“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain
Arriving in Hong Kong is a bit like stepping onto a moving sidewalk. Things flow at 1.5 speed and it’s a great place to watch everything and everyone going by. As I arrived in this amazing city, I was awe-struck by the sweeping views of the harbor, the glittering towers and the hum of activity all around. The sheer topography and physical parameters of Hong Kong make it appealing just to look at, even from a wide-view lens.
We learned that Hong Kong is a city that has over 7 million residents, all of whom are crammed into a limited area of available land and real estate. This high-density living means that Hong Kong is oriented vertically, with people packed tightly together to live and work.
Because of the way the city is built, surrounding the Hong Kong Harbor, it is a necessity that the culture and society would be very well organized to accommodate the number of people and limitations of space. Coming down from the airplane view, or the wide-angle picture, Hong Kong is packed with busy people leading full lives. The physicality, hustle and bustle of Hong Kong reminded me of New York City or San Francisco.
We met people from all walks of life who shared their stresses and struggles with us, and many sounded familiar. Things like the high cost of living, the pressure to succeed academically, the focus on business success and the worries about quality of life. I was struck by the surprising similarities to life where I live in the Bay Area of California.
From a high level view, life in Hong Kong seems quite attractive and ideal. And yet, when you get closer to people and talk with them, you hear about realities of living in a place like this, and discover that the situation is more complex. In her book, Sarah Pink writes, “The same image may simultaneously be given different meanings in different (but often interconnected) situations), each of which has ethnographic significance.”
So, for example, a picture of a crowded street like the one above can communicate different things at the same time. It shows that there is a lot of commerce and business being done. People seem well-dressed and moving with purpose. This all points toward one narrative of life. But then, this photo also reveals the constant push and strain of modern life in Hong Kong. There are only so many hours in the day, and people in this photo are maximizing their effort in order to fit it all in.
So, how to make sense of what I experienced about life in Hong Kong? Do packed subway cars mean that people are squished and unhappy, or does it mean they are fully engaged with their lives and work?
Do signs telling people to keep moving mean that the government is cold and oppressive, or does it mean they are organized and concerned for public safety?
The same picture can tell multiple stories. And the question often is: from what perspective am I reading and interpreting this picture, sign or scene?
The easy binaries are not so simple to interpret when it comes to a place as complex as Hong Kong. During his talk with our group, Rev. Stephen Miller from the Mission to Seafarers, shared a map with us which depicted the world “upside-down”. It gives a different perspective on what really is at the center, the periphery, and how we think about other countries and our own.
In visiting Hong Kong, it could be easy to simply cram it all into my pre-existing notions of what “Hong Kong” or “China” is like. Or, to make sense of it only in relation to my own experience at home. But this is just the starting point. Recognizing the dissonance that is present in this society means not settling for just the “touristic view” of how things are.
One example of this was on National Day, which is a Mainland China holiday that is now awkwardly celebrated in Hong Kong as well. It was a day off from work for many people, so some went to the Wong Tai Sin Temple to pray or do devotional activities.
Some went shopping at the local mall. Some went up to the top of Victoria Peak to see the view. And many prepared to watch the incredible fireworks display that night.
And while many tourists (like me) and well-heeled Hong Kong residents did all of these things, there was also another side to the day. Since it was a holiday, all the foreign domestic helpers had the day off, too. This meant that people (mostly women) who live in the home with their employer where they cook, clean, and do childcare, were free for this day! And so, they took to the streets.
Everywhere we walked, there were hundreds and thousands of women like these. They were out having a picnic on the sides of the road, sitting in parks, singing karaoke, drinking, talking on phones, and just having a relaxing and fun time.
It turns out that the picture that we see in our minds, or from the lofty perspective of beautiful tourist sites, do not tell the whole story. The labor of these workers is also part of what makes Hong Kong function and seeing them out in the street reminded us that previously on our visit, we hadn’t seen them at all. Or, maybe we had, but we hadn’t noticed them.
This chance to see so many different facets of society in Hong Kong was a unique experience. It helped me to reflect on my own context and culture, especially around the ways that one picture can tell multiple stories. The growth opportunity is to remember to flip the world “upside down”, to see the map, or the picture, or the view, or person from a perspective other than just my own.
The last chapters of Steve Tsang’s book A Modern History of Hong Kong, describe the days leading up the handover of Hong Kong from Great Britain to China in 1997 and beyond. The penultimate chapter is entitled, “The Beginning of the End”. It is as if to say, handing this territory back to China was “the beginning of the end” for society as we know it, or for the “modern history” of Hong Kong. This chapter title reflects an incredibly Euro-centric view of Hong Kong, which, it turns out, is not uncommon.
I also arrived in Hong Kong with my camera in “selfie-mode”, looking to see how this city would provide a backdrop to my own story. However, it was as an observer-participant, that I gained a new perspective about the history, people, and complexities of Hong Kong. It is much more than just a set of beautiful photo-ops, or interesting cultural curios. Instead, Hong Kong stands on its own as a place that surprises and challenges. I continue to seek the “upside down” view of life here at home, even as I continue to reflect on what I learned in Hong Kong.