After almost four months of living in Beijing, we took a break from the tight controls of China’s Central Government and headed for a long weekend to Hong Kong, a “special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China.” Since Hong Kong was returned to China from the United Kingdom in 1997, the Central Government has wisely made changes slowly. As a result, we noticed right after we landed at the airport that it felt like a free and open society.
While in mainland China, if you want to access Facebook, Youtube, the NY Times, WordPress, etc., you’ll get a message such as: “Oops! Google Chrome could not connect to global.nytimes.com.” Only by using a VPN, which allows your computer to operate from a server outside of China, can you access these sites (this is why my Facebook postings always have me located in Charlottesville, even when I’m clearly in China!). (It should be noted that VPN’s really slow down internet service and ours is already particularly slow without the VPN!) In contrast, Hong Kong offers free WiFi service in the airport and on all buses and trains and you can check any of these sites. When we first arrived, I found myself gaping as I walked past a woman checking her Facebook account in the MTR (subway/rail) station. I suddenly felt so fortunate to have easy access, if only for a few days, to virtually whatever I wanted to check on the internet. It made me wonder what it might feel like for a mainland Chinese person to go to the U.S. or another democratic country for the first time.
A recent NY Times article discussed mainland Chinese traveling to Hong Kong for access to books about China from more perspectives than just the official one and about dirt on Chinese leaders. Even in the airport, bookstores prominently display such books that would never be available for sale on the mainland. Is all of this free press for real?! While it looks on the surface that it is, a friend who grew up and lives in Hong Kong assured me that the Central Government has been slowly, but methodically, making changes that has disturbed Hong Kong journalists (and, subsequently, many citizens), who are no longer allowed to be critical of the Central Government. Incidentally, we did pass one Falun Gong gathering that criticized the Communist Party, but we only saw a couple of practitioners there and when we returned later we found only the sign remaining.
While we relaxed into the sense of openness, we also had an opportunity to observe the effectiveness of the Hong Kong government’s public health messages and the implementation of various public health procedures. Since the 2003 SARS outbreak and the resultant devastating financial losses, there has been a lot of concern about another epidemic flu outbreak in crowded Hong Kong. During SARS public health procedures were put in place, but after the recent H7N9 concern, there have been great efforts to stem any further development of this version of the bird flu. For example, we stayed with our friends in their 25th floor apartment and were surprised to see plastic covering the elevator buttons. They told us that although such coverings are regularly removed and replaced, in recent months all elevators are required to have this done every two hours! Similarly, in schools and public play areas, as soon as a child puts a toy down, it’s picked up and sanitized. Hand sanitizer is readily available in many public places. Our friends also told us that people with colds and coughs will wear masks in public, woe to those who don’t, as they will be stared at, moved away from, and masks will be donned by those nearby because of them. As an example, our friend, Miguel, teaches at the University of Hong Kong and paired his students off for a classroom exercise. When he visited a particular pair to see how they were doing, he noticed that one student was having a lot of difficulty because he was attempting to not breathe, because the other student had a cough! We also noticed public messages in many places, particularly in the MTR, to “spit into a handkerchief and throw it away, but don’t spit on the ground.” I sure wish people in Beijing got this memo!
The most amusing manifestation of public health and cleanliness concerns that we saw, though, was at Hong Kong Disneyland. Manu and the kids each got a hotdog that came with a small packet that Manu found was a set of transparent plastic gloves! While they only tried them on and posed for a picture, later on I walked by a family of eight who were eating their meal in all seriousness while wearing the gloves.
Our visit to Hong Kong was only four days long, so we cannot claim much depth of understanding of the busy, harbor-driven region beyond the observations that struck us and what we learned from our friends. Still, it was enough to give us a taste of life in Hong Kong with its NYC busyness in some areas and sleepy tropical island feel in others (the region of Hong Kong is made up of 263 islands and a peninsula, with most of the business occurring on Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula). The highlights of our trip included:
1. A day at Clearwater Bay Second Beach in the New Territories region of Kowloon, followed by dinner in the fisherman’s town of Sai Kung, where we saw the most diverse fresh seafood for sale that I’ve ever seen in my life (I’m really not exaggerating!). As we walked around after dinner in the humid tropical heat, we stumbled upon a free Hong Kong opera performance;
2. A walk and tram ride through Central, the heart of Hong Kong’s financial district, followed by a ferry across Hong Kong Harbor to Kowloon, where we ended up docking right next to the giant rubber ducky that is a current floating art installation! After walking through the Canton Road luxury shopping district, we spent the later afternoon decadently drinking a bottle of champagne at the Ozone Bar, the highest bar in the world, owned by Ritz-Carlton, which is on the 118th floor of the 100 Building. As you might guess, the views were amazing! (I’ve never been in a bathroom with such a spectacular vista!). We ended our day watching the daily 8 pm laser light show on the harbor;
3. A trip to Lantau Island, on which both the airport and Disneyland are located, where we rode a “crystal” cable car (even the floor is made of glass) to the top of a cloud-entrenched mountain on which is perched a giant Buddha (“Bu-ah,” as Isabel says). We wrapped up the day with dinner with friends at Under Bridge Spicy Crab on Hong Kong Island;
4. An unintended trip to Hong Kong Disneyland. Since we’ve been fortunate to have taken the kids several times to Florida’s Disney World, we thought we’d skip going in HK. However, after finding that it was almost half the price of Disney World and that it’s much smaller and, hence, manageable to do in a day before catching an evening flight back to Beijing (it’s virtually next to the airport), we took the plunge and are glad we did!
We’re so thankful for our friends, Miguel, Gema, and Hugo, who shared their Hong Kong-sized apartment with us and organized full days of fun, kid-oriented sightseeing! We got enough of a taste that we want to come back.