At the Shenzhen bus depot I waited for the sun to rise so that I could begin my search for the Shenzhen subway. The last stop of the Shenzhen subway is the route to Hong Kong. You literally walk to customs and security up some dodgy steps of the third floor of the subway station. I found the subway, it was right across from the bus depot; thank goodness I dodged all the taxi people waiting outside of the bus. I’m proud to say I probably saved myself 20 Yuan (three bucks).
I was part of the first group of the day to enter Hong Kong. When I got to the gates of customs and security at 6:15 I ended up in a mob of nearly 100 people. A few minutes later another 100 people were behind me. I played a game where I tried to pick out which of the people around me were Mainlanders and which were Hong Kong native, and which were scruffy backpackers like myself. I also realized that I was now in the tropics, and not only was I beginning to sweat because of the masses of people around me, but it was also over 30 degrees and high humidity in the middle of April. It was 6:30 in the morning and I already needed to reapply my deodorant. As a Canadian, this was all quite exciting.
The gates eventually opened and I walked and stamped myself into Hong Kong. Hooray! Then I went to one of the million ATMs to withdrew some HK money. So colourful! So shiny! Then it was a stop at the 7Eleven for breakfast. They had Soy Joy bars! Coconut water! And real Red Bull! All kinds of goodies that the Mainland doesn’t have. Then I boarded the subway to Kowloon/Mong Kok area where my hostel was. The ride was as smooth as a Korean subway, no one glared at me, and I got a seat. Early morning win.
I’ve visited Manhattan a dozen times. Most of those times were from an overnight bus where I was always dropped off at Port Authority and by big city rush hour at 7:30 a.m I was out on the crowded Manhattan streets, ready to wander and find something new and inspiring (have you left me for O Magazine yet?). Ever since my first visit when I was 17, a morning walk in a big city is always reminiscent of my times in Manhattan, when I had the whole day in front of me in a city that never disappoints.
Before visiting Hong Kong I didn’t know much about the place. I knew that it used to belong to England until they gave it back to China in 1997, under the terms that the city would remain unchanged for 50 years. The Chinese government called it, “One country, two systems.” I knew Hong Kong people could vote and Mainlanders couldn’t. Maybe that was just one of the things England and presumably Hong Kong didn’t want changed right away. Voting’s pretty awesome. I also knew that the skyline was supposedly epic. (And it is! Check it out if you can!). I gave myself 5 days to learn everything about the little set of islands that could.
My backpack and I finally got out of the Hong Kong underground and into the crammed and cosmopolitan streets of Mong Kok. All my Manhattan memories suddenly rushed to me. The smell of the freshly rinsed city streets, people rushing past me, stores everywhere. I could smell coffee and fried dough. It was beautiful. There were readable street signs, helping newcomers who are too shy to ask the local people for directions (who move too fast to be stopped, anyway). You may think this may also be like China, but outside of the business districts of Beijing and Shanghai, Mainlanders aren`t particularly fast-paced. There’s a lot of people but a lot of just sitting around. It’s a quintessentially rural country.
My usual stress of finding a hostel in a new city was absent that first morning in Hong Kong. I knew the city would take care of it somehow. So I just started wandering the streets. I was totally overwhelmed by the overflow of signs, and the businesses and apartments and hanging laundry stacked one on top of the other. The crazy compact Asiantown you picture in your head is probably Hong Kong. Mainland China is huge and even though the population is massive, they still have some space left.
Then I saw a giant picture of eggs. Hmmm….eggs. I was pretty sure I hadn’t had dinner the night before. It was already breakfast time for some people; those busy big city early risers that I aspire to be one day. Anyway I followed the egg sign and it led me to a proper breakfast cafeteria! Coffee, eggs, potatoes, Hong Kong breakfast treats, all prepared fast and easy to order. There were pictures of skyscrapers surrounding the clean white booths, the menu filled with cheap and plentiful options. All clean, orderly, cosmopolitan. I knew I needed a big city breather before I continued with my Mainland wandering, and this was definitely it.
On a full stomach I found my hostel. Then I set off for a perfect city day.
By sunset that same day I was at the end of Kowloon, the Mong Kok area is kind of in the middle of Kowloon, and the end of Kowloon marks the start of Victoria Harbour, then it`s onto Hong Kong Island and Causeway Bay where most of the big companies and government buildings are located. I was walking through a department store trying to find a recommended Indian restaurant that was apparently hidden somewhere in the mall. I got to the other end of the mall to no avail. Then I saw it. The Hong Kong skyline. I walked out of the mall and along the street to see the whole thing. I kept walking and it kept going. Light after light, building after building, all aligned perfectly by the sea over the Victoria Harbour. I’d been so lucky as to see all kinds of beautiful sights on my trip thus far; Zhangdaijie National park, Longhu Shan, the skyline of Shanghai, the massive Tulou roundhouses, but this sight was the loveliest to me.
So if you’ve been to Hong Kong and want to say that you’ve seen China, sorry to break it to you dude, you haven’t. Even British people who’ve been to Hong Kong that I’ve met here tell me Hong Kong is just London with more Chinese people, and a better subway system. (Apparently the London subway is notorious for breaking down? I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to European public transportation, but quiz me on the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties and I'll own it!)
On the fourth and rainiest day of my trip I decided to check out the Hong Kong museum on Hong Kong Island. While waiting for a mini movie about the British Hong Kong occupation to start, I calculated how many museums I’d been to so far: 13. Some weeks I did one, sometimes it was four. I definitely know more about the Ming and Qing dynasties than you do (ha!). And two things struck me most while wandering around my number 13. All over the museum there were detailed and impressive displays of the many parts of China. There were sections for all the different time periods (dynasties) and the many ethnic communities that China has. From all the old towns I`d visited in the Mainland, and all the minority people and villages I`d passed through on my trip, I’d seen most of this China that the Hong Kong Museum was depicting, all in the flesh. I’d seen most of the landscapes and walked past (and sometimes bought water from) most of the people that the other tourists were reading about in the detailed and bilingual signs in the museum. I felt so lucky, and I began to miss my Mainland and all it`s intensity, beauty, and sometimes backwards opinions.
This brings me to my last point. The second and more shocking thing was in the last section of the museum. It was Hong Kong in the 20th century. There were videos of the Chinese Hong Kong people dressed in typical 50′s clothing and doing the jive. They were pics of apartment blocks built in the 70′s that were reminiscent of the stuff I’ve seen when I’ve looked through my parents old photo albums. (Hong Kong has vintage 70′s clothing shops, because they can!) The women had up-dos and the men had black rimmed glasses, pressed suits and ties. They were just like us! Other than a few pictures I’ve seen of wealthy Philipena families I’ve never seen pictures of East Asian people in the Western version of the 20th century. There were pictures of Deng Qiaoping with Margaret Thatcher in the late 80′s and all the Mainlanders were still wearing blue suits. The old men in the Mainland still wander the streets in them. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, like wearing a collared shirt and tie after years of oppression (I personally think the suits are stylin’, I’m just not the biggest fan of what they represent). But among the blue suits wearers, almost all 1.4 billion Mainlanders use cell phones and listen to downloaded, very synthesized and generic sounding music. I guess they had a few moments in the 90′s to take a breather between food/electricity rations and Ipods/mp3s. But even with that breather, can both these places, so different and now the same country, ever truly become one without an inevitable (huge) compromise from one side (Hong Kong). Can blue suits and vintage shops ever co-exist?