Below is the journal I kept during the year that I was a Fulbright scholar teaching history at the Hong Kong Baptist University. In addition to my teaching duties I was part of a team of US scholars that advised Hong Kong universities on the development of their general education curricula in preparation for the transition to a four-year undergraduate program. I arrived in Hong Kong on the evening of August 28th, 2009 and departed August 12th, 2010. Since this is no longer an active blog, the entries have been rearranged in descending order from oldest to most recent. 

Evening in Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong

Arrival and First Days

September 9, 2009 — I arrived in Hong Kong on a direct flight from Newark, NJ on the evening of August 28th and have been here for about a week and a half. My first impression of Hong Kong is that it is one of the most extraordinary places I have ever seen. Even before I touched ground I was able to get a good sense of how stunning this city really is. My flight came in southward over mainland China and banked eastward just past Macau to circle the city before landing at the international airport. If I had come here a few years earlier I would have had the thrill of buzzing the apartment buildings of Kowloon in a harrowing landing at the old Kai Tak Airport right in the middle of the city. Though deprived of that opportunity, I did manage to get a full view of the city when the plane made a sharp turn for a westward landing right over the harbor. We landed at dusk so I was able to see the city lit up while there was still enough daylight to notice the contours of the buildings and mountains. What I saw is one of the most breathtaking skylines in the world (not an easy thing for a New Yorker to admit). It is just starting to sink in that I will be living here for nearly a year.

I am spending the year on a Fulbright scholarship specially designed to help Hong Kong universities make the transition from a three-year undergraduate curriculum to a four-year one. This change stems from a government directive to standardize degree requirements at all Chinese universities. Now that a decade has passed since the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, the universities here have been given a deadline of 2012 to complete this transition. Since Hong Kong had such a smooth transfer of government in 1997 I suppose the bar has been set high for the educational system to do the same. The expansion of the additional year will focus largely on enhancing general education as a component of university curricula, many of which are still mainly pre-professional. My role in all this is to serve as one of the members of the Fulbright team of professors from US universities and colleges who are here to advise the HK institutions about developing their general education programs. My colleagues and I were chosen because of our experience in developing and maintaining these sorts of programs at our home institutions. We are each assigned to a different university but will be working together closely and visiting all the universities together to consult with them about their programs. In addition, we will each teach a course or two in our specialty at our host institutions. It is an ambitious undertaking in which we are involved and will undoubtedly require a lot of hard work. Yet, for me at least, this is the opportunity of a lifetime, both professionally and personally. I had always hoped to be able to visit Hong Kong and East Asia and now I will be able to live and work here for an entire year at an exciting time in the expansion of higher education in the city.

For the next twelve months I will live in an area called Sha Tin in an apartment provided by my host institution, the Hong Kong Baptist University. The apartment is in an eight-story building (a dwarf by HK standards) located at the end of Sui Wo Road which winds to the top a hill that is higher than most of the surrounding high-rise apartment buildings. From my apartment there is a commanding view of the entire Sha Tin valley (see below). My building is in an industrial neighborhood called Fo Tan that is part of the larger Sha Tin area located in the New Territories on the northern side of a mountain ridge that separates it from Kowloon where I work. Apart from its wholesalers and auto repair shops, Fo Tan is gaining a reputation as an artist colony (cheap rents for studio space) and definitely merits a closer examination once I get settled and get my bearings.

During the weekend I had the chance to explore my neighborhood and get to meet some of the other residents in my building. There is an outdoor swimming pool in the complex where many of the tenants and their families congregate on warm days. It has been incredibly hot and humid since I arrived and I really wonder how anything got done in this city before the invention of air conditioners. Indeed, the weather has been the hardest adjustment for me since I arrived. It is exceedingly uncomfortable to walk outside, especially when dressed for work. During the day I find myself moving back and forth between steaming heat and humidity outside and cold, dry air-conditioning indoors. I am told that the weather will slowly start to improve as the autumn progresses and, in fact, this weekend was noticeably better than the previous one. The weather this weekend was just bearable enough that I was able to walk around each day for a few hours and get the lay of Fo Tan and Sha Tin. After several meandering trips I managed to find a supermarket, taxi stand, dry cleaner, post office, and a Catholic parish with an English mass on Sunday. Gradually I am starting to feel settled in my new home.

View of the Sha Tin Valley from 22 Sui Wo Road, 9 September 2009

Happy Birthday, China

October 9, 2009 — It has been exactly one month since my last entry and nearly six weeks since I first arrived in Hong Kong. By now my daily life has settled into something of a routine: morning commute to the university on the Eastern Line MTR followed by a day of meetings, lectures, and admin work at HKBU or with my Fulbright colleagues at other universities. In the evening I usually go out to dinner with new friends or pick up some take-away on the way home (I’ve cooked only one meal in my apartment since I arrived). The ubiquity and ready availability of amazingly good food—whether at five-star restaurants or streetside noodle shops—is huge disincentive to cooking at home. I have really grown to appreciate the variety and subtlety of Cantonese cuisine and will now probably never again be satisfied with Chinese food in the US. But the most remarkable part of my first few weeks in Hong Kong is the ease with which I have settled in here and begun to feel at home. In this city I have become accustomed to levels of convenience, service, and efficiency unlike any I have experienced elsewhere and which will surely be hard to leave behind when that time comes.

One new item that I can add to my list of life experiences is taking off in an airplane in the middle of a typhoon. On September 14th I was scheduled to fly out to London for five days to attend a conference. Initially I was worried that my flight would be canceled because the news that afternoon was that the Hong Kong Observatory—the city’s meteorology service—had issued a “signal 8” typhoon warning (whatever that is). This was for “Typhoon Koppu” which was due to make landfall that evening. As the afternoon progressed the sky darkened and the wind picked up, but all the trains and buses were still running and when I got to the airport the flights were still departing as scheduled. So I checked in and waited. By early evening the rain had arrived and it was almost impossible to see out the window of the terminal as sheets of water slammed against it. By now I was certain the departure would be delayed but the plane boarded on time and, despite the fact that we could feel the wind shaking the airframe, we pulled away from the gate. As we taxied to the runway the only thing I could see though the window were the strobe lights of the other planes lined up to take off. When we lifted off, the plane was tossed around quite a bit and there was a lot of lightning but once we got above the storm it was a smooth and quiet flight. It was amazing to think that the HK airport was still open and functioning through it all. In the US a similar storm would have closed all the airports and created major delays. I still haven’t concluded whether or not this is a good thing.

Since arriving in HK, I’ve been through a few typhoons and the people seem to handle them without too much fuss. The standard drill is to go home early from work or school, close up all windows and bring in flower pots, garden furniture and other outdoor belongings, wait out the storm, and then go outside the next day, clean up the mess, and get back to work. I suppose it’s the same attitude that residents of Buffalo or Minneapolis have toward snow storms: a fact of life that must be dealt with and not something that should prevent people from going about their daily lives. To be honest, I’ve come to appreciate the typhoons since they tend to blow out several days worth of hot, humid and polluted air and the weather is always nice afterwards, if only briefly. Maybe I just haven’t seen a bad typhoon, and will change my mind when I do.

Apart from the London trip last month I have been here the entire time. My office is at HKBU but my work often takes me to other universities around town. I really enjoy that my job allows me to move around and become familiar with different parts of the city. For such a relatively small area, Hong Kong has a striking diversity of environments. These range from the unmatched urban density and vertical growth in the north side of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon on the one hand and the mountains, lush forests and rural and seaside villages of the New Territories on the other. During the last few weekends I have managed to see quite a bit. I’ve explored the markets and alleyways in Mong Kok and Tsim Sha Tsui, hiked along the mountainsides of Shek Kong, dived around the islands off Sai Kung, and visited the monastery and giant Buddha in Ngong Ping on Lantau Island. Every day is a new discovery and most of the places I encounter will require many return visits for me to appreciate them fully. Even better is that in the intervening month since my last entry, the weather has improved considerably. It is actually pleasant to be outside nowadays, especially in the evening.

Last Thursday was the sixtieth anniversary of establishment of the People’s Republic of China. The occasion was marked by a massive parade and military review in Beijing and speeches by Hu Jintao and other Chinese leaders. The preparations for the parade left nothing to chance. Security was extremely tight and the international airport was shut down for three hours during the parade. Tens of thousands of soldiers and dancers practiced their routines for months in anticipation of the big day and the Chinese air force even seeded the clouds with silver nitrate to prevent rain storms. Yet the people of Beijing were discouraged from coming to the parade and were told to remain home and watch the event on television rather than on the street. In fact, the whole event seemed to have a made-for-TV feel to it. Sinologists in the West debated the true intent of the display. Some said the overt militarism was a sign to the world that an ascendant China is poised to embark on a more aggressive foreign policy while others argued that the display was meant mainly to bolster pride and a sense of unity among China’s diverse population.

In Hong Kong the anniversary was met with mixed reactions from the local people. Since the handover in 1997, Hong Kong has been a “special administrative region” within the People’s Republic. The British may be gone, but Hong Kong still retains its own currency, legislature, an independent judiciary, and a relatively free press. “One country, two systems” is the mantra one constantly hears, yet it is not clear to what degree Hong Kong people associate themselves with the mainland—at least politically. Like most things in this city, the answer to this question probably depends on the individual being asked. However the general trend seems to be a carefully cultivated sense of indifference to displays of PRC patriotism. In Hong Kong on Thursday there were a few official flag raising ceremonies but nothing compared to the meticulously choreographed pomp and pageantry in Beijing. The big event here was a spectacular fireworks display over Victoria Harbor—which I was fortunate enough to see from a 22nd floor apartment of a friend of a friend (see below). The celebration certainly highlighted China’s rising power and its new self-confidence, but it also underscored the still ambivalent relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland.

Fireworks display over Victoria Harbor for PRC 60th Anniversary Celebration
1 October 2009

Life in the Fragrant Harbor

October 28, 2009 — Before Britain’s victory in 1842 in the First Opium War, the name “Hong Kong” (香港 “Fragrant Harbor” in Cantonese) was how locals referred to the inlet between what today are known as Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula. Until that point, the place had been a sparsely populated string of fishing villages along the coast and a few farming communities further inland. Some of these walled villages in the New Territories, like the ones in Fanling (see below), are still preserved as heritage sites. In its earliest days, Hong Kong was a geographically isolated and unimportant area compared to the nearby Chinese port of Canton (today Guangzhou) and the tiny island of Macau on the Western end of the mouth of the Pearl River Delta, which by then had been occupied by the Portuguese for almost three centuries. The undeveloped island on the eastern end of the delta was relatively insignificant and ceding it to the British seemed a good way for the Chinese to keep those troublesome, drug-pushing gweilo (“foreigners,” also “devils”) at a safe distance. From then onward the British began to use the name Hong Kong to describe the entire island that was now theirs. In 1898 the British gained a lease from China over Kowloon and the New Territories, thereby substantially increasing the size of their colony to 407 sq. miles. In 1997 the Hong Kong territory (no longer a “colony” in the truest sense) was handed over by Britain to the People’s Republic of China—or “reunified with the motherland” as the mainland Chinese insist. Today, over seven million people live in Hong Kong, making it one of the most densely populated places in the world. It would have been unimaginable a mere century and a half ago that the muddy banks of the Fragrant Harbor would become the foundation of one of the world’s greatest cities and a center of the international economy. Even now, Hong Kong never ceases to amaze.

Monday was Chung Yeung (重陽節), a festival held on the ninth day of the ninth month in the Chinese lunar calendar. The “double nine,” as it’s sometimes called, is an inauspicious date (too much yang) and many Chinese try to counteract it by engaging in such auspicious and worthy activities as climbing mountains, drinking chrysanthemum wine, or visiting the graves of ancestors to pay their respects. This weekend Hong Kong’s cemeteries were packed with the living as well as the dead, as thousands of families came to burn incense sticks and make other offerings to demonstrate their filial piety. There is no parallel in western culture, though it reminded me a lot of el Dia de los Muertos in Mexico when people leave candy skulls on the graves of their departed family members. It is also similar to the Tet festival in Vietnam that is celebrated during the lunar New Year. Many of Hong Kong’s cemeteries and mausoleums are located on the sides and tops of mountains and so the limited number of roads and paths were jammed with people. Because of the crowds the police closed off many of the roads to vehicle traffic, but this prompted complaints from the elderly and disabled who claimed that they could not walk such long and steep routes to visit their dead relatives. Maybe next year there will be shuttle service.

One of the more striking aspects of life here is the incredible attention given to public health. All day long one sees people going about their daily routines wearing surgical masks. These include waiters, chefs, librarians, receptionists, preschoolers, and hundreds of commuters on the buses and MTR. Public handwash stations are everywhere, not just at hospitals and clinics. Elevator buttons have plastic covers accompanied by signs declaring that these are wiped clean every two hours. Indeed, Hong Kong is regularly sanitized by an army of cleaners—many from the mainland—equipped with towels and disinfectant spray. Their ubiquitous presence ensures that most public spaces are spotless and, if possible, germ-free. But the health campaign relies on propaganda as much as Purel. Commercial time devoted to public health announcements is as common on Hong Kong TV as ads for Viagra and Cialis are on American TV. Viewers here are constantly reminded to keep sick children home from school, cover their faces while sneezing or coughing in public, and keeping their vaccinations up to date. Much of this no doubt owes to the worldwide onset of the H1N1 flu, but residents I’ve spoken to say that Hong Kong’s obsessive cleanliness really began in 2003 when the SARS epidemic broke out. That was one of the worst crises ever to hit the city and it really spooked the otherwise sanguine people here. The current H1N1 pandemic, by comparison, seems like it is being met with calm vigilance and the confident reinstatement of practices that were first employed to meet a much deadlier threat. For the record, I am being a good citizen and carrying a bottle of hand sanitizer in my backpack at all times and using it regularly. A practice that in other countries would mark me as a squeamish and pampered tourist now serves to help me assimilate with the locals. When in Rome…

The other health concern, unfortunately, is one about which nothing can be done: namely, the air quality. Hong Kong air is highly polluted. While much of this comes from local vehicle traffic, overall the city is energy efficient and relatively “green” for such a densely populated place. Most people use mass transit and conserve electricity whenever possible (air conditioners in the summer months excepted). The real problem is across the border. The province of Guangdong is one of the most industrially developed in China, which nowadays would make it one of the most developed in the world. Hundreds of factories and power plants along the Pearl River Delta spew a constant stream of smoke into the air which drifts southward over Hong Kong. The result is a haze that lingers over the city and never goes away except briefly after a typhoon (though it is not nearly as bad as Delhi or Mexico City). In my time here, I’ve noticed that one rarely sees a blue sky even when it is sunny all day. The best one gets is a washed out bluish gray or hazy white. Many of my photos from vantage points like Victoria Peak or the cable car on Lantau Island have a bleached look to them and colors that seemed vivid at the time come out dull and lackluster. Longtime residents say this recent development can be blamed entirely on China’s meteoric rise as an economic and industrial power. They insist that as recently as fifteen years ago Hong Kong residents would see the end of the typhoon season usher in several months of sunny weather with cobalt cloudless skies. While the Chinese government is beginning to introduce pollution reduction measures, it will be a long time before the bright blue skies of Hong Kong’s autumn and spring return, if ever. Meanwhile pollution levels continue to break records. Last Sunday was the highest ever recorded (174 on whatever scale they use) and people were warned to stay indoors. Indeed it is a cruel irony that the Fragrant Harbor of all places should suffer from such foul air. It would be like one of the most polluted and industrial regions of the US being named the “Garden State.” Can you imagine?

A walled village on the Lung Yeuk Tai Heritage Trail in Fanling, New Territories
17 October 2009

Home, Sweet Home

November 6, 2009 — On July 1, 1997 at midnight, Hong Kong was handed over by Great Britain to the People’s Republic of China. After 155 years of British colonial rule, the Fragrant Harbor was once again formally part of China. The handover ceremony was presided over by the Prince of Wales and Chris Patten, the last governor of the territory, and attended by Jiang Zemin, the Premier of China, and Tony Blair, the newly elected British prime minister. Amid a monsoon downpour a British military band played “Last Post” (complete with bagpipe solo) as the Union Jack and Hong Kong colonial flag were slowly lowered. Moments later, a Chinese regimental band struck an especially spirited version of the PRC anthem as their national flag was hoisted. Alongside it was the new flag of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, an attractive design with a white bauhinia (Hong Kong orchid) set in the center of a field of bright red. The rain could not dampen the spectacular fireworks display over Victoria Harbor that began shortly after midnight, yet it was hard to describe this occasion entirely as a celebration. The handover, or “reunification” as the Chinese insisted, was met with mixed feelings by Hong Kong’s residents. While few of them embraced the elegies and nostalgia of the misty-eyed British community (many of whom had spent their entire lives in Hong Kong), they also viewed the territory’s incorporation into communist China with tremendous anxiety. It was a mere eight years after the Tiananmen Square uprising and at the height of Beijing’s hostility toward Taiwan, its “renegade” province. While Deng Xiaoping had earlier promised that Hong Kong’s autonomy and special role as a gateway to the West and capitalist powerhouse would be respected, nobody knew for certain what would happen when the British departed. Once the handover ceremony was done, the British delegation boarded the royal yacht HMS Britannia and sailed away at the same time that trucks and buses filled with soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) crossed into the territory from the now unguarded border post at Shenzhen. When the sun rose the next morning, Hong Kong appeared no different than the day before, but it was the dawn of a new era.

I have arrived in Hong Kong over twelve years after the handover and so I can offer no personal “before and after” observations about the territory. As an historian of the British Empire, I must say that I regret I never had the chance to visit Hong Kong in its former incarnation as a remnant of empire. Hong Kong has always been a puzzle both to those who ruled it and those who made it work. When the British took over in 1842, there were only a few thousand residents in the territory. Most of the seven million people who live here today are Cantonese-speaking Chinese whose ancestors migrated here from Guangdong and other regions of China once Hong Kong was already under British rule. They made a conscious choice to come to a part of China ruled by the gweilo. For their part, the British in Hong Kong administered (rather than ruled) a chaotic and prosperous mix of British, Chinese, and Indian entrepreneurs. The British—at first, more often Scots than English—governed with the usual mix of social insularity, military heavy-handedness, and attitudes of racial and cultural superiority. Yet they also eradicated piracy in the region, initiated an ambitious series of public works projects, and established a legal system based on English common law in which contracts were enforceable. All of this was good for business and Hong Kong soon became a regional commercial center to rival the Straits Settlement (now Singapore) and the great treaty ports of Shanghai, Tsingtao, Tientsin, and the other British outpost at Wei Hai Wei. Hong Kong thrived and its freedom (economic, if not political) attracted thousands of Chinese immigrants as well as the Sikhs, Gurkhas, and Irishmen who guarded the territory and the Parsis and Iraqi Jews who helped found its financial system. It is hard to believe that such titans of international finance as HSBC (the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation) and Hang Seng started out as small mom-and-pop operations in a tropical backwater, but that is how it happened.

To their credit, the British had the good sense not to try to fix something that wasn’t broken. The mystery of Hong Kong’s success continues to be debated, but as far back as the nineteenth century the British adopted a colonial policy of economic non-interference—perhaps a more successful version of the “benign neglect” shown toward the American colonies in the eighteenth century. The Chinese in Hong Kong chafed at their racial exclusion from high office but enjoyed the protection of a relatively honest and impartial legal system. By the late twentieth century, most of the racial prohibitions were gone and Chinese civil servants served at the highest levels of the Hong Kong government. On average, its residents enjoyed a higher standard of living and fewer economic regulations than people in Britain, so Hong Kong could not be considered a colony in any real sense. More importantly, throughout its history Hong Kong’s British keepers had mercifully shielded the territory from the worst horrors of modern China’s tumultuous and tragic history: among these the Taiping Rebellion, the warlordism of the 1920s and 30s, the civil war between the Kuomintang and the communists, the famines of the Great Leap Forward, and the insanity of the Cultural Revolution. The exception, of course, was Japanese occupation during the Second World War (more about that later). Yet toward the end of the twentieth century things in China were improving—somewhat. While the Beijing leadership in the 1980s and 90s seemed to be shedding its atavistic hatred for capitalism, it showed no signs of tempering its centralizing and authoritarian style of government anytime soon. The certainty and stability of British non-interference, such as it was, now functioned on borrowed time (perhaps it always had). Even as the countdown toward 1997 was well underway, nobody could say for certain what would come after.

The flow of capital and people out of Hong Kong in the run-up to 1997 never approached anything like a panic, but it was not insubstantial either. Hundreds of millions of dollars were transferred into banks in Europe, North America, Taiwan, and Singapore while thousands of Hong Kong’s wealthier residents bought property in New York, San Francisco, London, Vancouver, Sydney and Taipei. Some of them hedged their bets even further by taking advantage of their status as British subjects (while it lasted) to attain British citizenship. Ultimately, however, their worst fears did not come to pass. Hong Kong today is more vibrant, prosperous and stable than at any point in its history and its people continue to enjoy a substantial (though incomplete) degree of political and economic freedom. Officials in Beijing, like their British predecessors, seem eager to avoid killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. In fact, as far back as the establishment of the PRC in 1949, the communists saw the benefit of Hong Kong as a link to the West, especially during the days when Red China was otherwise virtually cut off from the western world. Perhaps more importantly, they want to reassure Taiwan that reunification with China can occur peacefully, amicably, and with the retention of substantial political and economic autonomy and historical distinctiveness. Taiwan has always meant more to Beijing than Hong Kong and thus a deft handling of Britain’s former colony may set the stage for a more important reunification sometime in the not-to-distant future. “One country, two systems” might perhaps become “one country, three systems.”

And so Hong Kong continues to thrive. Mainlanders, western expats, and immigrants from other parts of Asia are arriving in record numbers. Some, like me, are transients, but many are here to stay and all of us need a place to live in a city where the population density is greater than almost anywhere else in the world. In overall terms of people per square mile, Hong Kong would seem to be less dense than cities like Calcutta, New York, or Sao Paolo, but one must keep in mind that almost ninety percent of Hong Kong’s dry surface is unoccupied. Hong Kong is no Gotham, nor is it an endless grid of urban and suburban sprawl stretching to the horizon. A satellite image of the territory reveals that most of the land is mountainous green and a scattering of islands; amid this green, patches of gray show the dense urbanized clusters. A similar image of New York City, by contrast, shows mostly the gray of concrete, buildings, and asphalt dotted with a few green squares and strips where the city parks are located. Likewise the tremendous sprawl that is characteristic of Los Angeles, Delhi, or Mexico City is a geographic impossibility in Hong Kong. To expand, Hong Kong has no choice but to grow upward rather than out, yet even this can only partially offset the intense demand for affordable housing. The key term is “affordable.” Not everyone here is wealthy and the legions of cleaners, maintenance workers, restaurant staff, taxi drivers, municipal employees, nurses, shopkeepers, and their families also need places to live. While this situation is similar to other notoriously expensive cities like London and New York, in Hong Kong it is even worse. The working and middle classes are left scrambling while the super-rich pay exorbitant sums for the best accommodations. Last week an anonymous purchaser paid the equivalent of US $56 million for an apartment in a new ultra luxury tower on Conduit Road in HK Island (I’m guessing it comes with a parking space, but you never know). Real estate speculation here is especially reckless and the oscillating waves of boom and bust are a well-established pattern. The plummeting value of property in Hong Kong over the last two years would make overheated markets in the US like San Diego and South Florida pale by comparison. Many property owners here are heavily mortgaged and are hoping just to recoup their lost value. Lately the government and private sector are both warning that Hong Kong’s emergence from the worldwide recession has already started to inflate the next real estate bubble.

For decades the government has taken an active role in ensuring adequate housing for a growing population on the territory’s limited space. At the end of the Second World War thousands of Chinese from the mainland crossed over into Hong Kong and these numbers increased even further with the communist victory in the civil war in 1949. The impoverished newcomers settled in large, overcrowded slums in Kowloon and the New Territories—many of these were built precariously on the slopes of mountains. A catastrophic fire in 1953 in Shek Kip Mei killed hundreds and led to the clearance of the slums and a massive project to build high-rise flats in their place. Even now the demand for low-rent housing continues. This problem was the focus of the recent policy speech by the chief executive Donald Tsang (that is his actual title; there is no “mayor” of Hong Kong). Mr. Tsang tried to assure the city’s residents that subsidized housing would continue, but everyone knows it will be hard to fill such a pressing need. Indeed, the law of supply and demand is not something that needs to be explained to people in Hong Kong.

In the end, the only solution seems to be designing residential buildings that squeeze the most possible cubic space out of the least amount of square footage of ground. The result, not surprisingly, is row upon row of very thin and very tall apartment blocks (see below). Despite their impressive stature, however, many of these buildings are not much to look at. They tend to be squalid and functional structures with little or no artistic flair. Their faded, rust-streaked and crumbling concrete or tile exteriors are pock-marked with ugly window unit air conditioners and fans while makeshift clothes racks hang from the balconies. In a way, though, I find these buildings and neighborhoods strangely appealing. Despite their ugliness they have character and a kind of humanity; this despite their being built on anything but a human scale. The ground floors are often rented as commercial properties and are occupied by rows of shops and small businesses. The dozens of stories above them are teeming with people and echo with babies crying and dogs barking while the streets below are crowded with shoppers and merchants. Parks are always filled with children playing games and middle-aged and elderly residents doing their daily tai chi. Yet these many details, both good and bad, are not noticeable from afar. In fact, on a grand scale the combined effect of dozens of these tall, thin, gleaming white (again, from afar) structures set against a backdrop of pristine green mountains makes for one of the most stunning cityscapes anywhere in the world. I am lucky enough to have such a view from my flat. Though I may be starting to feel like a “Hong Kongese,” the truth is that I have been spared one of the more onerous rites of passage for new arrivals: namely the search for an affordable place to live. My flat is provided by my university and it was empty and ready for me on the day I arrived. It is spacious and fully furnished with three bedrooms, three baths, a balcony, a laundry room, and access to a pool and gym. I have never lived alone in such spacious accommodations and that I have a flat like this all to myself, in Hong Kong of all places, is really amazing. It will be a sad day indeed when I have to pack up and leave it behind.
Hong Kong high-rise apartment blocks (look closely)

♫ Everybody was Kung Fu fight-ing ♫

November 11, 2009 — Chinese people rarely say “no.” Of course, they often mean “no” but merely prefer not to say it. I have asked around as to why this is and the closest I can get to a clear explanation is that “no”—as a concept and a word—is simply too blunt and confrontational to be culturally acceptable. Chinese society is deeply rooted in Confucian values and philosophy which emphasize the preservation of social harmony. This is achieved through proper moral conduct by the individual and respect for one’s place and duties within various social hierarchies (family, community, school, workplace, etc.). One logical outcome of the promotion of social harmony is that affirmative or seemingly affirmative replies to a request can have a wide variety of meanings. When one hears “yes,” one has to decode from tone and context whether it really means “yes,” “maybe,” “no,” or “hell no!” A colleague of mine explained that the most tried and true ways of saying no without actually saying no include “I will give your excellent suggestion the most serious consideration and get back to you” or “I think it would be best if you did [something other than what you have expressed a desire to do].” This is not meant to be disingenuous but is merely an acceptable way of communicating that you can neither have nor do what you want, but in a respectful manner that saves face for both parties. Of course, this subtlety is not readily obvious to the less-than-delicate sensibilities of most Americans and can be extremely frustrating until one figures it out.

Cultural differences notwithstanding, communication is generally not difficult in Hong Kong. English is widely spoken and it is easy to get by without knowing any Cantonese. In the old days under British administration, English was the sole language of government and most schools used it as the primary medium of instruction. Immediately after the handover, there was a push to promote Chinese (Cantonese, specifically) and schools shifted to that language. But people soon realized that not instructing children in English was putting them at a considerable disadvantage given Hong Kong’s international profile. It soon became clear that Hong Kong people would not be well served in international competition by embracing linguistic provincialism, especially since at that same time mainland China was aggressively promoting English instruction to make their educated citizens as marketable and competitive as possible. Nowadays the linguistic profile of Hong Kong involves three languages: English, Cantonese, and Mandarin. The last of these is actually called “Putonghua” here in China. Apparently Deng Xiaoping did not like the word “Mandarin” since it connoted elitism and class consciousness—neither of which had any place in a true people’s republic—so he ordered the change. Officials in Beijing want Hong Kong people to learn Putonghua since everyone is now part of the one China, but in keeping with their overall approach to the territory they are not pushy about it. In general, Hong Kong people speak English when they need to but prefer Cantonese. There is no longer any stigma of inferiority in speaking their own language (unlike in the colonial days) and Cantonese dominates while English is an indispensable second language. In fact, the latter remains the lingua Franca (or lingua Anglia, more accurately) in law, business, and diplomacy.

Yet not everybody speaks English. In certain parts of Hong Kong it is unusual to hear a word of English spoken or to see signs in anything other than Chinese characters. When one crosses Victoria Harbor from Hong Kong Island to the Kowloon Peninsula it seems like a transition from an international hub into the real China, and moving further into the New Territories even more so. In Sha Tin, where I live, it does feel like a foreign country. I am usually the only gweilo in the market or on the bus and I regularly encounter people who cannot speak a word of English. At times this can be frustrating, but in general I quite like the immersion in Chinese society and am happy to live where I do instead of in some expat oasis on HK Island or Lantau.

The only solution to the language situation for a gweilo like me is to try to get a handle on Cantonese. In the first month I was here I enrolled in a special Cantonese class offered by my university for visiting faculty. I was excited about learning a new language and hopeful that I could add Cantonese alongside Hindi and Swahili on the list of languages in which I can just barely communicate. Yet on the first day of class it started to sink in just how impossibly difficult this language is. Cantonese has nine tones across which any one word has nine completely different meanings. Most words have only one syllable and are not complicated—except, of course, for those damned tones. My problem is that I never know what I am actually saying, even if I get the word right. Because many words have such different tonal meanings, Cantonese is a language in which it is virtually impossible for the novice not to embarrass himself or give grave offense. On average, if I remember a word I still have only a one-in-nine chance of saying exactly what I intend and an eight-in-nine chance of saying something else. And because Cantonese uses Chinese characters (which we are not learning) even if by some miracle I am able to become conversant on the most rudimentary level, I will still be hopelessly illiterate.

My Cantonese class is very international. Our group of students includes three Americans, an Irishman, a German, an Indian, an Italian, a Czech, an Australian, and two mainland Putonghua speakers (for whom Cantonese is almost as difficult as it is for westerners). Our instructor has the patience of Job, the skill of whoever the woman was that taught Helen Keller, and a wonderful sense of humor—the last of which is much appreciated. My experience of struggling with a tonal language like Cantonese has given me a heightened degree of empathy for immigrants to the US who strive to learn English (another notoriously difficult language). I do not hold out great hope that I will learn more than what is commonly referred to as “survival” or “taxi cab” Cantonese. Actually, I am managing to pick up a few words and phrases just in my everyday routine. I learned how to shout out my stop on the bus only after the driver blew past my apartment building a few times. In the market, I have found that a command of numbers and a few choice words can really bring down the price. Finally, for what it’s worth, I’ve also learned my Chinese name; it is 大衛 (pronounced “Daai Wai”). Are you impressed?

Last week I was asked eagerly by a colleague if I intended to participate in the upcoming university talent show. I waffled a bit and then, in appropriate Chinese fashion, said I would get back to her (see, I’m learning). Later that day, I received a mass email message advertising the talent show and encouraging all who could sing, dance, play an instrument or do kung fu to sign up. That’s right, kung fu. In the US that last pitch in a talent show announcement would be a lame attempt to be clever or funny; here it is not. Martial arts are a big deal in Hong Kong—not surprising, really. The chair of my department is a martial arts expert and schools here offer a wide range of courses at every level and in various types. Many people of all ages are really into it. I am not. The best I might offer the talent show is a few verses of the 1974 chart topper “Kung Fu Fighting.” ♫ Everybody was kung fu fight-ing;those cats were fast as light-ning.In fact it was a little bit fright-ning,but they fought with expert timing…♫ Since I can’t sing, though, maybe even that might be asking too much from me. In any event, I’ll leave the talent to the locals.

The fascination with kung fu, if not the skill, is something to which even we gweilo can lay claim. In the late 1960s and early 70s kung fu became an international sensation. Much of this owed to the peerless fame of Hong Kong legend Bruce Lee. The martial arts film star elevated what had been a staple of Hong Kong cinema for decades into a worldwide phenomenon. Films like “Fist of Fury” (1971) and “Enter the Dragon” (1973) have become classics in the genre and helped inspire the American TV series “Kung Fu” starring the recently departed David Carradine. Bruce Lee was the consummate master of his craft, whether it was martial arts or filmmaking, and he remains the source of enormous pride among the people of Hong Kong. Adding in no small measure to his legend is the fact that he died suddenly at the age of 32. Forever young like James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and other cultural icons cut down in their prime, Bruce Lee went out at the height of his fame and physical prowess. Expert timing, indeed. In the years since his death Bruce Lee has remained easily the most famous Hong Kong resident ever. His pride in the Chinese culture and philosophy that was the foundation for his martial arts success has made him beloved by Chinese in the mainland as well as in Hong Kong. In 2005 an eight-foot-tall bronze statue of Bruce Lee was unveiled on Hong Kong’s “Avenue of the Stars” along the waterfront in Tsim Sha Tsui. After numerous requests to the government to honor the star had fallen flat, the Bruce Lee Club turned to private donors and the money came pouring in from fans across the world. The statue shows the master in his classic kung fu pose from “Fist of Fury” with his back to the harbor and a view of the city skyline behind him (see below). Quite impressive, really. However, as with the Venus de Milo or Mona Lisa, one can rarely get a clear view of him through the gaggle of local and international tourists crowded around taking pictures.

Statue of Bruce Lee on the "Avenue of the Stars," Kowloon Waterfront, Tsim Sha Tsui


December 11, 2009 — It has been exactly a month since my last blog entry; normally a sign that I have been busy, distracted, and on the road a lot. In that time I’ve become a regular passenger on the ferries that go back and forth across the Pearl River Delta. My first trip into mainland China began on Nov 16th when I took the ferry from the China Terminal in Hong Kong to Zhuhai just north of Macau. I went there with my Fulbright colleagues to attend a conference and to give a presentation at the United International College. UIC is something of an experiment; it is an undergraduate college founded four years ago as a joint enterprise between my host institution, the Hong Kong Baptist University, and the Beijing Normal University. It aspires to nothing less than becoming the first liberal arts college inside the PRC. The faculty and staff are dedicated to this mission but they face serious challenges. These range from fundraising (a concern of private colleges everywhere) to dealing with the PRC Ministry of Education and its demand that the curriculum conform to the Communist Party’s political ideology. I will be back there in the spring as a visiting lecturer and I’m eager to see how they meet these obstacles. If they overcome them, and if their example takes root in China, it will indeed be an extraordinary milestone in the history of higher education.

A week after my first visit I returned to Zhuhai to meet with UIC administrators and to give another presentation to the faculty. Afterward, I left the campus and was driven to the border crossing at Gong Bei where I cleared passport control and crossed into Macau. It is interesting that even though Hong Kong and Macau are now part of the PRC the process of moving back and forth between these two places and the mainland still feels like crossing an international border. Foreigners can visit these two “Special Administrative Regions” without getting a China visa but once there they must get such a visa to cross into the mainland. Visitors go through passport control and customs each way. This reality (inconvenience, more accurately) underscores the point that status as an SAR is not merely symbolism but has actually allowed Hong Kong and Macau (the former especially) to retain a substantial measure of autonomy and distinctiveness in East Asia apart from the mainland. For me, however, it has meant a lot of visas (and fees) and passport stamps for someone who has technically been within the borders of the same country for nearly three months.

I arrived in Macau to attend an international symposium on Jesuit education held at the Ricci Institute. The institute is named for the sixteenth-century Italian Jesuit who came to Macau, founded the Jesuit China mission, and then traveled to Beijing to present himself to Emperor Wanli of the Ming dynasty. Ricci was the first European to enter the Forbidden City and remains a strong symbol of cross cultural contact between eastern and western civilizations. The symposium was enjoyable and some of the papers were interesting but many of us in the audience had to wear headphones for simultaneous translation of presentations given in Chinese. These translations were often fragmentary and confusing and my relatively childlike attention span was tested to its limits.

Although I timed my visit to coincide with the Jesuit education symposium, the real reason for this trip was to see Macau and to spend some time with my college roommate and his family. My friend Matt was my roommate for three of the four years I was at Georgetown. When we graduated he was commissioned into the Marine Corps while I went into the Navy. We lost touch over the years but recently reconnected. For the last couple of years he has lived in Macau with his wife and young daughter and works there as a finance director at the Venetian Hotel and Casino. He was generous enough to put me up in a very posh suite at the Venetian for the two days I was in Macau and then he and his wife treated me to an insider’s tour of this fascinating place. As a visitor, it was impossible for me to do Macau justice within the forty-eight hours I was there and I am already looking forward to many return visits.

Macau, like Hong Kong, is very much a cultural hybrid, but one with a much longer and more notorious history. The Portuguese were the first westerners to establish a permanent presence in China (note to Italians: Marco Polo’s brief visit in the thirteenth century hardly counts—no disrespect). The Portuguese took over Macau in 1557 and set up a colony and trading station there after they were ejected from the Chinese mainland. Thus the European presence in Macau (and China) predates that in Hong Kong by nearly three centuries. Portuguese traders, missionaries, and sailors set up shop in the tiny colony and built it up in their image. Macau soon joined Mombasa, Hormuz, Goa, and Batavia as the last link in the great Lusitanian merchant empire of the sixteenth century. The narrow streets and sunny praças of old Macau were marked by stately Iberian government offices, elaborate Baroque churches and convents, and luxurious villas with the requisite wrought iron grills, blue tile work, pastel stucco walls, and red clay tile roofs. In particular, the façade of St. Paul’s Jesuit church (the rest of the structure burned down, see below) is a masterpiece of Mediterranean splendor, but there are many other examples as well. Macau, it seems, has done a better job than Hong Kong of preserving its architectural heritage. This likely owes to the fact that its economy never thrived to the same degree nor did the desire for innovation and improvement ever take root here as it did in HK. There was simply not the same energy or money to clear away the old and make room for the new. In any event, many older buildings escaped the wrecking ball and the city has kept much of its distinctive Old-World style and charm.

Artistic expression in Macau is not limited to architecture. In its heyday it was a rich enclave of Lusophone culture and religious ferment. Luis vas de Camões is said to have lived there and written part of the great Portuguese epic Os Lusiadas (The Lusiads) while residing in the balmy colonial outpost, though there is no actual evidence that this is really true. Even now, the street signs and storefronts are still in Portuguese as well as Cantonese, although these days very few Macau residents can actually speak the former.

As in other Iberian colonies, the religious profile of Macau bore the firm stamp of Roman Catholicism. Yet in the beginning the Church’s most fervent fishers of men were not of one mind about how best to cast their nets. The Jesuits believed that the doctrines of the church were not incompatible with traditional Confucian values of filial piety, divine right of Chinese emperors, and some Chinese folk religious practices. The Dominicans took a harder line and declared these practices idolatrous and considered any accommodation by Catholics to be heresy. In the early eighteenth century Pope Clement XI sided with the Dominicans and the resulting enforcement of stricter ideology led to a substantial diminishing of missionary success in China. Of course, Macau remained firmly Catholic.

To their credit, the Portuguese were probably the least racist of any European colonizers. As the years passed, the overwhelmingly male Portuguese minority readily intermixed with the Cantonese majority and produced a mestiço community called “Macanese.” Some of these people still exist in Macau and preserve their own unique customs and traditions. Macanese cuisine, in particular, blends the best of Portuguese and Cantonese flavors and the ubiquity of great restaurants, markets, and pastelarias along the streets and alleyways of Macau easily matches anything offered by Hong Kong. Overall, the blending of cultures is both extraordinary and seemingly effortless. Indeed to walk through old Macau is to have one foot in Canton and the other in Lisbon or Porto.

Yet the recent history of Macau was not always as pleasant or tranquil as the local culture would suggest. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Macau was a soporific little backwater weakly controlled by the Portuguese and overshadowed in every way by Hong Kong, its newer and more energetic colonial neighbor to the East. The treaty ports of Shanghai, Tsingtao, Tientsin, and Canton also drew more international commercial and political attention than Europe’s first Chinese colony did. It would be safe to say that by then Macau was about as important in Chinese affairs as Portugal was in European ones. But the colony did gain some unwanted attention in the Second World War when Japan invaded China in 1937 and then in 1941 took over Hong Kong and the other international settlements of the Allied European powers. At the insistence of the Germans, the Japanese respected Portugal’s neutrality and kept their hands off Macau for the duration of the war. The result was that the colony became a sort of shabby Switzerland of the East. Its eleven square miles filled with refugees from HK and the mainland, leading to tension between residents and the desperate newcomers.

After the establishment of the PRC in 1949, China allowed the Portuguese to keep Macau. But the colonial government remained so weak, corrupt, and inefficient and the tiny enclave so dependent on the mainland that it was clear that Beijing was really charge, if indirectly (a very different situation than in Hong Kong). Portuguese sovereignty over Macau was a joke and during the Cultural Revolution Mao’s Red Guards repeatedly overran the colony, something that never happened in HK. When the dictator Salazar’s Estado Novo was overthrown in Portugal in 1974, the new thinking in Lisbon shifted away from holding on at all costs to the nation’s anachronistic overseas possessions. Instead Portugal sought to divest itself of these embarrassing reminders of its weakness and of how far the country had fallen from the glory of its distant past. The new leadership in Lisbon offered to give back the colony to China but the PRC would not take it. Macau had by then become a barely governed cesspool of gambling, prostitution, and organized crime—a sewer grating into which these vices could drain from the surrounding area. Lisbon didn’t want it, but Beijing seemed happy to have the Portuguese flag flying over it indefinitely. Finally in the 1980s, when the handover of Hong Kong was negotiated, the Chinese arranged to take Macau back as well. In December 1999, an appropriately smaller and less lavish handover ceremony took place in Macau as the oldest European colony in East Asia (442 years) reverted to the motherland. Unlike Hong Kong, however, this gesture was less meaningful since the PRC had more or less controlled Macau for decades.

It is easy for the visitor to enjoy Macau, but working in the territory is often a different story. My friend Matt was able to share many insights with me about doing business there and gave me a rare glimpse into the netherworld of the gambling industry in Macau. While he describes Hong Kong as a combination of the best qualities of East and West, Macau reflects the worst blending of these two cultures. Hong Kong has thrived because it is a product of its colonizers’ Protestant work ethic and Anglo-Saxon insistence on the rule of law imposed upon a largely law-abiding and entrepreneurial Chinese culture. In Macau, on the other hand, centuries of the Mediterranean “mañana” attitude toward efficiency and work along with a tolerance for corrupt administration enabled the Chinese penchant for nepotism and organized crime to flourish.

As Macau’s importance as a trading center slipped into irreversible decline, the government tried to make up for the loss of wealth by legalizing gambling. The result revolutionized the local economy and turned many of its residents in the casino and hotel businesses into millionaires. The weak government and corrupt police, combined with the PRC’s permissive view toward what went on there, made it the ideal place for high-stakes gambling and its ancillary activities of prostitution and loan-sharking. When the Portuguese were in charge, the entire Macau gambling concession belonged to one man: Stanley Ho, a Hong Kong billionaire entrepreneur (now 89 years old and languishing in an HK hospital). Mr. Ho may have had the gaming monopoly, but in order for it actually to function a lot of people further down also had to get their piece of the action. For starters, the Macau government took a 35 percent cut of all gambling profits. It still does.

As in Havana and Las Vegas, the gambling economy in Macau was first built up and its rules enforced by clever and well-organized gangsters, here called Triads. Once a date was set for the departure of the Portuguese, the Triads fought amongst each other viciously for greater control over the territory before the PRC was due to come in and rain on their parade (which it didn’t, as it turned out). After the handover, Stanley Ho lost his monopoly and very quickly the major Las Vegas casinos moved in to fill the vacuum and bankroll future development. Nowadays in Macau one can visit the Sands, Venetian, Hard Rock, and MGM Grand along with the older iconic Casino Lisboa—a smaller, seedy, smoke-filled den that harkens to the less sanitized gambling culture of old Macau. It would be impossible to make room in tiny Macau for all the new developments so they are making new land instead. Many of the new casinos, hotels, racetracks, and golf courses, as well as the international airport have been built through land reclamation. In fact, so much of Macau’s dry surface these days is reclaimed land that the old islands of Coloane and Taipa are now one large land mass linked by a vast new area called the Cotai Strip upon which glitzy hotels and casinos shoot up like weeds in an untended garden.

On my first day in Macau I was given a tour of the Venetian by my friend. The building is an architectural wonder and much larger than the one in Las Vegas. I’m told that it is the third largest building in the world (the first is the new Beijing airport and the second is the Boeing plant in Everett, WA). Appropriately enough, the Venetian is like a city within a building. There are 9000 employees, 3000 rooms, hundreds of shops, and casino space that takes up the combined area of more than thirteen American football fields. The signature feature is an interior re-creation of the canals of Venice that wind around the building. The whole thing is really overwhelming. I stayed for two days and had a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner with Matt and his family in one of the complex’s best restaurants.

What I really enjoyed was learning from Matt about the inner workings of Macau gambling. First he took me around the main casino floor, a massive space shared by four gaming areas: the Red Dragon, the Phoenix, the Imperial, and the Golden Fish. Of all of these, the Red Dragon is always the most crowded since the red décor and the dragon pattern in the carpet are considered most auspicious by Chinese gamblers. The gambling itself is very much like Las Vegas, Atlantic City, or dozens of Indian reservations except that here the loan sharks stand directly behind the players at the tables (no joke; talk about pressure). Like many activities in Macau, loan-sharking is controlled by the Triads and while gambling debts are not legally enforceable (in other words you can’t get a court to order repayment of such a debt) these lenders usually have no trouble getting their money back.

Next we went into the “Paiza Club,” a place that would have certainly been off-limits to me had my friend not ushered me in. This is the inner sanctum: a VIP area for high-stakes betting. Opening bets are in the thousands (US$) and winnings and losses can be in the millions. Matt tells me that on average US$ 90 million circulates through this one area every week. Almost all of the high-stakes players are mainland Chinese and they are inveterate gamblers. There are no alcoholic beverages or sexy cocktail waitresses (i.e. no distractions) and many of the players try to sleep on the couches in the lounge instead of going up to their rooms so that they can keep as close as possible to a 24-hour gambling cycle. Sometimes the security officers have to wake them up and send them away (just like the Port Authority bus terminal in New York, except without the $90 million). Apparently more of the Venetian’s revenue comes from this small private suite of gambling parlors than from the rest of the hotel’s entertainment, restaurant, and casino activity combined.

Matt tells me that the Chinese are reckless gamblers and nothing that I have seen would lead me to think otherwise. But they don’t go in for blackjack or poker; instead they favor baccarat and other games that require almost no skill and are based primarily on luck. Enormous sums of money are laid down with very poor odds, all on the fleeting hope of good fortune. Matt describes the Chinese weakness for gambling like that of the Irish for alcohol. A stereotype perhaps, but the evidence is all around. Room occupancy in the Venetian is often at one hundred percent capacity and the overwhelming majority of visitors there and at the other casinos in Macau are from the mainland. The high rollers are generally from China’s new-money set in construction and manufacturing that have profited from the country’s unparalleled economic boom. A generation ago these people would have been holding up Mao’s little red book and denouncing capitalist imperialism. Now they roll up in limos to the casinos of Macau and throw down unreal amounts of money on the most ill-advised games of chance. Truly, it staggers the mind. While the US stimulus package may be helping to pay for bonuses at Goldman Sachs and keeping dying car companies on life-support, apparently much of the PRC’s stimulus money is ending up on the baccarat tables of Macau. Which is worse?
Facade of St. Paul's Jesuit Church, Macau; completed 1602

In a Food Paradise

December 21, 2009 — This is my final blog entry of the year. In a few hours I will depart for two weeks of scuba diving in the Philippines. I’m due to return to Hong Kong on January 6th, just a few days before the start of classes. Of course the end of this year is also the end of the decade, the first of the new century and millennium. As in most societies, such a milestone moment has prompted some self-reflection in Hong Kong. This has been the first full decade of unification with China and what was once the uncertain post-1997 future is now well over ten years old. Tempest fugit. As befitting the occasion, many of the local opinion makers on TV and in the newspapers have been looking back on what has happened and not happened. They agree that, overall, the HK SAR has fared quite well. It enjoys stability, record prosperity, and its peculiar place in the world is in no danger of disappearing. Hong Kong is now China’s portal to the rest of the world (rather than the West’s to China) and consequently its importance in the international market is greater than ever before.

Some here lament that there is no real democracy in Hong Kong, Certainly there is no institutional democracy, but there is an undeniably democratic spirit in the culture of this place—one that China has wisely allowed to continue unmolested. Hong Kong has its own imperfect legislature with “functional constituencies” in which elected members represent professions (teachers, businesspeople, civil servants, etc.) rather than districts based on census data and the principle of one-person-one-vote. The chief executive is answerable to party leaders in Beijing but also to the people of Hong Kong (albeit in a less formalized though equally real way). The media has substantial—though not unlimited—freedom and street protests against HK and PRC policies are a daily occurrence. The protesters, as a rule, are very well mannered—in fact, many are silent (we should be so lucky in America). Yet they can be quite sharp. One clever protest poster recently showed a picture of Donald Tsang as a desperado and underneath it in western cowboy lettering the words “unwanted dead or alive.” Ouch. Most important of all, the Hong Kong judiciary remains the final word in civil and criminal cases. This, above all things, is reassuring to foreign and Chinese investors who remain confident enough to incorporate new businesses in Hong Kong believing that if legal disputes must go to court they will do so in a place that upholds contracts and whose judicial system has integrity and is not leaned on by politicians. At least in this regard some things have not changed since the handover and any Briton looking at Hong Kong today should be proud of what has remained even after the Union Jack was run down the pole for the last time in 1997. However, in fairness to the Chinese it must be noted too that Hong Kong is more democratic now than it was during the overwhelming majority of the time it was under the British. In any event, the overall assessment of Hong Kong’s recent past and the predictions for its near future are largely positive.

Right now, most Hong Kong people do not seem terribly concerned with politics. It is just a few days before Christmas and the malls are full of frantic shoppers. In a society that can at times seem obsessed with commerce, consumerism, and the trappings of material success, the Christmas season is embraced wholeheartedly by Hong Kong people, Christian or otherwise. Public spaces are decorated in varying levels of tastefulness. As in New York’s Rockefeller Center, here in Hong Kong an oversized evergreen tree is shipped in (from Manchuria or Siberia, presumably), erected in the middle of Central, and lit up from top to bottom. The shopping malls have decked their halls and they continuously pipe in the most insipid Christmas jingles through their sound systems, just like back home. Christmas sales and advertising abound, but I have seen no department store Santa Clauses (Chinese children would probably be terrified sitting on the lap of a fat European with a white beard and red nose—and rightly so). Not to sound like Scrooge or the Grinch, but by now I have had more than my fill of it all and am starting to look forward to a more authentic and less commercial Christmas experience in the Philippines.

One thing that I will certainly miss while I am away from Hong Kong is the food. Since arriving I have never ceased to marvel at the culinary bounty of this city and have very quickly come to take for granted an endless array of delicious, varied, and easily available food. It is a challenge even to begin describing the gastronomical scene all around me. Suffice it to say that Hong Kong, like Paris or New York, is one of the great culinary cities of the world. It may even be the greatest. Food here is an integral part of the culture, economy, and aesthetic richness of this place; it is to Hong Kong what music is to Vienna or Nashville, art is to Florence, fashion is to Milan, or architecture is to Chicago. Those who dismiss Hong Kong as a slave to mammon and a cultural wasteland with its dearth of art galleries and writers’ colonies and its bland architecture should try to eat out more often. Hong Kong’s great artists may wear aprons and chef’s hats, but their creations are no less impressive than if they painted on a canvas or chiseled in stone. Many of the chefs are world famous and the disposable income in Hong Kong matched by its demand for luxury and fine dining makes this a desirable place to begin or to advance a culinary career.

Hong Kong people do dine out a lot. Most of them live in shoebox apartments and often choose to have parties and large family gatherings in restaurants where there is more space. It is a Sunday ritual for families to eat out and the thousands of restaurants here are packed with customers. Five-star restaurants are found throughout Hong Kong but it is as easy to find a cheap and delicious meal just about anywhere. Noodle shops and Dim Sum stands are a stone’s throw from most MTR stations and offer up steaming hot bowls of the freshest and tastiest Cantonese staples. Supermarkets have kitchens and can pack up meals to go just as readily as the takeaway stands. My experience is that eating out or bringing home takeaway is usually cheaper, faster, and better than trying to cook at home. In fact, since arriving in late August I have cooked exactly one meal in my kitchen—and that was during my first week here before I wised up. The centrality of food in Hong Kong culture and society is really amazing and was one of the easiest realities to become accustomed to once I arrived. In fact, I wonder if it is possible to have the reverse of culture shock: to experience in a new place a change in culture that makes me feel more like I belong and then to look at my own culture and wonder how I could have ever considered that to be normal. The one exception to all this is 7-Eleven. There is one on every other street corner and, just like at home, the morning commute would not be complete without a quick stop in. Except that here you can buy pork dumplings at the register, but no coffee. I still have not gotten used to that.

One can get any kind of food in Hong Kong. So far I have eaten at top-notch Spanish, Italian, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, and Japanese restaurants. In particular, Hong Kong Island and Kowloon boast a wide array of tapas bars, New York delis, Texas steakhouses, Bistros, Trattorias, Irish and English pubs, teppanyaki rooms and every variation of Chinese eatery. While the western food here is quite good, it is ridiculously expensive… well, maybe not so ridiculous given that many of the key ingredients are flown in from around the world: mozzarella from Naples, chorizo from Madrid, top sirloin from the US, etc. Apart from restaurants, the supermarkets, street markets, pastry shops, and wine distributors clearly cater to a worldly and discriminating customer base. Certainly I have would no problem indulging my love of Spanish and South African wines were it not for my attempt to keep within a reasonable budget.

But of course, the real pleasure of Hong Kong dining is the opportunity to become familiar with the range, subtlety, and exquisiteness of Chinese cuisine. At the outset one should acknowledge that there is actually no such thing as Chinese cuisine in any real sense. To speak of Chinese cuisine is the same as speaking of European cuisine. It is simply too varied and complex to be characterized as one whole. The leading regional varieties such as Cantonese, Shanghainese, Sichuan, Hunan, Shandong, Fuijian, and Zeiyang are separate cuisines in their own right each with their own unique culinary traditions and sensibilities. While all these regional varieties are on offer in Hong Kong, Cantonese predominates, not surprisingly. Compared to other regional cuisines of China, Cantonese dishes are lighter and less spicy. The emphasis is on freshness and many of the dishes are steamed inside bamboo baskets. Dim sum delicacies are served in small dishes and washed down with ample quantities of tea. This sort of dining experience is called yum cha (飲茶 literally “drinking tea”) but I find that some of the local beer is just as good an accompaniment. Dim sum dishes include dozens of varieties of dumplings, wontons, rolls, balls, and buns made from every sort of meat, poultry, fish, and vegetable. Some Shanghainese dumplings are filled with soup along with meat or fish (I still haven’t figured out how it is even possible to make these). In South China there seems to be more of a preference for rice, pork, chicken and seafood while in the north one find more beef and duck specialties. In all cases, there is great emphasis on presentation and the best chefs learn quickly to develop an eye for detail and beauty. Tea is also a critical part of every meal and comes in dozens of varieties. I am not normally a tea drinker, but I have developed a liking for the jasmine and chrysanthemum varieties and find that they go nicely with a big meal as a digestive.

Since arriving in Hong Kong, I have been able to eat like a king. I have been spoiled, corrupted, and now wallow in my own decadence—at least as far as food is concerned. Many of the Fulbright meetings hosted at the various universities begin with a dim sum lunch that seems like a banquet. Dishes are selected for us and brought out continuously during the meal where they are set upon a glass lazy Susan in the middle of the table. Round tables are the norm here and nowadays on the rare occasions when I am at a western restaurant and seated with a group at an elongated rectangular table it feels strange and uncomfortable. Apart from Fulbright occasions, I have been able to dine regularly with my friends Xiaonan and Michael, who I have known for many years since my graduate student days in London. Xiaonan is from Beijing and Michael is from Guangzhou. They have lived in Hong Kong for a few years now and know their way around quite well. Sometimes they take me to their favorite Chinese restaurants, which often specialize in non-Cantonese regional cuisines and are popular with mainlanders. These are always off the beaten path and virtually unknown to westerners. I am usually the only gweilo in the place and the menus are all in Chinese. The wait staff does not speak English and all the ordering is done by my two friends. Thus I am able to enjoy another dimension of Hong Kong dining to which even some long-time expat residents are not exposed.

Apart from variety, Cantonese cuisine is distinguished by an almost obsessive insistence on freshness. Vegetables are always fresh and are steamed to keep in the flavor, texture, and vitamins. But the most astonishing use of fresh ingredients is in seafood. Most restaurants have a fish tank from which live meal ingredients can be drawn, but this is nothing unusual and by itself would hardly be remarkable. What is amazing, however, is the size of the tanks and the variety of the offerings. One of my favorite spots is the famous Hung Kee Seafood Restaurant located in Sai Kung, a pleasant seaside community on the eastern side of the New Territories. I occasionally eat there with friends from my dive club after our boat returns in the evening. Hung Kee is a local tourist attraction even for people who don’t dine there. It is like a trip to the aquarium and dinner, in the same place and at the same time. Indeed, if something swims or crawls in the ocean, Hung Kee has at least a dozen of them each in their own special tank (see below). On my last visit, one tank held a grouper that must have weighed at least a hundred pounds. As an avid diver, I consider myself reasonably well educated in marine biology, for a layman, but there are many types of species in the Hung Kee tanks that I have never seen (or tasted), although it must be said that there are fewer of these with each return visit. Patrons stand in front of dozens of tanks large and small and point to the creatures swimming, slithering, or scuttling obliviously inside, all the while a waiter dutifully writes down the names of the condemned. Step two is to review the selections and decide the way that each is to be cooked. Step three is to sit at one’s table and drink beer until the dishes are brought out. The wait is never long, but impatient and fidgety children are kept distracted by the horseshoe crabs that the management allows to crawl around on the ground in front of the tanks. It’s an amazing experience.

By now I am sure that I have managed to disgust and enrage any vegetarians that may be reading this. Alas, unlike Indian or Thai cuisine, the culinary sensibilities of the Chinese are not kind to vegetarians. Most dishes are a mix of meat and vegetables and even the strictly vegetable dishes are often prepared in chicken broth or fish oil. My vegetarian friends here all eat well, but it takes some effort and caution. Many of them shop in the local markets and cook at home. While it is easy to eat out all the time, one shouldn’t pass up a trip to the food markets of Hong Kong, if only as a spectator. My favorite “wet markets,” as they are called, are the ones in Tai Po and Shau Kei Wan. These are covered warehouses with hundreds of stalls selling every kind of food imaginable. Fruits and vegetables are extremely cheap and there is a seemingly endless variety. The butcher stalls are lesson in anatomy and apparently there is no part of a pig or chicken that cannot end up on someone’s dinner plate. The buckets of chicken feet, in particular, make me think of some "Far Side" cartoon whose punch line I can’t remember. Along with assorted chicken parts are wooden crates with live chickens inside. Many of the seafood stalls have aerated buckets of water filled with live fish, clams, lobsters, crabs, octopi, squid, cuttlefish, shrimp, turtles, and eels. If you wait long enough you will invariably see one of them climb or jump out and make a break for it before the stall owner grabs it from the floor and tosses it back in with its more apathetic brethren. Above and behind the buckets are tables laid out with trays of ice containing fish and freshly cut fish parts. Some of the sliced up eel pieces and octopus tentacles still squirm around while the gills and hearts of the decapitated and disemboweled fish still pulsate. Customers can even take away plastic bags filled with water and live fish back to their homes or to their favorite restaurants. In the US, some restaurants without a liquor license allow patrons to bring their own wine, but this is even better. I wonder if there is a fish gutting fee added to the bill instead of corkage; it seems only fair.
The menu at the Hung Kee Seafood Restaurant in Sai Kung, New Territories
15 December 2010

War, Occupation, Regeneration

February 15, 2010 — 恭喜發財! Gong Xi Fa Cai! Happy Year of the Tiger. Today is the second day of the new lunar year and the holiday break has finally given me the opportunity to sit down and finish long-overdue projects, including this blog. This is my first entry of 2010 and the most recent since I returned from a two-week holiday in the Philippines over the winter break. I had meant to write something shortly after I came back to Hong Kong in the first week of January, but the semester began a few days later and since then work and other demands have kept me busy. Unlike last semester, I am now teaching in addition to my other duties. My course is an upper-level history survey of the British Empire. I have fourteen students enrolled and we are already in the fifth week of classes. The course itself covers different aspects of British overseas expansion from the early Elizabethan settlements in Ireland to decolonization in the latter half of the twentieth century. I am enjoying the class and the chance to get to know some of the undergraduates at my host university. In many ways they remind me of my students at Lewis & Clark but they also bring a different perspective to the study of history than I have experienced with American students. It is interesting to get the Chinese perspective on such topics as the Opium War and western imperialism in China. Our course will end, fittingly, when we examine the handover of Hong Kong in 1997. I am curious to see how the study of the British Empire will change the way the students view themselves as Hong Kong Chinese, if at all.

Last fall, as the winter break approached, I decided to take some time away from Hong Kong and experience a different part of Asia. Except for a brief trip to London for a conference in September, this would be my first time outside of China since I arrived here at the end of August. The chilly, damp, and overcast weather of Hong Kong in winter, combined with the urban intensity of this place, made me partial toward selecting a warmer destination and something a bit more off the beaten path. I thought about Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam but eventually decided on the Philippines. My friends who have been to the Philippines have consistently described it as one of their favorite countries and many insist that it is among the most underrated travel destinations in Asia. So with two weeks off and nothing to do in HK I decided that was the place to go.

My first reaction when I stepped out of the airport in Manila was of being in an environment completely different than Hong Kong and yet immediately familiar to me. In less than two hours flying time I had journeyed from one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world into a typical megalopolis of the “developing” world. Manila is a crowded, polluted, and vibrant urban sprawl of eleven million people with teeming slums, open-air markets, posh suburbs, shopping malls, office towers, and dreadful traffic. As my taxi inched through the gridlocked streets from the airport to my hotel in Malate near the waterfront I looked out the tinted windows at the scene outside. Dozens of motor scooters weaved in and out between rickety, overloaded and smoke-belching trucks. Street vendors, mostly children, walked alongside the columns of stopped cars peering into the windows to hawk their wares. Street-side stalls were selling newspapers and hot food to sidewalk pedestrians while stray dogs wandered around aimlessly. Above the traffic were billboards in Tagalog advertising home appliances, banking services, and luxury condos. These showed happy Filipino families enjoying the trappings of a lifestyle well beyond what most of the people on the street below could ever expect in their own lives.

In short, this was exactly the environment I have experienced many times before and in which I have spent years of my own life: a Third World metropolis. It reminded me instantly of Mexico City, Delhi and, most recently, Nairobi. Even the local transportation had a familiar feel. The streets of Manila are crowded with silver elongated jeep vans called “jeepneys.” These cost only a few pesos to ride and are packed with commuters, schoolchildren, and shoppers who jump on and off at each stop for the few seconds that the driver slows almost to a complete stop. The jeepneys are painted bright colors and festooned with decorations, portraits of famous people, and the occasional Bible verse. They reminded me a lot of the buses in India and Mexico and, especially, the “matatus” of Nairobi. While the matatus I saw sported pictures of Barack Obama, Kofi Annan, and Nelson Mandela, the jeepneys of Manila display images of Catholic saints and local pop stars and athletes. But the most common jeepney mascot, by far, is Manny Pacquiao—or “Pac-Man”—the international boxing sensation from Mindanao.

This immersion back into a world less sanitized and safe than what I have become used to in Hong Kong was something I found strangely invigorating. I could feel my levels of adrenaline and vigilance increasing by the moment, but I was excited about once again traveling in a new and unpredictable country. My first night there I stayed at a very pleasant guesthouse converted from a Spanish villa and that evening I walked around the old section of Manila. The next day I boarded a flight for Cebu City and once I arrived there it was another three hours by bus through palm glades and farmland to Malapascua Island to enjoy six days of scuba diving and relaxing by the beach.

Malapascua Island is situated in an inland sea surrounded by the larger islands of Cebu, Leyte, Negros, and Luzon. Diving in these waters was extraordinary. Each morning my dive group would depart from the beach on a large outrigger called a bangka and head off to the nearby reefs and islands. The marine life in these reefs is incredibly diverse and in twelve dives over a span of six days I managed to see dozens of new species including thresher sharks, sea snakes, and moray eels. Malapascua itself is a quiet white-sand, palm-fringed paradise and in the evenings after diving I would dine with the other divers at one of the beachside restaurants. On Christmas Eve I attended the standing-room-only vigil mass at Nuestra Señora Virgen de los Desamparados (Our Lady of the Forsaken), the local Catholic parish. The congregation made a great effort to welcome visitors and, although I was away from my family, it was a wonderful way to celebrate Christmas. Overall, the people of the Philippines were among the kindest and friendliest I have ever met anywhere in my travels.

The second part of my dive excursion was on Busuanga Island just north of the larger island of Palawan, which is a long thin section of the Philippines that stretches southwestward almost to Borneo. It is the least developed region in the country and one of the most spectacularly beautiful places I have ever seen. Jagged peaks rise hundreds of feet straight up from the sea and form a maze of inlets and coves. These giant rocks are covered with vegetation that from a distance makes them look like they are coated in dark green velvet. The colors are all the more vivid when set alongside the ribbons of white sand beaches and azure water. Even before we landed, as I stared down from the window in the propjet on the flight from Manila, I was amazed at how verdant, rugged and undeveloped the island seemed compared to Luzon and Cebu.

In Busuanga I stayed in a fishing village called Coron Town, a coastal hub that serves as the departure point for diving nearby wrecks—a local attraction that brings in divers from around the world. In the waters around Busuanga are the sunken hulls of at least a dozen Japanese warships. Most of these were sunk on the same day, September 24th, 1944, as the fleet tried to sail out to sea from the shelter of Coron Bay. The ships were relocating to support the Japanese defense of Manila but had hardly made it more than a few miles out from their anchorage when they were struck by repeated air attacks from the US Navy. The planes were part of Carrier Task Force 38 commanded by Admiral Halsey which had been waiting for the Japanese to sail out of Coron. Most of the ships lost were auxiliary supply vessls. The fact that they were sunk so close to shore means that the wrecks now rest at depths shallow enough that they can be reached by advanced open water divers.

In the six days I was in Coron I made eleven dives and saw eight different wrecks. These dives were deeper than my earlier reef dives, and the visibility and diversity of marine life was not as good, but in their own way they were an even more awe-inspiring experience. On these dives I was part of a group of four or five other divers accompanied by a local dive master. As we descended, the water became greener and murkier but when we neared the bottom the hull of the sunken ship would come into view. It was a breathtaking sensation to see these enormous hulks gradually appear in front of us. Some of them were resting on their keels while other lay on their sides. Their superstructures, cranes, and deck guns protruded from the hulls and some of the cargo holds still contained vehicles and oil drums. I had a particular interest in seeing these wrecks since earlier in my life I spent several years in the navy, most of that time on a destroyer as the ship’s DCA (Damage Control Assistant). It was a bit eerie to see firsthand these ships that had actually been sunk in battle; their watertight hatches and doors blown open by explosions or the force of water pressure and the riveted sections of the steel bulkheads pulled apart or crushed. Our group of divers seemed tiny as we swam above and alongside these wrecks and, in a few cases, even inside the open cargo holds.

The impact of seeing these wrecked vessels up close is hard fully to describe. In one instant I was conscious of the forces of nature and history, the passage of time and the humbling insignificance of human affairs when set against the leveling power of the sea. These warships, once the pride and terror of the Pacific, now lie powerless and prostrate on the bottom of the ocean, slowly being reclaimed by nature. Their enormous hulls are encrusted with corals and anemones while schools of fish glide effortlessly through the twisted and rusting steel (see below). It was an odd feeling, both calming and eerie, to swim above and into the wrecks, the silence punctuated only by the slow rhythm of my breathing and the bubbles coming out of my regulator. It reminded me of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” that staple of high school English classes, about an ancient potentate whose monuments to his own vanity centuries later stand as forgotten ruins in a vast desert.

"Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

As an historian, I found the ghosts of the Second World War especially present throughout my journey in the Philippines, although maybe this is because I made it a point to seek them out. Apart from the wreck diving in Coron, I also visit the island of Corregidor and the section of Manila called “Intramuros,” the heart of the old Spanish colonial capital. Corregidor, in particular, was somewhere I had long wanted to visit and it was indeed a fascinating and haunting place. I took the early morning ferry out there and spent the day touring the ruined barracks and batteries along the hillsides of the island. The tour included entry into the underground command center and hospital used during the defense of the island as well as the Filipino-American war memorial and the Japanese cemetery. The views from the highest point were spectacular, especially northward toward the Bataan Peninsula. Even the small pier that Douglas MacArthur used for his evacuation in March 1942 has been left untouched. The Philippines park service has done a nice job preserving Corregidor. They have made just enough improvements so that the entire island is easily accessible for visitors but have otherwise left it alone and not spoiled it.

In Manila, the main war memorial is in Intramuros (literally “inside the walls”). This is the oldest section of the capital and was once a walled city similar to the ones that the Spanish built in San Juan, Havana, Cartagena, and St. Augustine during the height of their empire in the sixteenth century. Before the war, it was one of the great cities of Asia whose palaces, convents, and cathedrals distinguished it as a Madrid or Toledo of the Orient. When the Japanese invaded in 1942 they made Intramuros the center of their occupation government and it became the site of their last stand in 1945 as the Americans completed their campaign to retake the Philippines. The liberation of the Philippines, which began in Leyte in October 1944, finally ended the following February with the fall of Manila. The battle to retake the city resulted in a fierce Japanese defense by tens of thousands of soldiers (who fought almost to the last man) and one of the most punishing allied bombardments of the war in the Pacific. In the end it was among the bloodiest single campaigns of the entire war and resulted in a staggering 100,000 civilian casualties. Intramuros was almost completely destroyed (in the entire war only Warsaw fared worse in damage than Manila among major allied cities). Yet as I wandered through the pleasant streets of Intramuros I thought to myself that there is, strangely, no lasting sign of the war. There seems to be no remnant there like the cratered foundation of the Valletta Opera house in Malta, the skeletal dome of the industrial promotion building in Hiroshima, or the blackened spires of the cathedral in Cologne. In fact, old Manila has been rebuilt, but in a way that has never approached the splendor of its prewar existence. Historical photo displays along the streets of Intramuros show sobering before-and-after views that confirm this reality. Some local historians even suggest that psychologically the city never recovered from the war and that sixty-five years later there is only a squalid, second-rate Asian capital remaining where once stood one of the most beautiful and cultured cities in the world.

Whether or not Manila’s best days are behind it is of course debatable, and I am hardly in a position to judge, but there is no doubt that, by comparison, Hong Kong’s trajectory has been heading steadily upward. My first few days back in HK after two weeks in the Philippines reminded me of this reality very quickly. Yet this city too has had its dark days and, while it was spared the agony and battering of Manila, the experience of Japanese occupation in Hong Kong during the war was an ordeal as severe in quality, if not in scale, as far as the suffering of its people was concerned. Today, however, amid the prosperity, energy, and self-confidence of Hong Kong it is difficult to find any remnant of the experience of the war. The Hong Kong Museum of History and the Museum of Coastal Defence do an admirable job educating their visitors about what happened in the war, but the public memorializing of that experience is virtually non-existent compared to what has been done in places like London, Dresden, or Manila. There may be several reasons for this. The first is that the loss of Hong Kong was a bitter humiliation for the British Empire that was only exceeded in the East by the fall of Singapore a few months later. The second is that during the occupation the territory’s most energetic resistance came from Chinese communists. The third and most significant reason may have to do with the fact that British colonization in Hong Kong, as elsewhere in Asia, rested on the rarely questioned presumption of cultural and racial superiority of westerners over Asians. This presumption was completely demolished during the war and it could never again be believed.

The fall of Hong Kong began when Japan attacked the territory on December 8th, 1941 (this was actually the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor since Hawaii and China are on opposites sides of the international dateline). Japanese land forces smashed their way across the border into the New Territories and within days had moved south and taken Kowloon. The British army units on Hong Kong Island had earlier been reinforced by Indian and Canadian regiments and they managed to hold out for two weeks, but the constant air attacks, the prospect of high civilian casualties, and the knowledge that they were outnumbered three to one and would not be relieved anytime soon forced them finally to surrender. The capitulation took place on Christmas Day 1941, just a few months shy of the one-hundredth anniversary of British rule over Hong Kong. Britain’s great trading center and flagship colony in East Asia was now lost to the enemy. To add further insult, the governor of the colony, Sir Mark Young, was forced to sign the surrender document in the lobby of the posh Peninsula Hotel—a symbol for the British and Chinese of Hong Kong alike of the former’s prestige, power, and racial exclusivity.

The three and a half years that followed were the harshest in the history of Hong Kong. British soldiers and civilians were rounded up and put into prison camps in which many perished from disease and malnutrition. Chinese residents of the territory lived in fear of the mercurial cruelty of their new colonial masters. Japanese soldiers randomly killed civilians in the street for no apparent reason other than to ensure that the population lived in a state of constant terror. Women and girls of all ages were randomly raped for the same purpose as well as to allow Japanese commanders a way to indulge the baser instincts of their battle-hardened troops and to keep their morale up. Those civilians who escaped such direct brutality were forced to submit to food rationing that often reduced them to near-starvation. They were also made to exchange their Hong Kong dollars for Japanese occupation currency whose unstable value caused sudden hyperinflation crises. The forced currency exchanges helped pay for the occupation but resulted in the widespread loss of personal savings for rich and poor alike. Fuel and medicine shortages meant that flu outbreaks and winter dampness carried away even more of the weakest and hungriest people, mostly children and the elderly. Japanese-run schools and newspapers attempted to indoctrinate residents with a sense of loyalty and respect for the new rulers of East Asia, meanwhile thousands of unemployed Hong Kong civilians were deported to distant parts of China to work as forced laborers throughout the Japanese-occupied areas.

Resistance throughout the occupation was minimal but small bands of partisans did manage to hide out in the wooded hills of the New Territories and wage sporadic attacks on Japanese military and government facilities. Most of these people were communists and operated independently of any support from the British, Americans, or nationalist Chinese. Japanese reprisals for partisan activities were directed against the civilian population but the attacks did not stop, nor did they have any significant effect on Japanese control over Hong Kong. The combined effect of the massacres, starvation, illness, and deportation over three and a half years resulted in a loss of more than half the population. Even the growing prospect of a Japanese defeat as the war progressed did not guarantee a return to the status quo ante for Hong Kong. The nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek made no secret of his desire to see Hong Kong returned to China immediately after the war and President Roosevelt seemed willing to concede this to America’s ally, the generalissimo. When the Japanese surrendered in August 1945 the British fleet in the Pacific made a beeline to Hong Kong at full speed in order to prevent the Americans from arriving there first. British soldiers liberated their fellow countrymen and women and as well as what was left of the Chinese population. The Japanese occupation governor of the territory, General Takashi Sakai, was brought before the Allied war tribunal and executed in 1946. In the end, British rule in Hong Kong was restored, but their image would never be the same.

Understanding the experience of the Second World War in such places as Hong Kong and Manila does help put a lot of things in perspective. The resilience of human beings is indeed extraordinary. Manila’s death toll in 1945 of 100,000 is more than thirty-three times the total number of people killed in the September 11th attack on the United States. Today Manila is a vibrant and energetic metropolis, although, admittedly, the recovery was slow and perhaps never fully complete. In Hong Kong the postwar recovery was remarkably swift. The apparatus of British administration was reestablished within a few weeks of the Japanese surrender and economic prosperity returned so quickly that within three months all rationing and price controls were ended. Much of the prewar colonial racial segregation ended as well. The spectacle of British humiliation at the hands of an Asian power ensured that any assumptions of western racial superiority were gone forever. Whites-only beaches in Hong Kong were abolished and Chinese people were allowed to buy property anywhere in the territory, even in the old colonial enclave of Victoria Peak.

Today there is virtually no evidence in Hong Kong of the Second World War. Maybe time does indeed heal all wounds—including physical as well as psychological ones. And maybe this can happen more quickly in a place like Hong Kong, with its relatively short history and its orientation toward the future rather than the past. Here the old is constantly being torn down to make room for the new and it may be easy to forget what happened in the war. The one exception to this is the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence set inside the remains of the old harbor fortress built in 1887 by the British at Shau Kei Wan. For decades this massive redoubt on Hong Kong Island guarded the eastern entrance to Victoria Harbor and today its pillboxes, bunkers, and heavy artillery are preserved for tourists to wander around (see below). The Canadian war cemetery is located nearby on a quiet hillside facing the water. It is only a short distance from the ubiquitous traffic and high-rise buildings of the city, which even here can still be heard and seen in the distance. Yet, like the walled villages of Fanling or the fishing settlements on the outlying islands, it preserves well the history of Hong Kong for those with the patience to search it out.

Wreck of the Okikawa Maru, sunk 24 September 1944
Off the coast of Coron, Palawan, Philippines

Coastal battery at the Shau Kei Wan Fortress on Hong Kong Island
(currently the HK Museum of Coastal Defence)