As the pilot announced our descent to the Hong Kong airport, images of an exotic, long-lost world kept creeping into my mind. I kept thinking of 1841 and the first Opium Wars that led to the British acquisition of Hong Kong under the 1842 Treaty of Nanking as if it were yesterday. I guess some part of me wanted to walk back into that world to witness the chaotic, yet exciting period of discovery and adventure in history. It is as if Hong Kong (at least for me) made more sense by looking backwards than looking forward. Unjustly as it may sound, it was the city’s past that fascinated me more than its future. This feeling didn’t last long, for as soon as I debarked the aircraft and came face-to-face with Hong Kong’s slick, shiny airport and its modern airport express train, a new, futuristic concept of the city entered my consciousness. Maybe it was the city’s crowded streets full of hastily moving people, or maybe the incredible heaven-reaching architecture surrounding Victoria Harbor that refocused my attention to the future. Not sure. But one thing is undeniable the moment you set foot in Hong Kong: that this is a vibrant, energetic city being driven into the 21st Century by an eager, youth-centered population bent on making its mark on the world stage. The city’s energy could be felt everywhere, and it was quite contagious.
But to say that Hong Kong has moved on from its past would be overstating the fact. Along with its shinny new high-rise buildings, a myriad of traditional, old-world markets line its narrow streets and alleyways. This is specially the case on Hong Kong Island and the Central sector of the city, where you will walk past a majestic, modern building just to come face-to-face with a street restaurant that does all its cooking right there on a street kitchen. Venture to either side of the longest electric escalator in the world, the Central Mid-Levels staircase, and you will soon find yourself a century back in time amidst butcher shops and street vendors selling everything from Mao’s little red book to elaborate jade jewelry. And when crossing the imposing Victoria Harbor to visit the famous Tsim Sha Tsui district (and Bruce Lee’s famous statute along the Avenue of Stars), you will have your choice of either riding the ultra-modern city metro system or the historic Star Ferry across the bay. Old and new, side-by-side, against a backdrop that you will not find anywhere else in the world. As I boarded the plane for my return trip to America, I realized that Hong Kong had showed me that the future only makes sense in relation to the past. As the city wrestles with its place in the world in a new century, it seems to find its safe footing in that long-gone colonial past. Like an alchemist, it continues to blend its many potions in the hope that something new and exciting results from its many efforts. If you ask me, I think that this old alchemist is up to something great.
Like so many other visitors to Hong Kong, I was fascinated by this complex metropolis. With one of the highest population densities in the world, Hong Kong is a sea of constant activity and a dynamic vibe that would make lots of major cities in America look like they are on life support. And while I do intend to post a little more about this former British territory soon, I couldn’t help but start my Hong Kong posts with the most famous event taking place there during my recent visit. Of course, this was not all that was happening in Hong Kong during this past week, but rather that if you read anything about the place recently, most likely it had something to do with the pro-Democracy demonstrations taking place at various places in the city.
It didn’t take long for the press to dub these youth-driven demonstrations “The Umbrella Revolution.” The simple umbrella, which initially served to shield the protestors from the barrage of pepper spray that descended on them on 28 September, rapidly became the symbol of resistance against mainland China’s decision to require any candidate for the top post in the city during the upcoming 2016 elections to receive pre-approval from Beijing before qualifying to run for office. To say that the young people in Hong Kong disagreed with this mandate would be a gross understatement. To the streets they went, specially to the part of Central Hong Kong known as Admiralty, where the main government offices are located right along Victoria Harbor. Having booked a hotel nearby, I couldn’t resist the temptation to check the demonstration out, praying all along that my visit would not coincide with the next pepper spray festival downtown. What did I find when I got there? For starters, some of the best behaved and friendly demonstrators I’ve seen anywhere. There were teams organized to pick up garbage around the clock, for water and food distribution, and for communication. People constantly approached me to see if I understood why they were out there and to make sure I fully grasped the seriousness of their concerns. A generation that was mostly born after the British ended their authority over the islands wanted the world to listen to their defense of freedom and democracy–two words that are growingly taken for granted by so many, but which still fuel the dreams and aspirations of countless others around the world today. And did they mind being photographed while protesting? Not at all. Their only concern appeared to be that the world would ignore their plight, but judging by what I have seen in the press over the last week or so, their story has received quite a lot of attention all over the world. Whether their demands will ever amount to anything is perhaps a more challenging question. I guess we will have to wait and see.