You sit in Heathrow Terminal 3 and study the beleaguered travellers around you. You board the plane early and you watch Virgin Atlantic’s insanely over-produced flight safety video. (It’s entertaining, but what on earth is it going to take to make people pay attention in another ten years?) Your plane doesn’t crash on take-off, which is always a good start. You watch Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which is almost a superior spy flick with something thoughtful to say on 21st century government surveillance, but eventually just turns into another film where a spandex dude beats a lot of people up. You sleep fitfully and wake up painfully dehydrated, cursing the G&T you earlier drank (it was free alcohol!). You watch Locke, an engrossing, masterfully-scripted oddity that consists of nothing more than Tom Hardy in a car, having the worst night of his life through the medium of a rather off-putting Welsh accent. Your plane doesn’t crash on landing, which is always a good end.
And that, in my experience, is what it takes to get to Hong Kong.
As a British citizen, I can enter Hong Kong and stay for six months without a visa. At border control, the immigration officer couldn’t care less why I’m in Hong Kong or how long I’m planning on staying. He doesn’t even check whether I’ve written down the address of where I’m staying on the immigration card – I haven’t, because I don’t know what it is. Entering Hong Kong is as easy as travelling within the EU, and a far cry from the process of applying to enter mainland China.
The difference is part of Hong Kong’s legacy as a colony of the British Empire. Following Britain’s victory in the First Opium War, Hong Kong was occupied by British forces in 1841 and formally colonised by the United Kingdom a year later. It remained a British colony for over 150 years (minus four years during the Second World War when it was occupied by Japan) and was handed over to China in 1997, an act that in many ways brought an end to the Empire.
Part of the agreement to return Hong Kong to China included clauses protecting the Hong Kong way of life for at least 50 years, a policy known as One Country, Two Systems. Under it, Hong Kong has been granted constitutional protection to a significant amount of autonomy, including the right to maintain its capitalist way of life that sets it apart from socialist China. There was hope, perhaps, that in those 50 years, Hong Kong would find a natural affinity with its motherland. Almost 20 years in and it hasn’t really happened yet.
Like a child taken from his parents at birth and returned as an adult, the relationship between Hong Kong and Beijing has not always been easy, currently evidenced by a student boycott taking place ahead of a large planned pro-democracy demonstration. Many in Hong Kong have been hoping for universal suffrage in the 2017 election and, although it looks like that may now come to pass, it does so at a cost. The conditions that Beijing intend to put in place for selecting nominees ensures that the Chinese government will maintain control and means that there is little to celebrate for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
To conflate Hong Kong with China would therefore be a mistake. Indeed, there’s plenty to observe that sets it apart from mainland China, from the ubiquitous Cantonese dialect to the fact that it has its own currency. There are also numerous signs of its British heritage that make life easier for a Brit: the prevalence of spoken and written English is a major one, the 3-pin plug sockets a minor but surprisingly useful one.
I really don’t know anything about life in Hong Kong, to the extent that when I woke in the middle of the night needing a drink of water, I realised I had no idea whether or not I could drink it out of the tap. A quick Google search immersed me in a vicious argument to which there seemed no resolution, so eventually I boiled the kettle and drank hot water in the dark. In the light of day, it turns out there really is no consensus.
What else have I learned from my three days in Hong Kong? Food is not cheap compared to my other experiences of Asia, at least not on Hong Kong Island (the political and economic centre of Hong Kong). In fact it’s not substantially cheaper than London. (But there’s some amazing food. Dear god, there’s some amazing food.) Conversely, public transport is cheap, and Hong Kong is well served by a network of trams, buses, metro lines and ferries, as well as relatively cheap taxis. I’ve acquired an Octopus card, which is like London’s Oyster card, but for life. It gets me on public transport but it also lets me buy groceries at the supermarket and is bizarrely necessary for taking the lift to my friend Dan’s apartment.
When I arrived, I asked Dan what to expect from Hong Kong. He said that I should be prepared for people to be rude. I haven’t really noticed it yet, except in the unsurprising brusqueness of immigration officers and taxi drivers. I asked Dan to speculate about the roots of this perception. He said that Hong Kong citizens have something of an identity crisis. They don’t want to affiliate too strongly with authoritarian mainland China, nor with the frivolous West. They were a British colony for well over a century and now they’re coming to terms with their complex Chinese relationship. Maybe they’re still finding their place in the world.