Category Archives: Hong Kong

Hong Kong gets its protest on

Amid ongoing fears about Chinese intervention in Hong Kong’s constitution Hong Kongers have come out in their hundreds of thousands to protest. They’re asking for universal and genuine democracy when electing their Chief Executive, and they’re not worried about mainland China’s intention of vetting candidates to see if they “Love Hong Kong, Love China”.

It sure helps to be incredibly densely populated when you want to organise a protest, but this one is incredibly impressive. Sad to have missed it.

This exceptional time lapse video shows the corralling of the protestors who marched peacefully through Hong Kong’s financial centre and then staged a sit in protest. It says something about Hong Kong that the protestors were so well organised. The photography shows the enormity of the march and the dedication of Hong Kongers to turn out rain or shine.

There were a couple of hundred arrests for blocking a road, but overall the demonstration was peaceful. God knows what would have happened if the protest had been staged in China.

Handrails and hygiene

Hong Kong authority is nuts for holding the handrail. There’s signage everywhere. You should get some kind of prize if you manage to get through an MTR station without hearing an automated announcement that tells you to hang on. It’ll also scold you for looking at your mobile phone instead of holding the handrail, which is probably what you’re doing.

Hong Kong is also nuts for hygiene. The ghosts of avian flu and SARS haunt this city state. And, to be fair, with the population so concentrated that some people have chosen to live in cages, nervousness about spreading infectious diseases is probably not unreasonable.

When you have a cough or a cold public health campaigns encourage you to wear a surgical mask. Our guide book says you can ask for a surgical mask at the reception desk of most malls. Let no flu get between you and the latest hello kitty gizmo. My suspicion too is that, in a society known for a furious work ethic, the advice to colleagues with a sniffle isn’t “go home” but “put a mask on”. It’s not clear how effective this actually is. But it sure gives the city a definite dental clinic feel.

Put together the twin pillars of hygiene and holding hand rails and what do you get? Obsessive cleaning of hand rails. It’s announced to the world in signs like this one at a local restaurant.

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It’s as if a fear of bacteria, rather than a determination to take stairs two at a time, is what’s holding you back from hanging on. Even if that’s the case, I’m honestly left wondering how you sterilise a hand rail.

Policy wonk digest: Hong Kong

  • Tap water is generally drinkable in Hong Kong. Where there are problems it isn’t with the city owned infrastructure, but the systems in some aging apartment buildings where the metal piping is degrading into the water supply. The apartment systems aren’t regulated, but, as an alternative, the government offers to certify the health of the water in any given apartment, giving it a grading.
  • Mass rapid transit profitability is commonly measured by the farebox recovery ratio, the percentage of operating costs that are covered by revenue from ticket sales. Most systems have a ratio under 100% and therefore need some kind of subsidy to survive. Not Hong Kong’s MTR. It has a ratio of 186% making it one of the most profitable in the world.
  • The MTR also offers a free $2HKD top up if you swipe your octopus card at machines  dotted around the city. This seemed a strange freebie until I learned that the locations of the free top up machines are in areas where MTR travel isn’t very convenient like between stations or halfway up a massive escalator system. The free top ups are designed to get you to take the MTR nonetheless.
  • Hong Kong is not known for its welfare state. But if you’re on a low income they will help with your travel costs. It’s called the Work Incentive Transport Subsidy Scheme and it’s the very most they’re prepared to do.
  • Hong Kong’s immigration policies must be some of the most liberal in the world. Folks from a staggering 170 countries can get a visa on arrival. 58 countries get the same treatment in New Zealand. An offer of employment seems to be broadly sufficient to get a working visa.
  • Anecdotally, competition for places in good schools means kids are registered for kindergarten before they’re born and go through their first interviews and testing (without their parents present) at about the age of two.

Fast food development: Hong Kong

Our project to assess country by fast food development moves to Asia and the first categorisation is a slam dunk. Hong Kong is a stage four: Western fast food is ubiquitous and amongst the cheapest meal you can buy.

We’ve talked about the second cuisines that countries have. In Hong Kong, the second cuisine could be Thai, or it could be McDonalds. Not even really Western, just McDonalds. They’re everywhere and pretty much to the exclusion of other Western fast food. At .257 McDonalds per 10,000 people, Hong Kong even ranks in the top ten most McDonalds per capita in the world, higher than the United Kingdom, Germany and France. New Zealand ranks too, it’s second only to the United States.

A bowl of noodle soup here from a hole in the wall is pretty cheap here, and Western food generally isn’t. So we wondered if, even though McDonalds is ubiquitous, it might be too expensive to be a stage four. But, no. You can get a combo for about three New Zealand dollars here. That’s super cheap and on par with the more traditional cuisine hawked in markets.

A cardboard city of maids

Sundays are the day of rest for Hong Kong’s live-in domestic workers. They gather in some of the most unlikely public spaces, taking over streets in central Hong Kong, blocking the facades of luxury stores, and crowding the flanks of metro station exits.

They chat, gossip, nap, play cards, do karaoke, dance, eat and drink. They’re sometimes called the cardboard city because they bring flattened boxes to sit on or to divide their area from their neighbours. It’s quite a sight.

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The locations seem strange but in Hong Kong’s concrete jungle there aren’t a lot of places where you can hang out if you can’t afford an afternoon of cocktails or iced coffee.

The maids here don’t earn much. The minimum is about $500NZD/month in cash, plus room and board. That’s not a lot in a city that’s probably more expensive than New Zealand, especially when you consider that the whole point of their employment is to send funds back home.

There’s about 300,000 foreign domestic helpers living and working in Hong Kong – about a Wellington worth – and ethnically they’re split pretty evenly between Filipinas and Indonesians. The two groups make their own cardboard cities on Sundays.

Working in Hong Kong is a significant economic opportunity for women in the Philippines and Indonesia when they might otherwise be starved for employment. The money they earn goes a long way for their families at home. But the maid rooms built into modern Hong Kong apartments are matchbox sized, the pay is low, and the dislocation from family must take a huge toll on these women. They seldom have enough cash to head home, so you can understand them whiling away a Sunday with their country folk until their evening curfew.

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We heard about one ex-pat lawyer who was pleased with the opportunity that having a domestic worker provided her to work long hours and spend the other ones with her kids, rather than cooking and cleaning. This is an interesting solution to work life balance and, okay, on one level it makes sense. But it sure comes at a cost to her maid, who either hardly ever sees her kids, or doesn’t get the opportunity to have any.

Then there’s the government which, fearful it was hard to justify foreign domestic workers when Hong Kong’s unemployment rate spiked under the GFC, put a levy on maid’s employers and used it to fund the retraining of out of work Hong Kongers. They were trying to engineer an ongoing gap between the value of a local’s work, and that of a guest worker. It’s not likely that foreign maids will be able to pull themselves up very far by their bootstraps.

And so on they go, gathered in huge crowds on Sundays, enjoying the little freedom that they have each week, with just a little cardboard between them and the concrete.

For some of the tea in China – how Hong Kong became British and what happened when it did

It’s not entirely unreasonable to say that Hong Kong owes its whole existence to the voracious British appetite for tea. Here’s how that’s done. In the early nineteenth century Britain was importing massive amounts of tea from China but was struggling to find a viable export. That is, until they turned up with opium, produced in their colonies in India.

Opium was destructive in Chinese society. As many as ten million became seriously addicted, and the government sought to ban the drug as a result. Britain was not happy about this, not happy at all, because it put the tea trade at risk. So Britain invaded.

In the opium wars that followed Britain was victorious and able to extract concessions from China. They got access to more Chinese ports and, crucially, were ceded sovereignty to a rocky outcrop on the edge of the Pearl River Delta called Hong Kong. In later concessions they were granted Kowloon and a ninety nine year lease on the New Territories.

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A colony built as a trading port

We’ve written before about how one explanation for the different levels of prosperity in former colonies is whether the institutions in the colony were designed to support settlement or extraction. Hong Kong’s an interesting case because it fits neither category. Instead, its purpose as a colony was as a trading post and commercial centre in the Far East. True to form, the institutions setup here match that function.

It doesn’t seem like the British invested much effort in making Hong Kong a British society like they might if planning settlement. Plenty of schools taught in Chinese and immigration from mainland China was welcomed at various times. In contrast, in the three years that the Japanese occupied Hong Kong in World War Two they made Japanese language and culture classes in schools compulsory.

The British setup only the institutions that they needed to create an effective trading hub and commercial centre, not to model Britain. There was an independent judiciary and the rule of law – investors love all that. But Hong Kong’s governors were appointed by and from London right through until the British withdrew in 1997. The governors appointed Hong Kong native officials, but no one was elected. Ironically, the British only started towards democracy in the context of transition to Chinese rule. Pleasingly Hong Kong has managed to develop a staunch pro-democracy movement regardless.

Though it didn’t suffer the indignities of being an extraction colony, the British clearly saw Hong Kong as a means to an end, and set it up accordingly. This was enough to facilitate something of a modern economic miracle in terms of Hong Kong’s development, but they’ve left it as an odd child from an institutional perspective.

Greater than the dim sum of its parts

Today we ate Michelin recommended dim sum. Tim Ho Wan was tracked down by a New Zealand friend who is currently living and working in Hong Kong and hosted us at the restaurant for yum char. Yum char is the name of the meal, effectively brunch, whereas dim sum is the name of the style of dining, effectively tapas. Cantonese speaking China, including Hong Kong, is ground zero for dim sum and we were lucky to sample some of the very best on offer.

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The food was outstanding, of course. I especially enjoyed the fried roll with beef, pepper and tomato. Fiona liked the steamed fish on garlic toast. Everyone liked the dumplings of every stripe. And anyone with any sense anywhere would have appreciated the baked pork buns. We all liked how much we could order and how little it cost. The menu was a variation on what we might see in a Chinese restaurant at home, but less muddled by Western tastes. There were chicken’s feet instead of chicken wings, for example.

Two things stood out in terms of the experience that you wouldn’t get at yum char at home. First, the waitress actually scolded us for taking too long to make our order. We were distracted by chatting, she said. Scolding’s probably not something they teach you on a kiwi host course, but maybe not unreasonable when there’s a queue of people snaking out the door and into the baking Hong Kong sun. Second, the restaurant supplied hot tea for us to wash our utensils and bowls before using them (and more to drink). Apparently this is done so you can be sure of their hygiene yourself. But in the context of Michelin stars we were pretty comfortable it was mostly for tradition.

We left concerned only that we might turn into dumplings, for we had consumed so many, and otherwise sated in every way.

White paper shades Hong Kong independence grey

It’s all over the news here. The Chinese government has published a White Paper that says Hong Kong is Chinese. But that’s not really news. It’s been unquestionably true since British rule ended in 1997. What is news is the fact that China has chosen to articulate its authority, and its articulation of just how Chinese it expects Hong Kong’s government and judges to be.

Y’all are under our authority, y’hear?

China hasn’t commented specifically on Hong Kong’s sovereignty since 1997 when Britain’s 99 year lease on the New Territories expired and it handed Kowloon and Hong Kong’s islands back to China. It did so in exchange for an agreement that Hong Kong’s legal system, appreciation of individual rights, and general capitalist architecture be preserved for at least fifty years. Since, Hong Kong has been governed by its Basic Law – a kind of constitution – and has continued on its merry capitalist, Western investment friendly way with the rule of law and an independent judiciary.

The reasoning behind the White Paper’s timing isn’t certain, but it’s a fair bet it might have something to do with recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. More than 100,000 Hong Kongers recently gathered to mark the twenty fifth anniversary of Tienanmen Square, an occasion which went conspicuously unmarked by their mainland brethren.

“The high degree of autonomy of the HKSAR (Hong Kong Special Administrative Region) is not full autonomy, nor a decentralized power,” says the White Paper. “It is the power to run local affairs as authorized by the central leadership.” And it goes on with a corrective tone claiming Hong Kongers are “confused or lopsided in their understanding” with the “one country, two systems principle”.

What it means to be part of China

The clock is ticking slowly towards the expiration of the fifty year Sino-Anglo agreement to preserve individual rights in Hong Kong. It’s anyone’s guess whether Chinese liberalisation will mean that agreement is redundant by 2047. But in the meantime Hong Kong’s independent political status, in practice, seems to be getting murkier.

There’s a requirement that any Chief Executive candidates sign a pledge affirming their “love for Hong Kong”. At first blush that doesn’t seem that significant. God knows, American presidential candidates get worked up about whether or not they wear flag pins. But “love for Hong Kong” is widely interpreted as code for “love of Beijing” here, and the suggestion has had pro-democracy protestors here up in arms.

Now there’s the idea, as articulated in the White Paper, that Hong Kong judges, as members of the government, have a duty to make rulings that, before all else, recognise the interests of China. That’s got the legal community here pretty worried. Judges bowing to Beijing in their rulings seems a subversion of the British common law system Hong Kong maintains, and of their judicial independence.

The Hong Kong bureaucrat we heard on TV side stepped the issue. We don’t tell judges what to do, he argued, so it’s up to them whether or not to accept the obligations the White Paper implies. Okay, on one level that preserves judicial independence, but on another it completely undermines it. Wouldn’t the political savvy Hong Kong judge, weary of the prospects of further intervention from Beijing, therefore take the White paper recommendations to heart?

Hong Kong makes the China Lonely Planet, whereas Taiwan doesn’t, and that’s about as sophisticated as our analysis of its sovereignty is likely to get in the four days we’ll spend here. But, safe to say, it’s a complex issue, and one that continues to evolve.

Counting first impressions in Hong Kong

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Hong Kong raises your heartbeat. It may be the heat, the humidity, or the sheer volume of people. It may also be the strong scent of unbridled capitalism. After all, this is the city that elects a ‘Chief Executive‘ as its ruler every five years and has an electoral system designed to ensure the influence of professional groups and business. Whatever it is, the tempo of this city is faster than any we visited in South America.

It’s a cliche to say that Hong Kong is a seamless meeting of East and West. But that’s not really our experience so far. The seams are clear, and they seem to fall somewhere between subway stations.

We’re staying near Mong Kok station in an area widely described as the most densely populated in the world. It feels very Chinese here. The sounds of the language are starkly foreign given the Spanish we’re used to. At a restaurant the waiter took our order in English, but probably couldn’t explain what was in our dumplings. Pork, shrimp and either mushroom or seaweed, we hope. Another waitress nodded vigorously when we pointed to items on the menu, but she didn’t speak a word of English.

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The massive apartment towers are grimy. If our rented room is anything to go by their shoe box size makes them feel like berths on a ship. They’ve functionality in spades, but no space. The endless rows of aging air conditioners create a special kind of Chinese water torture with erratic drips on to the pedestrians below. Men labour with bare tops hacking corrugated iron or roast duck. Or they sleep, heads back and mouths open, on the park benches on the sidewalk.

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Four stations away down the subway line you emerge into a sparkling Western mall on Hong Kong Island with familiar brands everywhere, all screaming wealth. We sat down to coffee surrounded by expats. I couldn’t hear everything the two well dressed businessmen were saying, but the cadence of their conversation was stomach turningly familiar. I suspect they were consultants, or bankers, or consultants to bankers. I did catch one recountable snippet of their meeting: “It’s rich in functionality, but not very user friendly,” one said. Ah yes, the universal experience of the tech project overrun by the tech people.

The skyline that towers above is all steel, glass and modernity. Office workers dart in and out of the glorious atriums to breath in the thick tropical air. Ice cream vendors peddle their wares to unsuspecting tourists. Beware: green does not always signal mint flavour, and we’ve still no idea what that “pink” flavour” was meant to taste like.

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Fuel for Fiona

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A friend who has lived in Hong Kong tweeted us some recommendations. They were well categorised: do, eat, see, coffee. The coffee suggestion was especially well taken. Fuel espresso, a Wellington based coffee company has opened a store in downtown Hong Kong and it tastes like home.

Fiona was delighted. Not only was it her first double shot coffee in five months, it was pleasingly labelled on the menu as a Wellington flat white. Proud.

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