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