hong kong, city of contrasts

In Hong Kong, the modern architecture and lifestyle are a contrast to ancient temples and Buddhist traditions. The thousand year-old Banyan trees that mark the way along the city walls. the tropical forests, national parks and virgin beaches that surround the city, offer an alternative to the vibrant life in the contemporary centre. We arrived before midnight and took the airport train to Kowloon. Besides Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territories make up what is known as Hong Kong. Immediately, from the train, we were amazed by the spectacular skyline for which Hong Kong is so famous. On both sides the skinny giants emerged from the ground and thousands of lights rushed beside us through the train windows. This is China as I imagined it, I thought.

We arrived in Kowloon and took a taxi from there to Nathan Road, where the Mirador Mansions and the Chunking Mansions are. Both buildings were built in the 1960′s and served Wong Kar-wai as location for his movie Chunking Express, from where he got the name. We would stay in the Mirador MansionsThis place is a seventeen storey building and consists of five blocks.  About eighty (!!) hostels, many businesses, restaurants and living areas are hidden in its labyrinth of stairs, elevators and floors. It is home and work place for many South Asian migrants, such as Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalese, Bengalis and Bangladeshis. Mixed with all the Chinese that work or live there  as well, it creates a very special vibe in the building that you definitely wont find anywhere else in the world.

A sticky humid heat came towards us. It was still rainy season and although nearly midnight the temperature was around 30 degrees. We were lucky to get a room but it was so tiny that just the two beds would fit in there and while sitting on the toilet you could put your forehead on the door in front of you. This was an introduction into Hong Kong´s daily living situation: People live in very small spaces. But imagine, it is an island that you can see entirely in just three days, that has the most vertical city anywhere and is the most densely populated area in the entire world. Seven million people live here and accommodation is very expensive. Just the Westerners, who have lived here for generations, or those that come to work in the financial sector can afford better housing, with their apartments in Hong Kong Central or Victoria Peak. Hong Kong is situated on the hill steps of Victoria Peak which, during the time of the British colony, was home to many prominent European residents, due to its panoramic views and temperate climate. Today, it is one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions. The Peak Tram brings you up in less than ten minutes and that ride and then walk up the hill provide the best views of the skylines of central Hong Kong and Kowloon and of the harbour too. Standing up there, watching the lights go on one by one as night falls, you can bet that you are looking down on one of the most fabulous skylines on earth and a masterpiece of a city.

We didn´t know how long we would stay in Hong Kong but ended up being there for ten days. There was a special something in the air, an essence that was that this city has a spirit, a soul, that all old cities of the world have, though each is different with its own personality and flavour. And so it does, yet Hong Kong is hard to describe, as this mix of East and West makes it so different. When you look straightforward it could be London, but if you look up you find yourself more likely in New York while the temperature and humid, subtropical climate will remind you of any big city in South America. Hong Kong has a bit of everything.

We wanted to explore the city and get to know it all!  We wanted to see it with the eyes of Wong Kar-Wai, to be his Fallen Angels and spend our days being wild in Hong Kong! But how could we get inside the city’s local scene? It had to be with someone from here, someone that knew it well. We got in touch with people on Couch Surfing and finally met Janice. Janice laughed when I told her that I wanted to see Wong Kar-Wai´s Hong Kong. She said that she loved it as well but that we had come ten years too late.  I guess this is the natural evolution of all big cities nowadays. The culture and art scene moves on and gives way to consumerism and commerce. And this was the part of it that I could not get used to: Everywhere we went we had to go through at least one immense commercial centre. Even to cross the main road you have to go through a big mall, where the shops look like galleries and the people all wear black or grey suits and look like soldiers in uniform.  But as soon as you go deeper inside the city you will find the old Hong Kong, whilst you walk the narrow streets full of food vendors or pass by the night markets. In between huge skyscrapers you can see old, small buildings and will smell the scent of incense from the temples around about. You pass by restaurants where people gather together on small tables, eating the famous soups with dumplings, fried tendons, fried chicken skin, cooked liver, and more. Here as well, you will find many old, hard working people. The Chinese believe that children should take care of their parents  because, as in many other parts of Asia, if not all, pensions do not exist. This is the reason why you will see many elderly people still working hard in markets, on food stalls, repairing shoes or electronics or doing other manual work in the street. You may be in one of the world´s leading financial centres, but the old people, that have worked their entire life and were here long before it all became a big clash of tall buildings and people running after the newest trends, don’t get a penny. I guess that is another of Hong Kong’s big contrasts.

A man, he must have been in his late 60´s, who was selling postcards and old magazines at an antique market, told me things would be different soon, as the powerful new owner of Hong Kong was taking over fast. Hong Kong became a colony of the British Empire after the first Opium War (1839-1842) and remained so until 1997. Now it is a city state and Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China. But still it keeps its autonomy, with mainland China and Hong Kong having different political systems. I wondered, what would happen to these people, that are used to free internet, information, education, open mindedness, if the principle under which it all runs, ¨One country, two systems¨ became  ¨One country, one system¨? Would Hong Kong one day be brainwashed and manipulated by its huge neighbour? Or will it all remain the same, but just become more and more expensive? Maybe one day it will become home to millions of rich Chinese people, that will come here to retire amongst the wealthy foreigners,  who enjoy the wonderful climate, the beaches, the free trade and easy western life, in an exotic place overlooking the South China Sea? Who knows?

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