Sunday, October 28, 2007

Harbouring desires.

Something strange has happened to Hong Kong.

As someone who lived there when it was still a British territory, the change is unsettling, confusing, and even downright incomprehensible. Former residents should be forgiven if they struggle to come to terms with the change, however, because it is something that nobody would ever have imagined in a million years:

Hong Kong has become friendly.

Taxi drivers greet you with a cheery ‘good morning’ when you get into their cabs. 7-Eleven cashiers announce the total cost of your purchases in English. CafĂ© waiters rush to see that your table is clean and that your glass is full. MTR ticket staff wish you a pleasant day and patiently suggest options for your stored value public transport card needs. Hotel receptionists charm you with witty remarks.

And most shockingly of all, wonton min sellers flash you a wide smile, giving a cute wave and calling out a breezy ‘see you again soon’ as you walk satisfied out of their door.

I spent three days in Hong Kong this week. And must have done more than a dozen double takes during the visit, as I was assaulted by unexpected friendliness. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Hongkongers’ new-found cheeriness makes the Thais look slightly surly in comparison.

What was always good about Hong Kong was its open door policy. During the British era, immigration policy was always, ahem, hands-off to say the least. (Indifferent would probably be too derisive a word for something with so positive an outcome.) The result was an ethnically diverse place, where you really felt that you were in a true city of the world; a free port, where anyone could come and set up shop. New Zealanders would work behind bars; South Africans would serve you in beachside restaurants; fat Yorkshire lasses would take your order in fish and chip shops; Pakistanis would set up small eateries in apartment buildings serving shockingly good food.

I always suspected that when China took over, things would change – not because of any difference in immigration policy, but simply because what rules there were would probably be more strongly enforced. I imagined that all the not-quite-legal residents would have to pack up and return to the abodes from whence they came, and I thought that could only be a bad thing: it would make Hong Kong a more homogenous place, and would take away a large slice of what made the place so unique, which would benefit nobody.

I’m glad to report that my suspicions were unfounded. I was still asked whether I wanted Tsingtao or Carlsberg in an unmistakable Auckland accent; the young man who took my order on Lantau had the blond hair and definitive sun-kissed look of a Durban native; and the chicken tikka I enjoyed on my last night in Tsimshatsui was without a doubt cooked by a son of Lahore. Hong Kong, thankfully, is still a city whose doors are permanently open.

Strangely, for a place with a reputation as one of the most densely-populated, urbanised societies on earth, it’s still remarkably easy to get some fresh air in Hong Kong.

Living in Bangkok, where despite Thailand’s reputation as a tropical paradise it takes at least two or three hours’ drive to get to the nearest decent beach, I’m envious of my Hong Kong friends.

Even the ones living in ultra-urban Causeway Bay or Sheung Wan can hop on their mountain bikes, do a 20-minute ride over the hill through gorgeous green national parks, and be swimming in the sea for an hour before heading back for breakfast and work.

And on weekends, a quick escape to the outlying islands or the new territories sees them basking on gorgeous beaches, ringed by spectacular mountains with not a soul to disturb them.

(Of course, if they want the tropical paradise that is Thailand, a direct flight from Chek Lap Kok to Samui takes about the same length of time as a drive from Bangkok to Ban Phe.)

It may be my imagination, but as well as the new friendly attitude, another change seems to have come over the place.

It’s clean.

Sidewalks are neat, spacious and freshly scrubbed. Grass verges are green and lovingly manicured. Beachfront areas at Stanley and Repulse Bay have been extended and beautified, to provide more public space. Parking is orderly and traffic flows freely. Public transport is ridiculously efficient: and covers every nook and cranny of the territory, urban and otherwise.

I am no politician. And I am aware that there were teething problems during the transition from British to Chinese ownership.
But from what I can see, the change to Chinese rule has done the place the world of good.

Maybe, on these credentials, it would be worthwhile striking some sort of deal whereby the Chinese could run other British territories too. Perhaps they could start with Scotland and see how that works out.

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