The One Indispensible Thing I Carried in Hong Kong


I brought it with me on the Star Ferry, in Kowloon, to Tai O Village and Victoria Peak…

I brought it with me when the weather was mutable and when it wasn’t. Half the time, I had it tucked away in my backpack and didn’t reach for it at all. The other half of the time, I had it above my head, fighting against the rain.

When it wasn’t pleasant outside, some had it brandished and waving, shielding their eyes and skin from the misty spray.

In Hong Kong, there’s no way around it — you either carry an umbrella or you don’t. The subtropical climate means that rain was frequent, but the city’s location on the coast brings in blustery, confused winds to scatter the passing storm systems and moderate the temperature. When it isn’t raining, it’s sunny and sweltering from the humidity. Mornings, I often woke up, looked out the window, and finally settled on bringing an umbrella anyway.

At times, the political atmosphere in Hong Kong reflects the weather. That umbrella isn’t always for the rain, sometimes it’s for the sun, sometimes it’s for the pepper spray and tear gas. Between that, the sudden midday showers, and the blazing summer sun, it’s just best to have an umbrella on your person.

When, in late August of 2014, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of China submitted an electoral reform proposal that stipulated that Hong Kong’s Election Committee is to select 2-3 acceptable candidates to run for the office of Chief Executive through election by the general public, blowback was swift. Less than a month later, three pro-democracy groups started demonstrations outside the Hong Kong Government headquarters as a part of what would later become known as the Umbrella Revolution.

To fully understand why this global city — one with 7.2 million packed into one of the most densely populated metropolises in the world — became so embroiled over this seemingly beneficial electoral reform proposal, it’s necessary to understand Hong Kong’s modern history.

[warning: verbosity below, see TL;DR]

After the defeat of the Qing Dynasty in 1841 at the hands of the nascent British Empire during the First Opium War, Hong Kong Island was ceded to the colonists as a part of the 1842 Treaty of Nanking. The treaty also granted indemnity, extraterritoriality, and, critically, trading rights at five ports (Shanghai, Canton/Guangzhou, Ningbo, Fuzhou, Xiamen) to the British.¹

A little over ten years later, the Second Opium War again resulted in the defeat of the Qing Dynasty and led to the ceding of Kowloon (mainland directly north of Hong Kong Island) to Britain, along with the granting of indemnities and additional rights (including legalization of the opium trade, opening of foreign embassies in Beijing, opening of several ports, and freedom to travel and evangelize) to the British, French, Americans, and Russians.²

British control over what is now Hong Kong was consummated in 1898 when Qing China was forced to lease the New Territories rent-free to the British Empire for 99 years after the conclusion of the First Sino-Japanese War.³

Under British occupation, Hong Kong experienced rapid industrialization and development fueled by the influx of skills, capital, and cheap labor from mainland China during the subsequent Chinese Civil War era. In the half-century that followed, mainland Chinese markets opened, incomes rose in Hong Kong, and cheap labor drove manufacturing and industry north to China while HK transitioned into a service economy.

The 1980s brought new talks between British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Communist Party Chairman Deng Xiaoping on the repatriation of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Troubled negotiations between the parties sparked an international crisis of confidence that led to the collapse of the Hong Kong dollar and foreign divestment from fear that the PRC’s socialist system would destroy the Hong Kong economy. The “One Country, Two Systems” approach formulated by Deng allayed some fears, and ultimately, Britain relinquished rule of Hong Kong to the PRC via the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. Beginning on July 1st, 1997, Hong Kong would be the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) that would enjoy a high degree of autonomy (including legislative, executive, and independent judicial powers) except in foreign and defense affairs, which would be retained by the PRC.

Hong Kong Special Administrative Region came under the rule of Hong Kong Basic Law, which states, among many other things, that the social and economic lifestyle of HK will remain unchanged and the freedoms enjoyed under British rule will continue under Chinese rule. The city’s mayoral chief executive will be appointed by the Central People’s Government on the basis of the results of elections or consultations to be held locally.

TL;DR: As it stands, Hong Kong is now ruled by the PRC, but chooses its Chief Executive — the head of the HKSAR government — through an electorate called the Election Committee, which is stacked with pro-Beijing supporters. This is because the subsectors of the Committee that lean Beijing are given more seats than those that don’t. While the Committee members are chosen by public election, many people think that the structure of the system to elect the city’s Chief Executive is rigged. Moreover, some say that the Committee members that stand to get elected at all come from privileged sectors of society that are largely out of touch with HK’s youth, its underprivileged population, and the middle class.

When it comes time to elect a new Chief Executive at the end of the five-year term, the sitting Chief Executive initiates a two-week nomination period, during which time every Committee member must publicly announce their nominees for candidacy. These nominees must obtain the backing of at least 150 Committee members to enter the election as candidates. When the nomination period ends, the Election Committee selects the next Chief Executive by absolute majority from the resulting pool of candidates.

All this is to say that the principle of universal suffrage written in HK Basic Law is being adulterated and bandied about by unfair process (in my opinion).

Which is why hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers protested peacefully in four key areas of the city for nearly three months. In their view, the initial proposal to have two to three Chief Executive candidates go to public election (as opposed to the current system where only the Election Committee nominates/selects/votes) after being selected by the Election Committee was no better than before, a farce, and tantamount to Beijing vetting them.

Despite the masses that poured out of Hong Kong’s everywhere (during the Movement’s  peak, 100,000 were out protesting peacefully at any given time), many remain dispassionate or confused as to what to believe. One of those people is my friend. He’s concerned for HK’s future, but the fact of the matter is that the status quo isn’t likely to change.

Many of HK’s youth feel disenfranchised and hopeless for that reason: the status quo is not likely to change. How can unfair representation in local government change if the very process with which to change it is flawed? Despite the statues and signs at Hong Kong’s universities [Tiles 1 and 2] that proclaim the old cannot kill the young, the failure of the Umbrella Revolution to cause measurable policy change somewhat undermines that sentiment. This is especially poignant when the old are institutionalized, wealthy, shrewd, and desperate to hedge their own power.

It takes one look at the webpages and Twitter feeds of the Umbrella Movement’s activist groups to confirm that the movement has grown effete. One group, Occupy Central with Love and Peace has disbanded completely.

There’s a saying that goes, “Yesterday was Tibet, today is Hong Kong, and tomorrow will be Taiwan.”

From my hazy outsider’s view, Hong Kong is experiencing a crisis of identity. Exclusionary politics and a general failure on the part of the Hong Kong legislature to reflect the interests of the people must change for Hong Kong to ever really be at peace with its democracy. During the demonstrations of 2014, families and friends found themselves on opposite sides of the table, and four years later, division might still linger.

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Decades before, on the Star Ferry, a woman from Taiwan leaned against the railing looking across the bay to Kowloon. She was on her way to meet friends for dinner in the city’s metropolitan district: dim sum, including chicken feet and shumai. Maybe she already knew that her life would lead her across the Pacific, through multiple careers, to a family and countless students that love her like an auntie. But she likely couldn’t foresee in detail that in 2015, one of them would take the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbor to Kowloon like she had years earlier.

Here, where she attended university, spoke Cantonese, ate chasiu bao (cha1shao1 bao1//叉烧包) and turnip cakes, made friends, and took the Star Ferry, is exactly where I visited: the panoramic cityscape of Hong Kong.

(Speaking of which, chasiu bao are the greatest of all the Chinese steamed buns: slow-roasted pork tenderloin with oyster, soy, and hoisin sauces, roasted sesame oil, vinegar, rice wine, sugar, starch. The tender meat filling is encased in exceptionally fluffy steamed dough, served hot in a bamboo steamer. One of my goals was to discover the best chasiu buns in Hong Kong, but I failed miserably due to the sheer ubiquity of the things.)

But the Hong Kong she experienced is not the same Hong Kong I experienced.

Through technology and the internet, the world has become interconnected to an unprecedented extent. This hyper-access to each other across all times zones and distances is leading our diverse societies to both homogenize and polarize; aspects of societies across the world are becoming increasingly similar, while other aspects are becoming increasing different.

In some ways, I think the reaction in Hong Kong to the phenomenon of globalization has been to staunchly defend its uniqueness against any real or perceived threats of Chinese neocolonialism. Displaying simplified Chinese script (used officially on the mainland, but not in HK or Taiwan where traditional script is used) on public signage in HK is a big no-no, and interacting with HKers in Mandarin (used on the mainland) instead of Cantonese or English can be touchy. Some mainland Chinese students who get accepted to Hong Kong universities — among the world’s most prestigious schools with very rigorous admittance standards — cite feeling prejudiced against by their HK peers.

In my limited experience tutoring mainland Chinese students in Shanghai for the English-language admittance procedures required by many HK universities (individual and group interview sessions in English in addition to written applications in that language), the fear of ostracism by locals was reported as one of their top concerns.

One of the things I admired the most about these students is their never-say-die attitude. Their approach to dealing with the issue of being judged or hated is to show their judges that they are real people — that their humanity defeats their nationality. Many, if not all, of the students I met suggested joining clubs, study groups, and sports teams as a way to connect with their peers as a person instead of a “mainlander.”

If the perception of a person is unfairly contingent upon their physical appearance and use of a language, or if a person is seen as nothing more than their ideology or political outlook, it makes sense that there would be conflict. It seems to me that, in Hong Kong and across the globe, the lumping together of one’s physical identity and political identity is increasingly driving people to establish their identity however they damn-well please. Inherent to the specific problem of some HKer’s aversion to mainlanders is the fact that everyone should have the right to peacefully establish their desired identity as long as it doesn’t harm other people and without it being subject to bigotry, discrimination, or adverse effect.

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And then I traveled to Tai O. It is not the opposite of downtown Kowloon. It is the fishing village that built Kowloon. Located on the western side of HK’s Lantau Island, Tai O used to be inhabited by boat-dwelling indigenous people of many names  — often referred to as shui3shang4ren2//水上人 in Mandarin.

During the Chinese Civil War, many mainlanders fled to British Hong Kong via Tai O village. Nowadays, the village is marked by the reverse situation: more and more people are moving away. Young people, by no fault of their own, are leaving behind the subsistence fishing lifestyle in favor of modern careers in the city proper.

Tourists are fascinated with Tai O. Hundreds flock on the weekend to see the dilapidated and abandoned stilt houses (peng2wu1//棚屋) [Tile 1] of the once-prosperous fishing village, and revel in the hyped, bucolic atmosphere. The seafood is still fresh though, and famous for that reason. The spicy, brothy fish balls made from some sort of fish or shrimp paste (the specific preparation methods remain a mystery to me) are a personal favorite.

Tai O, in some way, embodies a contemporary process of identity formation: urbanization and internal migration. As young people leave Tai O for the city and the village’s landscape slowly but surely changes, its history and tradition might perpetuate in words and pictures and memories. It also might not.

Change can open up space for new things that people deem good and worthy — maybe those things are pop songs and global similarities like Guinness beer and retail therapy.

While I’ve seen similar things occur in a lot of places in the world and wish that I could imbue everyone with a profound sense of contentment, zeal, and hospitality for their individual homes because I think it might mollify that somewhat tense process of change, people speak and make choices in their real situations. And because those words and deeds are often the optimal ones that can be mustered at the time, we owe it to our neighbors to first listen to them and their contexts before opening up our big mouths with unsolicited opinions.

So to continue expressing my unsolicited opinion: I think that I should judge people extremely sparingly and should focus my attention on the circumstances and power disparities that shape choices and identities.

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This city, marked by divisions and subtleties, is the one I visited in February of 2014. Nearly five years afterward, I continue to think about my friends who opened up their homes to me on Chinese New Year, indulged my obsession with chasiu bao and unconventional street food, and unabashedly spoke their minds regarding Hong Kong-mainland relations.

More so than most, my two friends understand and live their identities. One of them is civilly disobedient as hell and not ashamed to buy ridiculously shaped pillows at the Chinese New Year’s Eve fair at Central. The other speaks four languages every day at work and still finds time to travel and reference Game of Thrones.

Hong Kong felt like home. Five days is by no means long enough to experience everything there is to experience in this city, but even if I lived here for years, my only conclusions would be these: pack an umbrella and always order the steamed buns when you go for dim sum.

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Author: Erik Fruth

Erik lived in Shanghai for a year studying Mandarin and eating voraciously. He moved home to work and write then relocated to Berlin to daydream about last summer.