Hong Kong: standing between giants
Hassan Daoud - 23/01/2006
I had only been in Hong Kong five days when Claudia Mu, a media studies professor, asked me what I thought of the city. On occasions such as this any answer will do, especially since her students, seated hunched over their laptop computers had already posed even more banal questions about Lebanon (i.e. How come you have newspapers over there? Is the war over, and if so when did it end? Are there extremist Islamists?etc.) I wanted my response to be brief but not overly simplistic and I grasped the microphone so everyone in the small auditorium could hear me clearly only to discover that my answer was being broadcast to three separate attendance halls, each one large enough to host the entire population of the city.
During my first two days in Hong Kong my social circle was restricted to the professor and her students. Even the hotel where I was staying was owned by the university that had invited me to visit. "This is the library," said Jennifer Hu, the lady who was organizing my trip, "and this building is the university hospital." Aside from the faculty and administration buildings, the university also owned a whole host of restaurants where we ate our supper.
Across the road were four buildings belonging to another university. The guide told me that when this university's administration had learnt that there were Arab and Muslim writers in the city it had asked permission to set up a meeting between these writers and their students. In the streets around, where I wandered to stretch my legs or kill time almost every building was a school of one kind or another. I stood waiting at traffic lights surrounded by throngs of students who, my guide told me, where endlessly crisscrossing the streets as they made their way to lessons in various faculty buildings. With no dividing wall to separate them these buildings opened onto the street themselves.
For those who are wondering what it would be like to live in Hong Kong, it is like a quiet university town where despite their great numbers, the students never form noisy crowds. As I wandered around I asked myself just where these seven million inhabitants had gone to. Where was the crowded chaos of a metropolis like Cairo?
For most of the first three days I spent there, Hong Kong seemed to be completely absorbed in the business of educating its future generations. "The Hong Kong Baptist University is not the largest in the city," its president, Professor Ching Fay informed me. When I pointed out that his students received a quality of education not dissimilar to that given by private universities in Lebanon he replied that none of Hong Kong's universities are private, and that all students are educated in state schools and colleges that abide by the same educational standards. This equality is so much a part of the system that students pay a tax equivalent to 18% of their teaching fee.
Standing in front of the media students in the small auditorium I thought that if someone had asked me about Hong Kong two days previously I would have said it was made up of nothing but universities. Schools and students. But the small boat took us out of the harbor my first impression was shattered by the majestic spectacle of the International Finance Center soaring skywards only a few meters from our boat. Jennifer said that it was the tallest building in the world. "Taller than the World Trade Center towers?" we asked. And what about the Malaysia's twin towers that some say are taller still. In any case the 109-floor Finance Center building was only the tallest in a skyline of competing giants. This towering vastness is what stands out when looking at Hong Kong either from the harbor or the mountain that looms behind it, with the little train carriage that has been carrying tourists up its slopes since the dawn of the twentieth century.
Buildings reach up all around you--the Bank of China, the Hong Kong Bank, HSBC--but only the very top of the International Finance Center stands level with the mountain's summit. A photographer who'd set up his camera to take shots of the new arrivals, told us to look at the lights on the buildings. The lights were like fiery arrows, a celebration designed to delight those watching and draw attention to the buildings themselves. Here is Hong Kong's power, I thought, recalling the words of the poet Ghasan Zaqtan who wrote of the manifold mysteries of money--stock exchanges, investments, major deals--that played out in these vast, palatial halls.
The buildings compete with each other to be the biggest and best. The tallest of all--those buildings with 70 or more floors--include the Bank of China, HSBC, the Hong Kong Bank and IFC. These names alone seem to add to the power emanating from the city. In a report published by the South China Star during my stay, Hong Kong was described as being an Alpha City, one of ten global capitals evaluated and selected by Loughborough University in Britain. The paper also mentioned other reasons for Hong Kong's global preeminence alongside the generating force of its financial district. It is, for instance, an international shopping center and at the forefront of fashion design.
In my response to the students, I decided to compare the two faces of Hong Kong that I'd seen during my stay. I said that while the universities were in the business of producing financial experts and specialists in the fields of banking and investment, Hong Kong itself (like the other Alpha Cities) was too diverse to be absorbed in the course of a quick visit. Showing their utter confidence in the importance of their chosen subject, the students started asking me about the dangers of working in journalism in Lebanon.
During the meetings we had with university professors, most of the discussions revolved around literature and culture. At first, and because it's only natural to jump to conclusions about new places, I thought that these professors must be the few remaining cultured people in this financial powerhouse. In a small garden on the Baptist University campus musical, theatrical and cinematic events were staged on a daily basis, and it was always littered with the props and musical instruments of the students involved. Not all of Hong Kong, after all, is hypnotized by the bright, glittering lights beckoning from the skyscrapers summits.
Hong Kong is not monolithic, and it misleads its guests (as it misled us) when it describes itself as a city of investment and international trade. In its report on Hong Kong's bid for international preeminence, the South China Star named the actor Jackie Chan and the designer Vivienne Tam as evidence that the city had become a true global capital.
* * * With the exception of the crowds on Women's Market Street a visitor to Hong Kong is inclined to think of them as the European's of Asia, or otherwise, as a people who have inherited the desire to imitate European habits and lifestyles from a previous generation. For instance, a young man walking around looking like a student from Oxford University isn't necessarily a member of the elite: he could be anyone. The numerous schools in Hong Kong's quieter neighborhoods devote themselves with peculiar diligence to the city's students, something that is reflected in the huge advertisements which call on citizens to look after their students. The Baptist and City universities are both found in a neighborhood that reminds one of Harvard University , the only difference being that the student body here is less diverse that its American counterpart. They are all from Hong Kong, with the short stature characteristic of Far Easterners. Their features show no signs of racial intermingling. Most of the English population of Hong Kong left the city when it returned to Chinese control in 1997. Black or Middle Eastern features are likewise absent. Although many immigrants have come to Hong Kong, most originated in China, Indonesia, the Philippines and other Asian countries. We tried to tell these different Asian peoples apart from one another as we stood in Women's Market Street. This was another Hong Kong altogether. Indeed, it was hard to believe that this bustling market and the modern mall with its global fashion brands were part of the same country. The prices in the mall were sometimes 100 times greater than those found in the market. The very existence of this spending gap is in itself hard to believe. We would go down to the market together, not just to buy things, but to look at the goods on offer from a multitude of different times and places. There was the trader who would stop you to show you pictures of her wares. It gave you the impression that she was selling contraband, though she was showing the pictures as openly as others touted their imitation handbags and watches. In shops beside the market they sold imitations of the imitations, so those selling the "original" imitations would shout "Copy!" to set themselves apart from their competitors. One salesman took me to the fourth floor of a building to show me an "original" Gucci imitation suitcase for 280 Hong Kong dollars (equal to 32 US dollars), although after the briefest of negotiations the price was reduced by half. Downstairs in the crowded market, the same case could be got for a fifth of the price, with salesmen asking for 100 dollars and being perfectly content with 20.
Women's Market is just another facet of Hong Kong's pioneering financial and trading spirit. The imitation goods on offer here do not just enjoy a limited local market but have become internationally renowned. Hong Kong's industry and trading culture gives the lie to the city's superficially impressive social and urban planning. Smoking in public places incurs a fine of 5000 dollars (a little less than 600 US dollars), and our guide felt compelled to warn us repeatedly against littering. Yet the market traders have only the minimum respect for such cosmetic regulations, and as I climbed the four stories to see my handbag I got the feeling that the whole performance was theatrical in its caution.
* * *
A first time visitor to Hong Kong is bewildered to find that speaking English is of almost no use in a city that was governed by the British for over one hundred years. I'm not talking about university students and those employed in the financial sector, but those you might meet in the course of your daily life. For instance, you have to use sign language with taxi drivers or get someone else to write your address in Chinese before you get in. Shopkeepers speak no more English than they need for the basics of bargaining, and even that most basic of processes can easily become a confusion of scribbled notes and numbers. In a village not more than 35 miles outside of central Hong Kong myself and a shopkeeper wrote offers and counteroffers on a piece of paper that we passed backwards and forwards between us.
This shopkeeper was no recent immigrant to the area; he had probably lived there for the duration of the British occupation. But why is English so slow, so reluctant to spread in Hong Kong, when it is spoken in environments far less accessible or suitable than this great city. It occurred to me that one reason may be that speakers of Chinese, which is vocalized in the throat rather than the mouth and tongue, may have trouble pronouncing English. One has to listen very closely to make out words spoken by the local residents, even those who are otherwise fluent in English. It is hard to shake the impression that the language of their colonizers requires a muscular apparatus that they simply do not possess.
As I tried to understand this process I thought back to the old men of my village who had lived most of their lives under the British Protectorate. Despite this, most of the loan words they used were Turkish, and dated from the days of the Ottoman Empire. The point is that, eight years after its departure, the precise nature of Britain's legacy to Hong Kong is obscure. It is equally hard to fathom the feelings of Hong Kong residents towards the change in their circumstances and their return to the "home country". One young student who accompanied us around the university campus artfully sidestepped our question--aimed at her and her generation--by saying that her parents had no love for the English. A professor seemed reluctant to give a decisive answer to our question, no matter how hard we pressed him. It was impossible to tell which era they preferred, the British or the Chinese? In fact, they seemed so unconcerned that the 1997 handover appeared to us to resemble a company changing its board of directors. Were they happy or sad? We could not tell. The handover was accompanied by none of the usual changes that take place when a country is liberated from its colonizer. Street names still had English names and an American professor of philosophy who sat in on a number of meetings with us, told us that 20 dollar stamps bearing the profile of Elizabeth I were still in circulation. Nearly everything on display, whether street signs or public notices, were written in both Chinese and English. It is as though they are standing in the middle, reluctant to go forward or back. Is this the effect of the past? Our guide Jennifer mentioned this effect when she said that the tourist railway that took passengers to the summit of the mountain was a legacy of the British. Perhaps it is not so much the past which holds them to this middle ground, but a vision of the future in which Hong Kong expands beyond its geographical limits. But one cannot discount the importance of the present as well, in which Hong Kong is safe and stable despite being fought over by competing interests. As he explained the various Chinese dishes that were placed before us, the American professor said that he preferred living in Hong Kong as it was the only place he felt completely safe.
That Hong Kong has remained a land of peace is a rare example of wisdom on the part of the international community, or maybe its just the great powers looking after their interests. Maybe this small patch of territory--neither burdened by its present nor cut off from its past--can serve as an example of what happens when interests become more important than creeds. "How do you see Hong Kong?" the professor asked me. "What do you think of it?" In all likelihood she wasn't expecting an answer, and I reserved my answer for another meeting, convened for writers from a variety of Asian countries. I said that the longer you stay in a place, the harder it is to understand. Hassan Daoud