Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Personal Journey 27: Some Reflections on Hong Kong

I don't want to bore you by writing too much about my impressions of Hong Kong. I know many of you have your own impressions! But it may at least give some context to these more recent blogs if I indicate how I feel about and see things!

We are all getting ready for Chinese New Year at the moment. This is bigger here than Christmas and people take several days off much as many take time off at Christmas and New Year in the UK.

Chinese New Year is relatively late this year, but the shops are now in full swing. It will be the Year of the Pig next year.

I'll post again, all being well, on Thursday.

Personal Journey 27: Some Reflections on Hong Kong

I had thought that I would find the move to Hong Kong itself harder and stranger than I did. In fact, it was much easier than I had expected. I immediately liked Hong Kong and the people. I can completely understand why Chris Patten liked it so much when he was here.

I live in Kowloon Tong, which is a district on the Kowloon peninsula just before you go through the Lion Rock tunnel to get to the New Territories. Paul Theroux wrote a book called Kowloon Tong that describes Hong Kong just after the hand-over to China. Reviewers have not been that positive about it, but I found it describes Hong Kong exactly as it was when I arrived. Thanks, however, to China’s ever-increasing growth and importance, it has changed much since.

The hardest thing I found about Hong Kong when I arrived was coping with the heat. It is hard to describe how hot it feels with the humidity and pollution as well. I had found Bedford hot, and loved the coolness of the north-east of Scotland. In the summer in Hong Kong, the heat really can be energy sapping if you are not used to it and are not able to stay in air-conditioned buildings.

One expat said to me that every summer he decided he had had enough and was going back to the UK, then the winter came, and he decided that it wasn’t so bad after all! It really is lovely here at the moment!

Having endured colonial rule, the local Chinese are well-used to having us foreigners around, and know how to deal with us. There is some justified resentment that the expats expect better contracts than the locals, and over the years have been given them. On the whole everyone manages to cope with one another in public, whatever may be said or felt in private. Travelling in Hong Kong is easy. It is such a small place and the public transport system is second to none. The roads are not fun and congest easily, but the MTR (the underground) more than compensates.

Hong Kong is really built up with population estimates of up to 8 million. I have seen significant changes in my short time here. When I first arrived, I used to say that even if I couldn’t talk my way around Hong Kong, I could read my way. Everything was in Chinese and English – the two official languages. Then one day on the MTR, I realised that the advertising posters were only in Chinese! I asked a friend who worked for the MTR about it. They confirmed that it was a deliberate change in policy to reflect the reality of Hong Kong.

Another change is the degree to which Hong Kong is looking to China. I think this was inevitable, but SARS sealed it. SARS hit us in the Winter of 2002. The first case was that of a doctor from the mainland on the 9th floor of the Metropole Hotel just down the road from where I live. In fact, I had been there for a function just before the story broke! You may remember the pictures of people going around with masks on and schools and public buildings being closed. I thought people had gone mad, but there was genuine widespread panic. Children were shut up indoors for fear of them catching it if they went out. The economy was hit and morale was very low. I think Christians could have reacted a bit more positively. I was actually asked to suspend communion because of the risk of infection.

I saw this as a real test. In the first place, I didn’t see what the risk was. I know of no clergyman who has ever caught anything through the chalice! More importantly, if the Eucharist is as important as we say it is, how can we just cancel it? I took the attitude that if people were that worried, then they should either just receive the wafer or not receive at all. Disappointingly, many just stayed away from Church altogether.

Once SARS was over, the challenge was to get the economy moving again. This coincided with increased tourism from the mainland and an awareness of the importance of China economically. Hong Kong people do not miss opportunities to make money and many professionals now work both in Hong Kong and on the mainland. Certainly local businesses have expanded into China, and Hong Kong looks increasingly towards the mainland. It is ironic that what once was feared is now welcomed and embraced.

Tourism from the mainland has made a big difference. Many in China have become rich overnight and come to Hong Kong with wads of cash to spend. They see Hong Kong as a shoppers’ paradise, which it is if you have the money to spend. Many in Hong Kong are very fashion and image conscious with all the European fashion houses more than represented in the upmarket malls. I always know I am back in Hong Kong by the number of Louis Vuitton handbags - real or imitation - there are around. Both are very popular.

Hong Kong is adapting to this growing link with the mainland. Again, most symbolic was the introduction of announcements in Mandarin alongside Cantonese and English on the MTR. I should explain that in Hong Kong, the Chinese dialect spoken is Cantonese. On the mainland, Mandarin, known here as Putonghua, is the official language. In business and the shops, Mandarin is now essential. The schools are slowly catching up with the reality on the ground. My suspicion is that in 20 years Putonghua will be the main language in Hong Kong as well as on the mainland, but not everyone agrees!

All this may give the impression that Hong Kong is a very international city and in many ways it is. It is a thriving centre for finance and tourism and an economic hub for the region. The airport is easily the best in the world. And communication systems are fast and efficient. But Hong Kong is also very much a Chinese city. This was played down when China was closed to the west and the British ruled, but it was always there. It is something that people like me need to remember for, despite appearances to the contrary, both the culture and attitudes are very different.

Many expatriates instinctively sense this, which is perhaps why they form such a distinctive community here. Furthermore, there is a greater suspicion of us than I think many of us realize. Of course, it is all very polite and friendly on the surface, but beneath there is greater mutual distrust than we care to admit to. I have to say that the way some expatriates can patronize the locals doesn’t help, and it must have been truly awful if you were Chinese under the British, but it certainly creates a challenge when you are a British expatriate Vicar of a Chinese Church!

On a personal level, I have had to cope not only with the stresses and strains of the schools and adapting to a new culture, but also to great upheaval in my own personal life. It would not be fair on the others concerned if I wrote too much about it. It has, though, been an eventful 7 years!

Positively, in 2004 I married Winnie. Winnie is Chinese and grew up in Hong Kong before studying in England both for A-levels in sixth form and then for her first degree in law at university. She followed this with postgraduate study for her Masters degree in law in New York before working as a lawyer on Wall Street. After the birth of her two daughters, she moved back here and qualified as a teacher, teaching in the Church Kindergarten. She and her family were, and are, very involved in Christ Church. Amongst other things, Winnie is the Church organist and her father, the Church treasurer!

We were married here in Hong Kong. I will always be grateful to the congregation for the love, warmth, and support they have showed us. The fact that Winnie speaks all three languages, has a local and international background, grew up at Christ Church, and has such strong links in the community means she is more than able to keep me from going off into an expatriate world of my own!

I have written about how I have had to deal with the crisis in the Schools, - a subject I will return to - of the need to adapt to a different culture, and of changes in my own life. Next I will write more about Christ Church itself.

On Thursday, I will begin by posting a very short history I have written.

No comments: