I heard them long before I saw them; the twittering of voices, so happy, so light, but growing to a deafening crescendo as I came closer. Walking back from the Star Ferry to Central is via a series of raised walkways which connect the high-rise malls and expensive hotels while providing safe access over the road. Indeed, a day can pass in Hong Kong without ever descending to street level.
Hong Kong is for walking. In a place perennially crowded and which I have visited so many times, it’s amazing what I still discover, whether it be in a side street, or even in full view. It’s so tempting to always revisit old favourites, yet in a place which has survived by always reinventing itself, there is always something new – or very old – to find.
The Star Ferry: Hong Kong Reinventing Itself
The Star Ferry is a classic example. They used to run from the pier at Edinburgh Peace, Central, with the clock tower making the white building a classic landmark. Built in 1957 on land reclaimed from the harbour, it was itself demolished in 2006-7 for more land reclamation. It was reached by a vast tunnel running underneath the main roads of Central. As a child we always stayed in the Hilton (now long gone. I still wonder what became of the gorgeous bell-hops in their white uniforms, little older than
Then there was the Cat St Cafe. I loved looking at the photos of this world long gone – only to discover years later it still existed. As a child I only saw the Anglo-Saxon version of Hong Kong.)
We would walk down through Admiralty past the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, with its stone lions out the front. To me they seemed the essence of the island: the building was classic stone, respectable, reliable, but the lions hinted at a culture and philosophy I could only guess at. A way of life thriving while adapting to the customs of so many lands. It was outside the bank I saw my first ATM (yes, I am that old), queues of people waiting patiently in the morning light to withdraw their cash. (My parents were sceptical.)
Then came the tunnel, running underneath the multi-lane thoroughfare. Some rickshaws always waited at the entrance, pulled by these tiny, wiry men a third the size of the tourists clambering aboard. The tunnel both fascinated and scared me. Whatever the hour there was always a sea of
people walking, walking, either towards the ferry or away from it. On the sidelines were hawkers, maimed beggars, performers, newspaper vendors, shoeshine men. Added to the smell which comes from a mass of humanity was the unmistakable odour wafting in from the public urinal.
Now, with ever more of the harbour being reclaimed, the Star Ferry has moved to the Central Ferry Piers. A glance at a map shows how much land Hong Kong has reclaimed; Possession Street is where the English first landed. A plaque on the Landmark Hotel, Peddar streets marks the original waterline,
with Queen’s Rd once running along the waterfront.
Consequently, reaching the Star Ferry now involves a series of aerial walkways running above the roads and through all the high-rises of Central.
Hong Kong’s Foreign Domestic Workers
And this is how I found them. A cluster of these walkways were filled with these ‘sparrows’, as I came to call them; hundreds of domestic maids flocking together on their one day off, sitting on these walkways to exchange news, have a picnic and spend the day together. (By law, domestics must live in the house of their employer.) Many used broken cardboard boxes to build barricades, marking a bit of space from the hordes of passers-by. This was especially true of the sparrows down below, at street level, where the cardboard gave some protection from the traffic fumes.
I came across these ‘sparrows’ on many parts of the Island: the walkways of Central, the parks of Admiralty, even in small forgotten lanes opening off a main thoroughfare, where often their numbers were reduced to a mere few dozen. I found them down the other end of the island, around Causeway Bay and beyond, where they seemed to be mainly muslim, as they were on
Kowloon. Nearly half of the foreign domestics are from the Philippines, another 49% from Indonesia, and they gathered together with their fellow countrywomen (they were all women) in distinct areas of Hong Kong.
These sparrows form an unseen part of Hong Kong life: many households rely on cheap foreign labour, who work long hours far away from family to send money back home. In fact, current estimates are that some 3% of the population are foreign domestic workers. With only one day a week off, they happily gather together amongst cardboard boxes and traffic; what is their life like back home, that they so many do this. I also wonder: could I do the same?