Research Papers still give me nightmares…..

Kowloon Walled Garden

Kowloon Walled Garden - former den of iniquity. The tenements were known for drugs and prostitution. They were bulldozed in 1993 and turned into a garden.

…well, not really, but I need to write one by July 31st and I’d like to pick a topic by the end of the week. I originally wanted to study the impact that the flight of factory jobs had on Hong Kong and what happened to the population of people that lost them, as well as how Hong Kong adapted. Was very interested in this given it was the same economic trajectory as the US and it was in part a comparative study for myself.

At the same time, it’s not as sociologically oriented as I usually go for. I figure perhaps I can combine a number of topics I’ve been kicking around lately under the heading of how Hong Kong’s hyper-capitalism impacts the society. There are a number of examples I could probably wrap into this that I’ve been wondering about:

A criticism of Hong Kong civil society is that it is non-existent given the focus on consumerism. As long as people can consume, they care little about things like political activism or democracy. This is also a criticism leveled at mainland China and I’ve always been curious to explore it more in depth. An interesting point I overheard at a domestic worker forum yesterday was that it’s difficult to get Hong Kong people to donate to social causes. This is interesting, given a conservative mantra is that the more money you give back to people and the less you mandate goes to government provided social services, the more people will have a sense of “charity” on their own. I have no idea if this is applicable to Hong Kong, but it would be interesting to see.

Hong Kong provides little in the way of social services. I’ve been curious as to whether Hong Kong has a homeless population, as there are few on the streets as one would see in New York. In addition, if there is a homeless population, what is “done” with them? (A la Guiliani’s one way bus tickets out.) Homelessness doesn’t mesh with the ultra modern, high end image Hong Kong is trying to put forth. I’ve seen two people begging in the walkway tunnels, and on both counts, it was extremely disturbing – it looked like both of them had been through fires, as they were seriously deformed. The woman had lost all her fingers, and her face was seriously scarred. The man’s face had been “melted” to the point that most of his features were nearly unrecognizable – all but the eyes. He was outside of IFC, one of the high end malls in Hong Kong Central. It was sickening to see people walk by in designer clothing, only to ignore someone who was so obviously in need.

There is a definite hierarchy in terms of what is of primary importance in Hong Kong. For instance, it seems to be a very environmentally conscious city (in comparison to the United States). At the same time, consumerism and capitalist pursuits come first. So while there are signs everywhere entreating one to be careful about energy use, the stores in Hong Kong throw their doors wide open, allowing the air conditioning to come pouring through at high blast. Can only theorize that this is to entice buyers in, if only to partake in the AC and perhaps purchase something in the process.

I’m also interested in social stratification. As one of the few colonies which did not have people transported to live en mass, Hong Kong seems to be a relatively homogeneous society to someone like me. There is an obvious social hierarchy in terms of those native to Hong Kong versus domestic workers. At the same time, I’m curious as to whether there has been a stratification in which a certain set of Hong Kong people have benefited from the city’s wealth, whereas most of the people may have not.

The question of an “advanced” human rights perspective and Western “imposition”

Yuen Po Street Bird Garden

Yuen Po Street Bird Garden - Hundreds of birds for sale here, kept in extremely tiny cages - cruelty or just business?

[About the picture: The Yuen Po Street Bird Garden is a park in Hong Kong where people bring their caged birds to put on display. In addition, there are hundreds (perhaps thousands) of birds for sale. This particular bird was a popular one. Their discomfort at the tight confines of the cage was pretty obvious as they would all be rapidly moving from one side of the cage to the other in an effort to fly. They look black out of direct light, but in the sun they are a gorgeous dark, cobalt blue.]

An excerpt from an email I recently wrote in response to whether white societies are more advanced when it comes to human rights and expounding on the debate concerning whether the concept of human rights is a Western imposition:

I contest that white societies are more advanced from a human rights perspective – studying their colonial conquests illustrates that white societies are far from advanced from a human rights perspective. I think we’ve done a great job of breaking down indigenous systems of justice and erasing history to make it look like we’re some great hope that came to the rescue on a civilizing mission. I also think that we’re extremely good at using the media to gloss over the countless human rights violations that occur across the world due to our foreign policy.

At the same time, I won’t dispute that we have a well established law system and subsequently white people are well treated in our countries. We take care of our own – the problem is, we don’t give a shit about anyone else, nor do we want to see beyond the mythology of America as great savior.

As for a Western imposition of human rights, this is the other side of the debate when maintaining that there is a widely applicable set of human rights for all people. And while I generally think the idea of human rights as a “western imposition” is a bunch of bull, there are serious issues to consider.

For instance, the idea of banning child labor is a relatively new development and began in the West. At the same time, the West has the luxury to send its children to school – Western activists who have tried to ban child labor in other countries often overlook the root problems and have been accused of imposing Western values.

Is it worse for children to work or is it worse for a family to starve because it is illegal to send their children to work? In the end, a movement can do more harm than good because there is a lack of awareness about local problems. It is not so much about banning children from working (the “Western view”, according to critics) so much as it is about creating opportunities such as schooling for children and jobs for adults so children don’t have to work out of economic necessity. So while I generally disagree with the overall statement that standardizing human rights is a western imposition, there are shades of gray and ways that efforts to apply a standard of human rights can do more harm that good.

Skyline

Hong Kong Island's Skyline at Night

Arriving in Hong Kong at night was a bit like stepping into some strange, sci-fi steampunk world. The skyline is absolutely incredible, especially at night. All different kinds of skyscrapers are tucked in among the coastline, only appearing from certain vantage points. This was the best night shot I could get without a tripod – a portion of Hong Kong Island’s skyline at night. In the seven years I’ve had my camera it’s giving me a major issue for the first time – autofocus refuses to work at random for a significant amount of time. Not too happy about that right now. I’m too tired to say something more substantive.

Wild Nights in Hong Kong

Wild Nights in Hong Kong

Wild Nights in Hong Kong

Upon our arrival in Hong Kong, we settled in and went out in search of food – only to find the downstairs vending machine was the only local option. Cup O’ Noodles it was, at 1am HK time on Saturday. I don’t think I ever want to see another noodle again after that, and I am only a couple days into a trip to a region full of noodle shops. Ahhh, the irony.

Not even the 7/11 stays open 24 hours. Speaking of which, there are 7/11s everywhere, and at first this made me feel right at home but they violate a cardinal rule – there’s no fresh coffee in sight!!! Given tea’s popularity here, I would have thought that they might have a selection of that instead. Regardless, there are a countless number of tiny tea shops in Hong Kong which will have to be tried.

The dorm room has an amazing view of the skyline, and tropical bird calls punctuate the morning while people stretch and do Tai Chi in the parks below. Hong Kong feels familiar on some counts – the city atmosphere and the consumerism enshrined by its countless malls – but it is also so much different in others.

Off to Hong Kong…

Cityscape

Cityscape

…and rather excited!! The galleries I’ve been setting up for awhile are finally live. Not perfect yet, but almost there. Picked a favorite photo for this post, as Project 365 is temporarily on hold…. too many issues combined with the craziness of preparing for the trip – guess you could say it was a test run.