Impressions of Hong Kong Then and Now

My wife and I had a very relaxed and hassle-free holiday in Hong Kong (Fragrant Harbour in Chinese) when we revisited it recently, after having been avoiding it for upwards of 15 years because of the widespread rude treatments meted out to tourists by its retail and services sectors’ personnel. As the front line representatives of this world-renowned metropolis, most visitors’ impressions of it are inevitably shaped by the attitudes and conduct of these locals. On the other hand, several of our friends who have always found it a fun city despite the above irritations had spoken glowingly of the remarkable transformation of these previous transgressors into service-oriented people within a relatively short time.

As seeing is believing, we decided to give it a second chance. Our friends had not been guilty of hyperbole about the “reformed” Hong Kong service. Yes, incredible as it might seem, these notorious and much-feared services providers had truly undergone metamorphosis and now treat tourists with courtesy, friendliness and dignity.

What was the Fragrant Harbour like between the 1960s and 1980s when we had visited it periodically, both on business and holiday? For most visitors and tourists, it was truly a mecca for shoppers and foodies and it also never failed to impress them with its spectacular skyscrapers and vibrant night life. Cantonese was, and still is, the linqua franqua among the diverse Chinese dialect groups dominated by the Cantonese majority, with English being the official language of the colonial administration and medium of communication between the local people and the sizeable cosmopolitan expatriate population. However, the younger Hong Kongers are now starting to learn Mandarin more seriously to keep up with the changing circumstances.

Hong Kong was ceded by the Chinese to the British in 1842 as the result of the infamous Opium War. It was returned to China in 1997, ending 155 years of British colonial rule. History had come full circle. Today, it is an integral part of China under the “one country and two systems” doctrine, and has been allowed to retain its capitalist economy and system of government for at least 50 years.

An impediment to one’s enjoyment of Hong Kong was the unabashed crude behaviour of its extensive retail and services sectors personnel towards those whom they were supposed to serve. This has no parallel elsewhere. Among the biggest offenders were the taxi drivers, shop assistants, restaurant staff, hotel porters and other service personnel, tour operators and even sales staff at upmarket department stores and fashion houses. These were the people most tourists would normally deal with and who could either enhance or mar their holidays there. Prominent among their favourite victims were Mandarin-speaking Chinese compatriots from the Mainland and Taiwan, overseas Chinese who conversed with them in flawed Cantonese, foreigners with darker complexions and men and women who were sloppily attired. Numerous Singaporeans are not likely to forget their own unpleasant episodes there.

Here are some of my personal experiences and those recounted to me by fellow sufferers in Fragrant Harbour. In my first encounter with a taxi driver, he told me in a sarcastic and contemptuous manner that there was no need for me to stare at the fare I was retrieving from my wallet as it would never be turned into American gold dollars! What answer has one against such outrageous behaviour. At an established hotel where I stayed, the porter who insisted in carrying my light trolley bag to my room reacted angrily to my tip, which he thought was less than what he deserved, by storming out of my room in a huff after uttering some uncomplimentary remarks in Cantonese instead of thanking me. While shopping at a reputable ladies’ boutique, a friend’s wife was roundly rebuked by a sales girl within the hearing of others for not making a purchase after having tried on a couple of dresses which she found unsuitable. In yet another episode, a senior Singaporean executive was blatantly humiliated by a sales assistant in one of Hong Kong’s renowned department stores. She flatly refused to bring out a Rolex watch from a showcase for his inspection. To add insult to injury, she said arrogantly: “Its very expensive and are you sure you can afford it?”. Her cursedness must have cost her employer dearly.

To put things in perspective, these Hong Kong retail services people did not treat the ordinary locals any differently and they must have become accustomed to such sub standard services and couldn’t change it for the better. Be that as it may, not all tourists suffered the same fate as these hapless ones. It was quite noticeable that, by and large, Westerners did receive more civil reception from these otherwise recalcitrant Hong Kongers. This could be because Hong Kong was still a British colony and the ingrained mentality that Caucasians were superior to Asians still held sway. Also, without recourse to Cantonese their sharp tongues seemed to have momentarily lost its potent power!

In our later visits, whenever practicable, we would resort to speaking English. Invariably, they would treat us more respectfully than if we had engaged them in our imperfect Cantonese. Many mistook us as wealthy Chinese Americans and therefore worthy of their attention. In a word, materialism and perceived social standing appeared to have permeated every sector of the Hong Kong community and to be rich is glorious, to quote China’s redoubtable Deng Xiaoping, and this is the ultimate goal of most Hong Kong people then and now. Hence, the locals would often judge you by the way you dress and the outward display of recognisable status symbols. Fortunately, one saving grace was that these unedifying services providers constitute only a cross-section of the Hong Kong society, and the rest of the citizenry were generally more urbane towards visitors and made them feel more at ease when interfacing with them.

Despite these human failings, one common thread that binds all strata of its society is that they are astute, enterprising, industrious, realistic, adaptable, adventurous, resilient, self-reliant and self-confident. These advantageous human traits had enabled them to overcome numerous crises and also helped them to prosper. I will now elaborate on some of these qualities and paint a thumbnail sketch of the old Hong Kong community as I knew it. Hong Kong workers, perforce, had to work long hours, with lesser labour law protection and employment benefits, compared with their counterparts in Singapore. Also, trade unions had made little inroads in the employment scene as it was actively discouraged by the colonial administration. Despite these disadvantages, they had managed to attain high productivity through their varied skills, self-reliance and pride in their workmanship which had contributed greatly towards the post-war economic miracle of this formidable city.

For decades, Hong Kong had suffered acute housing shortages. This was aggravated by the hordes of mainland refugees or immigrants who had reached its shores by legitimate or illegal means, seeking a better life for themselves and their families. Some brought with them financial resources, talents or entrepreneurial flair which were much needed there. The majority of them lived in squalid conditions in makeshift housing settlements or fearsome slums until improved accommodations could be gradually provided for them by the greatly overburdened colonial government. Their miserable existence contrasted starkly with the glittering and lavish lifestyle of the rich and famous who resided in the choicest parts of central Hong Kong or high up on the exclusive Victoria Peak, some with chauffeur- driven Rolls-Royces to boot. On the brighter side, these Mainland immigrants had significantly augmented the local work force, and, despite their adverse circumstances, not a few of these impecunious but brilliant Mainlanders had ultimately become highly successful entrepreneurs in Hong Kong.

The richest man there, Lee Ka-Shing, is a shinning example of a self-made billionaire. It is hardly surprising that it has more restaurants and other eating places per capital than any other city in the world. This is because the majority of them lived in tiny rooms or shared apartments as the cost of housing was and has continued to be prohibitively expensive. It was commonplace for a family of six to be squeezed into a room of 12 sq. m, with communal kitchen and toilet facilities . In these situations, eating out at eating places of all types had become a way of life, leading to a mushrooming of these all over Hong Kong. Only the very rich could afford and have the living space to entertain at home. The middle-income locals, without exception, would entertain their friends and business contacts in a restaurant.

For the affluent visitors and tourists, the Fragrant Harbour was another story. It had some of the best Chinese, especially Cantonese, restaurants in the world. Other leading world cuisines also flourished there. Avid collectors of Chinese antiques and contemporary Chinese paintings and other works of art couldn’t have found a more ideal place than the colony to indulge in this esoteric and expensive hobby, both in terms of price, selection and quality. These precious goods came from the Mainland whose government then needed the requisite foreign exchange to help finance its urgent national development. On top of that, many excavated ancient Chinese artefacts were smuggled into the colony and the bulk of these would eventually find their way to the rich countries of the West for resale at much enhanced prices.

Hong Kong was not particularly blessed with sightseeing places of great distinction, compared with other better endowed places in Asia. Nevertheless, in my view, the picks among them included the Ocean Park, a marine world with scenic surroundings, the Victoria peak, the highest point on the island, which affords a panoramic view of Hong Kong, the Song Dynasty theme park, which would give one a glimpse of the splendours of China as its vast territory was then virtually closed to most outsiders, and not forgetting the charming old walled Hakka villages in the New Territories. The then Portuguese colony of Macao, with its famed casinos and Iberian ambience, was a popular day trip away for both Hong Kong residents and tourists to the British colony.

What is Hong Kong like now, as seen through our eyes and perceptions? In a nutshell, my wife and I were favourably impressed with what we saw and experienced in the five days we were there recently. It was by far the most enjoyable holiday trip for us there. What made it doubly memorable was the cheerful and efficient services we received throughout our stay.

What have brought about these attitudinal changes within a relatively short time? There were several compelling factors. First, the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s hit Hong Kong severely. Its economy declined significantly, with the consequential ill effects. Before the economy could fully recover, another economic bombshell descended on it in 2003. Hong Kong, along with several other Asian countries and beyond, were initially caught unprepared to meet the wrath of the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and paid a very heavy price for it. Hundreds of Hong Kongers perished and the economy suffered further considerable setbacks. The culmination of the above calamities, coupled with unfavourable economic conditions prevailing elsewhere, ushered in a prolonged full-blown economic recession in Hong Kong between 2003 and part of 2005. Unemployment shot up, many businesses closed and tourist arrivals were reduced substantially.

As tourism is one of the lifelines of Fragrant Harbour, the urgent and effective exhortations of the government and others concerned with tourism to raise the standard of service to visitors and tourists for their own long-term interest had finally sunk in . With their hallmark nimbleness and characteristic realism to protect their own rice bowl, as it were, the retail services sectors began to reinvent themselves from being short on services and civility to becoming more courteous and welcoming to visitors and tourists, irrespective of their race, status and country of origin.

Here is our report card on our recent experience as a repeat tourist in Hong Kong, and our impressions of the tremendous changes that have made deep impacts on us since our previous visits. First, the new Hong Kong International Airport, situated in the picturesque Lantau Island, is the best in the world. Its world-class amenities and facilities were planned and designed with the international travellers in mind. The airport Information staff delighted us with their courtesy, languages skills and general knowledge, which put us in the right mood to enjoy this famed city. We were truly vowed by the luxurious but affordable Airport Express Train, which runs at regular intervals and can transport the passengers in comfort and style to either the Kowloon Station or Hong Kong Station in 18 and 23 minutes, respectively, over a distance of some 45 km.

At our hotel, the front line staff were politeness itself and the bellhop who carried our luggage to our room thanked us graciously for our gratuity, a far cry from our earlier experiences. Our subsequent pleasant encounters with taxi drivers, subway staff, shop assistants at a variety of establishments including department stores, service personnel at noodle houses, popular restaurants, cafes and front line staff at touristy places convinced us that Hong Kong retail services providers had indeed reached a new milestone and have largely succeeded in transforming themselves into a service-conscious industry catering to the different needs of travellers and residents alike.

What about the behaviour of the man-in-the-street towards visitors? In the past the average Hong Kongers would not be too helpful when approached for road directions as they were always in a rush to cope with the hectic pace of life. Nowadays, they were not only cheerful and willing to oblige, in a couple of instances they even went out of their way to take us to our intended destinations! On crowded buses and subway trains, without exception, someone would considerately give up their seats to the elderly passengers and others in need. This does not happen often in Singapore. Another kudos they have over Singaporeans is that they would alight or get into a lift, train or bus in an orderly way and not encroaching on other users’ rights as is a common spectacle here. On the escalators, too, they would always stand on one side so as not to obstruct others’ ease of movement. Sadly, this simple civil act is rarely followed here.

In the not too distant past, Mandarin speakers from the Chinese Mainland, Taiwan or Southeast Asia would be considered unsophisticated “country cousins” and be treated accordingly by the retail services providers. But, today, their custom would be assiduously solicited and shop banners bearing “Mandarin spoken here” or “a warm welcome to our compatriots from the Mainland” are commonplace in the popular shopping districts. Another discernible change is that Westerners are no longer accorded deferential treatment as before. The ordinary Hong Kongers seem to have finally discarded the colonial mindset with the territory’s reversion to China in 1997. Also, with their own growing affluence and worldliness and the rising standards of living of many fellow Asians, the economic superiority of Westerners and their higher spending power over Asians is no longer so apparent as in the past. In reality, the present day big spenders are the Mainland Chinese.

A couple of remarks about the Hong Kong scene in general may be in order. When it reverted to China, many political and economic experts had predicted that its importance and economic eminence would diminish under China’s sovereignty. This not only did not happen, instead it has clearly emerged more prosperous than under the British rule despite the almost continuous economic turbulence which had confronted it in the past decade. It is noteworthy that the majority of the hundreds of thousands of former highly trained Hong Kongers, who left it prior to the handing over for fear of their future there, had since returned in order to share in the expanded economic pie brought about by the increasing employment and business opportunities in their native land.

One ominous sign however is that the gulf in income level between the rich and the poor is widening alarmingly. While the former have become even richer with each passing year, the latter are now earning less than 10 years ago. If this imbalance is not redressed soon, it could lead to serious social unrest threatening its future well being. Despite its First World standing, with an annual per capital income of US$28,000, almost 1.3 million out of a total of 6.9 million Hong Kong residents are still living below poverty line. Due to extremely high housing cost, numerous of the poorest are still living in the so called “cage dwellings”, often with the whole family being crammed into them.

Apart from the large concentration of spectacular skyscraper clusters along the Hong Kong harbour front, the old cityscape, especially the colourful and interesting crowded streets and alleyways, have hardly changed since we last saw it years ago. Nevertheless, it did give us much pleasure to see them again and to revive our fond memories. One of the most economical and leisurely way to see the city’s buzzing street life is to take the time-honoured old tram ride which traverses central Hong Kong. A novel new innovation that we like is the 800-meter long outdoor covered escalator system, with entrances and exits at various points. It stretches from the Central District to the Mid Level District, a vertical climb of 135 meters. It enables the residents up there to use it as a short cut to their offices in the Central District below. It also doubles up as a tourist attraction for tourists to ascend the top of the Mid Level comfortably for a better view of the city.

One of the much publicised new star attractions for both the residents and visitors alike is the multibillion dollars Disney theme park on Lantau Island. However, if you and your children have already seen the larger and more exciting versions in the US or elsewhere, you wouldn’t miss much by bypassing it. It is currently the smallest of all Disney outlets and its admission charge is very high.

The highlight of our sightseeing was the 25-minute cable car ride from Hong Kong side to the Lantau Island to see the Great Buddha statue, the tallest in the world, and the opportunity to savour the scenic beauty of this offshore island, which is much larger than Hong Kong Island itself. Both the new airport and the Disney park are also located there. The cable car ride was an exhilarating experience, and offered us an unobstructed panoramic vista of Lantau and the distant coastlines of Hong Kong. The gigantic but well-proportioned Great Buddha sculpture , with its majestic and serene posture, is truly awe-inspiring. Of the several other large offshore islands. Lamma is easily the best to sample the rural life of the simple fishing folks and is still relatively uncorrupted by crass commercialism. It has fascinating but challenging trails which are popular with hikers.

On every night of our Hong Kong adventure, we thoroughly enjoyed strolling along Kowloon’s Esplanade water front to gaze and marvel at the row upon row of brilliantly lit skyscrapers adorning the Hong Kong harbour front. A nightly creative laser show spotlighting the grandest of these high-rises, accompanied by rousing music, is truly an unforgettable treat. To sum it up, Hong Kong will always be a desirable destination for tourists from both East and West as it has much to offer them, and it also serves as the gateway to China’s vast hinterland. For those who relish good shopping, food and entertainment, there are few places to rival it.

Incidentally, today is the 10th anniversary of its return to China and a day of great rejoicing and celebration there. I wish Fragrant Harbour and its people happiness and continuing prosperity in the years ahead.

Lam Pin Foo
(1.7.2007)

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One thought on “Impressions of Hong Kong Then and Now

  1. A well thought out and balanced view point. Anecdotal accounts provide good support and make for interesting reading as well.

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