Englasia: a-k-a Hong Kong

Only in 1912 did China adopt the Gregorian calendar used by most of the world as its official calendar, even though the Gregorian calendar, a solar calendar, was introduced in 1582. Until 1912, China used the Chinese, or Han calendar, which is a lunisolar calendar, defined by both the lunar phases and the solar seasons.

As most Westerners know, each year of the Chinese calendar is associated with one of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac – the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig, in that order. We are currently in the Year of the Horse.

In fact, however, each year of the Chinese calendar is defined by a sexagenary cycle that is defined by two component cycles. The first is the Celestial or Heavenly Stem, which are consecutive yin and yang versions of the 5 elements – wood, fire, earth, metal, water – and the second is the Terrestrial or Earthly Branch corresponding to the 12 animals of the zodiac. Taken together these provide 10-year and 12-year cycles that run concurrently, resulting in a net 60-year cycle. (Sixty is the first number to be evenly divisible by both 10 and 12.)

So when you reach your 60th birthday you are considered to have survived your first lifetime and it’s a big deal indeed. I celebrated my 60th birthday on September 21, (I am a Yang Wood Horse) and I decided to come to Hong Kong for the occassion. (I’m glad it’s over, to be honest, because in the period leading up to your birthday your friends and colleagues invariably congratulate you on ‘completing your life’, which I always found to be thoughtful but a bit unsettling.)

Like youth everywhere, the youth of Hong Kong can be a bit rebellious.  Is it political rebellion they seek, however?
Like youth everywhere, the youth of Hong Kong can be a bit rebellious. Is it political rebellion they seek, however?

If Singapore is ‘Asia Lite’, as the ex-patriates in Asia call it, Hong Kong is Englasia – where East meets West – and I have been coming here for 30 years. It is a magnificent city and if it’s not on your bucket list it should be. The pace is frenetic and it literally sits with its feet dipped in the water, and as Bernie Lo, a Hong Kong resident and CNBC anchor has aptly noted, ‘somehow it works.’ It works incredibly well, actually.

Hong Kong came under control of China during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) but was lost to the British Empire after the First Opium War in 1842. Britain had a huge trade deficit with China(the more things change, the more they stay the same) that it could not finance due to a lack of anything the Chinese really wanted. With one exception – opium – which was illegal in China but legal in the United Kingdom at the time.

You won’t find this on the menu of your 5-star hotel but if you walk a couple of blocks you can have some delicious Hong Kong noodles for dinner.  Price:  $4 USD
You won’t find this on the menu of your 5-star hotel but if you walk a couple of blocks you can have some delicious Hong Kong noodles for dinner. Price: $4 USD

In addition to being an international trade center Honk Kong ultimately became the precursor to China as ‘factory to the world’ during the mid-20th Century. Ultimately, however, the Outer Territories were opened up by Deng Xiaoping and almost overnight Hong Kong was a manufacturing city no longer. The actual production was immediately moved to places like Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Zhongshan.

Today Hong Kong is all gleaming high rises and literally bursting with money. Before coming here I had read, of course, all of the Western media reports that Beijing had reneged on its promise to allow free elections in 2017 – twenty years after it resumed control in 1997.

The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of China recently issued rules for the democratic election, clearly reaffirming its commitment to let all residents of Hong Kong vote for their leadership in a region-wide election. What they did do, however, is clarify the rules by which candidates could be nominated to participate in the election.

Every Western democracy has them. Critics of China, however, argue that requiring the approval of a government-approved committee allows Beijing to stack the election. In theory, perhaps, but given that there are 1,200 members of the committee that strikes me as a degree of ‘stacking power’ beyond even the reach of the bureaucratic Beijing.

Nonetheless, there were many stories in the Western media confidently proclaiming that Occupy Central, a civilian political group advocating for universal suffrage, would shut Hong Kong down as a result of the announcement. That seemed very unlikely to me, so I went to the Central Station and the literal center of the financial district of Hong Kong almost daily to have a look.

The only thing I saw occupied in Hong Central were parking places occupied by exotic cars likes these.
The only thing I saw occupied in Hong Central were parking places occupied by exotic cars likes these.

And the only thing I saw occupied were parking places occupied by Ferraris and McClarens, and MTR subway cars filled with people carrying LV and Coach shopping bags and brief cases. And the only pamphlet anyone tried to hand me was an advertisement for an inexpensive noodle shop.

The Hong Kongese are Cantonese and more than a little superstitious (Feng Shui is popular here). And on one corner I did see a guy with a sandwich sign declaring that the American CIA is out to kill us all with plenty of perfectly worded evidence to support his claim. I am quite sure, however, that I saw the same sign thirty years ago.

The Hong Kongese are incredibly polite and I’m convinced that they are taught that when they see a foreigner in the street looking lost it is a matter of Hong Kong pride to help them out. Stand and look about for even a minute and some young Hong Kong youth or a police officer will ask you, in perfect English, if they can be of help. Believe me, you will find it easier to get around here than New York City. I even had a store clerk give me back more change than I was expecting when I bought a simple electric shaver at an already good price and when I inquired if a mistake had been made he informed me that his boss had decided to give me a nice discount, even though I had not asked for it. (That won’t happen in Beijing.)

When I first came here 30 years ago you saw an enormous number of impeccably tailored Englishmen being driven around in Rolls Royces and Bentleys. You will still see a few today but mostly you will just see very successful Hong Kongese. As it should be. (And you will see as many successful women as men.)

Hong Kong is on the move 24/7, and as Bernie Lo notes, “Somehow it works.”
Hong Kong is on the move 24/7, and as Bernie Lo notes, “Somehow it works.”

There are some cultural differences. The Hong Kongese will queue up. I even saw a group of four workmen waiting at a crosswalk for the walking signal to change when there wasn’t a vehicle to be seen in either direction. You won’t see that in LA much less Shanghai. And they don’t spit or urinate in public, although both are on the decline in China as the government puts considerable effort into getting people to break habits considered crude by many foreigners.

You will see smokers, although where you can smoke is highly regulated, and you are just as likely to see young women smoking as old men.

And for those who still dream that Occupy Central will bring Beijing to its knees let me point out one simple fact. The source of the most foreign direct investment in Mainland China is not Japan, or the U.S., or any country in Europe. It is Hong Kong. By a lot.

So when the United Kingdome agreed to finally give Hong Kong back to the Chinese it was, in a very real sense, simply admitting to the obvious. The same will be true in Taiwan, in my opinion.   Beijing has no need to invade Taiwan because Taiwan business people have already invaded China. I work with so many Taiwanese business people today in China I am often left wondering who is left to run Taiwan itself.

And if the Hong Kong experience offers any guide, I think that will be a good thing indeed. The Hong Kong people are clearly living better lives than they were thirty years ago. And compared to 17 years ago it is the wonderful truth that it is the Hong Kongese who are living them, not just the foreigners who occupied their land over the right to trade opium.

A ride on the Star Ferry between Kowloon and Hong Kong is a must.  This is the view you will be offered.  How does your city look from the waterfront?  Believe me, go there!
A ride on the Star Ferry between Kowloon and Hong Kong is a must. This is the view you will be offered. How does your city look from the waterfront? Believe me, go there!

Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.

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