More than Shopping and Eating
Earlier this year in November, I went to Hong Kong with Raevian. Initially, I had low expectations about the trip as I thought Hong Kong is all about shopping and eating. I’d rather enjoy the heritage or scenic beauty of a place. Raevian was obviously excited because she loves to shop and eat. Nevertheless, I went on this trip with an open mind, and my perception of Hong Kong changed once I had spent a few days there. Hong Kong is a culture-rich place and I’m glad I made the trip.
East meets West: Confucianism and Capitalism
On 3 November 1839, British battleships and Qing Dynasty Chinese junks engaged in a navy skirmish off the waters of Guangdong, heralding the start of the Opium War between China and Britain. By 1841, British forces had invaded Hong Kong Island, and in 1842, Hong Kong became a colony of the British Empire. The Chinese island was gradually transformed by British colonialism as it grew and developed under British rule. Therefore, Hong Kong today is a combination of five thousand years of traditional Chinese culture and British western influences.
You can definitely experience this East-meets-West cultural combination in Hong Kong. Looking at the majestic skyscrapers lined along Victoria Harbour, one immediately gets the sense of Hong Kong’s capitalism and ambition. Indeed, Hong Kong is one of the world’s leading financial hubs and has a striving economy. On the other hand, I also met many Hong Kongers who were kind and helpful, reflecting a more humble and Confucian way of life. This unique blend of behaviours was fascinating to me and it gave me a first-hand experience of the cultural amalgamation of East and West in Hong Kong. Below are some personal anecdotes of my cultural experiences in Hong Kong.
There are lots of tall office buildings in Central on Hong Kong Island, and they form a majestic and beautiful concrete skyline. It is even more beautiful at night when the buildings are lit and the skyline is reflected off the waters of Victoria Harbour. Raevian and I got to see the massive crowds of Hong Kong office workers at Central during the evening peak hour. They were dressed in smart office wear and many of them wore suave suits. All of them walked fast and with purpose. They knocked into me a few times and gave me annoyed looks, probably because Raevian and I were walking at a leisurely pace and blocking their paths.
Mass Transit Railway (MTR)
The Mass Transit Railway (MTR) is Hong Kong’s public railway system, and it is one of the best transport systems I’ve ever used. All of the attractions we visited were situated near MTR stations and on the whole the train system is reliable and efficient. I also had some unique cultural experiences while using the MTR. Below are some examples.
One night, Raevian and I were standing at the MTR platform as the train came into the station. As I stood waiting for the train door to open, I could feel someone standing close behind me. I looked back and saw that it was a middle-aged lady. When the door opened, I instinctively stood aside for the train passengers to alight. Bad move. I immediately felt the lady behind me trying to edge her way past me into the train. I was slightly taken aback and when I turned to look at her, she had a roguish expression of someone whose mission was either to jostle past me or literally push me into the train. More amused than annoyed, I decided to step aside for her to board the train first.
Obviously, not all Hong Kong people behaved in this manner. In fact, I met quite a few who were extremely kind and courteous. For example, one night I couldn’t exit the MTR station, probably because I had not scanned my Octopus Card properly (the MTR stored value card) during entry. Raevian had already exited and was waiting outside the gantry for me (impatiently). I wanted to find the customer service booth but was unsure where it was. I decided to cautiously approach one young lady for directions.
“Hi, do you know where is the Customer Service?” I asked politely.
“Oh yes it’s just ahead, around the corner. Let me show you!”
And the friendly lady then proceeded to walk me all the way to the customer service booth. She could have simply told me that it was just around the corner and walked away. Instead, she went out of her way to ensure that I would find the booth before she rushed off to catch her train. What’s more, it was already 10p.m. and she was probably on her way home to rest for the night. After my prior experience with the roguish middle-aged lady, I was pleasantly surprised by this kind gesture. Last but not least, I saw many Hong Kongers giving up their seats for the elderly on the trains. And they all did it willingly without hesitation whenever they saw elderly passengers. Evidently, the Hong Kong Chinese still value the Confucian precept of respect for elders.
Ladies Market at Tung Choi Street
My strongest cultural experience occurred at the Ladies Market at Tung Choi Street. This is a one-kilometre stretch of road with hundreds of stalls selling bargain clothing, shoes, interesting gadgets, and souvenirs. Prices are usually marked up and you need to use your haggling skills to get the best price. I saw a t-shirt that I liked while walking along the street. It was hung up high on the side of a stall tent.
“Hi how much is this?” I asked the female stall owner.
She gave me a disinterested look. “180.”
“Can you take it down so I can take a look?” I endeavored.
She looked irritated.
“Are you ok with the price first??”
“Erm can I take a look at it first?”
“Are you ok with the price first??”
I was puzzled.
“I want to look at it first before I decide?”
The stall-owner was visibly irritated now as she took down the t-shirt using a hook.
I took a closer look at the t-shirt and gave it back to her because I did not like the design. “It’s ok I don’t think I want it, thank you!”
At this point, for some reason, the stall-owner suddenly became absolutely furious.
“ARE YOU CRAZY (你神经病啊)? WHY DID YOU WANT TO SEE THE T-SHIRT IF YOU DID NOT WANT TO BUY IT IN THE FIRST PLACE? ARE YOU CRAZY? ARE YOU CRAZY?” She screamed at me.
She must have asked if I were crazy at least half a dozen times, but I can’t be sure because I was too busy trying to exit the stall and flee the scene with Raevian (who was by now busy laughing outside the stall). Two stalls down, I could still hear the crazy lady shouting “Are you crazy? Are you crazy? Are you crazy…”. I’m pretty sure I was mentally traumatized to some extent by this incident.
I also witnessed another interesting incident at Ladies Market: a fight between two female stall-owners. Raevian and I were walking along the stalls when we heard two women shouting at each other. One was the owner of a Chinese paintings stall and the other owned the adjacent bags stall. Apparently, the bag-lady had accidentally knocked one of the paintings onto the ground and the painting-lady was furious because the painting had become dirty. Within a minute, the quarrel had escalated into a scuffle and might have become a full-blown catfight if not for the intervention of a male passerby. The stout man put himself between the two ladies and told them to calm down. He only walked away after the two ladies had stopped trying to claw at each other. I was impressed by the man’s strong sense of civic duty, and wondered if it was a virtue shared by the Hong Kong general public.
On top of these memorable experiences, Raevian and I had a fun night of shopping and bargaining. We bought quite a number of items before making our way to Agryle Centre and Temple Street for more shopping and sightseeing.
One night, Raevian and I had dinner at Megan’s Hotpot. This is an upscale Chinese steamboat restaurant located in Lucky Centre at Wanchai. It is very pricey but the food quality makes up for it. All the restaurant staff were also dressed smartly in black suits (I wondered how they could take the heat, perhaps they were all perspiring profusely under their blazers). While indulging in the delicious food, I was also observing the other customers in the restaurant. Some of them were white-collar office workers while the others were Chinese families having dinner together. Most of them spoke English fluently. They must have been pretty affluent because Raevian and I only ordered four items and it already cost us 600HKD, but they seemed to be having continuous servings of seafood and other delicacies. This was an expensive meal but I guess it was worth it because we got to see Hong Kong’s upscale society.
After dinner, we proceeded to walk along Causeway Bay. This was a wonderful experience. I loved walking along the crowded metropolitan streets of Causeway Bay to revel in the place’s atmosphere and experience the culture of Hong Kong. There are many large shopping malls, and I even got to step into an actual Apple Store (there is no official Apple store in Singapore). It is also interesting to watch the Hong Kong crowd at Causeway Bay. I saw a street photographer using his large polaroid camera to take paid monochrome photos, various street performers, and even a band performing in the bay window at the side of a building.
As I sat on the plane during our return flight to Singapore, I reflected on my holiday experience in Hong Kong. What is the culture of Hong Kong? It is indeed a place where East meets West, where you see a combination of Chinese culture and Western influences. While Hong Kong is indeed a capitalistic society, the Hong Kong Chinese still retain traditional Confucian values. Hong Kongers can be somewhat aggressive and even rude at times, but I also saw many people who were kind and helpful, reflecting a more Confucian perspective. I thought back about the street photographer and street performers at Causeway Bay; they give me the sense that Hong Kongers are driven, motivated, and innovative. On the whole, while Hong Kong does not have majestic snow-capped mountains or scores of centuries-old monuments, it is still a culture-rich place in its own right. There is just so much to experience, and I will definitely be making another trip back.