A Retrospective

1,000 Buddhas Temple in Hong Kong - This place was just breathtaking. And thank you to Mike for photoshopping out a distracting point of light!! One of these days I'll need to learn to do that myself...

It’s been a month and a half since I returned home from Hong Kong. The place has taken on this strange sense of unreality to me in my mind, as if perhaps it never happened. At the same time, I think things have slowly been percolating under the surface. I had the privilege of talking about my experience last week and it called to mind all the amazing things I observed and learned over the course of the trip.

I had a pretty horrible return home, in truth. Things did not turn out at all as I thought they would and while I don’t want to speak too soon, I believe I’m well on my way to recovery. Regardless, it’s just another challenge that I’m proving to myself I’m strong and resilient enough to get past – it sounds strange, but things really couldn’t have turned out better. I’m fortunate, and I know I’m going to see that in the future. I find myself treasuring little moments at random and it feels good.

I’m slowly reorienting myself to focus on things to come and I can feel the excitement building. Thanks to my summer experience, I’m planning on applying to law school. My daydreams currently focus on moving to California to attend Berkeley, my first choice, but I’ll be applying to NYU and Columbia as well. I’m actually really looking forward to beginning the application process, the likes of which I used to utterly dread. I feel like the work I’ve put into my life in the past two years has truly brought about fundamental changes and the future looks bright. It was a real privilege to spend the summer in Hong Kong and the experience helped show this to me.

I’ve started to slowly sort through the pictures I brought back with me, and it’s such a blessing to have them. There’s a small part of melancholy at recalling the undercurrent of excitement at returning home… but so many other things as well. It’s such an amazing chronicle of the things that happened to me during my trip, what I was feeling and thinking.

Lastly, this semester will be great but tough I’m sure. I’ll have to have three “deliverables” by the end – a group consultant project on reducing child marriage, a human rights and poverty case study and a research paper. I think I’ve settled on the case study topic, which will use the massacre of the migrants in Mexico last month to look at the broader issues of trade policies such as NAFTA and CAFTA and the dangers that the migrants face in their efforts to get to the US border and subsequent treatment once they are here.

As for the research paper, my head is swimming with so many topics and I’m seriously frustrated about the idea of having to pick just one!! I originally wanted to focus on aspects of US development agencies to study whether their projects truly help or if “development” is simply another political weapon. I’m skeptical that I’d have enough serious resources to go on this. In addition, the development world tends to get few things right in general, so who’s to say it’s not typical failure rather than outright malevolence? So I’m pondering other topics instead -

The impact of the Catholic Church on the birth rate in the Philippines (birth control policy) and its resulting impact on migration for economic reasons.

A look at economic sanctions, particularly in Iraq – and whether it affects people disproportionately – causing poor people to suffer for lack of resources with little consequences to elites.

The question of structural violence in development and what must be done to raise awareness about it, especially in first world countries. (I got the idea from reading Peter Uvin’s discussion on structural violence in Rwanda as a result of development aid and the part it played in starting the Rwandan genocide.)

What are the limitations and impacts of legal advocacy as a tool in cases where human rights and economics intersect?

As usual, my brain is working overtime and I can’t settle on any one thing…. And I need to, FAST!!

The disabled, homeless population in Hong Kong

Homeless and Disabled

In bad shape

The majority of beggars I’ve seen on the streets are disabled in some way. I am now even seeing a few who perform music on the streets – a man with a bad leg who plays the flute and a woman in a wheelchair who sings karaoke, the machine strapped in front of her. I couldn’t decide which was worse – do they feel as though they’re enough of a spectacle already without needing to put on a song and dance for their dinner, or is doing something for money an empowering display of agency on their part? Do they believe that they’ll get more funds if they do something like perform, or is this a matter of pride, and not wanting something for nothing? (Research shows that only 13% of the more than 30% of elderly impoverished are on social security despite being eligible due to the fact that they don’t want what they perceive as handouts.)

Floutist

I’ve been wondering about this for awhile and I haven’t come up with much information on it, but I finally found a small blurb in an article I’m reading for my paper that sheds a bit of light. I will grudgingly admit that while the LAST THING I want to be doing is writing a research paper in an amazing city with limited resources, it’s still pretty cool to find these bits of information while I’m still here to actively wonder about them all the time.

The welfare sector has been hardest-hit by the budget stringency that followed [Referring to measures taken in response to the Asian financial crisis and the resulting recession]. After 1998, the government stopped preparing regular blueprints for the development of welfare programmes, which identified service needs, set detailed targets and deadlines and gave the public as well as officials the information needed to assess progress. Policy is no longer based on surveying service shortfalls, qualifying the population’s needs and allocation resources to fill the gaps, and the long-term consequences have been tragic for Hong Kong’s most vulnerable groups. Average waiting times for admission to residential facilities, for example, are alarming, Government statistics include:

  • “severely mentally handicapped persons”, almost seven years (2007 data);
  • “severely physically handicapped persons”, almost nine years (2008 data);
  • the elderly: nursing homes, 42 months; care-and-attention homes, 32 months (2008 data).

The full article: Politics and Poverty in Cash Rich Hong Kong by Leo Goodstadt

And the more extensive report is located here.

He's here in this spot everyday, in front of the subway entrance in Mong Kok

Thoughts on Hong Kong’s consumer culture

Graveyard in Macau - No relation to the post. I just thought it pretty dramatic.

I’ve been thinking a lot about consumer culture here in Hong Kong. It’s a lot of speculation on my part, and nothing I can substantiate right now – two months can lead one to make a lot of specious assumptions with no real knowledge. Part of this is asking questions I couldn’t even begin to answer.

Being in any sort of shopping area brings me extreme discomfort. As much as I love the atmosphere of the markets, it is here especially that one tends to be pounced on by the vendor of the stall immediately. I’m not sure if the same is true for everyone or if because I’m┬áCaucasian, they figure I’m a tourist and therefore going to be susceptible to spending more money.

There are times when I’ve been in more traditional areas where vendors are selling authentic Chinese goods and they have been kind enough to educate me more on the symbolism and the purpose of the items. While it is wonderful of them to do so, it makes me feel uncomfortable to walk away without purchasing anything, as it seems there is still an implicit relationship of buyer and seller. They have given their time to educate me about their goods, and I in turn purchase something.

There seems to be a point when the vendor in your average market stall will know they’ve lost the potential sale – the friendliness they greeted you with disappears and their faces are closed to you, sullen and cold. If I haven’t fled from their initial pounce, I will at this point – wondering about their practical situations – how much money they make and if it’s enough to survive – if they hate this job with an utter passion (I would) – 10-8, and how tiring it must be to endlessly try to peddle their wares to people – dealing with obnoxious tourists who will laugh at their prices, only accepting the rock bottom concession that is made by the vendor as they walk away.

Man Selling Shrink Wrap Machine

Man Selling Shrink Wrap Machine - I can't help but think that all the ladies were watching because he was good looking. I mean, really? A shrink wrap machine demonstration??

I can’t get over what feels like the shiny newness of the sales industry (I don’t mean the markets themselves). Hong Kong was primarily a manufacturing economy and in the past two decades has become a service economy. In the markets it is not uncommon to see someone with a hands-free microphone selling some gadget, charismatically giving demonstrations. What amazes me is that often I don’t know why the item would warrant such a sales act or why people would even buy it despite the act – a shrink wrap machine, a cleaning mitt, and sometimes even just little chachkas. All the same, the salesperson extols the value of the product like gospel.

Man selling I don't know what - I couldn't figure it out before I got a "Missy, missy - no no!!!" because I was taking pictures. Chachkas??

The atmosphere in your retail stores is much different than the market, but still makes me think “new”. You are greeted by every single person you encounter and I have yet to come across an unfriendly salesperson. I know some stores back in the US require you to greet each shopper you encounter, but it is nowhere near the scale of Hong Kong.

I’ve been wondering about class and the idea of being a retail salesperson – in a culture where consumerism and business are prized above all else, are these people proud of their jobs in a way that retail workers in the United States aren’t? Is a retail job in a shiny new mall more highly regarded than what is probably a much better paying manufacturing job? Or is this perhaps a holdover from colonial Hong Kong where a subset of people are expected to serve without complaint? I’m also really curious about how I’m treated and how it might be different in comparison to someone who is perceived as a native Hongkonger.

Despite the image that Hong Kong tries to put forth – a glittering, wealthy metropolis – how much of the population is truly able to partake in the life it represents?

The things the man was selling... nightlights?? Chachkas!!

Mong Kok Night Market: Photo Essay

Nike Night Market Stall

A Nike ad peaking out behind a night market stall - liked the concept, not sure about my execution.

This is going to be more photo than essay, but after nearly nine solid days of being stuck in the dorm room I couldn’t take it anymore. Needed to get back out there with my camera, was missing Hong Kong and the ability to explore its streets. It was a scary couple of days there where they wanted to put me in the hospital due to crazy painful tonsillitis that just wasn’t getting better… I’m sure I’ll be writing more in depth about the experience and it will be filed under the “Lost in Translation” category…. Given my condition has improved greatly and I’m going back to work tomorrow (yay!!!), I decided to take a short trip to explore the Mong Kok night markets again. It was so wonderful to be back out.

Some of the highlights of the night -

Share Tea! - Iced Vanilla Milk Tea, Lemon Black Tea and Mango Cream

  • FINALLY finding the Share Tea stand in Mong Kok!! My haul comprised of a beautiful, freshly made 24(?) ounces each of lemon flavored black tea, vanilla milk tea and mango with cream for a hefty total of about $5 USD. (Starbucks…. what’s Starbucks?!?)
  • Watching an old couple while waiting for my tea – the old man shuffling down the street, the woman yelling after him in Cantonese amidst the Mong Kok craziness of tons of people and neon lights. He turns back and looks at her, says something, and continues on as he smokes his cigarette. Despite the difference in language, you could just imagine by the set of his shoulders and the way he looked back that his words were “yeeeeah, whaaatever”. He continued on as she shook her fist and followed…. It was an amusing scene to say the least, and one I wouldn’t have witnessed if they hadn’t bumped into me in the process…..

Pictures aren’t the GREATEST, but hope it gives you an idea of what the night markets are like….

July 1 – Hong Kong SAR Establishment Day

Starting them Young - this girl knows exactly what to do with her protest sign!

Starting them Young - this girl knows exactly what to do with her protest sign!

Unfortunately the blog has been silent for much longer than I would have liked, not for lack of ideas or the desire to post but rather illness. Been fighting off what became a very bad case of tonsillitis over the past week and a half. Ironically, I think my issues started on July 1st. As today has progressed I’m finally feeling somewhat well enough to poke my head out of the rabbit hole and do something more than sleep. I’m going to start off with a bit of a history lesson, but I’m bolding my own impressions at the bottom….

1 July is a big holiday in Hong Kong as it’s the anniversary of the British handover to China – hence, Special Administrative Region Establishment Day. The reason Hong Kong has the “SAR” tag is because it was negotiated that the colony would be accepted into China as part of the country but would keep the political system it had already in place, the mantra being “one country, two systems.” A big worry with the impending handover was that China would strip away much of the mechanisms that make Hong Kong a laissez-faire economy and some of the greater freedoms that Hong Kongers have. This is still a worry, though “one country, two systems” ends in 2047, causing democracy activists to feel the need to cement the differences of Hong Kong even more by introducing democracy.

There are a number of events that mark HK SAR Establishment Day, the two biggest being the Pro-China parade in the morning and the Pro-Democracy parade and protests in the afternoon. I did my best to take in as much as possible, going out early in the morning with my friend Alex while she interviewed Filipinas and domestic workers.

Ended up catching most of the Pro-China parade, which was a wonderful combination of acts – including many traditional (my assumption) Asian dances, dragon dancers and even an International Latin formation team. I was approached by two young girls who asked to interview me. Not sure what it was for, but they seemed happy that I obliged – they asked me where I was from, why I was in Hong Kong and if I knew what the celebration was about. I was silently thankful for the curriculum we were required to familiarize ourselves with given I could tell them the significance of July 1!! I told them I was really enjoying the festivities, and was also looking forward to the Pro-Democracy parade later in the day. The interviewer wrinkled her nose, and I wasn’t sure if this was because she didn’t know what I was talking about, or because she disagreed with my sentiment. Regardless, I found the exchange amusing, especially the end.

I think what stood out so much to me was that despite all of the Chinese protesters who carried things advocating for a political system of universal suffrage and democracy in addition to more rights, it makes me sad that they seem to have so little interest in the issues that domestic workers face, many of whom were marching at their side. The rights they are looking to attain will not extend to domestic workers, as the immigration system is crafted to keep them separate from society. It also makes it incredibly easy to violate the little rights they do have – I have gone with domestic workers to “court” only to witness all parties pressure them into settling for less than what they are legally entitled to. The methods they must go through to get legal recourse are a series of steps that put them in situations like this again and again. It makes my blood boil.

“Hong Kong Ruled by Hong Kong People” – Universal Suffrage Protests

Protester Wearing "V for Vendetta" Mask

Protester Wearing "V for Vendetta" Mask - was excited to see these as it's one of my favorite movies.

Hong Kong is a fascinating place. While on the one hand, it is a very global city (One of its mottoes is actually “Asia’s World City”), on the other it feels very insular to me. I buy the South China Morning Post everyday and try to keep up on the news as part of my program. Then I walk past the Legislative Council (LegCo) on my way to work and see the very protests about democracy legislation that the paper covering. The debates regarding the legislation were happening on Wednesday and Thursday. As LegCo it is only a few blocks from where I work, I was lucky enough to be able to check out the protests on a few occasions throughout the day. (See previous post regarding running around taking pictures in torrential rain.) I was planning on trying to document the protest some more on Thursday, but unfortunately I stayed home due to swollen glands – the pictures I did get on Wednesday are pretty subpar given my camera’s temperamental behavior as of late.

I can’t stop thinking about how the protest went down, as there were two different “sides”. The two camps were pro-government (or “pro-ourselves” as one interviewee claimed) and pro-democracy and subsequently, there were two different “protests” on either side of LegCo. At first it was really confusing listening to what sounded like a celebration, as well what was a much more organized portion of people, but I was given a run down later in the day and it made a lot more sense.

The Pro-Government Camp

The pro-government rally was cordoned off and you could only get in if you had special documentation. It was an area full of tents and seating, with a large stage for speeches and such. People were being bused in to attend. When the torrential rains came down they were a lot more comfortable than the other camp….

Pro-Democracy protesters continuing on despite torrential rains.

Pro-Democracy protesters continuing on in torrential rains.

Donald Tsang, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, also came through the Pro-Government crowd and ending up speaking to them at some point. As the legislation eventually passed 46-13, he proclaimed it a “triumph.” I believe that’s his face on the “Devil” shirt below:

Pro-Democracy Sign and Shirt

The pro-democracy rally was on the other side of the building. Anyone could access it and there was no seating or tents. Lots of handmade banners as opposed to the slick pro-government banners. When it rained, they were out in the open, save for their own umbrellas and such.

I think in the States the government openly (The word I should probably be using is blatantly, as I’m sure there are lots of examples one could come up with that may be working with the same sort of mechanism.) supporting a certain camp of protesters would be viewed as an anathema, and I wonder what people here think of it.

Pro-Democracy Activists creating a banner.

Pro-Democracy Activists creating a banner.

Legco from the Pro-Democracy side.

LegCo from the Pro-Democracy side.

Crazy Girls with Cameras Need not Apply….

Exhibit A: A policeman stationed outside the protest in absolutely crazy torrential downpour rains.

Today I found myself running around Central in my best business clothing, trying to get shots of the LegCo (Legislative Council) pro-democracy/pro-government protests in monsoon-like torrential rains. I was having a blast, but I also had to be at a meeting at 6. To further complicate matters, my 8 year old Nikon D100 camera is slowly dying on me. Of course, this was the exact time the autofocus gave out for many hours, as it has been doing since I got to Hong Kong. Trying to get proper focus in manual mode while holding an umbrella between shoulder and chin is not easy. Especially when the rain is mucking up one’s vision.

I must have looked truly mad to any onlookers, but I’m used to that, and the occasion was certainly worth it. The combination of two of my favorite things – ridiculous weather conditions and people coming together to make a statement – made it worth sticking around despite the difficulties. The energy in the air just couldn’t be beat. I only wish I could have really documented it properly.

I think my camera is finally starting to go and I’ve been scrambling to try and get a new one. Unfortunately, it’s just not that easy – my regular camera shop in NY was of no help to me at all (sorely tempted to take all further business elsewhere) and I’m not sure it’s worth the potential issues to buy one in Hong Kong. July 1st, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China, is fast approaching. I’ve been looking forward to shooting the parades and protests that will be going on on that day for the past six months, and I’m at a loss about what to do concerning my increasingly temperamental camera. This is what I get for trying to be financially smart and holding off on buying a new camera before my trip…. Needless to say, I’m pretty upset about this issue at the moment.

To top things off, I think I’m getting sick. Oops. More on the actual protests soon.

1/2 Sheun Wan – A 1st Edition of Mao’s Little Red Book

Upper Lascar Row

A shopkeeper's stall on Upper Lascar Row. Note the stack of worn Little Red Books in the corner.

This is the kind of entry I was sort of dreading writing, but I hope this travelogue account is actually interesting. This post is 1 of 2 concerning my exploration of the neighborhood of Sheun Wan.

Today I decided to “trawl” (As the guide book says, love that word.) through Sheun Wan’s backstreet antique markets on Upper Lascar Row – aka Cat Street. Most of the bigger, more popular markets in Hong Kong cater to tourists with mountains of cheap, reproduced Asian goods. This is incredibly disappointing to me, as I love Asian religious and mythological art and statuary and hate to see it commercialized in such a way. Exploring Sheun Wan was just the thing I needed as an antidote.

Upper Lascar Row aka 'Cat Street'

A portion of Upper Lascar Row aka 'Cat Street'

Mao Kitsch

Mao watches and other assorted crap.

One of the most interesting things to me was how so many of the stalls have stacks of Mao’s Little Red Book. There are also a lot of kitschy, Mao themed goods. (Perhaps I’m missing something cultural here, but that seems to me like a great disrespect to the millions who died in the Cultural Revolution.) I wasn’t paying much attention to the Red Books until I encountered a stall with a careworn first edition of the Little Red Book in English. It had the owner’s name in it and everything – I was so excited – an actual piece of history!!! Something to add to my growing collection of memoirs by people who lived through the cultural revolution! (Unlike the majority of my books, I have actually read all of these.)

Little Red Books

Little Red Books

It seems the shopkeeper and I both missed each other by a mile in our assumptions. I figured it would be priced cheaply, as to the untrained eye it would look like a dusty, old, rather unremarkable book (completely forgetting I wasn’t in an area that is as geared towards tourists). He didn’t seem to understand why I would want such a thing, pointing to the mass produced one and saying I would want it more because “this one is new.” In the end, we both laughed over the fact that $1250 HKD (approximately $140 USD) was way out of my price range and I purchased the new Little Red Book for $40 HKD ($6ish USD).

Regardless, the find made my day and the mistaken assumptions amused me greatly. And now I have a Little Red Book to reference alongside the cultural revolution memoirs I read.

ULR Masks

Religious masks.

ULR Bowls

I almost purchased a few of these before wondering about pesky things like lead content...

Hongkongology

Hong Kong Louis Vuitton

One of the high end shopping areas of Central HK - several high end stores line the streets, each storefront outdoing the other. This Louis Vuitton takes up half the block.

In doing the preliminary research for my paper, of which the topic was discussed in the previous post, I came upon a fascinating quote (please note, bold and italics my emphasis):

Incessantly and unreflectively, the Hong Kong miracle reproduces itself, to construct the former treaty port as an exemplar of the pragmatic path of advanced capitalism. Intellectuals have created an academic enterprise (the so-called Hongkongology) in order to sell the famous “Hong Kong experience” of their fixation. The popular counterpart of this hegemonic discourse is the Hong Kong fantasy embodied in postcards and coffee-table books that fetishistically, even vulgarly, builds on the glittering prosperity of the city; this fantasy is invariably taken as the totem representing Hong Kong and contextualizing the meanings of this long-colonial urban site. As a consequence of these perceptions, the hardships of poverty have been, so to speak, petrified, distanced as a faraway historical period – archaeologically termed the Age of Poverty – and thus, in effect, removed from the present-day social memory of Hong Kong. In this way, poverty and the impoverished are suppressed by this glittering totem and are effectively removed from the social agenda.
- Excerpt from Speaking Out: Days in the Lives of Three Hong Kong Cage Dwellers by Siu-keung Cheung

Perhaps that is why I’m finding it so difficult to find articles relevant to my topic… an extremely fascinating point, as I was wondering if the obsession with consumerism and money in Hong Kong has created a “gilded age” in which the ugly aspects of poverty have been completely glossed over.

I often felt anxious leading up to the trip that Hong Kong wouldn’t be the place for me in terms of the issues I’m interested in studying. I’m not sure how I could have ever worried about that now that I’m here – it seems the perfect nexus to study the issues I want to focus on: the way economics impacts human rights, colonial legacies, the collision of cultures (Chinese and Western), the way societies are economically and racially stratified, and last but not least, issues having to do with poverty in general.

Oh, and I still need to find out who exactly these elusive “cage people” are…. perhaps I’ll inform you next time…