Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Hong Kong and such

It's been a while since my last post so I though I'd try to bring everyone up to speed with the happenings in China.

Last Friday I finally met my official contact here in China, Dr. Yu. A professor with Beijing Normal University, Dr. Yu was in Shenzhen to make a short presentation during the teacher training Mr. Xu and I have been preparing for. Although I was only able to spend a few hours with Dr. Yu in the morning, it was a very reassuring visit and we talked about education and technology in America and China as well as the paper I've been working on. It's Dr. Yu who I will be working under next week when I fly up to Beijing, and he apparently has a different type of project in mind for me to work on when I get there, so I'm very much looking forward to seeing what that trip will have in store for me.

On Saturday I decided to take the weekend to visit Hong Kong. Although it may seem silly to say this, (given that I'm writing it from a desk in China) I'd really forgotten what it was like to travel. Since I've arrived here, I've had quite an easy time getting from place to place and making my way. In both Shanghai and Shenzhen I've always had a companion or two to take me around and translate and give me written directions to anywhere I had to go alone. It has been quite different from my trip across Europe a few years ago, when I was completely alone and inexperienced. Quite frankly, I'd forgotten what a stressful experience it can be to travel. Fortunately, just a weekend trip to Hong Kong brought it all rushing back.
I've always been under the impression that Hong Kong was just one island off the coast of southern China. I knew that it had been taken over by the British after the Opium Wars and was only recently returned to China for governance, but what I didn't realize was that Hong Kong actually consists of several islands. The most famous of these is Hong Kong Island, but the more recent development has been in Kowloon and the New Territories, just North of and across the water. I also completely failed to realize that Hong Kong is still essentially treated as if it were a foreign country by mainland China, a fact that made the ordeal of getting there and back infinitely more difficult.

The first step in my journey was to take a taxi from Shenzhen to the Hong Kong border, a bustling hub of human traffic that would have been nearly innagivable without the assistance of several English speaking ambassadors in yellow sashes. I was directed to a crossing exactly like that at an international airport, had my passport stamped, and continued on into Hong Kong. Curiously, the large rolling luggage bag I had stuffed with dirty clothes to wash at the hostel went unchecked, even by x-ray.

Mr. Xu had told me that I would be able to get another taxi to my hostel once I was in Hong Kong, but through the border I saw only large travel buses lined up. Along the sidewalk I looked for a taxi stand, but found only ticket vendors for the buses. Figuring a bus ride would save me some money anyway, I approached the vendor windows. Each window seemed to correspond to a certain destination within Hong Kong, and out of luck, I happened to see that one bus went to Mong Kok, a market district I had read about when reserving my hostel room. I remembered that the hostel’s close proximity to Mong Kok had been used as a selling point, and asked the vendor at the window about purchasing a ticket.

"Do you take Yuan?" I asked. He shook his head "no".

"Where can I get Hong Kong Dollars?"

The man pointed off to the side, where I had been looking for taxis. I wandered back to that end of the line of buses but saw no bank or ATM. I approached a woman in charge of tearing bus tickets and, with a ten Yuan note in my hand, asked where I could get Hong Kong dollars. She called over a nearby man and explained to him my situation. He gave me a strange look, and then began fishing around in his pocket to pull out some coins.

"No, no" I said and motioned for the man to put his change back. "I need to buy a ticket."

"They can take yuan," the woman replied and she pointed to the vendor windows.

So back to the vendor I went, except his time I just pulled out 100 Yuan and handed it to him. No problem this time.

I settled down in the back of the bus, excited at the thought of a long bus ride through the New Territories and the upper, rural parts of Hong Kong. We had only been driving for about three minutes when the bus suddenly stopped under an overhang. I thought we were maybe at a different station to drop off some passengers, but everyone on the bus stood up and got ready to disembark. I followed suit, retrieving my bag from under the bus and following the crowd into another line at another border crossing. Apparently there is one to leave China, and another one to enter Hong Kong. After a long wait I walked outside the building and found my bus, at last able to enjoy the ride I had anticipated long before.

The bus station in Mong Kok is along Nathan Road, the central thoroughfare for the city that one can follow to the coastline and views of Hong Kong Island. I stumbled around the people-packed sidewalks, luggage in tow, before finally asking a newspaper vendor where I could find the road my hostel was on. Fortunately it was only a couple of blocks away, but the address numbers were inconsistently marked and differed depending on the side of the street. I ended up pulling out a map on the sidewalk (a plea for help in any country) and sure enough, a man asked me a few moments later if I needed assistance. With his guidance I was able to find my hostel, get my room, and drop off four pairs of pants for washing before heading out for dinner.

Walking around Hong Kong for the first time without having to worry about finding my hostel or tripping someone with my bag, I was able to actually notice a few things about the city. The first thing I noticed was that there are fat people in Hong Kong. This was quite surprising, because I had begun to think that people just didn’t get fat in China. In fact, I remembered pondering the lack of obese citizens about a week earlier as I returned from KFC in Shenzhen, and had simply chalked up the phenomenon to the effects of a strict and healthy diet of rice and vegetables. Hong Kong, however, was an awakening.

Just how much of an awakening this was for me can be expressed by the fact that I noticed this difference between Hong Kong and mainland China before I noticed that the traffic in each area travels on opposite sides of the road. Like England, right down to the large double-decker buses everywhere, Hong Kong citizens drive on the left side of the road.

The third thing I noticed about the city was the prevalence of western businesses. While KFC has become quite a staple of my diet since arriving in Shenzhen (being the only alternative to Chinese food I know of), I have not seen here a single McDonalds or Starbucks (to my continual dismay, if to the benefit of my health). Naturally, my first excursion in Hong Kong was in the form of a beeline to the Mickey Dee’s I passed on the way to the hostel. After leaving the restaurant, and still feeling quite fortunate to have noticed it, I began my walk down Nathan Road and spotted another McDonald’s. Then another appeared down an alley, and I started to realize that luck had little to do with my hostel’s close proximity to the restaurant I had patronized. I also began to see several Starbucks and 7-11’s; even a Circle K or two could be found. As I continued south down Nathan Road I noticed one final difference between Hong Kong and the mainland: diversity.

It’s not so much that I’d never noticed that mainland China isn’t particularly diverse (it’s a bit of a hard reality to miss when you don’t see anyone who isn’t Chinese for weeks at a time). It’s more like I had forgotten what it was to live among a diverse community. Before Hong Kong the last black person I saw was at LAX (and this is over a period of nearly a month including four days in a city of 17 million people). There were also plenty of Indian people and middle-easterners of all kinds. This attribute, along with the businesses and fat people, made Hong Kong feel like more of a blend between China and America (with a little Britain because of the traffic, buses, and accents) than just another Chinese city. While I suppose this makes plenty of sense given its long history of British occupation, it was still bewildering at first and there was something about it that I just didn’t like.

It took me a long time to figure out exactly what it was about Hong Kong that made me uneasy, but I finally decided it was the lack of identity in the city. It’s difficult to explain, but there doesn’t seem to be a real feeling of culture in Hong Kong, or at least, not as much culture as there is in Shanghai or Shenzhen. If I had to say there was a culture at all to the city, I’d say it was the culture of business. It seems that everyone and everything in Hong Kong is geared towards business and money. Even the Frommer’s China Guide my grandmother gave me mentioned the lack of culturally interesting sites in Hong Kong. For sightseeing it recommended admiring the tall banks downtown.

There could certainly be other explanations as to why I felt this way about the city: I didn’t have a guide, I was staying at a hostel, the city was in the middle of a shopping festival right. Yet, even as I traveled alone and stayed in the hostels of other cities of the world where shopping was popular, I never felt the void of identity that I felt in Hong Kong.

I think this feeling can be linked to the role that Hong Kong played for China in the communist years and, to a lesser degree, continues to play. Being the isolated outpost for capitalism and business that it was, these attributes naturally became its culture. People visited Hong Kong to do business not to appreciate Chinese history, and so that is how the city has grown to define itself. Plus, with a British government and Chinese population, it only seems logical that an identity crises would eventually emerge. The advantage of such an attitude is that it caters perfectly to travelers, and I found Hong Kong much easier to manage alone than either Shanghai or Shenzhen.

I spent Saturday night wandering around the markets of Kowloon and Tsim Sha Tsui,
and I got up early on Sunday to see Victoria Peak on the island. The Star Ferry is a popular way to cross the water and only costs about 25 cents so I decided that would be the way to go. I found a Starbucks, got a Green Tea frappucino and was pointed to the Peak Tram, a famous and historic mode of transport to what is probably Hong Kong’s most famous tourist destination. Victoria Peak provides stunning views of both sides of Hong Kong Island, and the differences between the two couldn’t be more blatant. There is also a small shopping mall at the top, a few restaurants, and even a Madame Toussad’s Wax Museum. I avoided all of these (except the Mickey Dee’s in the mall before I left) and headed for the Peak Circle Walk, which traverses some of the most unexpected terrain I’ve ever encountered. Beautiful foliage and views, a waterfall, and innumerable butterflies can be seen on the circle walk, and there is no shortage of anxious visitors keen to do so. I ended up taking a bus instead of the tram back down the mountain, enjoying a memorable (if frightening) winding ride through thick tropical forest that inexplicably ends in the center of a metropolis without warning.

Around six I decided to head back to Shenzhen and so returned to my hostel. I hauled my luggage back along the crowded sidewalks to the bus station, purchased a ticket and took a seat in the back. I waited in line to exit Hong Kong and found my bus to take me to the entry border to China before standing in line once again to enter the mainland. When I got to the counter and presented my passport, the clerk seemed to check over my papers a little more intently than anyone else before. After a few seconds, another man appeared to take my passport and direct me to a different booth. Given a chair to sit on, I waited for a few minutes in confusion before the man reappeared.

“Your visa is expired,” he informed me.


“You have only one entry on this visa. You must return to Hong Kong. Follow me.”

I had only received a single-entry visa to enter China, with my one entry being used at the airport in Shanghai when I arrived. Since I left the mainland for Hong Kong, I needed another entry to return to Shenzhen.

One of the first things Mr. Xu did for me when I arrived in Shenzhen was to print out for me an information sheet in Chinese explaining my situation as an intern, the address of the office, and his phone numbers. If I got lost somewhere or needed help, I could then show the paper to a taxi driver or someone on the street to get assistance. Now I pleaded with the border worker to call Mr. Xu, not so much in the hopes of being able to return, but so he would know why I wasn’t going to be at the teacher training on Monday morning. The man took my paper and directed me to a different office and officer on the exiting side of the border. There I waited for another few minutes before the new officer returned my passport and paper and sent me on my way.

“You go back to Hong Kong now,” was all she said, her finger pointing the way.

Back on the Mong Kok bus, back in line to enter Hong Kong, back to the bus station, and back to my hostel I went. Luckily, the only space available for the night was the very room I had reserved for the previous night. I called Mr. Xu myself, talked with the hostel manager about where to go for a new visa and went to bed a little scared, but mostly just befuddled.

My last day in Hong Kong was pretty uneventful. I woke up early to get to the visa office before the lines got too long, but still ended up waiting for nearly an hour. The regular terms for a visa were fifty U.S. dollars and three days, but for an extra thirty dollars I was able to get a new visa in a few hours. I split the time waiting at the hostel and reading in a Starbucks where I indulged in another Green Tea frappucino. I made it back to my room in Shenzhen around 7, and although I had missed Dr. Yu’s speech to the teachers that morning, at least I was going to be able to go with Mr. Xu to the training on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Hope you’re all enjoying your July. I’ll try to write more tomorrow. -joe

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