Reports From The Road, Travel

Report From China #4

November 23, 2010
Hong Kong, China

When the tour of China ended I took a Cathay Pacific flight from Shanghai to Hong Kong. On the A21 bus from the airport into Kowloon I was surprised by how big the Hong Kong area was. As we sped along the highway the bus went past bays, rolling hills and rows of high rise condos in an endless skyline. Hong Kong was divided into four main areas: Hong Kong Island; the main financial area, Kowloon; the shopping and entertainment area, the New Territories; housing estates and rural areas, and the Outlying Islands; fishing villages, beaches and country trails.

At the the Salisbury YMCA hotel in Kowloon I walked towards the desk to check in. Someone called my name. I turned and there were Ellie and Ellie, the two women from my China tour group. They’d arrived in Hong Kong the day before and we’d made plans to meet up. The next day we took the Star Ferry to Central on Hong Kong Island where we caught a double decker bus and sat on the top deck in the front seats for a hair raising ride through winding roads, past Repulse Bay, to the Stanley Market. After we made our way through the maze of stalls we took a barefoot walk on the beach, finally getting my feet off concrete for a little while.

In the afternoon we took the eight minute Peak Tram ride 1,800 feet up to Victoria Peak. The tram exit led us into the Peak Tower, a seven story shopping area. We couldn’t find our way out of it. We passed a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Odditoriuam, Madame Tussaud’s Waxworks Museum, gift shops, restaurants, and for an additional charge an observation deck on the top floor.

Finally, we found an exit from the shopping area and stepped outside, not to the expected view of Victoria Harbor, but a view of Starbucks, Haagen Dazs, New York Fries and Burger King, all part of the Peak Galleria Shopping Centre adjacent to the Peak Tower. In my frustration I marched into New York Fries and ordered a large order of fries and munched on them in the square wondering what the hell the world had come to.

We left the square and started down the hill where we found a “free” lookout to the city. We continued onto a path through lush green forest and woodlands. Birds sang loudly as we slowly made our way down the mountain, until an hour later their song was replaced by the roar of the city.

My friends left the next day. Aside from the few minutes of walking on the beach and my hike down Victoria Peak my plan to see the quiet side of Hong Kong failed miserably. During the rest of the week I found out there was no way to beat the crowds, or easily get through the masses to the quieter spots. One last try had me on the metro one morning headed to Lantau Island to take the gondola up the mountain to see the giant Tian Tan Buddha. By the time I got to the entrance for the gondola ride the line wound around a roped off area like a long snake with over an hour wait time. I couldn’t bear another line and more crowds.

As I walked the crowded streets of Kowloon, I passed stores selling furs, diamonds, watches, handbags, leather goods, electronics, jade, and jewelry. Billboards advertised Rolexes, Adidas, Esprit, Cartier, and Hermes products. McDonald’s, Starbucks, Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken were crammed along Nathan Road, the main shopping street. The hot and humid streets smelled of exhaust, cigarette smoke, raw sewage, incense, rancid oil, dried fish and Chinese herbs. The wind blew dust from construction sites into my eyes. The sky, filled with a brown smog blown in from mainland China, held none of the blue skies expected in Hong Kong in November.

Indian tailors snuck out of doorways and solicited their services; “New suit for you, lady. Good work, cheap.” Men followed me as they hawked their watches; “Hey sweet lady, take a look, just for you.” In the street markets vendors yelled and grabbed at me. Almost every small shop I went into had the same poorly made clothing. The clerks hovered over me as they pushed their trendy clothes. The malls swarmed with conglomerate businesses that sold clothes, made in China, for a higher price than in the U.S..

I already mentioned I hated shopping. I did everything I could to avoid shopping malls, chain stores, and big supermarkets. I loved farmers markets, thrift stores, Mom and Pop shops, and if absolutely necessary online shopping. I liked getting rid of things more than getting things (further disclosure: except for jackets, shoes, cameras and computers). I tried to wear, or use, things as long as possible and then gave them away.

So why did I go to Hong Kong? I was meant to have a three day stop over on my way to Nepal. But since I canceled that final leg of my trip I was in Hong Kong a week.

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I was dead tired of cities, shopping, crowds, pollution, cigarette smoke. I needed some down time. I spent lots of time sitting in Kowloon Park and in my comfortable hotel room, where I watched National Geographic Travel and the Discovery channel. I thought Hong Kong was all glitter, neon and millionaires. But as I explored the city I passed many poor areas. The local people seemed stressed and unhappy. My thoughts were confirmed by an article in the Hong Kong paper written by Michael Chugani:

“Change is not on the way. The people who can effect change won’t do it. And the people who want change can’t do it. We all know the reasons why there is such public discontent – a widening wealth gap, low wages, unaffordable property prices, the power of tycoons, the undue influence of the business class and despair among ordinary people that an unfair society has robbed them of their dream to improve their lives.”

The article went on to say the big corporations didn’t feel it was their job to reduce the growing poverty. It was the government’s job. The government didn’t not want to give handouts. Corporations were paying university graduates near poverty level wages and were upset about the “intrusive” new minimum wage of HK$28 ($3.60) an hour.

Since the Chinese took back Hong Kong in 1997 the principle of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ allowed Hong Kong to maintain its capitalist economy and separate political system for the next fifty years. They made their own monetary and financial policies, maintained their own currencies, and made their own policies on education, culture, sports, and social welfare system. The basic laws also provided constitutional protection on various fundamental human rights and freedoms; the freedom of speech, of the press and of publication, freedom of assembly, freedom of demonstration, communication, of movement, religious belief and of marriage.

Since 1978 mainland China had considered itself a socialist country since the reforms of Deng Xiaoping. To me Hong Kong felt more like a capitalist country run by a dictatorship, with an economy fueled by consumption, without the Western notion of individual rights and freedoms for the people. Economically free, but politically repressive. Buy more TV’s, but we’ll tell you what you can watch. Work harder, but buy more stuff with the money you earn. Work for the good of the country, but its every man for themselves. Reject the American way, but eat at McDonald’s and buy fake Gucci bags.

How had things gotten so out of balance? When had the world’s cities turned into giant shopping malls? Growing up middle class on Long Island my parents never tried to keep up with the Joneses. Image seemed to be everything in Hong Kong. Everyone walked around with their logos worn as a fashion accessory. Did it give people a feeling of power to own a status object? I didn’t know. I’d never been into logos and avoided any clothing that made me a walking advertisement for a company.

The word prosperity came from the Latin word prosperitas, meaning “doing well.” But were we doing well? Or were we all working harder to own more stuff we didn’t need? Maybe it was time to change the definition of success from purely material gain and financial success to immeasurable concepts like mental well being, vibrant health, time to be creative, time in nature, time with family, time to learn a musical instrument, paint, sing, dance, do yoga, exercise. Free time to sleep in and get the rest we need. Time to pursue your dreams was the real measure of success.

On Sunday morning I took a ride on the Star Ferry back to the Central area of Hong Kong. I was down, but I wasn’t homesick. How could I be, the U.S. was everywhere. While traveling in Florence many years ago I learned about an ailment called Stendhal’s syndrome. In the 19th century Stendhal, a French novelist, wrote about his experience with the syndrome when he collapsed outside the Church of Santa Croce after being overwhelmed by its beauty. Stendhal described the dizziness, temporary amnesia and disorientation tourists experienced when they tried to see too much art in a short span of time or when they were exposed to particularly beautiful paintings, sculptures or architecture. The body and mind were no longer able to absorb all it was seeing. Florence in particular was known to drive tourists out of their mind and doctors there treated several cases of Stendhal’s Syndrome a year.

I wondered if there was a medical term for the burnout and overstimulation I felt from visiting too many big cities, seeing too many glitzy stores, too many neon lights and billboards, too many crowds of people shoving me out of the way with bags covered with fancy logos, too much rudeness, too much noise from traffic and the constant chatter on cell phones, too much bad English pop music blaring in shops, and what felt like the loss of my individuality surrounded by so many people.

When the ferry landed I went the opposite direction of everyone else on the walkway. Not an easy thing to do since the elevated walkway was filled with thousands of Filipina maids and nannies as far as the eye could see. The women sat gathered together on large pieces of cardboard with cloths spread with food in front of them. Music played as they danced together, played cards, read, chatted and enjoyed their one day off from work. This gathering of women happened every Sunday, their one day off, in Hong Kong’s parks and streets.

I found the quiet streets of the old section of Hong Kong, Sheung Wan, and walked for blocks without passing a shopping mall. I went into the incense clogged Man Wo Temple, then found my way to Soho, where I spotted the Life Organic Cafe, where I had a big plate of eggs for my Sunday breakfast, my own taste of home.

While on my trip in Asia there was a typhoon, earthquake and volcano eruption in Indonesia. Floods in Northern Italy, Thailand and Pakistan. Haiti had hurricanes and a cholera outbreak. A typhoon just missed me in Japan, but there was a bigger storm brewing.

In China there were dust storms, four out five of the rivers were too polluted to support fish, half the population drank water contaminated with human and animal waste. Sixteen of the most polluted cities in the world were in China. There was a high rate of air-pollution-linked respiratory illnesses, 3/4 of the forests were gone from illegal deforestation, 1/4 of the land mass was now desert. There was Crazy Bad pollution and high rates of pollution related cancer and birth defects. Farmers died at four times the global rate from liver cancer and twice the global rate from stomach cancer because of poisoned produce. One in seven adults was now obese from eating easily accessible and affordable junk food. There were chronic water shortages, acid rain, inflation, soil exhaustion, farmland turning into urban sprawl, and massive corruption. And there were over 1,000 pollution-related protests a week in China. The protesters run the social gamut, from poor villagers to the urban middle class. The government’s response ranged from killing and beating protesters to launching investigations into the worst offenders.

The West hadn’t been a good role model for sustainable living. So how could China, with a population of 1.3 billion people, overcome their problems? If China stayed on its present course there’d be a fatal collision along the road to becoming a world super power.

I’d never been to Asia before. I was nervous about traveling alone again, but once I was on the road again I was fine. My solo-travel legs were a bit stronger. I loved the freedom being alone gave me. I loved meeting new people. Not being a wife, a business owner, a daughter. But simply being me. I took this trip because I wanted to make my world bigger. On my way home, as the plane flew for endless hours over the Pacific Ocean, I felt that bigness as I embraced my one wild and precious life.

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