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