A for­mer res­i­dent re­turns – and falls in love with the city all over again.

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - BON­NIE MUN­DAY

VIC­TO­RIA HAR­BOUR is breath­tak­ing, es­pe­cially dur­ing the nightly laser show, when the plea­sure junks, fer­ries and con­tainer ships seem to dance in the lights. On this warm April night last year, my hus­band, Jules, and I are stand­ing at the rail­ing of a rooftop restau­rant on Hong Kong Is­land, in awe at the spec­tac­u­lar sky­line. Brightly lit sky­scrapers – some 1300 of which are over 100 me­tres high, by far the most of any city in the world – spike the night sky around us and across the teem­ing har­bour on Kowloon Penin­sula.

As the breeze shifts our hair, we feel Hong Kong’s en­ergy. In the dis­tance twin­kle the lights of Ts­ing Ma sus­pen­sion bridge, the world’s long­est for cars and trains, whisk­ing peo­ple to­wards the modern 20-year-old air­port on Lan­tau Is­land. Be­yond it is a nearly com­pleted multi-bil­lion-dol­lar bridge link­ing Hong Kong to Zhuhai in main­land China and the gam­bling haven of Ma­cau.

It feels good to be back. Jules and I lived here in the 1990s, be­fore Bri­tain re­lin­quished Hong Kong to China in 1997. Now, 20 years later, we’ve re­turned for ten days to see how the city has fared. It’s also our 20th wed­ding an­niver­sary. Where bet­ter to cel­e­brate it than in the city where we met?

NEXT MORN­ING, we leave our Cause­way Bay ho­tel and walk to­wards Wan Chai, a dis­trict two kilo­me­tres away. Walk­ing is the best way to ex­pe­ri­ence Hong Kong’s colour­ful sights, sounds and smells. First we must ne­go­ti­ate throngs of Satur­day shop­pers here in this re­tail mecca.

We join the sea of peo­ple in a wide pedes­trian cross­ing on Yee Wo Street that leads us past one of the city’s largest depart­ment stores, Sogo, swathed in posters ad­ver­tis­ing de­signer la­bels. Young women sport­ing sleek heels and lux­ury hand­bags – a cou­ple of them with berib­boned apri­cot poo­dles tucked un­der an arm – are a com­mon sight this morn­ing.

By the time we reach Wan Chai, we’ve left the brand shop­pers be­hind. This dis­trict is grit­tier than Cause­way Bay, although its for­mer rep­u­ta­tion for girly bars has some­what given way to shiny of­fice tow­ers. At Bowring­ton Road mar­ket, which spans a cou­ple of blocks, house­wives are

hag­gling loudly over meat, fish and veg­eta­bles.

Street mar­kets are a must-see in Hong Kong, but be pre­pared for the smells – meat, seafood, stinky durian fruit – and a lit­tle gore: I watch a ven­dor prove to a cus­tomer how fresh his fish is by slic­ing along one side, fold­ing the fil­let back and ex­pos­ing the still-in­tact beat­ing heart.

Nearby, be­neath an over­pass, we en­counter a cu­ri­ous sight: an el­derly woman chant­ing while she beats a pa­per with a shoe. A cus­tomer has writ­ten on the pa­per the name of a per­son who has up­set him, we learn. After­wards, the pa­per is rubbed with pork fat and burned. This rit­ual beats the ‘vil­lain’ out of the cus­tomer’s life.

Later we stop to check out the wares of a grey- haired woman hang­ing men’s shirts on the metal grille of an of­fice build­ing. As Jules pe­ruses the shirts, I ask her, “Do you feel Hong Kong has changed un­der Chi­nese rule?” She’s dis­mis­sive. “I’m just part of the lit­tle peo­ple,” she says. “I only want to make enough money. I don’t care if Bri­tain or China is here.”

OTHER EN­TREPRENEURS we en­counter seem to agree it’s busi­ness as usual. Be­fore the han­dover, many peo­ple here feared Com­mu­nist China would cur­tail the cap­i­tal­ism and hu­man rights pro­tec­tions Hong Kong en­joyed un­der Bri­tish rule, even though China promised self-rule – “one coun­try, two sys­tems” – for 50 years. But, as Chris­tine Loh, a leg­is­la­tor here be­fore and af­ter the hand­over, ex­pressed in an email to me, “The

de­gree of free­dom in Hong Kong on a day-to-day ba­sis re­mains very high.”

We’ll hear a sim­i­lar opin­ion over a lunch of dim sum in Kowloon, where we’re head­ing now on the Star Ferry. It’s been chug­ging across Vic­to­ria Har­bour since 1888. It’s a short walk to Ser­e­nade Chi­nese Restau­rant; it’s vast, with huge win­dows over­look­ing the har­bour.

There we meet my long­time friend Junko Watan­abe. With her are Ron­nie and Jen­nifer Ho, re­tired teach­ers in their late 50s who have just moved back from Bos­ton to their home city af­ter 23 years. Over bam­boo bas­kets of har gau (steamed shrimp) and siu mai (pork dumplings) and an or­der of yi mein (egg noo­dles), Ron­nie and Jen­nifer tell us they’re de­lighted to be home. “We haven’t no­ticed many changes in daily life,” Ron­nie says.

Their par­ents fled poverty in China for colo­nial Hong Kong at a young age. Ron­nie’s fa­ther en­cour­aged the cou­ple to em­i­grate be­fore 1997. “Our par­ents knew China was to be feared,” says Jen­nifer. The 1989 Tianan­men Square mas­sacre in­flu­enced their de­ci­sion to leave. They re­turned to Hong Kong to be back among fam­ily. Says Ron­nie, “We’re too old to worry about pol­i­tics now.”

CLEARLY, HONG KONG is thriv­ing. In a re­cent sur­vey of the world’s cities by con­sult­ing firm Mercer, it ranked sixth for in­fra­struc­ture, which in­cludes such cri­te­ria as drink­ing wa­ter and pub­lic trans­port. It ranked 71st among 231 cities for qual­ity of life – higher than the 11 other Chi­nese cities in­cluded.

The out­look for press free­dom is less en­cour­ag­ing: a Re­porters With­out Bor­ders (RWB) sur­vey shows Hong Kong has slipped from 18th in 2002 to 73rd to­day (China ranked 176th.) RWB cites grow­ing dif­fi­culty in cov­er­ing sen­si­tive sto­ries about Hong Kong’s gov­ern­ment and main­land China, and finds “ex­tremely dis­turb­ing” the pur­chase of Hong Kong me­dia by Chi­nese com­pa­nies such as In­ter­net gi­ant Alibaba.

Po­lit­i­cally, Hong Kong res­i­dents use their right to protest when they per­ceive China to be over­reach­ing. In late 2014, thou­sands took to the streets in a protest dubbed the Um­brella Move­ment when Bei­jing in­sisted on vet­ting can­di­dates for chief ex­ec­u­tive. China got its way.

An­other trig­ger for protests has been tourism from main­land China. Be­fore 1997 most vis­i­tors came from Ja­pan and Tai­wan, but when Bei­jing re­laxed its rules in the early 2000s, the num­ber of main­land vis­i­tors jumped from about seven mil­lion per year in 2002 to a whop­ping 43 mil­lion by 2016.

For some lo­cals, that’s too many; they say the vis­i­tors are rude and loud. And they blame main­lan­ders for the scarcity of such ne­ces­si­ties as baby for­mula and medicines.

In­deed, when Jules went to buy shav­ing cream, he was mys­ti­fied

to see phar­macy staff un­load­ing count­less boxes of baby for­mula onto shelves. Main­lan­ders snap it up due to tainted baby for­mula scares in China. At a 2014 protest in Hong Kong, main­lan­ders were de­nounced as ‘lo­custs’ eat­ing the city’s re­sources. Signs read, “Go Back to China” and “Re­claim Hong Kong”.

Late one af­ter­noon I meet up with Mark Sharp, a South China Morn­ing Post edi­tor and writer since be­fore the han­dover, in the sea­side town of Sai Kung, in the New Ter­ri­to­ries – the mostly ru­ral re­gion be­tween Kowloon and main­land China. Over a beer, he con­firms lo­cals are more out­spo­ken nowa­days. “Peo­ple worry that as more main­land Chi­nese come, Hong Kong will lose its iden­tity.”

Young peo­ple, Sharp says, are es­pe­cially vo­cal. They are Hong Kongers first: a re­cent Hong Kong Univer­sity sur­vey showed that only 3 per cent of peo­ple aged 18–29 iden­tify as Chi­nese, an all-time low since the sur­veys started in 1997; back then, that num­ber was 17 per cent.

Joshua Wong, 20, is the face of the gen­er­a­tion that has known Hong Kong only as part of China. At age 14, he led a suc­cess­ful stu­dent protest against man­dated ‘ nat ional ed­u­ca­tion’ cour­ses. In his opin­ion, the cour­ses were in­tended to cre­ate loy­alty to the Com­mu­nist regime. “We think that re­duces free­dom of thought,” says Wong. As lead­ers of the Um­brella Move­ment, Wong and two oth­ers were jailed last Au­gust for six to eight months for their roles.

ON A SUNNY MORN­ING, we hop onto a ferry bound for Lamma Is­land. It’s a 30-minute trip to Yung Shue Wan vil­lage – and a world away. Although Hong Kong isn’t of­ten as­so­ci­ated with green spa­ces, there are many, and Lamma, where we lived, has some of our favourite hikes. We drop our bags at our guest­house and walk for two hours on paths that wind down to­wards sandy beaches and steeply up­wards again.

At a hill­top pavil­ion, we buy re­fresh­ing pineap­ple slices from an old woman in a straw hat. From a nearby path we can see the fish­ing boats and stilted seafood restau­rants of Sok Kwu Wan vil­lage be­low. Walk­ing back, we spot graves set into green slopes that face the sea for favourable feng shui. Dur­ing the Ching Ming Fes­ti­val two weeks ear­lier, fam­i­lies had swept loved ones’ gravesites and burned in­cense for de­parted spir­its.

In Yung Shue Wan, we head to Andy’s Seafood Restau­rant on Main Street and find a table with a view of the sun set­ting over the sea. It’s a slice of Hong Kong heaven to dine on fresh grouper with soy sauce and gin­ger, and ra­zor clams in black bean sauce.

BACK ON HONG KONG is­land, we walk from the pier into Cen­tral and She­ung Wan. The walk is a few min­utes longer than in the 1990s: the shore­line has shifted to ac­com­mo­date new sky­scrapers. One thing hasn’t changed: most high- rises un­der con­struc­tion are clad in tra­di­tional scaf­fold­ing of bam­boo tied with ny­lon strips.

We browse an­tique stores along Hol­ly­wood Road and Cat Street, look­ing for an an­niver­sary gift to each other. The sym­bol for the 20th year is, fit­tingly, china, and we find the per­fect item: a gold-painted teapot with wicker han­dles, fea­tur­ing the Chi­nese char­ac­ter for dou­ble-­hap­pi­ness, a wed­ding sym­bol.

The teapot tucked un­der Jules’

arm, we pass gal­leries and, sur­pris­ingly, cof­fee shops with a hip­ster vibe: Win­ston’s, The Cup­ping Room, Cafe Dead­end. When I lived here, tea shops were ubiq­ui­tous. Stores sell­ing olive oils, vine­gars, cheeses and wines also ex­em­plify chang­ing tastes; be­fore 1997, we had to search those things out.

This evo­lu­tion con­trasts with Man Mo Tem­ple, a Taoist and Bud­dhist tem­ple ded­i­cated to the gods of lit­er­a­ture (Man) and war (Mo). Built in 1847, its slop­ing roof is dec­o­rated with carv­ings of dragons and hu­man fig­ures. The quiet, can­dlelit in­te­rior is scented with burn­ing in­cense coils hang­ing from the ceil­ing. We watch wor­ship­pers set of­fer­ings of or­anges and can­dles on a table.

Soon we re­join the bus­tle of Hol­ly­wood Road.

IT’S HU­MID on our fi­nal day, and threat­en­ing rain. We have time for a last lunch. In She­ung Wan, past the pun­gently scented dried- seafood stalls this dis­trict is fa­mous for, we find a noo­dle house on Des Voeux Road. It’s full of chat­ter­ing of­fice work­ers. At the front win­dow, the chef is drop­ping fresh noo­dles into a huge pot of steam­ing broth.

“Sorry, no English,” says the wait­ress as she drops two Chi­nese-lan­guage menus on the table. No prob­lem; we point to bowls of noo­dles the chef has topped with bar­be­cued pork and Chi­nese broc­coli and hold up two fin­gers, then sip on tall glasses of sweet iced lemon tea while we wait. We copy the lo­cals, who stab at the lemon slices with a long spoon to squeeze out the juice, stir, sip, re­peat.

On the street, it’s rain­ing. We sprint to our ho­tel, grab our lug­gage and hail a cab. “Cen­tral Sta­tion, please, Air­port Ex­press,” I tell the driver, a man in his 60s. As we weave through buses, trams and lux­ury cars, I point out to Jules an el­derly man wear­ing a pointed straw hat rid­ing a rust­ing bi­cy­cle. Tall propane tanks are strapped to ei­ther side, and he’s ne­go­ti­at­ing traf­fic through the rain. Only in Hong Kong.

At the sta­tion, the driver points to where we can check our bags to the air­port. “Make sure, come back soon!” he says, wav­ing. “This is world’s best city!” I couldn’t agree more.

Street mar­kets in the Mong Kok neigh­bour­hood of Kowloon

Lamma Is­land is just half an hour by ferry from Cen­tral but a world away

In­cense coils scent the air in­side Man Mo Tem­ple in Cen­tral

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