It’s a five-hour flight to Hong Kong from Tokyo; only five hours to a whole different society and way of thinking. Standing on the platform at Hong Kong airport’s train station waiting for the shuttle into the city centre, an older gent turned to a younger man standing behind him and let loose a torrent of angry invective. Shouting. He was shouting. I turned and stared. We’d just spent four weeks in Japan and I hadn’t seen or heard anyone shouting.
“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Tokyo any more,” I said, cleverly.
“We’re not,” replied son. “We’re in Hong Kong. Who’s Toto?”
Perhaps we should have visited Hong Kong before we stayed so long in the polite haven that is Tokyo. Perhaps the rudeness wouldn’t have come as such a shock.
At our hotel, the reception staff were so uninterested in our arrival, I felt we were an imposition. Perhaps we weren’t young enough or cool enough for its on-trend décor. Eating out that evening, I noticed a lone diner waving his hand irritably at an attentive waitress, her suggestion that he might like another drink dismissed by him with a scowl; eating out another evening, we were shown to our table by a woman I can only assume was attempting to curse us, since she glared at us with such contempt. We sat, ignored, until I waved down the waiter and asked nicely if we could order some food. “Yes! Now!” he snapped, leaning on the table and coughing consumptively. We left.*
The thing is, some people are rude. I realise that. I lived in London. But the London cabbies are teddy bears compared with many of the brusque characters we encountered in Hong Kong. I’m beginning to think Japan has softened us up.
Hong Kong is so different again from anywhere I have ever been. The naïve numpty that I am, I thought it wouldn’t be so entirely dissimilar from Tokyo. It’s all the Far East, right? Wrong. Just as the anally retentive British are so different from the snooty French, who are so different from the ebullient Italians, who are so different from the obsessively efficient Germans… Just as the verdant, gently rolling hills of southern England are so different from the roughhewn peaks of Scotland, the endless, banal, agricultural vistas of France, the almost celestial mountains of Switzerland… So Hong Kong is not Japan.
It’s nearly 1800 miles away, ffs, what sort of idiot am I?
The train from the airport into the city centre took us alongside tropical-looking mountains, green and textured by trees, and the constantly reclaimed sea, a sea we had swooped low over in the plane; a natural richness liberally seasoned by high rises, building sites, cranes, and construction. It was both beautiful and depressing.
Stop reading now if you are a big fan of Hong Kong. It will become increasingly obvious that I am not.
There is a continuing danger that I am comparing Hong Kong with Japan, a country with which I might as well now confess I am in love. Gosh, I can’t believe I just said that out loud. It’s such a relief to be able to admit it. The thing is, Japan is brilliant at hiding the negative. At ignoring it, denying it. Of course there is poverty and homelessness in Japan – but where is it? In four weeks, I saw two – two – vagrants on the Tokyo streets. Where are the rest hiding, or being hidden? It’s not a rich country, despite its bravado. It suffered a huge economic crash in 1991. It’s still recovering. But there is no overt poverty, no overt suffering. It’s almost as though the national characteristic of saving face extends to hardship. Privation is too embarrassing for the Japanese to admit to.
Hong Kong, on the other hand… Well, this is a city that goes to the other extreme. The centre of the city, where we stayed, is a disturbing combination of Chelsea and Camden. The streets were lined by Cartier, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Burberry, Swarovski, Dior, Bentley and Rolex. Large, shiny, ostentatious, glassy, pristine temples to capitalism. And right next door – right above them – were rundown, ill-maintained, shabby, ugly blocks of flats, windows hung with rags, it seemed, paint peeling, weeds springing from cracks in the walls.
“How can there be such destitution right next to the Apple store?” I asked our Hong Kong contact. “Why?**” There isn’t, not really, was the reply. This is highly sought after real estate. Inside, the flats are probably beautiful. But nobody is taking responsibility for the upkeep.
I wasn’t convinced. Husband’s supposition was more likely. “It’s probably normal, fairly unwealthy people who live in them, and have done for a while. But the landlord wants to make more money knocking the place down and selling it to a developer, so they’re letting it fall into disrepair to get rid of the tenants.”
Just like Edinburgh, then.
And of course, Hong Kong’s history as a British Crown colony would explain so much about its current economic climate and its social background. “It was fine while the British ran it,” said one Hong Kong-native taxi driver. “The Chinese are still learning.” The conflict of political ideologies between the two nations is causing a bumpy ride.
Not that I know anything about Hong Kong’s history. Not in any real, useful sense. Only enough to understand why it seems to be a Mecca for the rich and privileged – we lost count of the number of Porsches, Ferraris and Teslas roaring from red light to red light. (It’s quite possibly the stupidest place to buy a performance car.)
We caught the Peak Tram to the top of Victoria Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong Island. We had been advised to catch a bus rather than the tram, which is a tourist torment, but we were fortunate enough to join a short queue. It is the best, most frightening and adrenaline-boosting tram I have ever been on. Its route straight up to the Peak tips it to a 45° angle. And you can stand up if you want!
Apparently, the tram was built in 1888 to cater for the British colonists, who lived at the top of the highly sought after Peak. They weren’t going to live down with the poor people at the bottom of the hill. And they sure as hell weren’t going to walk up to their entitled estates at the top. The servants could walk – they would catch the tram. The British really could be arseholes but god we used to be good at engineering.
The city is now getting its revenge on the British by forcing a bizarre tourist experience on them at the top of the Peak. There is a space station-style viewing platform, for which you pay stupid money to look down on the skyscrapers below you. There is a queue the length of the Thames to get into the toilets. There is an inflatable toy for the children to bounce themselves sick on (and believe me, in the 25°C heat and 70% humidity, they will be sick).
We, with some excellent advice, eschewed the viewing platform, and walked the path around the Peak instead. We were treated to views we did not have to pay for. Views of fields of high rises, acres of office blocks, miles and miles and miles of glinting buildings that stretched up, straining to escape the wet smoggy sky and touch the heavens. It was… beautiful. Breathtaking. A monument to man’s ability and stupidity.
* #firstworldproblems #luckytobeprivilegedenoughtohavetheseproblems #butstill
** I realise this sounds as though I’m offended that poor people are allowed to live in a rich area. I’m more pissed off that the blatant disparity between rich and poor doesn’t motivate those with money to share it with those who don’t.