Ten months is not enough time to spend in a city as complicated and full of contrasts as Hong Kong, but it is long enough to begin to see, in a more objective sense, the particular parts of the place that make it what it is, for better or for worse. When I first visited Hong Kong for a whirlwhind few days, three years ago now, I left with the impression of a city glittering and gold, capped with mountains and surrounded by a tranquil sea. In many ways, this impression has not changed: I still believe Hong Kong to be, truly, one of the most beautiful places I’ve yet seen. It is difficult to comprehend the feeling that seeing the city wrapped around the harbor and shining with lights piercing the darkness of the evening sky can give after climbing up to Victoria Peak—for the the first time, or the second time, or, truthfully, any number of times. Some wonder does not diminish with experience.
With time, though, I began to appreciate the beauty of the city in individual pieces, rather than simply a spectacular whole. The little sights and experiences of daily life that add up to create a million senses of unexpected amazement: the way the sunset fades through the pillars of an overpass and reflects in the adjacent glass tower; the sudden sight of a run-down, empty and graffiti-lined alley hidden among a hectic street; a dog wandering the forests of one of the outlying islands; the old woman pushing her cart of styrofoam and cardboard through the streets, holding up two blocks of traffic as she ambles along.
Such pieces of life here become ordinary so quickly that one can soon begin to ignore them. This happens, I suppose, with time, but greater exposure to such things also allows for a more nuanced understanding of their significance. The old woman pushing the cart, for example, becomes less quaint upon realizing that she does it, day in and day out, because her government stipend is not sufficient to live off of considering Hong Kong’s ever-rising cost of rent of living, and she must spend her days searching for waste to sell and her nights cramped in a closet with four other peple, each lying on a bunk bed barely big enough to stretch their toes. The dog wandering alone on Lamma, upon closer inspection, suffers from severe mange, and is alone because he was owned by an expat who had to move back home, and couldn’t afford or didn’t want to bring his pet back with him.
These realizations (plus the fact that the air pollution is often bad enough to preclude outdoor exercise and induce spontaneous eczema outbursts) bring the city down from an idealized place to a real one, and I can ask for little more from just short of a year of living there. And, despite such facts, I would still gladly move back. Hong Kong is simply too alluring an experience to pass up. Historically, it has a frankly remarkable story, beginning as a forsaken rock on the ocean—given to Britain by China after the Opium Wars because China deemed it unimportant enough to lose without consequence—and exploding in the mid-20th century into a manufacturing mecca, then transitioning to become the financial center of Asia and point of entry for Western business into the burgeoning Chinese market. I can think of few places that have changed so much in so little time.
Change, in fact, seems to be the only constant of Hong Kong, and it is partly this aspect of it that makes me so sad about leaving. In short, I do not know if the city I’ll someday return to will be anything like the city I’m now leaving. Between the constant financial incentives to build and build, the constant tearing down of the old-world tenements of Kowloon with their trademark street signs and grungy windows, and the increasing political pressure by and influence of mainland China, Hong Kong seems set on a trajectory that will take it irreversibly away from its roots. I worry that it might someday become just another Chinese city—wonderful and beautiful, but without any particular character.
In a way these concerns are not entirely merited. The people of Hong Kong are, truly, a people unto themselves, and I doubt they would allow their city to become so egregiously lost to the power of influence and time. The recent Tiananmen Vigil, which attracted a record-breaking 180,000 people in support of democracy and free governance in Hong Kong, is a remarkable example. And yet when we live in a place, with our noses against the glass all day, it often happens that we don’t notice the fog on the glass until it is too late, and our vision is obscured and the world lost to sight.
This is particularly true about the relationship between China and Hong Kong. As a Special Administrative Region, Hong Kong of course has a unique freedom in its daily affairs, but that does not mean that China doesn’t intend to make efforts to bring its once-lost child back into the family. Following the Tiananmen Vigil this year, for instance, Beijing published what has come to be called “The White Paper,” which reminds Hong Kong, in short, that they are entirely under the auspices of the CCP, and in a more subtle way reinforces the fact that nothing in Hong Kong can occur without the approval of Beijing.
Such power games are already at play; Hong Kong’s current current executive chairman is largely seen as a puppet of Beijing, China continues to make notable efforts to prevent a true democracy from ever rising in Hong Kong, and they are working to raise the financial status of Shanghai in world markets at the expense of Hong Kong. The required teaching of Mandarin in schools is another example, as it is convenient but may also lead to an eventual decrease in the use of Cantonese, Hong Kong’s native language. These movements by the CCP are not surprising, and Hong Kong’s people are proving time and again that they will not give up their culture or lifestyle so easily, but I fear that, with its dependence on mainland China for power, water, military and more, this is a struggle that Hong Kong will inevitably lose.
For now, however, Hong Kong remains a marvel of a city, melding urban life and nature in an impressive way. From anywhere in the city, one can hop on the MTR and, in no more than half an hour, find oneself standing on a well-maintained hiking trail, or on the shores of a sandy (sometimes rather crowded) beach, or on the peak of a mountain overlooking the ocean, or in a tiny temple nestled in the rocks on the shore. An hour later, such tranquility can be replaced by the ever-neon glow of Mong Kok or thronging shoppers of Causeway Bay, or the anxiously exciting atmosphere of a weekly horse race.
Part of this convenience arises because Hong Kong is not really that big of a place. Yes, it is dense, and yes, there are nearly 9 million people living there, but compared to, say, Bangkok or Tokyo, Hong Kong feels positively cozy. Perhaps it is the mountains that seem to loom behind every highrise, or the ocean the rings the island; I don’t know, but the city never seems to overwhelm in the same way that some other Asian cities can.
I admit, of course, that I am biased: I have come to love Hong Kong as a home second only in chronology, and not in importance for me. It has offered travels, experiences and adventures like I had never anticipated, and as I prepare to begin my final year of medical school, with the prospect of grueling dawn-to-dusk hours in the fluorescent light of a hospital, the freedom that I’ve enjoyed the past year seems all the more precious. With its grit and its glamor, Hong Kong will remain for me a city tinted in possibility and beauty—a place struck by the sunset and rooted in hope, lit across its waters, alleys and towering mountains in memory, gold and light.
I couldn’t sleep much last night, as I was nervous about not waking up to my alarm and thus missing my flight. But this didn’t happen, and by 7:00am I was checked out of my hotel and walking to the Shinjuku subway line to ride over to the Nippori Station and catch the Skytrain, an express ride to Narita Airport, over 70 kilometers outside the city. From there it was just a matter of picking up my luggage from airport storage, waiting at the gate, and hopping on board for a thirteen hour flight to Chicago.
I usually try to be productive during flights, but when sitting next to an eighty year old Canadian man with a remarkable penchant for opinionation, this is difficult to do, and one finds oneself mostly nodding and smiling vaguely, trying to remain polite for the duration of the trip even as one listens to yet another story about an attractive flight attendant from 1965, and how it was a mistake for America to ever disallow hiring based on physical appearance.
Such conversations can be easily dismissed, of course, in usual social settings, but an airplane is not at all such a place. Rather than being able to say, for example, nice talking to you but I’m afraid I am very busy today with clipping my toenails, and I must leave your presence immediately, on an airplane you can really only turn to look the other way, and your seatside companion can see that you are not, obviously, actually clipping your toenails. This leads to terribly awkward situations in which neither one of you is willing to look at the other for the remainder of the flight. So, it is easier to just put up with them, and ask the flight attendant for another glass of wine.
At any rate, my flight was otherwise uneventful—and I discovered that Japan Airlines is a pretty great company—until I got to Chicago, where the usual hellhole that is O’Hare Airport led to an hour delay while they held us hostage on the airplane as a technician ambled out, ate a candy bar, made a phone call, and then fixed the toilet in no apparent concern for timeliness.
But it is nice to be back home nonetheless.