The question on arriving in Hong Kong is not, ‘do I feel overwhelmed?’ but ‘what are the most overwhelming aspects of all this?’
For me it’s the elemental things – the heat, the humidity, the noise, the endless flow of people and traffic. Couple this in your mind with the seemingly infinite range of sky-scrapers squeezed onto the hillside of Hong Kong Island and see what it adds up to.
It’s quite something, isn’t it! Imagine something like lower Manhattan crossed with Cape Town and you are not far off. But while it looks like that it doesn’t feel like that. What’s most remarkable, and nicely overwhelming is how safe this all seems.
Impossibly large numbers of people pass each other by centimetres in the street every second, pedestrian traffic going every which way – and the vehicles are much the same – though here we could talk of inches between them. And while the odd taxi driver hoots and gesticulates from time to time – more frequently as the day goes on, I think – by and large all this happens with unspoken courtesy and hardly any interpersonal threat. Not being as skilled as others at this perpetual pedestrian dodgems I have had the odd pavement collision. No problem. Mutual apology and move on.
I came to Hong Kong to be out of my comfort-zone for a while in my sabbatical. I’m a relentless advocate for the benefits of out of comfort-zone time for adults who want to learn and to be refreshed in ways that they could not plan or foresee. I had wondered, before I came, whether I might be cheating – whether this former colony would be too familiar to promote the disorientation that stimulates learning and encourages a fresh perspective. After all, many places are more physically challenging, and few have the advantages for a British traveller of the legacy of 150 years of British infrastructure. There are parts of Hong Kong where English is widely understood and often heard on the streets, though usually with an American or Australian accent. But there are plenty of places where it is not, and the population here is 95% Chinese overall. That makes it 100% in most districts.
And it is surprising how quickly people divide themselves. One beautiful morning I decided to have breakfast at the ‘Peak’. Like a good tourist I took the ‘Peak Tram’ – an astonishing funicular railway that dates back to 1888 and glides to the top up gradients as steep as 27 degrees with good grace in seven minutes. There’s a variety of places to eat and drink and I went into Tsui Wah restaurant. After a short while I realised I was the only western person there. The others were in the outlets of the most familiar international high street coffee shops.
And it was a nice breakfast. I had a mug of ‘Logan, Red Date and Wolfberry Tea’ – and apparently did my circulation, vision and sleep pattern a lot of good. It was an interesting drink, and I came to think of as ‘fruit soup’ as I enjoyed it with a ‘crispy bun served with condensed milk’.
To be honest, though, that was a rare occasion of people keeping apart. Mostly it’s a huge number of Chinese with a few others. Simple as that. This is Hong Kong, China.