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A Dispatch from Hong Kong

“What does your revolution look like?” The words jump out, bright and clear, from the frosted glass façade of a multistory shopping arcade on a busy Kowloon intersection. In ordinary times, such a tongue-in-cheek question might be an innocuous reminder to strive for positive change, but this is Hong Kong at the tail end of 2019, more than six months into what has been termed an uprising, a rebellion, and the greatest challenge to Communist rule in China since 1989.

I dreaded that I would return to my hometown at Christmas and find it on a knife’s edge – so tense and polarized that conflict was ready to explode at any moment. But now it all feels surprisingly normal, surprisingly calm. Open storefronts in the gentrifying neighborhood of Sai Ying Pun display cured meats that are a traditional wintertime delicacy: fatty lap cheong sausages, ruby-red and savory yet sweet; whole legs of prized Jinhua ham resembling Spanish jamón. Restaurants continue to fill with white-collar workers on their lunch breaks, while Hong Kong Island’s double-decker trams, affectionately nicknamed “ding ding” for the sound of their bells, trundle up and down the streets as they have done since 1904.

I get to catch up with my favorite aunt and a cousin studying in California – my sister’s best friend – at a local restaurant they have frequented for years. The conversation flows freely, and the service is as surly and brusque as one would expect of a no-frills neighborhood diner, or cha chaan teng. Efficient waiters set plates on the table with characteristic Hong Kong speed. “What do you want?!” one barks. Another barely conceals his annoyance at our requests for extra bowls to share our different soup orders. The portions are generous – my aunt offers a slice of breaded pork chop that is perfectly crisp on the outside and yet melt-in-the-mouth within. My own baked Portuguese chicken rice, a specialty of nearby Macau, comes with chunks of carrot and farinaceous potato in a mild turmeric-and-coconut milk curry, not unlike Goan caldinha. The dish was something I loved growing up, but after spending more than three years in Indonesia, where spices and herbs are used in abundance, I can’t shake the feeling that its flavor lacks a certain complexity. Perhaps it is I who has changed.

*             *             *

When I began planning the trip several months before, Bama was adamant that he’d join me for the first few days. But what if we get tear gassed? I asked him. He replied that I knew the escape routes and places to avoid. Besides, he was looking forward to his yearly fix of Cantonese roast duck and har gow (steamed shrimp dumplings) straight from the source. But as the escalating violence reached a crescendo in the middle of November, his worried, soft-spoken mother called him one weekend night. “Are you sure you still want to go to Hong Kong?”

Then came a period of relative calm following the District Council elections, seen by all sides as a de facto referendum on the ongoing protests. Record turnout (just over 71% of registered voters) delivered the pro-democracy camp a landslide win, capturing them an astounding 85% of all contested seats. In Beijing, state media greeted the results with uncomfortable silence or the half-hearted news that the local elections were simply over. The local government’s persistent claim of a “silent majority” against the protest movement had evaporated into thin air.

An iconic view of Victoria Harbour from Kowloon’s redesigned Avenue of Stars

A large golden flower of the Solandra maxima, seen on the promenade

“I wouldn’t miss this WhatsApp message for the world.”

The new-look Avenue of Stars, by James Corner Field Operations

Keep off the grass (and cacti)

One fine morning in Kowloon

Hong Kong Island through the winter haze

A Hypolimnas bolina, or blue moon butterfly, seen near the waterfront

The reinvented Hong Kong Museum of Art (HKMOA)

One last look at the Avenue of Stars

This is the Hong Kong we encounter in late December. At first glance, the city doesn’t seem so different from before, though I begin to spot traces of the protests at every turn. Horizontal railings were pulled from main avenues on both sides of the harbor to build barricades, leaving forlorn rows of vertical posts and plenty of opportunities to jaywalk. Billboards at tram stops are painted in swirling gray patterns to obscure protest slogans; steps leading down into certain metro stations bear scorch marks left by Molotov cocktails; and patches of hastily poured cement reveal where bricks were dug up from the sidewalk. In a dense urban environment chock-full with visual stimuli, these reminders are sometimes only noticeable if one makes the effort to look for them.

On the Kowloon waterfront, protest graffiti has been scrubbed off the benches and planters at the once-tacky Avenue of Stars, now transformed by one of the landscape architects behind The High Line in New York. Although tourist arrivals have nosedived in the past six months, Bama and I still encounter a large Thai contingent taking in the views of Victoria Harbour and the Hong Kong Island skyline as morning joggers breeze past. We then hear snippets of Indonesian, Russian, American English, Tagalog, and Mandarin being spoken on the promenade. Evidently the promise of cheap flights, major discounts for hotel rooms and restaurants, and an absence of queues at big-ticket attractions is too good to pass up.

Bama and I spend a few hours at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, which quietly reopened amid the protests in late November after a four-year, US$120 million revamp. The institution first moved into its current harbor-side premises in 1991, a dull building clad in peach-colored bathroom tiles that was outshone by the Cultural Centre and Space Museum next door. I visited just once or twice on school outings, and even then I can’t even remember what I actually saw in the galleries. Two decades on, the change has been nothing short of remarkable. Gone is the uninspiring and outdated exterior; in its place a gray textured façade simultaneously recalls the waves of Victoria Harbour and traditional Chinese masonry. Inside, the inviting new lobby is drenched in natural light, all rooms have higher ceilings, and the building is crowned with a new glass-walled gallery that offers panoramic views of both the harbor and cityscape.

Most exhibitions inside the museum are free; buying two tickets for 60 Hong Kong dollars (less than US$8) allows us to admire dreamy landscape paintings by J.M.W. Turner on loan from the Tate. But it’s the underappreciated creativity of local artists and Hong Kong’s lesser-known art history that catches my attention. One showcase opens with Waterfall at Aberdeen, Hong Kong, a small 1816 watercolor that is the oldest known pictorial record of the territory. Formerly a precious source of fresh water for European sailors traveling between Asian ports such as Canton (Guangzhou), Manila, and Malacca, the cascade depicted in the frame still exists, albeit with a much-reduced volume.

The institution houses one of the world’s largest collections of China trade art, which details maritime commerce (and sometimes warfare) between the West and Qing Dynasty China from the 17th to 19th centuries. In a dimly lit gallery, Bama and I quietly marvel at engravings and paintings from the Chater Collection, a priceless trove of artworks lost during the Japanese occupation in World War II. About a quarter of the 400-odd pieces were eventually recovered, more than half of those thanks to the heroic actions of two individuals. One wartime Portuguese resident by the name of F.A. Xavier rescued 30 of the canvases from antique shops, while local contractor Sinn Chi Lam spirited 23 discarded paintings out of Government House – then being remodeled to a Japanese-influenced design – and safeguarded them at great personal risk.

Hong Kong cartoon pig McDull gets his own statue; the HKMOA’s textured facade

Beside the museum entrance; “A Chinese sampan girl” (1852), the work of English artist George Chinnery

“H.M.S. Blenheim”, an 1825 painting by an anonymous artist and part of the Chater Collection

50 years of “no change”, printed on nylon canvas in Hong Kong’s classic red-white-blue pattern

Dating to 1816, this watercolor is the very first pictorial record of Hong Kong

The museum enjoys front-row views of Victoria Harbour

Molded glazed ceramic toys – a play on antique porcelain – by Hong Kong artist Annie Wan Lai-kuen

“Hong Kong Panorama”, the work of celebrated local artist Wilson Shieh Ka Ho

A Lennon Wall on the front of a pro-democracy eatery

Recent years have seen a city-wide discussion over collective identity and a renewed interest in preserving Hong Kong’s built heritage, by adapting colonial-era structures to modern uses and making them more accessible to the public. Late one morning, my father drops us off at the year-old Asia campus of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, a sinuous glass “treehouse of knowledge” that incorporates a former detention center and the once-overgrown ruins of the 1930s-built Jubilee Battery. The latter still watches over the western approaches to Victoria Harbour from its perch on the flanks of Mount Davis, surrounded by thickets of bauhinia blakeana. We’ve come at just the right time: the trees are in full bloom all across town.

I love the bauhinia’s flowers as much for their vibrant purple-pink color as their symbolic meaning. Not for nothing is it also known as the Hong Kong orchid tree: the species is actually a sterile hybrid that was first discovered here around 1880, barely two miles away from where we are standing. British colonial-era administrators adopted its five-petal blossom as the territory’s floral emblem in 1965, and a stylized version appears on the Hong Kong flag and coat of arms. And Hong Kong Dollar coins minted since the early nineties typically show the flower on the reverse side, no matter the denomination. Even in Jakarta, where I pass a row of eight bauhinia trees every weekday on my way home from work, it is difficult not to look upon their gorgeous blooms with nostalgia and a deep sense of longing.

The bauhinia flowers festooning the grounds of Jubilee Battery are probably the biggest I’ve ever seen. Some greet us at eye and nose level, prompting Bama to lean in close and sniff them. “It’s sweet and fragrant,” he says. “Like the scent of roses but more faint.” I have a harder time detecting the aroma, and must close my eyes before finally getting a whiff of its perfume. All this time I had no idea Hong Kong’s emblematic blossoms gave off such a pleasing smell.

Eventually, on the way out, we approach a cleaner who cheerfully says hello. She assumed Bama and I were botanists because we had spent so long examining the flowers. “So you were just taking photographs! I thought you two were seeing if the trees were sick.” Her friendliness and warmth, not traits one would ordinarily associate with hurried Hong Kongers, are entirely unexpected. “The best part is seeing all the “shy grass” [Mimosa pudica]. They used to grow everywhere in these parts but they’re now so rare.” Bama has just sighted a sizable cluster by the concrete footpath, and we react in childlike glee as their sensitive leaves fold up with the touch of a finger.

The ruins of the Jubilee Battery at Mount Davis; bauhinia blakeana flowers on the grounds

Mimosa pudica; the University of Chicago Hong Kong Campus overlooks the old gun emplacements

Bauhinia blakeana was first discovered in 19th-century Hong Kong

Dog days at Stanley’s waterfront promenade, on the south side of Hong Kong Island

German pork knuckle, spätzle, goulash in Stanley; Nuremburger and snail sausages

Wandering the Shek O coastline, altered in 2018 by the power of Typhoon Mangkhut

Phalaenopsis orchids and a stately seaside house in Shek O village

Shek O Beach on a warm and hazy Boxing Day

The other side of Shek O Beach

Because this is Bama’s sixth visit to my hometown, it sometimes feels as though I am running out of new places to show him. But then I forget there are still plenty of outlying islands and country parks where we can soak up Hong Kong’s astounding natural beauty and the slower rhythms of rural life.

I realize just how out of shape I’ve become on a four-hour hike along the mountainous spine of Lantau island (more on that in the next post), and after getting our fill of art in Kowloon, we while away an afternoon at the adjoining blue-collar neighborhoods of Yau Ma Tei and Jordan. Both are gritty and atmospheric; their tenement buildings have not yet been bulldozed to make way for anodyne malls or luxury flats. Our first stop? Mido Café, one of the oldest and most famous cha chaan teng (neighborhood diners) in the city. Its old-school interior décor, except maybe the ceiling, hasn’t really been updated since the place opened in 1950. A silver-haired proprietor points us toward a teal mosaic-covered staircase the moment we step inside. “How about sitting upstairs?” she asks us gently. And so we do, turning left at the top to settle into hard booth seats by the iron-framed window. Our perch looks straight out over the tiled glazed roofs of the mid-19th century Tin Hau Temple, green and lustrous in the soft rays of the winter sun.

Anyone who comes to Hong Kong should try “soy sauce Western”, which can be described as the inverse of American Chinese cuisine, or more specifically, western food modified to suit the Chinese palate. The extensive menu at Mido Café offers a dizzying array of these dishes: ham and macaroni in broth, an enduring breakfast staple; grouper fillet baked in cream sauce over fried rice; crispy deep-fried French toast topped with a slab of butter and drenched in golden syrup. I end up ordering a glass of iced Hong Kong–style milk tea and a hearty baked seafood rice, one of my childhood favorites. The portions are so generous I only just manage to clear my plate.

We work off the calories by strolling the banyan-shaded square in front of the Tin Hau Temple, and then, after admiring the sanctuary’s exterior carvings, walk northwards along Shanghai Street. There are traditional shops selling all manner of kitchenware: woks, large stainless-steel steamers, waffle irons, wooden paddle-like mooncake molds. Bama suddenly stops and waves me over to a display window. Behind the glass, a well-fed feline slumbers in a bed amid a heap of plastic-wrapped feng shui compasses. Bama’s cat radar never fails him.

Beneath a massive apartment block farther up the road, we find the forlorn “Red Brick House”, the only surviving remnant of a historic pumping station built in 1895. What was once the engineer’s office has now been converted into an activity center for Cantonese opera – a role it shares with the nearby Yau Ma Tei Theater, the sole pre-World War II cinema building that remains in Hong Kong. Directly across the street from the whitewashed theater lies Yau Ma Tei’s sprawling wholesale fruit market: a ramshackle jumble of two-story buildings, some so dilapidated that little Chinese banyan trees have sprouted from the roof, their exposed roots firmly anchored in brick and stone. Not even the full force of Typhoon Mangkhut – which sent construction cranes spinning wildly, tore out windows from waterfront office buildings, and scoured sand from beaches when it roared through in 2018 – could uproot these persistent growers. Later, I tell Bama of my realization that Hong Kong’s most interesting and photogenic areas are often the ones that are more unkempt and rundown. “Well,” he replies, “that’s what makes it different from Singapore.”

I lead Bama into a multi-story car park that straddles and envelopes a two-lane highway. But we’re not here to see the elevated road slicing straight through the middle of the building; we’ve come because this is easily the best vantage point over the Temple Street Night Market, a slightly seedy tourist magnet known for its cheap souvenirs and open-air eateries. We stand in the fading afternoon light on the near-empty fifth floor, waiting for sundown when Jordan and Yau Ma Tei will slowly transform into the neon-lit Hong Kong of Wong Kar-wai’s movies.

Down below, vendors at the ramshackle stalls are busy setting up their wares as a sex worker in a miniskirt waits for prospective clients. She leans against a shuttered shop facing one of the night market’s two traditional-styled gateways, its red-painted pillars now bearing the words “Heaven will destroy Carrie Lam”. This refers to the territory’s deeply unpopular (and unelected) leader who has buried her head in the sand since the unrest began last June, when she tried to force through an extradition bill that would have allowed wanted individuals in Hong Kong to face trial in mainland China’s notoriously opaque and dubious judicial system. I also spot English obscenities spray-painted on the street aimed at the police, who are now so despised by the majority of the population that they must now patrol in groups of at least eight to 10 officers.

Air-dried “lap cheong” sausages in the gentrifying neighborhood of Sai Ying Pun

Carving up legs of Jinhua ham at a nearby stall

Art on a hand-built double-decker tram (a.k.a. “ding ding”)

Outside a hipster deli in Sai Ying Pun; what’s old is new again on Bonham Road

In the shadow of giants

Pointing to police brutality, with the MTR logo altered to become the Chinese character for “excrement”

Glazed Shiwan ceramic reliefs atop Lo Pan Temple, in the Kennedy Town neighborhood

Built in 1884, Lo Pan Temple is dedicated to the patron deity of Chinese builders and carpenters

Luxury advertisement on wheels; bamboo scaffolding at an intersection in Yau Ma Tei

How did the Hong Kong police force completely lose public trust? Pro-China newspapers will tell you that the violence is purely the fault of the protesters. But while there are methods used by certain frontline fighters that I do not agree with and cannot condone – vandalizing shops, restaurants, banks, and malls perceived to be pro-Beijing; lobbing Molotov cocktails; and beating up ordinary citizens, with the most horrific example being the immolation of an elderly heckler – all this pales in comparison with the shocking brutality meted out by riot, traffic, and plainclothes police. “They deserve it,” government supporters will say. “Don’t defy authority and you won’t get in trouble.”

Among the protest movement’s five key demands – and one supported by an overwhelming 74 to almost 90 percent of respondents in recent surveys – is an independent investigation of the Hong Kong police in their handling of the unrest. August 31st saw squads in full riot gear storming transit stations and train carriages, indiscriminately swinging batons and targeting helpless passengers with pepper spray. In October and November, news cameras captured police shooting two teenage protesters in the chest at point-blank range. Too many have been admitted to hospital with broken bones and other severe injuries; a 15-year-old fell into a coma after taking a tear-gas canister to the head, requiring brain surgery to save his life; while several journalists and volunteer medics were blinded in one eye by rubber bullets and bean-bag rounds. So far, at least 7,000 people (more than Hong Kong’s total prison population) have been arrested, many arbitrarily detained and rounded up en masse under harsh British colonial-era laws.

In stark contrast, not a single police officer has been held accountable despite the many documented instances of excessive force used against protesters young and old, journalists, and bystanders. Much to the bewilderment of my level-headed father, not a single senior government official has resigned. No one in the highest levels of administration seems to be heeding widespread calls for a political solution to a political problem. It is clear that Carrie Lam can only do the bidding of her puppet masters in Beijing.

The protests have exposed deep divisions among Hong Kong residents, even more so than during the peaceful “Umbrella Movement” five years ago that shut down a number of main roads for 79 days. Society is now split into a pro-democracy “yellow” camp and a “blue” camp that is pro-Beijing, pro-government, and pro-police. This is borne out in heated discussions over the dinner table soon after Bama’s departure on Christmas Day. Several older relatives claim the whole saga is being orchestrated by shadowy foreign elements like the CIA, betraying a mistaken belief that young Hong Kongers are simply not capable of organizing themselves, with the help of technology, into a leaderless movement. “Everything the international media says about it is fake news,” an uncle dismissively says. “America is in the business of fomenting color revolutions. After Hong Kong is finished, the next targets will be Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. Just you wait!”

Christmas dinner at my grandparents’ is the usual feast: poached salmon, home-cooked spaghetti in a sweet tomato sauce, roast duck and turkey with stuffing. This time, there are also a few small tins of caviar. But the glistening black orbs taste metallic and terribly fishy; small stickers hidden on the bottom of each container reveal that these are more than 11 months past their date of consumption. It could be said that Hong Kong, too, has an expiry date. The clock is ticking toward July 1, 2047, when 50 years of special autonomy under China’s “One Country, Two Systems” policy will inevitably come to an end. My own long-term anxiety about Hong Kong’s future is shared by millions of others, and it is most keenly felt by the students who will be in the prime of their working lives when that inescapable deadline rolls around.

The upper-floor dining room of Mido Café

Booth seats by the window; Mido Café from the outside

Soy sauce Western food at Mido Café; looking through the entrance of Tin Hau Temple

The banyan-shaded public square (or rest garden) outside the temple gates

Taking a catnap

Yau Ma Tei’s heritage-listed “Red Brick House”

Scenes from Yau Ma Tei Fruit Market

A small temple dedicated to Kwun Yum, the Goddess of Mercy; the stalls of Temple Street Night Market

Jordan is one of Hong Kong’s grittier neighborhoods

I left Hong Kong for Indonesia in the middle of 2016, and since then, I have watched from afar with great dismay as Beijing has tightened the screws on my hometown. The government’s heavy-handed and tone-deaf response to the protests has thrown the ongoing erosion of Hong Kong’s cherished freedoms into even sharper focus. It is beyond doubt that those in power wish to turn this free-thinking global metropolis into just another Chinese city well before 2047, with a pliant and firmly “patriotic” populace.

Looking so far into the future raises a host of uncomfortable questions. Will the Hong Kong of the coming decades lose its status as a safe haven of dissent? Will we have the same restrictions on information as the mainland, with sensitive topics wiped from the Internet and libraries purged of books deemed a threat to the government’s iron grip? Will Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus alike be allowed to worship without pledging loyalty to a ruthless president-for-life in Beijing? Will anyone be given a fair trial under the Common Law system? Perhaps Cantonese – arguably richer and more expressive than Mandarin – will no longer be the lingua franca, marginalized and reduced to a mere “dialect”. My father tells me this is a foregone conclusion. “Look what happened to Shanghainese,” he says, alluding to the lilting, melodic language full of va va sounds my late grandparents spoke at home in Canada.

On my last night in town, I meet up with an old friend I haven’t seen in five years. “Do you still remember your Cantonese?” she jokes. My friend encapsulates the Hong Kong story. Fluent in at least three languages, she came from a humble, working-class background, attended university, and now holds a white-collar job. But her family, like so many others in this city, is bitterly divided. The difference in political opinion reflects a wider clash between traditional Chinese values (obedience, respect for elders, conformity) and Western liberalism that demands civil rights and greater political representation. It tends to be the younger generations who desire change, whereas many older residents prefer not to rock the boat, maintaining the veneer of stability that allowed Hong Kong to prosper while mainland China went through decades of hardship and turmoil under Chairman Mao. “I don’t understand it,” my friend tells me over Korean rice cakes bathed in a creamy carbonara sauce. “My own parents suffered under the Communist regime before they came to Hong Kong. But they don’t differentiate between China itself and the Chinese Communist Party; it’s like everything the government does must be right. What about the mass internment camps in Xinjiang?”

At the Hong Kong Museum of Art a few days earlier, I caught sight of a video installation projected onto windows looking out to Victoria Harbour. It was then that I first learned of the luting, mythical mermen-like creatures believed to descend from refugees driven from the heartlands of ancient China to its southern periphery. Forced to live between two different worlds, the land and the sea, luting are said to dwell in Hong Kong waters. Local fishermen reported their last sighting of the aquatic beings off Lantau in 1940, though colonial authorities explained that it was simply a dugong.

In a way, luting can be taken as a metaphor for Hong Kongers and their hybrid identity: not quite Chinese and not quite British, steeped in the ways of Chinese culture but adept at moving in international circles. I realize that I am very much a luting, as is my friend, who spent two years in London on a working holiday to gain some precious overseas experience. And much to the fury of her parents, she recently moved out on her own, breaking an unwritten rule to live at home until marriage. “I’m already so westernized,” she says with a half-smile. Inevitably, our conversation touches on whether she will stay put in Hong Kong or make plans to seek a better future abroad. “If I were to emigrate,” my friend tells me, “where would I go?” That kind of uncertainty is also trickling down into day-to-day life. “What has changed, I think, is that people are more focused on enjoying the present because we don’t even know what will happen tomorrow.”

Temple Street Night Market at dusk

Hot pot, anyone?

After dark on Jordan’s Woosung Street

Street-side dining at a small Wan Chai eatery; classic neon signs in Jordan

Christmas decorations above Wan Chai’s pedestrianized, faux-European Lee Tung Street

A temporary tram jam on Johnston Road

Wan Chai nights

Practical information for visiting Hong Kong now

Keeping up-to-date and informed is especially important in the days preceding the trip. Concise, balanced coverage is a hallmark of news wires from Reuters and AFP (Agence France-Presse). BBC News, The Guardian, Financial Times, and Al-Jazeera are also reliable sources of information. In the U.S., reportage on Hong Kong has been fair, fact-based, and accurate in The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. Locally run website Hong Kong Free Press provides a mix of news stories and thought-provoking opinion pieces; as funding is entirely crowdsourced, the media outlet is not tied to any commercial interests that might dictate its editorial stance.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s most widely circulated English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post (SCMP), is a mixed bag. Excellent on-the-ground coverage by its reporters is often stymied by editors more inclined to fall in line with billionaire owner Jack Ma’s desire to cultivate a more “positive” view on China. This was evident in the vocabulary (frontline protesters are described as “radicals” and “rioters”) and choice of front-page stories the week I was there. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between the SCMP and Chinese state-run newspapers like the China Daily and nationalistic tabloid Global Times.

The intensity and frequency of street protests has been dialed back since a massive anti-government march on New Year’s Day drew an estimated one million people. An updated protest schedule can be found on this Facebook page or alternatively on Instagram. More significant demonstrations typically take place on weekends and public holidays, although the police are now in the habit of banning them altogether, or cutting approved rallies short the moment anyone steps out of line.

It is recommended not to wear black clothing together with a face mask as both uniformed and plainclothes police on the street may mistake you for a protester. This is especially the case for visitors of East Asian descent.

Large-scale transport disruptions are no longer a feature of the protests as they were in the latter half of 2019. However, certain restrictions remain in place at the airport. Only passengers with passports and a flight itinerary/e-ticket are allowed to enter the terminals, regardless of whether one is arriving by taxi, bus, or train.

36 Comments Post a comment
  1. We have those orchid trees here in Tavira too, but I’d love to see them in Hong Kong 🙂 🙂

    January 25, 2020
    • It’s remarkable how the trees have been transplanted all over the world – especially since they were all descended from the same “mother plant” found in the wild!

      January 26, 2020
  2. Wow, James, this is a masterfully written post. Your local perspective, woven with history and photos of past and present, paints a complex picture of this dynamic city. Most of all I love how, upon arrival in Hong Kong, you go straight to its culinary offerings like so many of us do when we’re visiting our home town. And going beyond that, you so beautifully convey how food and the act of dining together — with family and friends, young and old — always — no matter where you are in the world — provides an accurate real-time update of the views and interpretations, from residents, of what’s happening in the neighborhood. Thank you for such a compelling read, and your photo of the MRT sign (with embellishments) is particularly striking (although I love the butterfly and city views most).

    January 26, 2020
    • Thank you so much, Kelly, for both the kind words and your thoughtful comment! So much of my week there was planned around those shared meals. Bama and I arrived first thing in the morning and within five or six hours we were already feasting on an assortment of dumplings and noodles at a Shanghainese restaurant. Also on the topic of food, my dad treated me to lunch at a German restaurant on Boxing Day and I just had to try the Nuremberger sausage there after reading your recent post. I’m happy to report that it lived up to expectations. 🙂

      January 26, 2020
      • Oh, that’s so great that you tried a Nuremberger suasage!! Happy to hear you enjoyed it, and even better that it was during a nice holiday lunch with your dad. How fun. Those are the meals we remember most — with loved ones and loved food!

        January 31, 2020
  3. So much to take in here. It’s good to get your in depth and local perspective. I loved the back and forth from your day to day experience interwoven with the troubling political situation. Walking the streets with you on this journey makes me long to go back and explore more! And that photo of the Temple Street Night Market is quite exceptional.

    January 26, 2020
    • Thanks Alison! It was a bit of a struggle to maintain the right balance between lighter anecdotes and the more heavy-duty sections – I knew the politics had to be in there because it just wouldn’t be an honest account of Hong Kong otherwise. The shot of Temple Street Night Market was a long time coming… I’d planned to get a similar photo last year but it was rainy and I went at just the wrong time, when all the stalls were still closed.

      January 26, 2020
  4. There are so many layers here in your post; the uncertain times ahead make for a troubling future. But the vibrancy conveyed in your photos is evident, and the food! Well the food is mouth-wateringly described.

    January 26, 2020
    • Surprisingly, I didn’t take many food pictures this time around. Part of it was not wanting to bring a DSLR to family meals, especially if there were any heated political discussions at the table!

      January 26, 2020
  5. A great read. Thanks. Hong Kong, in my view, will go the way of a program I saw on Netflix on China (that was quickly banned in the country). Perhaps Patriot Act is shown in Indonesia. It’s definitely worth watching.

    January 26, 2020
    • You’re welcome, Mallee. I’m pretty sure Patriot Act can be viewed here in Indonesia so that’s even more reason to sign up to Netflix. Thanks too for the recommendation!

      January 26, 2020
  6. Really enlightening, James. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for HK and I too wonder what the future will hold for her. I was thinking that it might end badly, with cops and soldiers rolling in, but now I just… don’t know. One thing is for certain, I really want to come ‘round and see it for myself. 1990s-Paris-style anti-cop graffiti? Who’d ever see the day?

    January 26, 2020
    • Well, there was a genuine fear that the situation in Hong Kong would turn into a slow-motion Tiananmen in October and November, but given how the protests were so closely watched around the world, I guess Beijing did not want to risk such a major blow to China’s international standing. As for the future of the pro-democracy movement, there’s less of an appetite for street protests these days; instead, people are working to institutionalize dissent by forming new labor unions in just about every industry, and by challenging the government at a local level through the District Councils.

      January 26, 2020
      • Good luck guys!

        January 27, 2020
      • Thank you, Fabrizio!

        January 27, 2020
  7. I find many people in Indonesia not really well-informed about what’s happening in Hong Kong, and I blame the lack of critical thinking (which is not taught at schools here) for that. Some people think the protesters are not voicing out Hong Kong people’s aspiration, which is analogous to saying that the student protests in Indonesia to topple Suharto’s regime in 1998 was not what Indonesians wanted. I hope Hong Kongers will remain adamant to keep the pressure on the government to manage the territory in a more accountable way, because as proven in many places across the globe a country or a city will truly thrive only when its leaders serve the people.

    On a lighter note, even though we seem to run out of things to see in Hong Kong, but somehow you always managed to find interesting places to explore. Next time I think we should check out the Asia Society.

    January 26, 2020
    • It has been fascinating to hear what you make of the Hong Kong protests, and how it compares to Indonesia’s own experience and the large-scale unrest it went through 22 years ago to gradually become a full-fledged democracy. As you said, the general lack of critical thinking is a real problem here in Indonesia, but it is encouraging to see the rise of civil society and a growing awareness among younger generations of the need to speak up and safeguard their hard-won civil and political rights.

      We’ll definitely have to plan a few hours at the Asia Society on our next trip back – I remember going maybe five or six years ago and being impressed with how it combined heritage architecture and more modern elements.

      January 26, 2020
  8. Great to read your long and detailed post. Hong Kong is a place that I’ve been meaning to go back to after spending a only a few hours in during a long layover. I loved the surly waiters of Kowloon (you can tell that I’m a city person) and the crowded streets. Glad to have your take on the unrest and the present situation.

    January 26, 2020
    • Thanks for staying with me right till the end, I.J. – this may well be my longest post yet! Hong Kong is such a complex, surprising place, and it really does pack a lot into a very small area. I hope you get at least a couple of days to explore the city the next time you pass through.

      January 26, 2020
      • Hope to come to Hong Kong sometime instead of just passing through.

        January 26, 2020
  9. Very detailed post. Reminded me of my trip to HK although I did skip a couple of places you have mentioned.

    January 26, 2020
    • Cheers. There’s always something new to check out whenever I return to Hong Kong, whether it’s a local attraction, the latest crop of interesting restaurants, or a revamped old favorite.

      January 27, 2020
      • cool

        January 27, 2020
  10. I enjoyed your story about Hong Kong. When I see long posts like these, I try to set aside some time otherwise I’ll just skim through it.

    While I wasn’t born in Hong Kong, I still have relatives there. They are saddened and angry by what they’ve seen and experienced from the govt. I hope to return after this Corona virus is over.

    p.s. both you and Bama write so well. For the longest time, I didn’t even know the two of you knew each other.

    January 26, 2020
    • Matt, thanks so much for the kind words – I’m grateful you made the effort to sit down and read this (very long) post from beginning to end.

      I didn’t know you had family ties to Hong Kong, so that comes as a nice surprise. Also, your Instagram feed suggests you’re based in TO? Quite a few of my relatives (on both sides of the family) live there so we also have that in common. I used to visit once a year but haven’t been back since 2011.

      The coronavirus is indeed worrying. Now that five million people have left Wuhan, I fear the large-scale quarantines have simply come too late. And I can’t shake the underlying suspicion that Chinese authorities are under-reporting the actual figures of infections and deaths. Fingers crossed Hong Kong will fare much better than it did during SARS.

      January 27, 2020
  11. Thank you James for this insiders perspective of what’s going on in Hong Kong. It’s hard for me to fathom the extent of police brutality that you describe–7000 people arrested and not one police officer held accountable for the use of excessive force…incredible! I think of my university-age son who faces the considerable “normal” stresses of a young person and contrast this with the enormous additional stresses of his counterparts in HK. It’s very worrisome.
    On a different note, I admire how you have so beautifully woven your excursions with Bama, your connection with friends and family, and your delightful culinary experiences into this narrative. And those flowers are incredibly beautiful. I see people in your photos walking around in short sleeves. I didn’t know it was so warm in HK in December.

    January 28, 2020
    • You’re welcome, Caroline! Thanks in turn for the thoughtful, sympathetic comment. December can get pretty warm in Hong Kong… I remember multiple Christmases when temperatures hovered between 20-25 degrees Celsius. It’s really the perfect time for a day at the beach or a hike, although conditions can get hazy/smoggy with the seasonal winds blowing in from mainland China. February tends to be Hong Kong’s coldest month, but the lows are still incomparable with what you’d usually get in Vancouver!

      January 28, 2020
  12. If only the political situation were the only thing occupying my mind right now as we prepare (or not) to head to Asia and our final stop in Hong Kong in the next week and more. Alas, we now have the coronavirus mess to assess; while travel to most of our destinations is not yet halted, the last thing we want to do is be stranded somewhere once there.

    On a more positive note, your post was a brilliant read on so many levels. I recognize some of it from your very helpful email on what to see and do in Hong Kong, and I’m so glad that Bama was able to come and that both of you could enjoy your hometown over the holidays!

    January 28, 2020
    • Thanks, Lex! It really feels as though Bama and I were there at just the right moment. Had we gone for Chinese New Year instead, we might have had to self-quarantine for two weeks after coming back as a (slightly over-the-top) precaution.

      It’s such a shame that the coronavirus outbreak is casting a pall over your upcoming travel plans. Southeast Asia *should* be fine in the next couple of weeks so I wouldn’t worry too much about your time in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Hong Kong is more of a concern, being right next door to Mainland China, but the general response there has been much quicker than it was during SARS, with flights to/from the mainland being halved and direct train and ferry services halted starting tomorrow. All schools are shut until at least February 17, while many businesses are advising their employees to work from home. The authorities have also taken the drastic step to close all sports and cultural venues (including museums) indefinitely. Hiking trails, however, are still open. Should you choose to stick around for the layover as planned, it will be a very strange time (think near-deserted streets) to be there.

      January 29, 2020
  13. James i have been thinking a great deal about Hong Kong with the coronovirus issue. Such an unknown a this point. Just reading Lexie’s comment above definitely some uncertainty to travel there right now.
    Your tour of Hong Kong was a wonder to read and to gaze at the photos. I felt your concern about the 2047 deadline. I shall be a very old woman by then. It makes me feel quite reflective to think what the world will look like by then.

    January 30, 2020
    • Thankfully, unlike with SARS, Hong Kong isn’t right at the center of the outbreak. My family and friends there have been staying at home as much as possible and stocking up on supplies like face masks and disinfectant. So far the city hasn’t seen cases of local transmission, which is a good sign, though no one knows whether that will change in the coming days and weeks. My biggest worry is for the medical workers who are treating patients on the front line – we lost so many of them during SARS and I hope the hospitals are better prepared this time around.

      January 30, 2020
      • I share that hope James. Health care workers died in Toronto as well as you likely recall. I will keep you family in my thoughts in the weeks ahead.

        January 30, 2020
      • Thank you, Sue. Hopefully both Canada and Hong Kong will not see a repeat of what happened 17 years ago.

        January 30, 2020
  14. I assume no one in your immediate family has Canadian citizenship?

    March 21, 2021

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