The morning was still young. I seemed to be the only person about, which is a rare occurrence in Hong Kong. An occasional snore, or a soft rustle – little other noise came from the tents.
For tents there were, stretching along a highway which would normally be a traffic jam. The skyscrapers towered over them, emblazoned with huge advertisements for the next product to bring wealth and happiness. In contrast, protest signs hung from the overpasses, along with clusters of umbrellas.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Hong Kong. It was the first overseas place I ever visited, back in the days when it was still part of the English Empire and the handover to the Chinese seemed, to my childish eyes, a long way off. My dad often went on business, and I know the streets of the Island as well as my hometown of Sydney.
I always loved the markets with so many unknown things for sale. Plus all the trinkets, from hair bands to fake watches, motorised toys to make-up. Rows upon rows of underwear displayed in a purely functional way. Stockings, spare parts for all types of machines, someone repairing watches and other do sewing repairs on an ancient machine.
Not to mention the wet markets, the like I had never seen before. Crickets in cages, crabs bound with straw, a dripping ox head hanging outside a meat stall. These are one of the few places in Hong Kong where I can still wander without being harassed about buying anything.
When I first went to Hong Kong there were still rickshaw drivers. There were always some waiting for customers outside the Star Ferry (which has also moved). Whenever I passed them, I felt so sorry for these wiry men who spent their days pulling a rickshaw laden with someone twice their size. Once upon a time they ran a service to the top of The Peak. Remarkable.
A lot has changed since the Chinese regained control, and the world has moved on. So have the beggars, apparently, who were once on every other corner. I’m not sure where they have been moved to.
Now, by sheer chance a few years ago, I found myself in the midst of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution. Led initially by university students protesting against restrictive changes to Hong Kong’s electoral law, thousands of people from all stratums of Hong Kong became involved in a sit-in protest which continued during the last few months on 2014.
In the days before I left for Hong Kong, my TV was filled with images of these protestors filling the streets, replacing the perpetual traffic jams. It is estimated that the number of protestors at any one time peaked at over 100,000.
Remarkably, I had trouble finding the actual protest. Asking the concierge at the hotel and I received only vague directions. I knew it was somewhere in the Admiralty/Central area, but not exactly where. Coming out of the MTR (subway) into one of the enormous shopping complexes which are such a feature of the area, the receptionist acted as if the Occupy Central With Peace and Love Campaign did not exist.
Yet here I was, standing amidst 1000s of small tents erected on a major thoroughfare in the main business district of the island. Things rarely happen early in Hong Kong, and everyone seemed asleep. It was all very clean and very well organised; the tents were in orderly rows, there were communal places for food and cooking, first aid tents, even places for those with exams looming to study. There were quite a few displays, umbrellas everywhere, protest slogans and signs in every spare space. There were even signs asking people not to publish photos which could be used lead to identify individual protestors – protests in Hong Kong lay in uncharted waters, and no one was certain of what consequences lay ahead.
I came across the movement in various parts of Hong Kong over the next few days. I passed within a few hundreds metres of another site in Causeway Bay without realising the protestors were there – a reflection of just how crowded that part of the city can be of an evening, when the streets (and the MTR) are wall-to-wall people. Not till I went to catch a tram and found they weren’t running because of the tents covering the line did I realise I’d found another branch.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, it’s still unclear how much was achieved by the protestors, and what price they paid for a peaceful movement. The future of Hong Kong always seem to be hanging in the balance, but it has not yet been swallowed into China, as so many feared. Walking the streets, whether it be around those forgotten streets around the Man Mo Temple or some place beyond North Point which I still can’t name but where I found myself after catching the wrong bus, I find a place which somehow walks in the past and the present at the same time. Capitalism seems rampant, yet here are shrines hidden in corners, sky-scrappers challenge the heavens but are held together with bamboo scaffolding as they are being built; the extent of billboard advertising is beyond belief, but at noon the Midday Gun is still fired in Causeway Bay.
Which is why, despite there being so many places in the world to see, I still get regular cravings to go back, if only for a few days.
The Literary Traveller
The Painted Veil, Somerset Maugham
Lift not the painted veil which those who live / Call Life
Although Somerset Maugham wrote The Painted Veil in 1925, anyone who visits Hong Kong will immediately recognise the streets and buildings he so loving describes.
Opening in England, the novel follows the spiritual and emotional awaking of Kitty. After making a desperate marriage to Walter Fane, she accompanies her husband to Hong Kong, where he works as a bacteriologist. Here Kitty enters the world of the expats, and begins an affair with Charles Townsend, the Assistant Colonial Secretary.
The dual world of Hong Kong is brilliantly captured; the wealth of the expats with their homes in Happy Valley, The Midlands and The Peak, with their life of tennis and country clubs and endless parties, as well as the business district of Central. Then there is the Hong Kong of the Chinese, a world removed from the one Kitty inhabits. This becomes more apparent when she accompanies her husband to a cholera infected province of China. In contrast to our world of modern travel and instant information, reaching the province takes days of travel, with Kitty often carried by pole-bearers. She never walks.
Cholera was a major killer at the time, and the word Kitty enters is ravaged by the disease. The area is ruled by a War Lord, the land is barren, and the dying are everywhere. The poverty of the peasants is palpable, and it is a group of French nuns who care for the dying. Yet Kitty can also see the beauty of the land, although it harbours so much death, and when she returns to Hong Kong a reluctant heroine, she realises how shallow she was in accepting that Expat world.
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