Hong Kong is impressive in so many ways. Urban living is taken up an extra notch and the result seems so advanced compared to ‘Old Europe’, as former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once put it – overhead walkways and escalators that take you to various districts as the land rises from Victoria Harbour to the peak above, the sanitised elevator handles in the underground train system, the public transport heading in every direction possible, the smart phones in everyone’s hand, the attention to fashion, the healthy lifestyle because of the proximity of green hills and easy access to the footpaths. The feeling I had in Shanghai two years ago returned, of stepping into the Anti-universe, another Earth that was the same but better.
Despite this, the foreigners – only around 300,000 out of a population of six million, but enough to make this China In English – seemed to go around with a certain nonchalance about the marvel all around them. On a cable car on Lantau island an American resident reviewed problems of the territory as we glided up and over the airport into the mountains, that Cathay Pacific was in a mess, that the tourist village at our destination – a Buddhist monument – was kitsch. She needed to visit Dubai, I thought. I was as excited as a mad puppy about Hong Kong, but people seemed so beyond that.
One thing that really struck me was a sense that the hand of traditional Western colonialism seemed so far away. In what was described to me as the “only leftist bar in Hong Kong”, I raised this point with the bar lady. She took a double take and said, but no, we feel colonialism very much: from China. But the colonial past that I meant, and which was obviously, given history, as real here as anywhere else, seemed so far away, hidden or not talked about. Only once did it rear its head: in a newspaper column that referred to a recent incident when protesters had carried a British Union Jack – something of a taboo that had shocked many and forced a reaffirmation that despite all the complaints about China and the ‘invasion’ of Chinese tourists, traders and property speculators, people still had a grip on reality and ‘where they belonged’.
The idea that Hong Kong was benign colonialism is very much part of Britain’s self-image and post-colonial PR. In fact, it may well remain the last stand for this image, it as the treatment of the Mau Mau in Kenya becomes more public. Yet the signs of unease are there if you look hard enough. I went to an exhibition of Hong Kong photographic art at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum in a distant suburb to the north, where a different narrative emerged. It was not one of cruelty, but it was one of exploitation and manipulation with a colonial, capitalist aim and it raised the same issues that plague the Dubai experiment in the Gulf.
While many are just living with the service economy boom, many others are asking what happened to them. Hong Kongers say that Britain only developed the country relatively recently in order to fend off China. Up to the 1970s Britain had kept it a quiet backwater, while preventing development in the hinterland and focussing on urban expansion on the coast. Colonialism crafted Hong Kong as a highrise heaven. One might ask in Hong Kong where all the ‘shanty town’ dwellers of 1970s Hollywood films have gone? ‘Shanty town’ categorises them as in some fashion miserables. But much of the shanty existence was centred on fishing villages and Hong Kong as a great fishing port is over and fishing villages are under threat from tourist development. “The rapid development of the New Territories, massive land-fill projects and growth of industry and business over the past decades have changed the fishing family’s way of life,” one exhibit explained. “Many families have moved to live in high-rise apartments and taken up jobs on the land.”
The photographers lamented not so much that passing of poverty as the eradication of their past and earlier stages of urban architectural development. They rued the creation of the highrise wonderland – “stick houses” – that came to define Hong Kong’s iconic status and become a model of development around the world, including in Dubai. Photographer Ho Chin Shiu Ramond wrote in an introduction to his exhibit, titled “Lamenting Stick Houses”, that Hong Kong had always been a merchant town, before Britain “made Hong Kong their colony” in 1842.
The exhibit noted a layer of modern Hong Kong architecture referred to as “corner houses”, round-shaped buildings championed by architect Michael Wolf that considered Chinese ideas of harmonious space, according to the principles of Feng Shui. “Nowadays Hong Kong has lost its harmony, those old buildings are vanishing and being replaced by luxury skyscrapers,” Ramond writes. Corner houses are replaced by stick houses where apartments command the highest prices in the world. “Four million Hong Kong dollars for a three hundred square feet apartment, it really proves that Hong Kong is the world’s highest – the living cost… While those buildings gradually rise in the air, I raise my middle finger too.”
In another section of the museum, with images of construction workers in Wan Chai district from 1980, Alfred Ko Chi-keung writes that “the society and urban landscape of Hong Kong are changing too fast, wiping out the collective memories of the public in the blink of an eye”. Photographer Chan Chik, who died in 2004, credited the highrises a role in Hong Kong’s narrative, but said the ordinary people must not be written out of history. But perhaps he struck the right balance when he couched his criticism in admiration for the city’s achievements in uber-modernity: “The blooming prosperity in Hong Kong comes from the daily toil of all Hong Kongers. It does not come down from heaven, as the saying goes, but is built up stone by stone. The magnificent high-rise buildings are the pride of Hong Kongers. I intend my album to be a true record of the changes of Hong Kong in these decades, with the main subject of life and people as its core”. One can only wonder what ‘heavenly breeze’ watercolour master Gao Qifeng, a native of nearby Guangdong province who died in 1933, would have made of it.
In Hong Kong I found people living in different worlds, but hurtling towards the future with little thought for the past because the past was a narrative that had conditioned them to be that way. But some were asking questions why and some were struggling financially in a ruthless real estate and employment market designed by and for the affluent. And yet it was odd to hear that Dubai was a kind of Emerald City in the mind of at least some in Hong Kong. At the ticket counter at the airport when leaving, the assistant saw that I was heading to the UAE and Dubai. “Wow,” she said. “We hear that the streets are paved with gold!” Jeez.