October 06, 2014

Hong Kong: First Impressions

I remember reading somewhere that Hong Kong is like Asia for beginners. All the guidebooks harp on about the "East meets West" culture - most people speak some English, it's easy to get around, the food's great, the shopping's great... and so on.

So I came here with a smug sense of preparedness. I "practised" going to yum cha. I flicked through my Lonely Planet guidebook. I watched a few Cantonese tutorials on YouTube for good measure.

Three days in Hong Kong, and I am eating some very humble dim sum.

I'm not sure exactly when the culture shock set in. It could have been on the train from the airport, looking at apartment blocks so ridiculously tall that you wonder how they could have possibly been made by humans and not jenga-playing giants. It could have been reading the sign on the door of my hostel which said it was operating illegally and the owners of the building accepted no liability for anything that happened to me. Or it could have been during my first Hong Kong breakfast, when I found myself sharing a table with a stranger, eating a rather bizarre soup containing macaroni noodles, lettuce and ham.

As a result, I have at times descended to the ranks of my least favourite type of traveller - the creature-comforts traveller. I am ashamed to admit I visited McDonald's and Starbucks within the space of 72 hours.

But even those places had their own unique experiences. At McDonald's, I watched a waitress get into a heated argument in Cantonese with a woman, seemingly over the fact she was loitering at her table after she had finished her food (as I was doing the exact same thing trying to make the most of the free wi-fi, I paid close attention to the series of events).

Then as I was sipping my Starbucks on Tsim Sha Tsui promenade, a small Chinese boy was thrust upon me, followed by each of his parents, and I suddenly found myself the centre-piece of a family photo shoot.

I haven't taken many pictures so far because it's too overwhelming. I've just been wandering around, mouth agape at the sheer masses of everything. Skyscrapers, shops, people.

I do love the MTR, the subway which is so clearly sign-posted and easy to use I haven't gotten lost once. I don't love the sticky humidity, the random downpours, and the tiny wet bathrooms. Thanks to a combination of the three, I have already gone through about half the clothes I brought with me.

Then, of course, there are the democracy protests. I spent the first two nights staying in the centre of Causeway Bay, one of the hotbeds of the Occupy movement. On Friday evening, I heard yelling, screaming and sirens outside my ninth-floor hostel window. Too nervous to leave the building, I watched the situation unfold on Twitter.

A group of masked Beijing supporters had pushed through the barricades and started attacking the young protesters, trying to force them to leave. It was unbelievable hearing it all happening right below me.

Apart from that night, the protest area in Causeway Bay has a strangely festive atmosphere. The barricades have turned what I assume is normally one of the area's busiest roads into a complete pedestrian zone. While the number of actual protesters has thinned out, crowds of locals and tourists wander around taking photos of all the pro-democracy signs and messages of support.

I have now relocated to a charming apartment in Central, where I will be living for the next six weeks. More on that later, but so far challenges include how-to-wash hair-using-hand-held-shower-while-sitting-on-toilet, and how-to-not-disturb-resident-kitchen-cockroaches.

Support Hong Kong: Causeway Bay protest site
"If not us who?! If not now when?!" Signs and messages of support.
Umbrella Revolution.
Causeway Bay outside Sogo department store - turned into pedestrian zone by protests.
The world is watching Hong Kong.

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