Hong Kong: Perception vs. Reality

Tai O Fishing Village on Lantau Island

[About the picture: Tai O Fishing Village is located on Lantau Island, one of the more scenic, undeveloped areas of Hong Kong. It was an amazing trip and I came back with a thousand pictures from that day alone. Unfortunately this was right before I got sick and I just realized today that I never sorted them!! It may take me awhile but I’m planning on making a Lantau Island slideshow…]

Before the trip to Hong Kong we were required to read a number of books and articles. I found myself feeling grateful for the curriculum numerous times, and it was interesting to see how my experience stacked up with the perceptions I had before I got here. Lengthy conversations with friends on their own perceptions versus what they came to experience ensued.

I was under the assumption that every family has a domestic worker. I got the impression from the literature that it was just the thing you do as a family living in Hong Kong. I’m not sure if this is correct, but given that the minimum wage for a domestic worker is $3580 per month (at current conversion rates that’s $461 USD) it seemed like something that even middle class families could easily afford and partake of. Now it is obvious that a specific subset of people employ domestic workers, rather than every Hong Kong family. (ETA: I’ve come across the figure of 10% of families being able to employ a helper.)

I also had this idea that droves of Hongkongers had joined the rat race – that basically, there were few people who weren’t employed in some high powered business related pursuit. This is quite untrue – there are actually plenty of jobs that seem to have been created just for the sake of someone having a job – for instance, I’ll never get over the women on the beach SWEEPING THE SEAWEED!!! I often wish I could get the viewpoints of the people who do what are the more visibly menial jobs.

Unfortunately I couldn't get a good picture of these women due to weather conditions, but I got something at least. Women sweeping bits of seaweed on the beach... I couldn't get over it and probably wouldn't believe it myself without this picture.

That the “real” Hong Kong was one of skyscrapers, business and financial services, and malls. The knocking down of old buildings for the sake of putting in new. Now I find myself questioning if the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island, the businesses housed in them and the numerous malls are a representation of the “real” Hong Kong at all. While it is the desired image that is projected, it seems like such a narrow part of the place. Who are the people that rarely set foot in these areas? I feel like I’ve been fixating on this theme and these questions a lot, but I can’t really do any justice to them given the short time I’ve been here. It’s deeply frustrating to me as I feel like I’m lacking a nuanced knowledge and can only paint broad strokes.

I worried that I would be coming to a city that was familiar to me in the sense that it would be very Western and feel shallow, disappointing and devoid of culture. I thought the skyscrapers and the malls would squeeze the life out of what Hong Kong had been. I think it will take me longer to think about the implications of my thoughts of equating Hong Kong to the West because it had been colonized, but it seems like a pretty arrogant thing to think, that a region could have nothing to offer because of that. I’ve read a lot of critiques by scholars concerning the treatment of Hong Kong – that it is only defined through its colonization by the British or its Chinese ancestry, never seen as an autonomous entity. This is interesting and it seems I’ve done it myself. I couldn’t have been more wrong – I find Hong Kong to be this amazingly unique, otherworldy place.

I also figured that when I got here I would see the contrast between their manners and the rude American stigma given it’s a prevalent stereotype. Instead, I felt shocked and indignant at what seemed like a completely different set of social mores that made Hongkongers come off as rude. I have been cut in line A LOT. Also, ideas concerning personal space are very different here. People don’t apologize when they bump into you and I’ve been shoved by people trying to get past me to go somewhere plenty of times with no acknowledgment. I’m sad to say I’ve even adapted some of the behavior, inserting myself into the smallest spaces in crowds despite knowing I’m going to be crunched up against a bunch of people. I’ve been reasoning that if I don’t, someone else will!!

As much as it shocks and frustrates me sometimes, I’m sure it’s quite different from the perspective of someone who has grown up in Hong Kong – the city has always had space issues and the amount of people here makes dealing with massive, closely packed crowds an every day thing. To them, bumping into people is just a part of everyday life, and there isn’t a constant effort to maintain that bit of personal space. Amazingly enough, the people who DO apologize more often than not or say things like “excuse me” are people in their teens and twenties – it is so interesting to me, because often young people are considered to be the rudest subsection of a society!!

  • George Iorga

    Very interesting article. I agree with you, that I was surprised to find myself in such a commercial area, and I tried to see for myself, because it was hard to make a difference between their actual tradition, and their “tradition for sale”. Fortunately my girlfriend (a very sweet Chinese girl from Guangzhou) was there with me, explaining how this relationship between HK and China works. If you would be interested in discussing more, write to me at lizzard_kamikaze@yahoo.com
    As a point of reference, I have to say, I was very impressed by Peng Chau island, which was pure traditional, somewhat like the countryside of Hong Kong. So next time you’re in Hong Kong, I reccomend you visit that one too. Have a nice day :)