Hong Kong Impressions

15 May

I’ve been in Hong Kong since Friday, which has complicated the whole “expect ‘Part 2’ in a day or so” thing. I won’t be writing a full account of my time in Hong Kong – God knows when that would be completed – but here are a few anecdotes and observations based on what I’ve experienced so far:

  • Every day, the temperature has hovered around 90°F and the humidity hasn’t been lower than 60%. It was unbearable the first day, but I think I’ve begun to adapt.

    At my internship, a co-worker used to tell me I acted very Chinese – riding a bike to work, drinking lots of tea or hot water, eating steamed buns for breakfast – but there was one native habit I never accepted: showering at night. When I lived with my host family, I joked with them about how odd it was. Now I understand the logic. Why shower in the morning if you are going to sweat the whole day?

  • There are many Mainland Chinese tourists, and it’s easy to tell them apart from the Hong Kongers. Even without the linguistic difference – Mandarin vs. Cantonese – there are subtle differences in dress, comportment, and other intangibles. I can’t pinpoint what those distinctions are but, as Justice Potter Stewart said, “I know it when I see it.” How we intuit different nationalities/cultures, even with ethnically similar people, is a fascinating subject, and also something of a Pandora’s Box. I’ve thought about it extensively, but I don’t want to be the one to open it. Thankfully, someone has already done the legwork. Check it out.
  • One reason for the cleanliness of the MTR is a ban on eating and drinking. I’ve been careful to observe those stipulations; the last person who didn’t, a Mainlander, caused an international incident.

    I now understand why Jay Walder, the transit guru who ran Transport for London and more recently the MTA, ditched New York for Hong Kong: the unions are seemingly less intransigent, there is no myopic state government to report to, there is no Second Ave. Subway, there are no Upper East Side residents complaining that Second Ave. Subway-related construction is having adverse health effects on their dogs (I kid you not). Oh, did I mention that the subway here, the Mass Transit Railway (MTR), is clean, well-lit, efficient, modern, and air-conditioned, and that this was true even before Walder arrived? The neatest thing, I think, is the Octopus card. It’s like a Metrocard, only it has an RFID chip (no false swipes!) and can be used like debit card to purchase items at 7-Eleven and a few other stores.

  • In Hong Kong, the character of the city, an admittedly nebulous term, seems much better preserved than in Shanghai. How so? The neighborhoods here mesh well together. The area I’m staying in, Causeway Bay, has a mix of old buildings and new malls, but neither seems out of place. The malls are sleekly constructed with glass and steel, but aren’t tall or ostentatious, as is often the case in Shanghai. Land grabs by unscrupulous government officials in cahoots with greedy developers occur all over China, and Shanghai is no exception. In the past decade or two, Shanghai has lost a staggering number of old lane houses, replaced by nondescript high rises (“Blade Runner-esque” is a term I’ve heard thrown around before). Looking out across the city from a high perch, tall buildings are placed incongruously next to two- or three-story houses. In fairness, I haven’t seen enough of Hong Kong to know whether the same kind of incongruity exists here, and Shanghai is not nearly as developed as Hong Kong. But I hope the former sees the latter as a role model.
  • Hong Kong and Victoria Harbor, as seen from Victoria Peak.

    I arrived at my hostel on Friday afternoon at the same time as a French guy, Frederick, an engineering student studying abroad in Seoul, and a Korean girl whose name escapes me. Frederick and I were placed in the same room, which houses nine people in total. Last night, he invited me and three German friends, also students, to dinner. We ate at a Singaporean/Malaysian restaurant near the hostel. The dinner was pleasant and the Germans, Max, Dani, and Cecil, who actually studies in Shanghai, invited me to accompany them to Victoria Peak afterwards (Frederick opted not to join because he had an early flight back to Seoul this morning). We went to the top of the peak, then to a bar, where we watched the Manchester City-QPR soccer match. It was the kind of evening that a year ago I couldn’t have imagined happening.

    A corollary: Hong Kong is blanketed with free Wi-Fi networks. Everywhere we went, the Germans took out their smartphones and engaged, I don’t believe deliberately, in a tag-team effort to identify the free network; or if there was more than one, which was fastest. “Should I use [ABC]?” “No, [XYZ] is the network you want to use.” In the moment, I didn’t think much of it. Today, though, it struck me as an amusing, stereotypically-German thing to do.

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