NOTE: This article was originally written and published by Dr Anne as two shorter articles on her EastWest Psyche Ltd company website in 2019, which can be found at https://eastwestpsyche.org/2019/02/23/100-countries-hong-kong/ and https://eastwestpsyche.org/2019/07/19/hong-kong/. The original articles have been modified by Dr Anne for this publication.
Hong Kong, called the “Pearl of the Orient” … though she has never engaged in pearl diving nor traded in pearls, and was a largely uninhabited swampland when China gave her to the British after losing 2 wars over opium — which the latter wanted to import, and the former had refused to sell. A colourful story, this island — or rather, island group plus mainland ‘triangle’ — even now functions largely as a nation-state, independent-minded and freedom-loving, despite the recent heavy-handed involvement by Beijing.
- Chinese inhabitants: primarily Cantonese and Shanghainese
- Significant-sized non-Chinese communities: Filipino, Indonesian, Indian (Nepalese, Pakistani)
- Presence of largely nomadic Hakka ethnic minority
- Former British territory: influence of ‘Western’ cultural features, highly internationalised
- Preservation of Chinese traditions: did not experience ‘Cultural Revolution’ of China mainland
- Maritime culture; numerous Taoist shrines to sea goddess Tin Hau
The harbour between Hong Kong’s namesake island and its mainland neighborhoods to the north has long served as a major trade thoroughfare. Much wider before successive land reclamation projects on both sides, today it takes just 5 minutes for the traditional British Star Ferries to cross. Highly trafficked, including cruise ships (prior to the Covid pandemic era) though freighters now use other routes; most HK residents, however, prefer to pass beneath — in the sophisticated and highly efficient metro system known locally as the “MTR-oh.”
Along with its charming if inefficient traditional Star Ferries, Hong Kong holds onto its once-British tram system — affectionately known by locals as the ‘Ding-Ding’ for its bell. One jogger proved he could run the track faster than its trains, nannies and their wee charges frequent the trams along with silver-haired elders, and one granny was seen transporting a large covered basket — of frogs. (Specialised trams are also on hire for celebrations.)
Hong Kong stubbornly holds onto its traditional markets, even as it’s also a foodie destination with multiple Michelin-starred restaurants. Often deemed unsanitary as fish and meat sit in the subtropical sun, flies and all, the market — and market culture — persist. A great deal of life and community happens at these markets, and it would be a shame to see them give way to modernization — in property-crazed HK, prone to gentrification.
Some of the most modern features of Hong Kong are its shopping malls, serving as navigational landmarks and as oases from the punishing heat, humidity, and torrential rains. Another such lesser known place of respite is the Central Library across from Victoria Park. With its 10 storeys, smart technology, and contemporary design, it pays homage to intellectual pursuit. Victoria Park across the busy street provides its own, equally glorious respite — part of a little- known fact about crowded Hong Kong: a full 80% of the SAR is protected greenspace.
Hong Kong is a world class city, but does love its traditions — none deeper than its folk religion which today is a syncretism of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. With countless shrines dotting the landscape, a practice of ancestor worship, reverence for Tien Hau goddess of the sea — and the ever-present dragon, a water spirit in Asian lore — HK maintains its spiritual heritage in a way that mainland China has lost, all within a highly sophisticated urban context.
Hong Kong also maintains its traditional art forms, such as Cantonese Opera — a style distinct from that which might still be found in Shanghai. Though a sound not for everyone, it is highly stylised and a glorious feast for the eyes, commonly available in a variety of venues. In early spring each year on Lamma Island, the truly traditional form is offered in a 2-day festival: open-air by the shore, in a temporary theatre built over the week prior — out of bamboo.
Modern art is celebrated in all its forms in the Hong Kong of today, not 2 decades ago referred to as “the black hole of art in Asia” for its dearth. February each year, prior to the Covid pandemic era, saw a month-long art festival with offerings both international and local; West Kowloon has been gentrified as an art zone, while several performing arts centers on both sides of the harbour keep busy schedules. Museums are still lacking, though galleries abound — including a recently restored former police station in Central, now a multi-use art space.
Art pushes boundaries of all types, often the political. Hong Kong, which distinguishes itself from China politically as well as culturally — even as it is now, if largely independent, a territory of the mainland once more, with ‘immigrant’ mainlander Chinese at nearly 15% of its population — frequently uses art as a form of rebellion. Seen here, in a typical style of bulbous characters, is a gentle mocking of both Chinese traditions — and the ‘Red Army’.
Hong Kong protests political interference from its mainland overlord in more rigorous ways, as first seen in the 2014 Umbrella Revolution. Using umbrellas to shield against police tear gas, protesters blocked public areas for several weeks in a battle for democratic process as promised in the 50-year agreement when HK was ceded to China from UK — as the PRC demanded approval of all political candidates. Currently, another battle rages between HK citizens and Beijing, this time over a highly contested extradition proposal — with turnout at one demonstration in particular reaching nearly 40% of the HK population.
With issues never resolved, protest erupted once more in March 2019, continuing for a full year of unrest before the advent of the pandemic and its emergency procedures. While not specifically a protest for independence, HK citizens fought for several specific objectives under the general heading of its autonomy being guaranteed through the full 50-year term of the 1997 agreement (i.e. to 2047) between UK and China in the handover of HK from former to latter, an agreement which has been repeatedly violated by Beijing. Today, HK elections for its Legislative Council consist of candidates pre-approved by Beijing, while publishers of anti-PRC sentiment as well as former protest leaders have often been arrested. Stopped prematurely due to the pandemic public health requirements, this issue is far from concluded and likely to erupt again.
During this pandemic era, referenced several times above, Hong Kong SAR has maintained one of the world’s strictest policies to date, including mandatory 21-day self-pay hotel quarantine for arrivals despite vaccination status, and other such requirements. Despite this ‘zero tolerance’ approach also taken by Beijing in the mainland, or perhaps because of it, by mid-March 2022 HK had the world’s highest death rate due to Covid, and is likely to keep its restrictions in place for an indeterminate period. At this writing, Covid incidence in this population of 7.5 million is 1,197,078 cases and 9,110 deaths; ironically, HK adopted its strict approach out of fear stemming from its SARS crisis of 2003…which saw 1,750 cases and 286 deaths in total.
For Better Understanding:
- Primary growth engine: immigrants from mainland China
- Primary industry: finance; swiftly emerging as second highest industry: IT; unofficial key ‘industry’: start-up / entrepreneurship
- English still widely spoken, but Cantonese preferred since 1997 handover (from UK to China) – and Mandarin Chinese rapidly rising
- “One Country, Two Systems” policy – Hong Kong maintains its own governance, including freedom of speech and press, and right to demonstrate – however, the rapidly increasing influence of Beijing is widely felt
- Hong Kong, one of the world’s most densely populated cities with 7.5 million population in 1108 square kilometres (1.5 times the size of Singapore, but just 41% the size of Rhode Island, smallest state in US) consists of 80% protected greenspace — which means, 7.552 million people live within 221.6 square kilometres