Don't Cry For Me, Hong Kong
When Robin Low asked me to write a short story about my recent trip to Hong Kong this past April for this web page, I found the task overwhelming. How do you sum up the range of impressions from an ABC (American Born Chinese) who, for the first time at the age of 34, visits the land of her ancestry and ethnic identity? Add to this the drama of the change over of Hong Kong from British to Chinese Rule and you've got epic emotional potential, but Amy Tan, I am not. And I won't do the travelogue (Heck, everyone I know has been to Hong Kong) but focus on the impressions of a first timer.
Hong Kong: So, What's the Big Deal?
Hong Kong is, without a doubt, the most vibrant city I've ever visited. The pace and energy are non-stop. People are focused passionately on the future yet the rules of conduct have ancient roots. I had the good fortune to be sent by my company for business in Asia for the month of April 1997 and spent a third of my time in Hong Kong. I say it was good fortune because through work, I had the opportunity to interact with people, to be part of the action, rather than simply hop on a tourist bus and observe through the glass. And the big deal about Hong Kong is the people.
It's not the manic tourists shopping at Stanley Market or the breathtaking skyline views of Hong Kong Harbor. Contrary to what most of my Chinese friends told me, it's not even the FOOD. The big thing about Hong Kong is that the dynamics of pure capitalism and Chinese culture have spawned a society on overdrive. Everyone is an achiever. And that doesn't mean everyone is driven by success, or by money, or by status (although most of the people I met are). But everyone is driven by some passion. Is this unique? Well, I've visited some places in Nebraska where I don't think any one is planning on going anywhere. Yes, I think this drive amongst an entire population is unique about Hong Kong.
The Primordial Soup
My unsophisticated understanding of the big bang theory is that a whole range of unrelated elements were churned up in the primordial soup and life was born. Well, I think that is Hong Kong.
Through chance and historical circumstance, Hong Kong has everything --ancient traditions, modern technology, masses of people, diverse economics, old wealth, entrepreneurism, food and culture, so much money, greed, nobility, dirt, great beauty -- yet the elements have joined to form a totally unique life. Before I went to Hong Kong, I worried that I'd stick out. To Americans, I look Chinese but to Chinese, I most certainly do not appear Chinese. Hong Kong, however, is truly a cosmopolitan city and that everyone seemed to be from some place else made me feel perfectly comfortable.
Yes, Hong Kong is 98% Chinese, but most are those who came from somewhere else. Everyone speaks Cantonese with their varied accents, be it British, Indian, American, Singaporean, Japanese, mainland Chinese, or other accents. As an ABC who grew up not speaking any Chinese and eating at McDonalds every week, I found I could do exactly the same in Hong Kong (not that I did mind you… well, O.K. I tried McDonalds in Kowloon once, but only to try the Shogun Burger and I ordered in Cantonese). Did I experience rudeness when I asked for directions in English? Of course I did, but I didn't feel singled out because I was American Chinese. I got the impression that they'd be rude to the locals as well and due to some strange logic, that made me feel accepted. In a way, I saw myself as a western extension of Hong Kong -- a combination of old and new, east and west, embodied in a Chinese face.
Tea Time is Over
The Change Over. It sounds like the title of a Stephen King novel but I hope it won't be that scary. So what does the change from British to Communist Chinese rule mean to Hong Kong? There are certainly many scholarly opinions available. None of the Chinese that I met shed a tear for the end of British rule, that's for sure. It's been a unique relationship to say the least.
My husband joined me for a week during my trip to Asia, and we celebrated our last day together before he returned to America by taking high tea at the Peninsula Hotel. High tea is a ritual that my mother remembers fondly from her childhood growing up in Hong Kong and this was one of the things she told us to do while we were there. Sitting among the potted palms and the silver and china, eating our petit fours, we did get a great sense of the past, the civility of an era long gone. But it is definitely the past. The rituals of high tea are as nostalgic as the sanpans in Hong Kong harbor, an enjoyable tourist diversion, with little bearing on real life today. Hong Kong, China is definitely the way of the future, but it is hard to speculate what that future holds. If the essence of Hong Kong is that drive, that focus on the future, born out of a chance mix of historical circumstance and diversity, can that spirit fade or die? I won't cry for Hong Kong. The people of Hong Kong aren't stopping to cry so I certainly won't. We'll all just focus on the future.
Posted: October 1997
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