• Ryan Bernardoni

Thoughts on Hong Kong History, Falling in Love with a City, and Being a Part of the Problem

This is not a post about Daryl Morey and China. My thoughts on that are mostly visceral and superficial and so better left on twitter. It is a post about Hong Kong, history, falling in love with a place, and also knowing that you're part of that place's most pressing problem.

This story is going to require a lot of caveats along the way, so let's start with one statement that doesn't require any. I support the protestors in Hong Kong in their fight for the freedom from repression and for self-determination.

The first caveat is that I'm not an expert on Hong Kong or asian history. I pay more attention to Hong Kong news than most Americans, but that's an awfully low bar. Some of what I say here will almost certainly be wrong, maybe by common misconception, and all of it will be too simplistic. I wasn't going to write this at all, but a few people asked me to, so here goes...

I was fortunate to live in Hong Kong for 14 short months in 2011-12. I went there as a passenger on my wife's work assignment from the Fortune 100 company that we both worked for. She was a front-line manager in Human Resources and our employer, while large, is in an industry that doesn't have a big international footprint so she was one of only a handful of expats on assignment. All the rest were executives or on very short stays. That will become an important piece of information in understanding my experiences there.

While I've traveled a lot in recent years I won't pretend to have been everywhere in the world. What I can say is that, of all the places I've been, Hong Kong was my favorite. I hope it still is, but I haven't been there in two years and a lot has changed in that time. My admiration for the people of Hong Kong has only increased, at the very least.

It's an unequivocally beautiful place. The city itself is just over 400 square miles made up of one big peninsula and two main islands, along with a variety of smaller ones. Land comes at an extreme premium in the city, as much of that 400 square miles is mountainous and heavily forested. Roughly a quarter of all the developed land is "reclaimed" from the sea, otherwise known as piling up lots of dirt in Victoria Harbor and then building something on top of it.

Devoid of the "China question" this is where modern Hong Kong's problems would start. The city has 7.5 million people and not enough places for them to live... if people like me keep passing through. We'll come back to that later, though.

Hong Kong's history is complicated but it mostly comes down to this:

1. Every country wants to control natural seaports

2. Hong Kong's might be the best in the world

3. Powerful countries have spent 170 years seizing and exploiting it

Before the 1830's the region was somewhere between a fishing village and a stopover for itinerant traders. In the 1830's the British Empire decided that they didn't want to pay for Chinese goods in silver and instead wanted to pay in opium because, like, what else are we going to do with all these poppies we're harvesting/stealing from India? Getting your own people hooked on opium isn't a great idea but satisfying your people's addiction to silk and tea by getting some other people hooked on the stuff... well that sounds just swell!

China's Qing dynasty didn't think this was a particularly good deal but the British had a powerful navy and so silk for opium it was, plus how about you "give" us those islands next to the port where we'll be making these trades so we can keep an eye on things.

It took a while, and another round of fighting over the fact that yes, we really are going to keep buying your cool shit with the drugs destroying your cities, but eventually the city started to grow into the opulent colonial outpost it would be known as in the early 20th century. Also, let's make the city bigger in that second war and take over the peninsula part of the area.

The British brought fun ideas like "let's build our houses on top of that mountain despite there being no road to get there; we'll just make the locals carry everything it takes to build an estate up this path and also let's do it in summer" to the territory along with their cannons and, again, all the opium. How else are you supposed to teach these backwaters about civilization, after all?

Hong Kong settled into the colonial archetype for decades before a new rising power who were much closer by set their eyes on the prize. The Sino-Japanese War / World War II saw the Japanese take control of the territory and occupy it as a blockaded police state for nearly four years. It was bad enough that people "welcomed" the British back at the end of the war.

The next 60-ish years were Hong Kong's boom times. The Chinese Civil War sent refugees flooding into the city, but many of those refugees were the types of tradesmen and merchants who wanted out of China when the communists started taking over. As the British empire began to wane they had no choice but to loosen the reins on the city and a prolonged period of quasi self-governance beneath British overseers began. Industry flourished (this is the era of "Made in Hong Kong" being found on every toy in America) as did the arts (most notably movie making).

A huge push to build up infrastructure in housing and mass transit, ostensibly by the colonial government but really by local public-private partnerships, formed the backbone of the modern, urban, arch-capitalist Hong Kong. The city was being left somewhat to its own devices and doing more than fine with it.

In the 1980's, as the last bit of sun was setting on the British Empire, it was decided that Hong Kong would return to China when the lease "agreed" to at the end of the Second Opium War ran out in 1997. As part of this, China guaranteed Hong Kong's political and economic autonomy for 50 years (1997 + 50 > 2019, btw).

Having been passed around from colonial exploitation to a war prize to now being lied to by an authoritarian enveloper, you can understand why Hong Kongers would so powerfully demand their right to self governance today.

The next 20-ish years mark a reversal in many of Hong Kong's historic trends. Instead of the consistent growth the city had seen for 100 years (minus the WW2 part), people started to emigrate ahead of the planned handover to China. Add in an economic downturn just after the 1997 transfer and, for a brief period, you get a surplus of available housing in this densely populated little territory with no land to expand into.

The few years just before my temporary relocation set the stage for a lot of the problems that plague the city now. The housing surplus meant that infrastructure spending slowed but the opening of global trade and financial markets through the Internet, along with immigration from mainland China becoming more legal, meant that people and investment started coming back in before the housing stock started growing again. All those natural restraints on land and borders made it impossible to grow out, so the city took off in building up.

In an attempt to keep up with the demand for new apartments and offices, the rim around Victoria Harbor became a maze of skyscrapers. In 20 years, a city of less than 8 million builds four of the 50 tallest buildings in the world, along with hundreds of other high rises covering just about every foot of developable land that can see the harbor, and over all the water that can be filled in with soil.

In the 2000's, as the population rebounds the housing surplus quickly becomes a housing shortage, exacerbated by a surge in speculative investing in apartments. The cost of living spirals out of control as the world economy crumbles. By some measures, Hong Kong has the most expensive housing in the world.

That's the 50,000 foot history of Hong Kong leading up to when I moved there, as far as I understand it (which is not very far). Hong Kong is rarely left alone, but when it is they do quite well. For once, they have a treaty that says they'll be left somewhat alone for another 35 years.

Along the way, Hong Kong had developed their own distinct culture. In opposition to sort-of-communist China, the colony / Special Administrative Region turns into a bastion of capitalism. For 60+ years, the Communist Party of China has pushed "simplified Chinese" as the official written language of the country; Hong Kong holds dearly to "traditional Chinese" for their writing. China works to enforce the speaking of Mandarin over the myriad of regional dialects that cover the country while Hong Kong's official languages are Cantonese and English. China manipulates the renminbi while the Hong Kong dollar is pegged to the US dollar. Income tax in China quickly hits 45% while it tops out at 17% in the SAR. Hong Kong has the right to free speech and an open Internet; China... not so much.

For all that China (and Joe Tsai) would like you to believe that Hong Kong is part of the "territorial integrity" of the homeland, the last time Hong Kong was part of China before 1997 it had a population in the thousands. It now has 7.5 million, most of whom are somewhere between apathetic and belligerent towards the idea of being part of Chinese culture and society. The land of Hong Kong may look like it belongs to China but you can't force Hong Kongers to be Chinese any more than you can Taiwanese or Tibetans, or strip Uighurs of their religion and cultural identity. If you're a Hong Konger you know how hard the CPC will try to do just that by looking at those other peoples, though.

One thing that stands out if you get to know some Hong Kongers is that many of them truly don't like China. They sometimes refer to Chinese tourists as locusts and make fun of the sounds of Mandarin. When I was there, the supposed poor hygiene of some mainland tourists was a big story. In many ways they look down on mainland Chinese as uninformed and "less Chinese."

For years, Hong Kong has staged a massive protest on the anniversary or the Tiananmen Square massacre. Go to any tourist center and you'll find people trying to inform visitors of some piece of China's history that they believe the mainland government is hiding from their populace.

The big problems that the mainland and Hong Kong face are equally dichotomous. China is authoritarian and corrupt, springing from their desire to enforce communism (when and where it suits them). Hong Kong has the extreme wealth disparity and solidifying class immobility of late stage capitalism.

Hong Kong has its problems just like every other society, but they're their problems that they want the power to try to solve themselves.

I arrived there in the midst of Occupy Hong Kong and left just before mass protests broke out over China's attempts to manipulate Hong Kong's school curriculum. That led to the Umbrella Movement for true democratic elections (instead of ones where Hong Kong gets to choose only between China-approved candidates) and now to the civil unrest triggered by, but now moving well beyond, the attempt to make extradition to China legal.

So, why do I love Hong Kong? I arrived with almost no knowledge of the history or culture. I've lived in Boston and London for longer periods than Hong Kong. I have no idea how to make friends and so didn't leave many behind when I moved home.

In many ways, I shouldn't like it there at all. The problems I have with American society are often much worse there. You want to see income inequality? Hong Kong has the most expensive residential real estate in the world, and also people who live in 15 square foot wire cages stacked in sub-divided illegal housing. You think the American education system is stratified? Hong Kong has celebrity tutors who advertise on billboards and buses, promising to get the children of the wealthy into the best preschools.

Taxes are too low and many public services are non-existent. Hundreds of thousands languish on wait lists for public housing. The wonderful subway system was running a profit so it was privatized, transforming a public budget surplus into a private win-fall.

An entire underclass of "helpers" work a mandated six day week as combination au pairs and maids. They make up a full 5% of the population, coming almost entirely from the Philippines and Indonesia for room, board, and minimum wage. By law they must live in their employers residence, they can't become residents of the city outside their contracts, they are legally allowed no more than two weeks of paid leave, and are not allowed to take any additional employment. It is modern indentured servitude.

All of that about making fun of the mainland Chinese for their language, hygiene, and numbers could more easily be called xenophobia.

So, again, why do I love Hong Kong? The easy answer is that it's an attractive city with fantastic food, nice people, efficient infrastructure, and beautiful and accessible parks. It's convenient for travel into China (or, it was), as well as Southeast Asia and up to Taiwan, Japan, and Korea. Dim sum and roast goose and spicy crab are amazing. There are funky little islands and villages where your bus can get held up by a water buffalo in the road. There are boat races and dragon parades and they do construction on terrifying, giant scaffolds made of bamboo.

As an American with no language skills, it's helpful that most people speak English and they basically use the US dollar. It (again, until recently) was marvelously safe. It's energetic and fun and it lights up at night. I once played pick-up basketball against five guys wearing the jerseys of the 2008 Celtics starters. There's a big outdoor escalator and all kinds of ferry boats and walking trails, plus a trolley. You can get from the most densely populated square mile in the world to a secluded beach in 45 minutes. There are street cats. Basically, it's a fun and easy city to be in.

The more difficult answer is that I got to live the type of lifestyle that I don't think anyone should really get to have, and that contributes to a lot of the city's problems. My corporate sponsor, not knowing how to set up non-executives on a foreign assignment, treated us like high paid executives. We lived in a 1,500 square foot apartment with panoramic views of the harbor out two sides and towards the tree covered mountain on the other. We had a doorman and took taxis everywhere. Our apartment had a "helper room" as it was assumed that we would hire one, and want to have them live in a big closet.

Living like a rich person is appealing, even if you believe that it's personally corrupting and morally indefensible. There's no justification for the way we were able to live. My language teacher and her husband worked every bit as hard as us and it's not like my job as a cubicle drone or my wife's as a corporate manager of three people were adding some great value to society. Why were they preparing their 400 square feet for the arrival of a baby while we turned a second bedroom into an office and still had a third to spare?

There's no reason other than that we were playing the part of the colonial interlopers that had exploited Hong Kong for over a century. We provided little, took well more than our fair share, and then headed home with stack of photos and pleasant memories. It wasn't proper but it was nice, and under those circumstances it's hard not to fall in love with a place. Would I love it as much if I had lived there like a local? I would like to tell myself that I would have, but how can I ever know?

Hong Kong really is a wonderful, vibrant, and interesting city. I know that much, and I do love the place, but if I were a Hong Konger I wouldn't want me around any more than I would the Chinese government.

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