Hong Kong: A tale of two cities

December 14, 2021 06:00
Photo: Reuters

Ladies and Gentlemen, there are two Hong Kongs.

The Hong Kong that has everything – and the Hong Kong that doesn’t.

The Hong Kong that thrives through the neon lights and raucous symphony on the streets of Central, born again through the hustle and bustle meandering along the northern coastline of the Island, flowing and ebbing as it merges into the vibrant triangle intersecting Tsim Sha Tsui, West Kowloon, and Admiralty. The Golden Triangle, so to speak, of a goose that lays – or once laid – gold eggs. Here, numbers matter. Here, titles speak – in English, but rarely in Cantonese.

Then there’s the Hong Kong that exists in the narrow corridors and constricted alleyways – the shafted shanty housing and caged homes tucked away in the repressed, crisscrossed networks of apartments, half-apartments, and ruins, concealed by dilapidated facades in Sham Shui Po, Tsuen Wan, and Kwun Tong. Tired bodies dragging their feet, aspiring youths stashing away their dreams, and – above all – the sullen despair of those left behind, shivering in the wintry winds during December, and baked with their own salt and sweat during the unbearable summer.

This is Hong Kong. A Hong Kong where the poor stays poor, and the rich get richer. A city that rewards speculation and opportunism, but rarely – unlike what it once promised to aspiring migrants fleeing oppression or destitution – merit. Merit is but a social construct, after all – one consigned to being a masquerade for the powerful and privileged, as they roll up their sleeves, not to toil away with dirty, mundane labour, but to binge on champagne well into the evenings of the week. If only our government officials – with their exceptional salaries and top-notch character – would pay the folks languishing in subdivided flats a visit, or, perhaps, more than a visit. If only that were a norm – as opposed to a luxury, or an afterthought. If only.

Yet the divides that splinter our city, extend far beyond the socioeconomic realm. There’s the sociocultural, for one – those who speak the native tongue (or English) are prized more highly, as compared with those who do not. English is viewed as the language of the educated; Cantonese the language of the natives. Mandarin? Either a tool wielded by the nouveau riche who find themselves castigated and repelled by the locals, or – worse yet – a Shibboleth that ostensibly would merit alienating and discriminatory treatment. Migrants speaking languages other than the three above? Well – good luck with that. If you’re white, you might still make it somewhere. If you’re a person of colour, or hail from countries in the Global South, you’d find yourself bearing the brunt of this city’s close-mindedness and not-so-soft bigotry of vulgar expectations. This is Hong Kong! – a world-class city. This is Hong Kong! – a beacon of internationalism. Or so they claim.

Then there’s the politics. The ruinous, cacophonous politics – regularly descending into embittered quibbles and squarrelling, punctuated by frustrated signs of resignation. This is home to 7.4 million people – yet few, out of the lot, would ever view Hong Kong in 2021 as a genuine home. Many in the pro-Establishment camp see this city as a forsaken, subpar city outflanked by its rivals in the mainland. Many others – with pro-democratic sympathies or more progressive tendencies – lament the fact that Hong Kong just ain’t what it used to be anymore. And any talk of reconciliation and bridging the gulf between the two? Well, ain’t that a pleasant thought – and a non-starter, at that? We live to see a day when healing is more than just talk and election slogan.

But the show must go on. This city must go on. Hong Kong’s infrastructure and hardware remain – despite the chaos of 2019 – largely intact. We are still, for now at least, amongst the most vivacious and bountiful cities in the East. Our status as a financial center has certainly come under significant challenges given the political upheaval – it doesn’t help that America sees us as a pawn that it is willing to give up and sacrifice in order to score a few cheap political points… but fundamentally, we remain a Chinese city whose soul and ethos rest with our community at large, as opposed to the glitzy skyscrapers and gaudy aesthetics that may prove to be cheap thrills, yet little more than that.

The tale of two cities is a tragedy – and there are many who write sins, as opposed to tragedies. As Dickens puts it, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness.”

Hong Kong could be anything – and nothing – at once. It falls upon us to reflect upon how to carry its spirit forward – onwards and upwards, as opposed to throwing the city out with the rest of its bathwater. So bridge the two halves we must – we don’t have a choice.

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HKEJ contributor