Hong Kong’s Special Administrative Region

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Hong Kong was the first of a group of countries and places I like to call the “pockets” — other examples include Singapore and Tel Aviv — I visited: countries and cities surrounded by societies and ideologies completely different from theirs, strange social experiments that by most accounts, have been huge successes.

To be sure, I entered Hong Kong by land. I’d flown from Shanghai to Shenzhen, the mainland Chinese city nearest the so-called “Special Administrative Region,” on account of flights being literally half as expensive. At the Shenzhen Airport, I bought a ticket for a bus that would take me all the way in to Central Hong Kong.

After I crossed the border.

The border? I thought to myself. I knew that Hong Kong hadn’t been fully integrated with China, but guess I hadn’t thought about the fact that there would still be an immigration process. Of course, the legalities were just the beginning.

I won’t go so far as to say Hong Kong is better than China — it’s more developed, educated and affluent, for sure — but I will say that the political border that exists between the two countries has created two utterly separate and different worlds. The moment you cross from busy, industrial Shenzhen into Hong Kong’s vast and untapped “New Terroitories,” which completely conceal the existence of an incredible city of the future less than an hour in the distance, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

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At the advice of my then-roommate Kenneth, Dora, her cousin Rick and I booked a room at a guesthouse located somewhere called the “Chungking Mansions.” After the bus dropped us off, we descended so immediately into the Hong Kong MRT that we didn’t get a great view of the city, at least not at street level. Within minutes we arrived at Tsim Sha Tsui station and emerged onto Nathan Street, which was a revelation: I felt like I’d gone from “China, all the way to New York” in an instant, as the old song goes. Thanks to Kenneth’s having warned us about all the Indian money changers who hang out on street level at the Chungking Mansions, we were able to find it pretty straight away after getting out. The building was without a doubt one of the most cramped I’d been in, in spite of its 15-story height: Just two tiny elevators — with very strict weight limits — served the hundreds of people constantly entering and exiting the building, which consists almost entirely of budget accommodation. The cool part about the Chungking Mansions is that almost every nationality seems to be represented there, a variety I would soon find Hong Kong as a whole to embody.

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After touching down ever so briefly at the New Peking Guest House, I hightailed it over to Hong Kong Island — for reference Tsim Sha Tsui is in Kowloon, the “other side” of Hong Kong — to make the appointment I’d set to get a new China visa. My instinct had been to to take the Metro back over, but the owner of the hostel recommended that I take the Star Ferry instead: It was cheaper (just HK$2 one-way compared to HK$8 for the subway), he insisted, and provided an incredible view of the city for its relaxing 15-minute duration. The first thing that struck me upon boarding the ferry, however, was just how clean the harbor appeared. After all, I’d just come from Shanghai, where the water of the Pudong River that runs through the city is chalkboard covered. It’s funny because although the Star Ferry is a popular transport option for locals and tourists alike, everyone around me seemed to be just as fascinated as I was when we were about in the middle of the harbor, surrounded by a seemingly endless city surrounded by seemingly endless hills.

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I finished my little errand and headed back to TST, where Dora and Rick were in a catatonic state — it was the end of the three-week trip they took to China to see me, after all. The next morning, we boarded the Star Ferry together for the first time. We headed this time to Sheung Wan, in the western part of Hong Kong Island and, incidentally, where our bus had dropped us off in the first place. Hong Kong Island embodies the same sort of overcrowding and chaos that Kowloon does, albeit in a more controlled, bougier way. The British colonial character of the city is also strongest here, both in terms of the number of white expats who live and work here and the types of businesses and homes that exist.

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We didn’t hang around in Sheung Wan long, however: We were bound — at least indirectly — for a place called “Victoria Peak,” which we had a feeling was at the top of the stairs that started less than a mile from the Sheung Wan metro station. What we didn’t realize, however, is that after half a dozen staircases, we weren’t anywhere near the proverbial peak, but rather in Hong Kong’s aptly-named “Mid Levels.” Hong Kong is like a more stratified version of San Francisco: foggy, green and situated around a harbor; with homes and buildings that have the footprints of rowhouses but take the form of skyscrapers. Although the ascent is tiring, the feeling of having a size rise so high around you as you climb is exhilirating.

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Once we got as far up in the Mid Levels as we could for how far west we were, we had to begin heading east on level terrain. On our way over, we stumbled upon the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, a zoo placed right in the middle of the city. Although I’m sure it’s nice for children raised in such an urban environment to have exposure to wild animals, the lemurs, orangutans and flamingoes living in the cages seemed less that thrilled about their fate. This is not to say they weren’t well taken care of; they clearly are. The park was also perfectly manicured — as perfectly as it could be for being into a steep hillside and surrounded by skyscrapers on all sides, anyway. I was shocked to learn that the garden had been in operation since 1862, which seemed hard to believe given its pristine condition.

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After nearly an hour of walking we made it to the base of “The Peak” — Victoria Peak, it seemed was elsewhere — and found to our dismay that the only way up to the top was by tram. As we ascended, illustrations of years past made me extremely thankful for the electric motor powering our vehicle up the mountain: Sketches depicted locals carrying fat British tourists up the Peak in wheelless “Sedan Chairs” in the 18th century. Sedan chairs can still be found today, but only at the top of the peak, where “drivers” carry tourists in them and pose with them in front of the sprawling skyline below.

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On our way back down from the Peak, we stumbled on to a massive group of citizens staging a protest against a planned government “reform” package, which they believed fell short of the universal suffrage and other elements of democracy they’d been promised. Things didn’t get violent orparticularly crazy when I was around, but having lived in China for nearly the whole year prior to visiting Hong Kong, it was strange to see any outward display of dissent, large-scale or otherwise. I would later learn that the crux of the issue revolved around the fact that the Chinese government still has a final say over any changes that appear in Hong Kong’s constitution, even though the regions are still politically separated. Many people I met in Hong Kong and after I left seemed concerned that mainland China was beginning to exert greater political control over Hong Kong, with the chief victim being the S.A.R.’s currently free press.

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Everything else aside, a great part of Hong Kong’s appeal is that it’s simply breathtaking in its scale and its beauty: the nighttime view of Hong Kong Island’s skyscrapers over a glistening harbor and surrounded by foggy hills puts any comparable view of San Francisco, New York or London to shame. As you can see, Hong Kong is very much a place to be at night, its government evidently unfazed by the reputed energy crisis. Walking through Hong Kong’s safe yet lively streets at night illustrates that Hong Kong is separate not only from mighty China above, but from most any country composed primarily of a single ethnicity: It is not only a world city, but the world’s city, a center-of-everything global transit hub through which people of nearly every nation pass through on a daily basis. After visiting other small cities and countries so incredibly separate from the rest of the people and places around them, I can safely say that Hong Kong achieves this effect better than any of them, providing visitors with a sense of sovereignty and separation that far exceeds the hour that separates it from China by land.


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