To fly out of Seoul you need to travel about an hour on the airport express train to Inchon to the Southwest. Getting there, checked in and through security took longer than I thought, so it’s a good thing I gave myself quite a pad to make my four hour flight to Hong Kong that afternoon.
Coincidentally, Hong Kong airport is located about an hour outside of Hong Kong by bus or the airport express train. It used to be located in the city itself, but the old airport went out of commission in 1998. By the time I arrived at the hostel it had been mostly a day of travel, so I settled in to get the lay of the land and plan out the next four days.
In most major cities there exist “Free Walking Tours.” They’re not affiliated under any parent company, but it’s a trend that has spread around the world. They’re set up by locals eager to share their city, history, and culture with inquisitive visitors. Though it says free, they’re donation based, so if you’re dirt cheap, or hated the tour, it’s free. If you liked it, it’s very good form to donate a little money to your guide because they’ve been a wealth of local information for the last 3 hours of your day. Having been around Europe and a decent chunk of the Far East, I always like seeing if one is around, especially if I haven’t had time to research an area much. It might seem touristy, but it’s a really good use of your time because not only do you get a good overview of the area and local history, but the guide is almost always a wealth of knowledge who can offer up tips on food, nightlife, what might be overrated or underrated, etc…
The next morning I was up for an off the beaten path tour of Kowloon, which is both the peninsula I was staying on North of Hong Kong island, and a neighborhood in it. Historically, there also existed Kowloon Walled City, which at one point was the most densely populated areas on Earth, and one of the most dangerous. Due to an oversight in the treaty that granted Kowloon to the British after the Opium Wars, an old Chinese fort was left technically outside their jurisdiction, but within their borders. Kowloon and Hong Kong basically grew together, but the weird district remained. After World War Two it began filling with residents. A major plus is that within the six and a half acre border, you got to live tax free. The residents built what they needed when they needed, and slowly created an absolute labyrinthine monstrosity of overlapping buildings, pipes, halls, and dwellings. Over 30,000 people lived there. But soon the Triads (organized crime groups) moved in to take advantage of the lawlessness of the zone. It became known as The City of Darkness not only because the construction made sunlight rare, but the harsh living conditions and rampant crime created their own darkness as well. That combined with the questionable engineering and infrastructure eventually led to the British evicting (and fairly compensating I should add) the residents, and demolishing what had become basically one giant, cancerous structure. Why the British never annexed their little oversight 100 years sooner is beyond me. Today there exists a very nice park and public space in its place.
Anyways, the neighborhoods beyond the walled city still exist, and to the northwest of the park are among the lowest income neighborhoods in Hong Kong, and the cheapest place to live. It’s still one of the most densely populated areas on Earth too.
The initial impressions of Hong Kong I had were very similar to two broad phrases I had heard before: one being that Hong Kong is the Manhattan of the South China Sea. The density, frenetic life, similarly towering financial institutions, make that ring fairly true. To be clear though, Hong Kong has a flavor all its own as well. The second favorite saying of people is that a Hong Kong second is a New York minute. As a New Yorker, I’ll reserve judgement that proclamation for now.
We met in Mong Kok for the tour. There only ended up being 5 of us on the tour. For about the next three hours we covered the mostly depressing history and current state of affairs of the neighborhoods in the area.
When I stepped out of the subway the edges of the sidewalks, streets, and pedestrian walkways were completely populated by Indonesian women. They had laid out tarps or cardboard and were socializing and picnicking. I was wondering what was going on. Were they homeless? They didn’t look homeless. Was there a religious pilgrimage going on? Was this a protest?
It was one of the first subjects our guide, Alla, talked about. These women were all housekeepers for wealthier residents, in charge of a household’s cooking and cleaning, and taking care of elderly parents or young kids. Sundays are usually their day off, and they use it basically as a holiday to spend out of the house. Kowloon was mostly Indonesian women, and Hong Kong mostly Filipino. They find whatever space they can – in a park, along a sidewalk, wherever, and setup for the day to picnic, socialize, rest, and have fun.
Despite being a large population of laborers in Hong Kong, and a major economic force allowing for stronger dual income households, these “Foreign Domestic Workers” don’t have many rights. They receive free room and board, but their monthly minimum wage is only about $514 USD, much lower than Hong Kong’s official minimum wage. Oftentimes those rooms might mean sleeping in a living room or toilet. They’re not eligible for citizenship either. Normally after living in Hong Kong for seven years you can apply for citizenship. Not so for them.
They come from Indonesia and The Philippines because even though being treated like a second class citizen in Hong Kong is bad, it’s better than where they came from. They save what they can and mail the rest back home. Sound familiar? That one day of the weekend is the only day they have to themselves, all 300,000 of them.
We walked by countless of those classic Hong Kong high rises, concrete behemoths of stained concrete or tarnished pastels. One woman on the tour asked why they were so run-down looking. Basically what it came down to was that the people cared much more about the inside than the outside. Another woman, a Canadian named Helen, murmured to me that she thought it was terrible they looked so shabby. I told her maybe it was a case of don’t judge a book by its cover. We’ll get to Helen later, but she was really getting on my nerves after a while.
The cheapest neighborhoods in Hong Kong are comparable to mid-range neighborhoods in New York. And even though there are only about 1,400 homeless in the city of 7.3 million, over 200,000 live in abhorrent conditions: they live on illegal, ramshackle rooftop structures, others live in “cage rooms,” which would be a ghetto version of a Japanese capsule hotel, and some even live in stairwells, paying rent for a space where they can only put a mattress and few belongings down at night.
All this: the maids, the living conditions, the high cost of rent and real estate, is unlikely to change soon.
Hong Kong’s legislative body is more and more at the whim of China. Additionally, the wealthiest landowners in Hong Kong hold significant sway. There is also a fear that trying to correct the housing market, by a large affordable housing initiative for instance, could put Hong Kong into a recession. That’s because over 20% of their economy has been built on real estate. It’s a complicated matter but anyone who bought a house recently could plunge into deep debt if housing prices dropped. The government would also earn less money on selling public lands and less money on property taxes. There were a number of other interlocking reasons Alla gave as well, saying there doesn’t seem to be a solution, except don’t build a real estate dependent economy.
During the Kowloon tour we walked through a number of famous markets. In Hong Kong vendors with similar goods often conglomerate and take over a street. We went through the flower street market, a pet market (mostly for goldfish), and a bird market.
We finished up the tour, and Alla recommended a great lunch place. The abalone and eel soup with rice I had was excellent. I wolfed it down quickly because I was hopping on Alla’s afternoon tour of Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong walking tour covered the island’s history in greater depth: from its founding through British colonization, Japanese occupation, and the handover to the Chinese.
It’s funny to note that China used to be a very closed kingdom. The king and government officials considered anyone not Chinese to be barbarians. Additionally, being a Confucian society, they viewed merchants as self-enriching people who were lower in the social strata than farmers, and slightly above slaves. The British, having an unquenchable desire for tea, demanded a port in China be opened to them for trade. Hong Kong, being as far from the capital as you could get, and therefore its inhabitants being the most barbaric of all Chinese, was chosen. However Chinese demands, and British opium resulted in The First Opium War with China, who lost and formally ceded Hong Kong Island to the British. Later a 2nd Opium War occurred and the British took the Kowloon Peninsula as well.
Hong Kong thrived and the population exploded. At the same time the Chinese lost the First Sino-Japanese War, and Britain began to worry about protecting its growing colony. The exploding population also needed room to expand because unsanitary conditions led to an outbreak of the plague. They demanded a 99 year lease of The New Territories, a large chunk of land and islands surrounding Hong Kong and the Kowloon Peninsula, in order to better defend its colony, and allow the population to expand outwards.
99 years later the British stuck to their word and ceded The New Territories back to China, they didn’t technically need to give back Kowloon or Hong Kong, but the infrastructures now being so tied together it didn’t make sense to keep it. They considered decolonizing Hong Kong after WWII, as they did with most of their colonies, but Mao feared Hong Kong’s influence over his Communist dreams for China.
The handover itself was a fraught one. Discussion began in the late 80s, during a very different Communist China. The Soviet Union collapsed, Tienanmen Square happened, there was a market collapse. Over 10% of the population of Hong Kong lost faith and emigrated. Those who stayed were promised a referendum to vote for Chinese or British rule (or maybe independence?), but it never came. The people of Hong Kong never had much say in their fate.
Having talked with some Hong Kong natives, and looking at the difference between Hong Kong and its neighboring China, I think the people of Hong Kong would rather have stuck with the British. Western colonization was a bad event for many people all over the world, but in some places it had major benefits. There’s a reason why hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people from all over Asia have fled to Hong Kong, not China, over the decades to make their fortunes. Even leading up to the handover people were trying to get across the border and settle there to receive a special Hong Kong resident status.
Without the British, Hong Kong may have remained a small fishing village of less than 10,000 people. Hong Kong has its darkness and downsides. Is a quaint, peaceful fishing village better than a vast metropolis that has both enriched millions of lives, and let millions of others exist and subsist in squalor? We’ll leave that to the philosophers.
I learned far far more on the tours that day, and it was informative talking to Alla, a local, about her position on current events, like the Umbrella Revolution. Young people in Hong Kong are particularly unhappy with China’s increasingly stronger thumb on the scales of their government, but the situation seems hopeless. She has immense pride in being from Hong Kong, but at the same time, she’s an avid traveler herself, and doesn’t know if her future resides there.