Sunday, 18 August 2013

Fear and Loathing in Hong Kong

I'm pretty confident, that there isn't anyone in the western world who doesn't feel a tinge of excitement when hearing the name Hong Kong. It summons vivid images of a bustling, oriental jungle of a city with towering skyscrapers, sleek dragon boats and sketchy back alleys that leaves a lot to the imagination. It's exotic and high-tech at the same time; 200 years in the future and 500 in the past...  

For most expats in Guangzhou, the trip to Hong Kong becomes a routine after a while, because of the cumbersome visa system that's in effect in China, namely you have to leave China every 30 days at least for a couple of hours. Since Hong Kong is 2 hours away by train, and is not strictly speaking part of China - it's an SAR (special administrative region) - it's perfect for the job.

As a rule of thumb, nothing is easy or simple in China - in retrospect, it was a naive hope on my part, that buying a train ticket would be an exception, even with the help of my Chinese colleague. The lady at the ticket office told us, that yes, she still had tickets, but she was on her break, so she wouldn't give it to us, we had to come back in two hours. Break or not, she was sitting behind her desk, doing absolutely nothing, all she had to do was bend her chubby fingers around a bloody ticket, and stretch her arm in our direction! But nooo, in China it's a moral issue not to do anything that could be even accidentally mistaken for work while on lunch break. She looked as stubborn as a glacier and she was on home turf, so we accepted defeat, smiled wearily, and went back two hours later to get those miserable tickets.

The train trip was surprisingly uneventful, which in the light of the recent Spanish tragedy, is a pleasant development. Upon arrival however, we were all screened by thermal cameras in order to spot people infected by dengue fever or SARS - a rather uplifting way to welcome the weary traveller. Normally I'm really not paranoid, but at this point I started to see terminal diseases lurking behind every corner.

The train station was in Kowloon, which is the mainland part of Hong Kong; and I had to get to Causeway Bay on Hong Kong island. To do this the easiest, cheapest and by far the most spectacular way is to take the ferry across the harbour, allowing yourself to be blown away by the futuristic Hong Kong skyline that would put Manhattan into tears. I, of course, did not take this way. Rather, following the idiotic logic, that if I take a cab, I'll get to my hostel faster as I wont have to wander around looking for it, and I'm also bound to cross one of those famous far-east Asian multiple kilometre long sea-bridges that I keep hearing about. The only trouble with that was, that Hong Kong doesn't have any of those. Instead the cab took me down into an underground tunnel, letting me see fuck all of the world famous view. Finding the hostel easily didn't exactly work out either, as at the given address I could only find a designer clothes store, and even that was under renovation. Peachy. After 45 minutes of half-crazed search through the nearby streets and alleys, it turned out the hostel was indeed at the right place, but the street signs were all messed up. So, after a bit of hardship, I was finally settled, ready and eager to conquer the city! It was then, that it started raining...

This hellish pattern followed me throughout my whole stay in HK, really making its mark on the trip. This - combined with me trying to cram as many things to do as physically possible into the two short days I had in the city - completely drained me, and I ended up taking almost exclusively useless pictures, which is a pity as Hong Kong really is a place teeming with extraordinary subjects to capture.
Let this be a lesson, never to rush when doing photography - without maintaining a lax attitude and a cool head, you'll end up with nothing worthwhile. Some luck doesn't hurt either, something that I did not have too much this time. But you know what they say about Fortuna - next time she might be more flirtatious with me... One example that hurts particularly bad, is the incident with the Victoria Peak, from where you can behold the most jaw-dropping scene of any urban environment (only in par with Corcovado in Rio de Janeiro). That is, if it happens not to be completely wrapped in a thick cloud canopy that was nowhere to be seen 15 minutes before, when you started your way up the hill. 

Despite the adverse conditions, I did manage to see a large part of the city - which is something similar to what you get if you chuck a hefty chunk of London (double deckers, crap weather) into a big bowl of South-East Asia (overall culture), stir it until you get a hazy cyber-punk vision not unlike a busier scene from Bladerunner and put a cherry of exotic beaches on top. The 150 or so years of British dependency had a major influence on today's Hong Kong - it's architecture, double decker buses and trams, English street names and general atmosphere really resemble London. Even the weather - with its halfhearted drizzles that would go on and off the whole day - was so similar that it was uncanny.
Compared to Guangzhou, which is pretty international by Chinese standards - but never been under western occupation - Hong Kong feels a lot more European; the locals seem to lead a much more western lifestyle, and while I can't say for sure after 2 days, I would guess their value system is also heavily affected by the English. They are a lot more accustomed to white people too - in mainland China people stare and take pictures of me all the time; nothing of that sort in Hong Kong. They are kind and everything, but talking to them you feel, that the sheer fact that you are from the West, won't make you interesting in their eyes... 

All this stands in bold contrast with the not-so-rare patches of traditional China shining through the prevailing western facet, which gives the city its unique flavour. Buddhist temples full of praying worshipers, leafy parks with people practicing kung-fu, dragon boats and sampans floating idly in the harbour and bustling flee-markets selling tons of cheap junk. For me the single most perfect scene to describe Hong Kong was when I was on the double decker tram, going to that bloody Victoria Peak. At some point I heard a strange clapping sound. I turned my head and saw an old lady bashing something against another thing - because of the distance I couldn't make out what. She wasn't alone though, there were a whole lot of them under a multilevel freeway, cars zooming in every dimension. I knew right away that I'm in for a genuine experience, so I jumped off the tram just in time before the doors snapped shut behind me, and walked up to this colourful commotion. The crones turned out to be witches of some sort, and by the looks of it, were telling future and putting on jinxes on demand with the help of various relics, ointments and other tools of the trade. Oddly enough, the costumers were mostly in their early twenties - the generation that I would have thought that already lost all touch with spirituality and ancient superstitions.

I didn't have too much time too look around, as soon enough one of the crones grabbed my arm, pulled me onto a small stool and started to chant some transcendent tune that sounded like a benevolent spell. Then she gave me a few pieces of ornate paper and a pen, for me to write on them. But what do I write? A wish? A name? Who's name? After a brief activity session, she managed to tell me that on one paper I have to write my name, and on the others a male and a female enemy of mine. Well, I'm lucky enough not to have anyone in my life whom I want to curse, but I really wanted to see what's she was about to do, so I made up a random name. First she took the piece with my name, wrapped it up in other layers of colourful papers, lit a few incenses and continued to chant while gesticulating savagely around my head, putting on a charm I suppose. When she was finished she lit the bundle with my name inside and put it in a brazier. Then she took the one with the bad name, wrapped it in green paper and put it on a rock that she had by her feet and proceeded to beat it to shreds with a worn old shoe (finally found out what the clapping sound was that lured me there), not stopping with the chant for a single second. She then took the remains and 'fed' them to a wooden tiger statuette, after which she put them in the belly of a paper tiger, then she burned the whole thing meticulously and chucked the ashes into a bin. A couple of more spells, and it was time for me to cough up 50 HK$, which sort of ruined the spiritual atmosphere, but I can't say I didn't expect something like that as a finishing touch.

But it's not just the Chinese who has old customs and superstitions still alive in Hong Kong - the British  left a rich heritage as well; the most noticeable of them being the 'Noonday Gun'. There's a couple of stories around it, but the one that sounds the most believable to me, is that the British fired an artillery gun every day at noon sharp, thus allowing the crew of every vessel in the harbour to adjust their clocks (back in the day clocks were somewhat less reliable) which was crucial for navigation. In fact, this custom spread quickly in the area, and as far as I know originated from Scotland. At this time and age it doesn't have any real use of course, but they still fire a massive six pounder none the less, if anything to scare the living hell out of the unexpecting tourists. I was one of these tourists.

What really makes Hong Kong part of South East Asia however (apart from a little thing called geography), is the copious amount of random insanity that's bombing the brains of anyone who dares to roam the streets for more than 15 minutes. A prime example of this might be the following video I took in Kowloon one rainy night. There's so many things wrong with it (besides the quality) that I've lost count. A few of the less obvious stars are the middle-aged lady who's really having some kicks, the guy with the down syndrome who - when the rain got heavier - had to hold the umbrella above our oriental Tom Jones, and the innocent little girl dressed in traditional 'qipao' who had to bear witness to this one in a lifetime experience.

[This is where the video will come once I get back to Europe so I can upload it]

Hong Kong, just like London, is not a place that you can comprehend just in two days. It's a high-octane orgy of cultures and ages; a clash of East and West;  herald of a technocratic future and guardian of a past full of wonders.

No comments:

Post a Comment