1Up Abroad: Hong Kong Part 1

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What’s a Journalism graduate to do when he spends a week in another country? Why he has to blog about it of course! So while 1Up Culture is typically a pop culture blog, I thought I’d do a series of special pieces about my trip. These aren’t taking the place of the typical Monday releases, they’re just a bonus in a series I’m calling 1Up Abroad: Hong Kong. Does this mean I’m leaving room for other 1Up Abroad’s set in other countries? You betcha. Feel free to donate to the cause…

Before I delve into my adventure, what did I know of Hong Kong going in? Most of what I was expecting had been built up through three separate avenues: The video game Sleeping Dogs, a couple of movies set in the city I had watched in readiness (One Nite in Mong Kok, Infernal Affairs, Fire of Consciousness etc) and the two episodes of the Korean Variety show called Running Man that were set in Hong Kong. As a student of media part of my study involved the impact of media tourism and the links we make between entertainment and reality, so I’ll naturally refer back to my impressions from this kind of media – it also means these are kind of loosely but not really connect to the actual 1Up Culture theme.

I had heard of Hong Kong being a blend of Eastern and Western cultures, due to its history under British rule and the fact that, well, it’s in Asia. I also was under the impression it was filled to the brim with people, but constructed with a good blend of tourist hot spots and authentic Hong Kongian life. Prior to the trip I had only ever travelled overseas to Japan, and this would also be my first international trip solo, though I had spent a couple of days on my own in Osaka while in Japan (as an aside and lacking all measure of subtlety, I talk about my experiences in Japan here and here if you are curious). Hong Kong appealed to me because after Japan I was keen to explore more of Asia, but I also didn’t want my first solo trip to be too daunting. So it made sense to choose somewhere with a strong English speaking background, which left Singapore and Hong Kong as my main options.

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So my 6 day trip began as I made it into Hong Kong late into the evening, and right from the start I was hit with the magnificent sight of a Victoria Harbour lit up of a night. Even away from the Symphony of Lights (which I wouldn’t see for a few days later due to my schedule) the harbour is an absolutely breath-taking first impression. People raved about it, but I honestly didn’t expect to be as awe struck as I was by it. For that to be my first impression of Hong Kong…wow.  From the Kowloon side, Hong Kong island looked big and imposing as buildings sat tall and proud. My inner geek was also able to spot the building Batman flew down from in ‘The Dark Knight’, and any correlation my brain makes to the Caped Crusader is generally a net positive.

The second impression I got as I took a quick walk around the block was that this city is more than a little obsessed about Christmas. I’m not talking a decoration here or there, but rather you look up and see a ten story lighting display against a building of Santa and Rudolph, next to another display on another building with the words ‘Merry Xmas’ emblazoned by bells and wreaths. Hell, we don’t even bother setting up a Christmas tree at home (and Hobart’s latest Christmas tree  display has been met with a universal facepalm), and here is Hong Kong dressing up half the city in Holiday glee. But for all the impressive displays my favourite was the snowflakes that were hovering over a street by way of wires. Simple, but really effective and special.

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These Christmas themed lights were also matched by the glorious array of neon lighting advertising all manner of product that I apparently had to consume. It was an impressive display for my first night in, but the morning felt very different. My first full day had me up very early, and even considering that this city wakes up a little later, there is a really stark contrast to the night. Before, I continue, allow me a quick tangent. As I mentioned my only previous international experiences are my university research trips to Japan, so it’s only natural to hold one up against the other. It’s a little unfair as they are two very different places, but there is some merit to the comparisons. Both Hong Kong and Tokyo (particularly wards like Shinjuku) light up of a night. The neon and LED blasts you in the face and you’re often shielding your eyes more often of a night than during a sunny day.

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But the next morning the two cities feel incredibly different. Tokyo looks new as dawn rises. Without the bright lights you find a very clean and fresh looking environment. It feels like a futuristic utopian city. Hong Kong on the other hand looks worn, and a city of the past keeping up with the future. It’s like they are two girls: Tokyo is a naturally beautiful young lass whose beauty is simply enhanced by makeup. Hong Kong on the other hand masks herself with said makeup, drawing you in of a night but when you wake up next to her of a morning you question just how effective those beer goggles really were.

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Tokyo here represented by a Korean-American for reasons…

Leaving the shallow and silly analogy aside, I’m not saying this as a knock on Hong Kong. It’s merely different. The area I was in, Tsim Sa Tsui, looks like it has been lived in, and there is arguably more atmosphere to be found in a city such as this. Buidings look a little ragged and weathered. It feels like there might be dangerous shortcuts that have been taken in the construction and maintenance. It was interesting to take it all in. This initial experience was only of one section, and Tsim Sa Tsui isn’t meant to be Shinjuku or Shibuya (I also realise Tokyo isn’t indicative of the rest of Japan), but when I arrived the neon lights instantly brought back memories of Japan. And when it comes to the ‘neon city’ concept, I am like a moth to the light. I love it, I truly do. And Japan being my point of comparison, it makes sense my brain would go there.

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As for the reason I was up bright and early on my first day? Well I had traveled over to explore Hong Kong hadn’t I? So what I did only makes sense… I left the damn country straight away.


…Let me explain.

Part of my planned itinerary was to do a day trip into China, as an opportunity to get a taste of the mainland without committing to a full blown trip just yet. And by signing up with a tourist group I avoided having to deal with Visas and not knowing where I was going. The downside was the date set for the trip was low on numbers, so the only other option was to do it on a Thursday…aka the first day. Which was just fantastic as it required a 6am wakeup after being up at 4am the previous day and flying for 10 hours total. And yes yes I know that’s nothing compared to the great Pacific or Europe transit times so I should treat it like a drink and suck it up, but when you barely have legroom as it is and the guy in front is one of those who can only exist on a plane by cranking the seat ALL THE WAY BACK (special room in hell for those people) it makes for a long day. But overall I was actually fairly awake and ‘with it’ (or at least as much as I can be, I own property in the clouds for my head) but it did mean that I wouldn’t properly explore the city I was staying in for another day.

So my grand one day experience of China took us over to Shenzen by ferry, a quick stopover at a Kindergarten and a zoo (they are separate things…) before travelling to the country’s third largest city, Guangzhou. That city’s Population: 14 million as of 2014. In a city! And there’s still two others that have more crammed in. It’s all good though, there is still room for the expected growth, the Chinese population is growing by millions every year so they’re literally building more China by dumping more land on the water’s edge so they have more room to expand. Like the country isn’t big enough already…

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Even getting there helped put things in perspective. Now I’m not ignorant, I know my home town of Launceston, Tasmania is only considered a ‘city’ because a state basically has to have more than one city otherwise it’s the laughing stock of the rest of the country (because the other states don’t have enough fun playing the incest and two head cards). But China has villages that dwarf Launceston, not only in population and ground covered but also height. The Myer building and the Grand Chancellor are our mighty sky piercers, but their farming villages wouldn’t waste their time building such pitifully small sheds. Sure, the buildings share more than a few similarities from the descriptions of near future dystopia living complexes, but they still act as the basketball player to our horse jockey.

Anyway, Guangzhou is a pretty nice place. I love seeing a big city go about its day, and there are a lot of people to observe. I am not a big tour person. It’s certainly handy and the information and knowledge can often be worth the price of admission, but it stops you from immersing yourself in the culture. I would have loved to have explored the laneways, or sat and watched the bustling world go by, but it simply isn’t practical. You have to file in and out of transport and location hot spots, all the while wondering if you’d be involved in an accident as the driver has his hand on the horn like it was feeding him candy. I counted about 475 near car collisions or pedestrian hits during my time there – if I drove there I wouldn’t last a day – and there are just as many great Western chain stores; McDonalds, KFC, Subway and Starbucks to act as a powerful reminder that Communism didn’t stick. Actually, speaking of Communism (wait, is this about to get political?) there were some notable remnants, notably in the use of language. Outside of the ferry terminal was a large sign with the words “Time is Money, Efficiency is life” plastered in bold…red…letters for all the visitors to see. There was even a cat picture (I kid you not) with a similar message staring me in the face as I used a bathroom urinal.

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No, this isn’t the Chinese KFC…

Of course it wasn’t all Chinese symbols on familiar signs. Part of the tour took us down what our guide described as a ‘true Chinese market’. By true, he meant ‘let us kill and pluck these chickens as you walk past my stall’ true. We had eaten beforehand, so there was no more appetite to ruin, but as a permanent city boy who thinks twice about killing the spider hanging off of his lampshade, seeing the cages filled to brim with animals like turtles waiting to be slaughtered for consumption was a sobering image. It’s not a win for the vegans though, I’m still going to wrap my chicken in bacon and serve it with a side of pork. Mmmm…heart burn…. but the alleyway this small market existed in really did feel separated from the fairly modern China we were witnessing, and also not an image the modern China sells itself off of. And let’s be honest, as fascinating as it is to experience there’s a reason for that.

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The highlight for me was the rather magnificent Dr Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall. It combined the eye catching Chinese structural architecture with some ‘grass is greener on the other side’ lawns and a general grand aura. Even without delving into why the man has earned having his name on an imposing theatre you know that the guy means business. And it certainly is impressive. The outside is glorious, which made sense since it also served as a presidential palace at a point in the last century, but even on the inside the theatre space felt rather rich. It’d be easy to picture some stirring speeches delivered inside. The tour definitely saved the best for last, and overall although the experience was a little too touristy for my liking, it was a good chance to get a taste of China, and thankfully the rest of the tour group were good as well.

Once we got back into Hong Kong I decided to do a bit more exploring, since I hadn’t done a whole lot on the first night. Despite what my single status might suggest, I was drawing in people everywhere I walked. Unfortunately it was not my jaw dropping good looks or silky smooth charisma. I must look like an easy mark. I had heard the area was littered with hawkers, but bloody hell it was like I was the only one in the world for them. I get it, it’s obvious I’m not a native, and I can’t exactly hide in the crowd when I’m a foot taller than said crowd. But they went for me with a vengeance. And we’re not talking ‘charity trying to make you feel guilty about not signing up to donate’ persistent, these guys were next level. They followed me halfway down the street trying to convince me to stop and take their business card.

At one point, and I’m not exaggerating here, five separate guys all made a beeline for me at once. Don’t use Velocirapter hunting tactics on me guys! I’d turn down one guy trying to get me interested in some custom tailored suits, and as I was turning him down another guy touting the exact same thing would try his luck. Did he not notice I wasn’t even half listening to the other guy’s sales pitch? And these men lacked the cute feminine wiles that would at least get me to subconsciously slow down (sad as it sounds it works, I know a guy who signed up for charitable donations because of the attractive lady who asked him, and I guarantee he’s not alone in that point). It was either suits or foot massages, but noticeably not many food offers, which would have been the thing to potentially stop me…a fact that surprises nobody reading this. The next day I even had someone try his luck from across the road. At least he wasn’t desperate enough to cross the busy road and try his luc…NOPE! I spoke too soon didn’t I? He ran over and kept trying to convince me to ‘just take his card’ after I had waved him off and kept walking from across the road.

Now look, I get it, that’s their job. Part of my first job required me to basically do the same thing. It’s a sucky job and I don’t envy the people who have to do it. Getting rejected all day isn’t fun, whether it’s in work or love. But it boggles my mind how persistent these guys are. Back home the average street hawker gives up after two polite rejections, but not these guys. They’re professionals. Is this what women have to go through when they go out of a night? I wouldn’t know, instead of chasing them I just sit at home watching Youtube, but if it is the case then on behalf of the rest of the male gender I apologise. I truly do

We’re two days in, and I’ve barely scratched the Hong Kong surface. But that’ll change. The next edition of 1Up Abroad I’ll be delving into the famous Mong Kok district, home of markets, millions of low hanging signs and if the movie ‘One Nite in Mong Kok’ is anything to go by, hookers and shootouts. Oh boy…

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Click here for 1Up Abroad: Hong Kong Part 2



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