So this week we had some extra time off and Ken, Liz, and I decided to make a trip to Hong Kong for a few days. Monday night we got ourselves onto a sleeper bus from Nanning, and while it was a 10-hour trip the beds were sufficiently large and comfy even for our American-sized frames.
At about 7 in the morning, we blearily stumbled out of the bus to complete the border crossing on foot. Since Hong Kong is still not fully integrated into mainland China (thank heavens) there’s the “one country, two systems” setup where we get our passport stamped a couple times, walk through customs easily, and then get on a new bus on the Hong Kong side. It’s actually pretty impressive how simple they’ve made the process despite the requisite bureaucracy.
The first thing I noticed upon arriving at Hong Kong, after the whole British “driving on the left” thing, was how clean and orderly it all is. In China, all roads are a mess of e-bikes and constantly ignoring every traffic rule. In HK, we didn’t see a single e-bike, didn’t hear a single car/bike alarm, and traffic moved smoothly and quickly along all roads. We arrived at the HK airport, where we hit up the local Starbuck’s, enjoyed having someone speaking English on the other side of the transaction, and got on one of the frequent buses into Kowloon.
Kowloon in particular is extremely international, the streets full of people from America, Europe, Africa, and various parts of Asia. Buddhist monks and Indonesian Muslims can be seen in their own typical outfits, and every street corner has about five Indians trying to sell — in a strong accent — “copy watches, copy handbags, tailor, suits”.
We found ourselves a tiny room in a hostel; it had only two small beds, one of which Ken and Liz had to share, but apparently that’s the nature of finding space in HK. I will say at the very least that it was all decently clean.
Having found a place to safely deposit our belongings, we took to exploring the city, marveling at all the hideously expensive Gucci and Armani and Louis Vutton stores and just appreciating a city that’s more Westernized. It’s interesting, I think that a typical American traveler to Hong Kong goes to see a taste of Asia and Chinese culture, but for us it’s a wonderful breath of Western fresh air.
Littering, jaywalking, and spitting all carry heavy fines, from the many signs posted around town, and together with proper enforcement (we saw some police officers actually checking someone’s residence papers at one point) it made for an orderly place.
After getting approached by some students from a local private Christian middle school to help fill out a survey about tourists in HK for a class assignment (and man their English was impeccable!), we hopped on the ferry to Hong Kong Island proper, the heart of the city and basically a monumental city-wide cathedral to the almighty Dollar. Raised walkways pass the giant Apple Store and transition directly into malls which blend seamlessly into banks and financial institutions in what feels like a combined island-wide building. And yet there’s a sense of order in all of this.
At Ken’s insistence we had to stop at the International Finance Centre, mainly because of its fame as the building Batman jumped off of in “The Dark Knight.”
Up on the 55th floor there was a public museum of the HK Monetary Authority which showed off the security features of the banknotes here and was a rather nicely arranged exhibit. After going there I felt a previously-unknown desire to understand financial policy.
It’s refreshing to see a society here in China where the rules and freedoms are more relaxed. Companies proudly advertise their Facebook or Twitter pages, political protest billboards are present, and there’s even a host of tents steadfastly hanging outside one of the bank skyscrapers in a sort of “Occupy Hong Kong” demonstration.
Certainly things one wouldn’t see in mainland China. And the wealth is very visible here, with everyone dressed fashionable as to make Ken and me, in our T-shirts and shorts, feel like horribly underdressed country bumpkins who actually do need a “copy suit” and tailor from one of the Indian salesmen.
And after the SARS scares in the past, HK takes public health very seriously, with bathrooms cleaned literally right after each use and hand sanitizers placed regularly around the city.
In the evening we met up with a couple other CIEE teachers, whom we had spied completely by surprise (small world!), and sat by the harbor on Kowloon to watch the city lights.
The next day we picked up some excellent Western food. I used to look down on foreigners in China eating at places like McDonald’s instead of immersing themselves in the local flavor, and I bet the typical American taking a trip to HK would want all the Chinese food, but we found an amazing pizza place and savored the taste of cheese that is all too rare where we live. There was a Ben and Jerry’s too, which while expensive was completely worth it.
Probably the best part of Wednesday for me was going to the HK art museum. All the museums are free on Wednesdays, but even if we had to pay it would have been a great deal. When traveling, museums are always a favorite of mine, and this one showed it from a very rewarding perspective.
There was an exhibit of various traditional Chinese arts, but — surprise! — there was actual historical context present. One of the great failings of the Capital Museum in Beijing is that its exhibit on traditional Chinese arts is devoid of historical context, the descriptions instead focusing on its beauty and awesomeness as if it’s trying to sell it to the viewer and as if it’s so insecure that it can’t let the piece speak for itself. The Hong Kong museum has no need to propagandize about the glory of Chinese culture beyond what is self-evident.
There was also an exhibit about the history of Chinese “export art,” paintings done in Chinese studios a couple centuries ago that imitated European styles or existing paintings or scenes. It compared the European originals with the Chinese imitations and honestly remarked about the skill or shortcomings in either one; sometimes the Chinese paintings were more amateurish but sometimes they surpassed the European one it had copied. Such an exhibit would never be found in Beijing, out of fear or showing any perceived inferiority to something foreign.
Finally there was a modern art exhibit by Wu Guanzhong, whose work really merged more traditional Chinese art with Western approaches in a way that mirrors Hong Kong itself, if I do say so myself.
Finally, in the evening we made the long touristy sojourn up the “Peak Tram” to the highest point of Hong Kong. The lines are long and the waits are longer, but it was worth it to go up that steep incline (so steep that the floors of the tram are tilted, as they have been ever since the tram’s creation a hundred years ago) to the very top. Ignoring all the gaudy overpriced souvenir shops, we got some marvelous pictures.
Thursday was basically spent on the journey home. We hadn’t previously arranged transport, but it turned out alright. We took the subway from Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon, and got on the high-speed train up north to the border. Clean, orderly, and with advertised fines for spitting or sitting on the floor. We walked through the border easily back into mainland China (the “special economic zone” city called Shenzhen) and was hit at once with the stark contrast. Gray, uninspired architecture, filthy floors, smoking indoors, and the most questionable trip back to Nanning.
We paid for passage on a night bus, but the first bit of our journey was us getting led through dark streets of Shenzhen to a creepy-looking van in a parking lot, overfilled with passengers stuffed into the back. Thankfully there was a fellow traveler who spoke English and Chinese and was able to reassure us (after reassuring himself) that the van itself wasn’t the transport to Nanning, but rather just a short trip to the bus station. We got to the station and onto the bus, which was a sleeper bus too but I kind of wish it wasn’t. The beds were tinier and too short for our poor long American legs, with no place to store my backpack except on top of me… and then the additional passengers arrived. Apparently the bus was overbooked, leading to hordes of Chinese passengers sleeping in the aisles to either side of me. The boundaries between my bed and the “communal bed” that was the bus floor got blurrier and blurrier as the hours went on.
But finally we got to Nanning, paid an unmarked taxi entirely too much money, and collapsed in our apartment to get some real rest.
All I can say is I wish I could be there longer, and that it’s really hard to come back to mainland China just because in comparison… this place has so far to go in so many ways. Hong Kong seems like a decent model for how to properly meld East and West and I hope that in the future the rest of China can start to approximate it.