Hong Kong, “Pearl of the Orient” … though she has never engaged in pearl diving nor traded in pearls, and was a largely uninhabited swamp when China gave her to the British after losing 2 wars over opium — which the latter wanted to import, and the former had refused to sell. A colourful story, this island – or rather, island group plus mainland ‘triangle’, who even now functions as a nation-state, independent-minded and freedom-loving — and currently in battle with her PRC overlord.
The harbour between Hong Kong’s namesake island and its mainland neighborhoods to the north has long served as a major trade thoroughfare. Much wider before successive land reclamation projects on both sides, today it takes just 5 minutes for the traditional British Star Ferries to cross. Still highly trafficked, including cruise ships though the freighters now use other routes, most HK residents prefer to pass underneath — in the sophisticated and highly efficient metro system known locally as the “MTR-oh.”
Along with its charming if inefficient traditional Star Ferries, Hong Kong holds onto its once-British tram system — affectionately known by locals as the ‘Ding Ding’ for its bell. One jogger proved he could run the track faster than its trains, nannies and their wee charges frequent the trams along with silver-haired elders, and one granny was seen transporting a large covered basket — of frogs. (Specialised trams are also on hire for celebrations.)
Hong Kong stubbornly holds onto its traditional markets, even as it’s also a foodie destination with multiple Michelin-starred restaurants. Often deemed unsanitary as fish and meat sit in the subtropical sun, flies and all, the market — and market culture — persist. A great deal of life and community happens at these markets, and it would be a shame to see them give way to modernization — in property-crazed HK, likely to gentrification.
Some of the most modern features of Hong Kong are its shopping malls, serving as navigational landmarks and as oases from the punishing heat, humidity, and torrential rains. Another such lesser known place of respite is the Central Library across from Victoria Park. With its 10 storeys, smart technology, and contemporary design, it well pays homage to intellectual pursuit. Victoria Park across the busy street provides its own, equally glorious respite — part of a little- known fact about crowded Hong Kong: the SAR is 4/5 protected greenspace.
Hong Kong is a world class city, but does love its traditions — none deeper than its folk religion which today syncretises Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. With countless shrines dotting the landscape, a practice of ancestor worship, reverence for Tien Hau, goddess of the sea — and the dragon, a water spirit — HK maintains its spiritual heritage in a way that China has lost, all within a highly sophisticated urban context.
Hong Kong also maintains its traditional art forms, such as Cantonese Opera — a style distinct from that which might still be found in Shanghai. Though a sound not for everyone, it is highly stylised and a glorious feast for the eyes, commonly available in a variety of venues. In early spring each year on Lamma Island, the truly traditional form is offered in a 2-day festival: open-air by the shore, in a temporary theatre built over the week prior — out of bamboo.
Modern art is celebrated in all its forms in the Hong Kong of today, not 2 decades ago referred to as “the black hole of art in Asia” for its dearth. February each year sees a month-long art festival with offerings both international and local; West Kowloon has been gentrified as an art zone, while several performing arts centers on both sides of the harbour keep busy schedules. Museums are still lacking, though galleries abound — including a recently restored former police station in Central, now a multi-use art space.
Art pushes boundaries of all types, often the political. Hong Kong, which distinguishes itself from China politically as well as culturally — even as it is now, if largely independent, a territory of the mainland once more, with ‘immigrant’ mainlander Chinese at nearly 15% of its population — frequently uses art as a form of rebellion. Seen here, in a typical style of bulbous characters, is a gentle mocking of both Chinese traditions — and the ‘Red Army’.
Hong Kong protests political interference from its mainland overlord in more rigorous ways, as first seen in the 2014 Umbrella Revolution. Using umbrellas to shield against police tear gas, protesters blocked public areas for several weeks in a battle for democratic process as promised in the 50-year agreement when HK was ceded to China from UK — as the PRC demanded approval of all political candidates. Currently, another battle rages between HK citizens and Beijing, this time over a highly contested extradition proposal — with turnout at one demonstration in particular reaching nearly 40% of the HK population.