Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Frad Lab World Tour 2012: Maxing Out the Credit Cards in Hong Kong

Ever since I went to Thailand two years ago, I’ve been obsessing over getting back to Asia. It seems a little trite to say it, but it’s a completely different world, one that exists in parallel to the English-speaking world. It’s very easy, living in the UK or the US or wherever, to assume that what’s important to us is just as important to the rest of the world. In the UK, you don’t need to go so far to find places where that isn’t strictly true, but at the same time, Germany, Italy and France get much of the same stuff as we do.

So my first experience of Asia was a revelation; given that Phuket is right next to Malaysia and Singapore, it was full of Malays, Chinese, Indians, all speaking English to one another but completely unaffected by the world I know. I knew I was going to have to find a way to get back, and see more of it.

My stop in Hong Kong was not part of my original plans, though. At about the start of 2012 I decided this would be the year I finally visited Australia. I made sure to broadcast this fact to as many people as possible – like when setting a fitness goal, I wanted to be accountable to as many people as possible, so I’d actually go through with it.

One of the people I broadcast this plan to was a friend who, as it happened, was about to move to Hong Kong for work. She duly suggested that I make a stop over on my way, and further shamed me into action by saying that my initial tone indicated I wasn’t going to. And to be honest, I’m glad she did.

The first thing to say about Hong Kong – which is to say, the first thing I noticed – was how familiar it looked. Walking around the city that first morning, it felt like I’d crossed the world only to land back in San Francisco; but a San Francisco that consists only of Chinatown. Sparkling new high-rises stand interspersed with slightly more run-down apartment buildings, and the corners are garnished with tropical plants or little street markets. It was alien but familiar at the same time.

The next thing I learned, once I actually started going into the buildings, was that there are malls everywhere in the city. On my first day in the city, because I had around 12 hours before I could meet my friend, I must have visited half a dozen of them, all in an attempt to stay awake or, alternately, to find someplace where I could take a discreet nap.

Hong Kong’s malls shouldn’t have been so surprising to me, but I guess I never really thought about it until then; I’d known since childhood that you could find all kinds of crazy stuff in Hong Kong, from toys to electronics, but somehow I’d never have expected it to look so much like Southern California.

Of course, all the malls make sense when you realize how swelteringly hot it is in Hong Kong; you find yourself sweating profusely the minute you step out of one of the buildings, and the air is about as thick as clam chowder. I was told that Hong Kong’s social life effectively revolves around the malls, and to be honest, I can see why.

That said, the malls are also there for the mainland Chinese, who occupy a strange, kind of derided place in Hong Kongers’ mental landscape. According to my friend, the stores don’t list prices on the sale items because the shoppers from mainland China just sweep everything up.

You sort of get the sense, talking to Hong Kongers, that they regard the rest of China as the great unwashed; when I suggested that this trip was technically my first taste of China, someone else snorted with derision and said, “This isn’t China.”

That may be true; but it’s certainly much more China than anywhere else I’ve been. And my friend pointed out, rebutting her friends’ claims that Hong Kong is incredibly diverse, that 95% of the population is Chinese, and 95% of them are Cantonese.

Official culture also regards Hong Kong as part of China, at least if museums are anything to go by. I was told the terracotta warriors were on display somewhere, though I didn’t manage to find them; but I did get to the Museum of Art, which featured an exhibition on the Qing Qianlong Emperor, in among the usual traditional Chinese art.

Whichever you agree with, in any case, it’s always clear that you’re in Asia. This is most apparent on the giant escalator that takes you from Central, by the harbor, up almost to the Peak. Trundling up or down with the commuters (it goes down in the morning and up for the rest of the day), you’re presented with a shifting panorama of traditional Chinese pharmacies, Korean photographers, Chinese curio shops, and the kinds of open-faced dive bars that look like something out of Patong, in Phuket.

So to sum up, I think I successfully got my Asia fix for the year from my three days in Hong Kong. Just have to figure out when I can get back.