Dad is getting a suit made in Central as his children gather in Mong Kok’s Sneaker Street. Mothers visit anything from Giordano to Givenchy. Hong Kong is shopping, history, food and closer to Australia than Singapore, and it’s also cooler. Step out off in Macao and walk amongst gamblers or go further to the Portuguese churches.
You’ve marvelled at Hong Kong’s from the airport-to-your-hotel subway. Just passing through? Wave your boarding pass, drop your bags off and they will be shunted through to the next location in a flash. Behind an unmarked door in Central is Rack City pool. Atop a building in Wong tai Sin in Kowloon is basketball. The point is, Hong Kong is a city all over the place. Children do their homework in the same place a druggie will do his stuff a few hours later, but it will be perfectly clean and tidy within another hour. On your way there, any number of street food joints tempt you, serving crispy pancakes or sausage in peanut sauce. You are here to have curry. Curry? In China? Certainly! The Indian civil service brought curry here. Great Taste Great Curry will whip you up something good. They’ve been serving up goods for 50-60 years, so you’re in something time-tested. Or you can have a Japanese style curry, thicker and more mixed than an Indian style. Any variety of soup anywhere: chicken, pork, snake, offal.Or Typhoon Shelter Chicken does a quick crispy wrapped chicken. Another place will specialise in duck and openly advertise that. Take the Star Ferry to pass the time or go up The Peak or go the full 800 metres of the Central-Mid-Levels escalator.
Go out to Kowloon and check out a Walled City Tour. When the British came to Hong Kong, the Cantonese placed a wall around a Chinese fort, so the British couldn’t claim it. The fort went, but the people remained. By 1990, there were 50,000 people living inside 6.4 acres. When it was finally closed in 1994, a police team in full abseiling equipment had to go through every building.
The first British looked at Hong Kong for opium. Developing a taste for it in India, the British realised it was used in China and was a superior product. Some grand colonial buildings have an opioid history. Jardines have mysteriously wiped that part of their history from their official website. It was designed to crash the Chinese market so the East India Company could play catch-up. China sent silk and tea to England, and the British couldn’t send enough whatever to trade back. Britain wanted to slow it down and chose drugs.Britain swamped China with opium. China got angry and an official burnt the opium. Britain declared war in revenge.
This is a rough history. Britain desired an opening into China, but a northern harbour on the mainland at Shanghai would be contested and bring rivals in. A southern entrance would be an ideal spot, easy to get into and hard for an enemy ship to detect. George Macartney probably had Hong Kong in mind when he arrived in Beijing at the head of his titular Embassy in 1753. Indeed, China regulated foreign trade through the Canton Strait, just as the Japanese kept foreigners to a small island in Nagasaki Harbour. Macartney came with express orders to open new ports to British trade, the concession of a ‘small island’ for British use and the relaxation of tariffs on British traders in Guangzhou. Chinese society at the time regarded merchants as low in their Confucian ranking because they were held to only serve themselves and not others. The idea of merchants, even foreigners, asking for more was proof positive they were greedy, and the Emperor refused. These foreigners refused to even kowtow to him. Kowtowing was expected to not just the Emperor but also messengers carrying his edicts. The Portuguese and Dutch merchants had carried it out without worry, but the British refused. The British came with Chinese Catholic priests as interpreters and offered genuflection in place of kowtow, which was accepted by the Emperor Qianlong. The Chinese turned down the British request for Chinese to do similar to a portrait of their own king. China announced to them that they had no product they did not need, and merchantmen would not be required. The Ming Dynasty had destroyed a Dutch fleet at Liaoluo Bay off Taiwan in 1633, and they could do it again.
The Chinese saw the British as coming for tea, silk and other goods with nothing in return. Barbarians with twee clocks and music boxes. The Chinese habit of passing on career from father to son had caused an end to Chinese skill-they knew how to make it but lost the quality and technique, something which the British knew they could handle. Since 1757, the British had found themselves with control of the opium trade in Bengal. They took opium watered down, but the Chinese took it raw and smoked it heavily. The Daoguang Emperor ordered official Lin Zexu to destroy the opium boxes to send a signal. In 1838, more than 20,000 boxes were destroyed in a safe manner.
Go from Queen’s Road West and Hollywood Road and you still find Possession Street. The Union Jack was raised here with a gun ceremony under Commander of the Far East. Probably the first of many unequal treaties handed to China by the West, but again swept under the carpet. By the end of the 19th century, Possession Street was a nest of brothels under authorities moved them on to Shek Tong Tsui. Colonial authorities did not keep a flag here, did not fire a gun here, but through here came Jardene Matheson & Co, Dent & Co, and the American families of Russell, Perkins and Forbes. The British Hongs were to build up their new patch of land just as they had with Singapore. They were Britons in exile, more British than the British, smattering their language with Cantonese and at the same time playing up their Imperialness with gusto. They read China Punch magazine, being a localised version of the British Punch magazine, took rickshaws and took to the Peak. It was hard to fight in a Shanghai-style International Quarter in Hong Kong. The different environment would cause corruption amongst the richer businessmen, typically Americans who swanned in to do business, or else gamble in Macao, but Chinese media has exaggerated the number and the xenophobia. After a good 200 hundred years of Westerners doing the same to Chinese, it’s only fair.
City of Sin
Whilst by the 1950s and 60s the racism factor had surely been played down, certainly at that early period there was always a sense of elite. Hong Kong would always be marketed as the Orient, a place of exotic women and different morals. The East carried this push pre-Hollywood, from The Mikado to Madame Butterfly. Hong Kong was a world of Suzie Wong and Anna May Wongs. James Bond strolls into the Bottoms Up Club in
The Man with the Golden Gun (the only classic-era venture to Hong Kong). The women were cheongsam-clad, smiling beauties. Photographers placed them in cheongsam primarily, the long dress adding to the exotic nature; bikinis and swimsuits were for Western women.
Hong Kong was still intrigue territory, right at the foot of China. From American Chinatowns and seedy East End dens came Fu Manchus and yellow perils, but also Charlie Chans, who quoted pseudo-mystical sounding quotes. At the end of The Chinese Parrot, Chan’s eyes blaze with anger at the racist quotes, and he tells the murderer, ‘Maybe listening to a ‘Chinaman’ is no disgrace.’
Chan will obviously never be seen with a white woman; the Hays Code ensured that races would be kept separate. It would take Hanna-Barbera of all things to give Charlie Chan an Asian-American voice character in Keye Luke, who had already appeared as Chan’s
Number One Son films. The East still remains a place of mystique, of Tiger Mothers and Dragon ladies slowly replacing beautiful women who long for white man’s sex. The myth of perfect Chinese women fulfilling every whim and fetish doesn’t die, replaced by Japanese schoolgirls and whimpering, me-love-you-long-time girls. In Macao, away from the historic churches and ruins, one walks with Stanley Ho and big rollers. The difference can be astounding.
Hong Kong has gone from British education to Chinese education. In 2009, Hong Kong-based publisher MingPao published Kong Kids: The Nightmare for Parents and Teachers. It gave grim reading of Hong Kong kids with low emotional intelligence, weak self-management skills and being overly dependent on others, unable to dress or unwilling to use a bathroom on their own. The book cited the example of Hong Kong students stranded at London Heathrow due to snow suddenly struggling, and their mothers requesting special assistance from China to help them. The children in turn were described as repeatedly complaining, comparing the banquet rooms in which they slept to concentration camps. This goes beyond Little Emperor syndrome. This is an emperor wrapped in cotton wool, and it will inherit Hong Kong. The mother chides the student for the slightest mistake. The student struggles to work with others and this hinders the effectiveness of the company. Dear child, stop working. Go on. Stop for five minutes. Nobody will shout at you for not studying. Go play.
The place turns more towards the mainland with every week. Guards from the Mainland now protect one side of the gates of the high-speed rail to Shenzhen when once this was unthinkable. There is increase in ex-pat lawyers headed for Singapore where there is better chance for an English-speaking lawyer to be hired. Law firms in Hong Kong seem to hire Mandarin-speakers more. Even Tokyo has an increase in ex-pat lawyers. Cinema is closing down, with just 11 cinemas in all Hong Kong according to the BBC. Netflix and TV have overcome cinemas, which is dominated by mainland Chinese films anyway.
Grab a typhoon shelter crab, so-called because it was cooked in typhoon shelters by fishermen waiting out the big storm. Cooked right with chilis and black beans. Things are going to get messy with the food here, naturally. But not all are going to be so bad, and some foods are going to treat you fine. It’s naturally a world away from the Chinese food of Sydney, with the exception of a few suburbs like Chatswood or Eastwood, and you will find new things to enjoy.Ancient Lei Cheng Uk Han Tomb at Kowloon, join the line for the Peak Tram and take in the view, or travel out and eat the freshest seafood on Lamma Island. There are any number of museums, from the National History Museum to the Railway Museum.
Further away is the playpen that is Macao. Great if you’re rich, nothing if you’re poor. The Portuguese maintained it by neglect, and China is only interested in keeping it as a source of gambling income. So, it lies, tourists only day-tripping for food to see the ruins of St Paul’s. But the furthest we travelled, apart from Lamma and Lantau, was easily reachable by MTR followed by bus. The quick, air-conditioned MTR will get you anywhere.
I only felt threatened in Hong Kong by generic masses of people and tailors offering you bespoke suit cards.. On the last day we went to a nice video arcade to get a taste of old school. If you’re going to do The Peak, go early in the day. Oh, and along a single-aisle chemist, up an old cage-style elevator, you arrive at the Koh-i-Noor Indian restaurant for great curry and a pitcher of beer.
The next day, walk that off with a strenuous hike over Lamma Island to enjoy fresh (and I mean freshly) caught seafood. As you walk back to your hotel, grab a beer from the 7-11. Drinking in public is legal.
A Look at the History and Films of the Hong Kong New Wave Film Movement