Almost four years ago Maryanne and I had the opportunity to visit Hong Kong and get more of an insider’s view than typical tourists. I had an opportunity to candidate for an international church, and the elders packed our itinerary. For several days we looked at city sites, schools for our daughters, apartment complexes, and we briefly visited Kowloon, Hong Kong Island, and New Territories. We went to Michelin star restaurants on the harbor as well as mom and pop dives. Somewhat reflective of the economic diversity of that church’s elders, one member, a HK resident whose family owned several factories throughout China, was likely a billionaire. Another member was a gracious missionary from Australia who lived in the most meager of flats. While we chose not to accept the call to Hong Kong for personal reasons, the city left some lasting impressions.
I’d liken Hong Kong to a Pacific Northwest City like Seattle or Vancouver. It wraps around a harbor, so the sea plays a big part in its identity and history. But it’s not a “concrete jungle” like New York City; it has a backdrop of lush forested hills that can be seen as you look towards the mainland. Like the Pacific Northwest, HK is very trendy, progressive, and attractive to young upwardly mobile professionals. As indicated in our reading “Hong Kong Culture: Word and Image,” [i] cultural activities such as cinema and the performing arts are thriving. It has everything you’d expect in a global city, especially commerce. Whether imports or exports, HK is one of the busiest ports in Asia. And with the movement of the world’s finances through its banking institutions, Hong Kong is also a place of mind-boggling wealth.
As an outsider I’m keenly aware that I don’t understand Chinese culture or politics and can only offer an outsider’s glance. Eighteen years since HK’s return to Chinese sovereignty, it still presents itself as a city with an identity crisis. Is it a “Gateway to China” or is it “Asia’s World City”? [ii] Is it pro-democracy or pro-Beijing? Will its citizens eventually gain the freedom to vote on their chief executive? And how meaningful is that vote if all the candidates are vetted by a pro-Beijing committee? Is it democracy? Personally, both sides impress me: Beijing allows HK freedoms the mainland (as a Special Administrative Region) doesn’t enjoy including greater freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom to protest. The courage of the recent protestors in the “umbrella revolution” was inspiring but did not lead to the freedom they sought. Hong Kong is truly a great city that seems to always be striving for clarity.
That brings me back to Hong Kong’s competing city slogans: “a gateway to China” or “Asia’s world City”. Does Beijing want to be more like Hong Kong or does it want Hong Kong to be me more like Beijing? Does Beijing perceive HK as inviting a warmer initial impression of China to the western world? And if so, wouldn’t that be considered a “bait and switch” from a western perspective or perhaps demeaning from a pro-Beijing perspective? I’d personally lean towards “Asia’s World City,” as it honors the great accomplishments of Hong Kong and acknowledges that it stands on its own instead of being compared to other mainland cities.
A final reflection: Hong Kong has a very permissive attitude toward Christianity. Christianity is deeply established there; many school buildings host a church on weekends. The educational system is deeply enmeshed with Christian schools: primary, secondary, and post-secondary. Christian institutions provide several hospitals and social services as well. Frankly, HK’s attitude and posture toward Christian religion seems much more European than Chinese, an unsurprising remnant of its colonial past. HK doesn’t have the same restrictions or oversight on religion, as does the mainland. This too can advance HK as “Asia’s World City”.
On a more personal note, it might sound like I regret not accepting the call to pastor one of Hong Kong’s diverse and vibrant churches. And while I would have loved to live in that city, it’s the mainland with its restrictions, pressures, and limited freedoms that offer an even greater environment for the expediential and apostolic growth of Christ’s kingdom. But that’s probably an assertion that will have wait for my dissertation.
[i] Kam Louie, ed., Hong Kong Culture: Word and Image (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010).
[ii] Ibid, 18-20.