she used to meow to me, and to throw herself on the floor or jump on the sofa, waiting for me to stroke her. I soon began to love the cat very much, and I played with her one, two, or even more hours a day. She is a very sweet cat, and also very clever. Surprisingly, she was obedient; when I told her to sit down to play, she would always come to me and sit exactly on the spot I indicated with my finger. I still remember all the times that she cried in front of my room’s door in the middle of the night because she felt lonely and wanted to play. I had to get up, open the door, play with her for a while, and only then would she feel relaxed and fall asleep.
|Sitting on the warm TV|
6 – Location
Hong Kong is a great place for travelling in Asia. It is not mainland China, but you can easily go to mainland China. It takes just half an hour to get to Shenzhen (in Guangdong Province) by train. You can also go to Macau by ferry, which takes just one hour. While in Taiwan I feel ‘isolated’, in the sense that in order to travel to another place you need to take a plane, which is expensive and not particularly convenient (besides, I don’t like flying), in Hong Kong I feel connected with the outside world.
7 – ‘Foreign-Friendliness’
Hong Kong is perhaps the easiest place for foreigners to live in Asia. English is one of the two official languages, and many Hong Kongers can speak it fluently or fairly well. Bureaucracy is simple, people won’t look at you as a kind of rare animal (as it might happen in mainland China or Taiwan), and most importantly, it seems to me that many Hong Kongers (at least the well-educated) are relatively familiar with Western culture, so that the danger of having deep cultural misunderstandings is less likely than in other parts of Asia.
The other Asian city that could compete with Hong Kong in terms of foreign-friendliness is Singapore. But, as I have written in other posts, I think that Singapore has some major disadvantages compared to Hong Kong.