Hong Kong: A look inside Asia’s ‘world city’

“Kababayan, bili na kayo! May discount kayo dito!” (Filipinos? Buy your souvenirs here! I’ll give you discounts!)

Turning our heads to the familiar invite, a woman with hair turning grey approached us with “I love Hong Kong” t-shirts in one hand and keychains on the other.

Her name is Jocelyn, an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) who works as a saleslady in one of the crowded and narrow pavements of Tsim Sha Tsui (TST), the city’s tourist capital.

“I’ve been working in Hong Kong for 20 years now,” the 40-something said. “My husband has a regular office job. I work to earn extra dollars for my family.”

Every day from 8am to 4pm, she sells souvenirs to tourists from around the world who wander into her boss’s shop. This is only one of her many jobs.

She says life has been good for her and her family. Jocelyn’s parents brought her to Hong Kong when she was 19 years old. She went back to the Philippines to raise a family then worked again in the city. Now, all her 3 children live and study in Hong Kong.

Unfortunately, not all OFWs and expatriates in the city share Jocelyn’s luck.

***

This is Hong Kong – a city that boasts of being “Asia’s world city” – where Western traditions meet (and seldom clash) with the Eastern way of life. One look around Tsim Sha Tsui and Central station and you’ll realize that cultural diversity is indeed the city’s core.

Around a million expatriates live and work with the 6 million Chinese nationals of this former British colony. They contribute to the city’s income and greatly shape the people’s way of life.

The world-famous Victoria Harbour. On the other side is Hong Kong's financial district.
The world-famous Victoria Harbour. On the other side is Hong Kong’s financial district.

Tourism is an important part of Hong Kong’s economy. In fact, it is one of the three main sources of income in the city – international trade and financial services being others. Some 54 million people visited Hong Kong in 2013 and this number continues to grow.

Hong Kong is a an amalgam of the new and the old, of wealth and poverty. In one hand, you have an expansive skyline in Hong Kong island and on the other, you have the well-preserved infrastructure and parks in Kowloon. They have the Victoria Harbour, which attracts thousands of tourists take their photos in the world-famous site, and yet some residents live in cages.

To understand Hong Kong, beyond the gastronomic treats and the eye-opening sites it offers to giddy tourists, one simply need to ask people – expatriates and locals who live in one of the world’s richest cities.

***

Almir (not his real name) is from the northern part of India. He arrived in Hong Kong in 2010 and never departed. Like many other illegal immigrants in Hong Kong, he has taken multiple jobs and sends the money he earns to his family back home.

I met Almir outside a McDonald’s branch in TST. He approached me asking if I wanted some “fun time” with a Chinese woman. I respectfully declined and asked him, instead, about his story.

Life is difficult, Almir said. Illegal immigrants like him are in constant danger of being arrested by HK police. He regularly looks around, suspicious of any policemen, while telling his story.

At night, this area in Tsim Sha Tsui becomes one of Almir's stations.
At night, this area in Tsim Sha Tsui becomes one of Almir’s stations.

“I get more money here than back home. Living conditions are below satisfactory. But I have no choice,” Almir said.

Asked if he had plans to go back home, Almir just shrugs off. “I’ll stay here as long as I have to,” he said.

He looks uneasy and goes back to work, looking for other tourists who might want to take his offer.

Almir is only one of thousands of illegal immigrants in Hong Kong, 65% of which are from South Asia. If caught, they can face a fine of more than HKD 6,500 and imprisonment of up to 3 years, before being deported.

Despite the severe penalty, illegal immigrants still risk working in the city. The profits outweigh the risks, they say, even if they have to live in poor conditions and in constant danger of being found.

***

But Hong Kong is not just about the immigrants and the people. As I said, it is also about the food.

From the dim sum in Kowloon to the Western cuisines in Discovery Bay, Hong Kong is a hotpot of gastronomic treats from around the world.

Street restaurants are the best and cheapest. They offer authentic Chinese food and tradition. Language can be a barrier though. Despite the city’s many tourists, some Chinese restaurants don’t have menus with English translations. (Thank God for pictures!)

No English translations in this menu. The photos of the food were on the walls.
No English translations in this menu. The photos of the food were on the walls.

After entering in a noodle resto in Temple Street in Mongkok, we found out that the menu didn’t have English translations. Too tired to look for another place, we just ordered whatever looked good. Thankfully, the food was great!

In a mall near Nan Lian Garden, we ate in a Chinese restaurant. I tried ordering my food but the waiter didn’t speak English. He instructed me to just point at the food I wanted. I ordered braised beef noodles. He returned a few minutes later with beef organs noodles.

Hong Kong 4
A Chinese meal in a restaurant near Nan Lian Garden.

Street food, like in many other cities in Southeast Asia, is a big part of the Hong Kong way of life. For tourists, they are must-tries to complete the “HK experience.” For locals, it’s part of the daily grind. And it’s not just Chinese food – even street food is a global experience in Hong Kong. Italian gelato ice cream, Pad Thai, french patisserie and bread from around the world are only some of the street choices I’ve seen.

***

Hong Kong 2
The view of Lantau Island from Ngong Ping 360.

We took the 25-minute cable car to Ngong Ping Village, the site of the Tian Tan Buddha (the biggest Buddha bronze statue seated outdoor prior to 2000) and the Po Lin Monastery.

The ride gives a great view of Lantau island and Hong Kong International Airport. On bad days, the cable cars swing wildly due to strong winds. This shouldn’t worry tourists as the management stops the operations when the weather turns really bad. It’s still the most convenient and fastest way to get to Ngong Ping village.

At the top of mountain, shops line the path to the big Buddha. Everything from silk clothes and umbrellas to Japanese restaurants and coffee shops are there. The prices are higher though due to the place being a tourist destination.

While smoking, I meet a Russian expat in Hong Kong. She’s Alex, a 25-year-old working the city’s financial district. She’s been living in HK for the past 3 years and she has no plans of going back to Russia.

“I’d want to go to Moscow and St Petersburg someday,” I told her.

“Really?” she asks in disbelief. “I love the weather here. In Russia, especially during Winter, the temperature becomes too cold. I hate Russia.”

The Tian Tan Buddha overlooks Lantau Island. On a good day, some people say, the statue can be seen as far as Macau.
The Tian Tan Buddha overlooks Lantau Island. On a good day, some people say, the statue can be seen as far as Macau.

Alex said she’s satisfied with her life in HK. She goes to Ngong Ping every so often to unwind.

We finish our cigarettes and head to the Tian Tan Buddha.

***

This is Hong Kong, Asia’s “world city,” where some expats work as pimps and some work as financial analysts, a mixing pot of cultures and the perfect example of the positive and negative effects of globalization.

The food is wonderful and the tourist sites are splendid. In one island are skyscrapers and in another, crowded residential buildings.

In its facade, Hong Kong is a world-class city. But the disparity between the lives locals and expats live here are arguably bigger than anywhere else in the world. This, despite Hong Kong being the third most important international financial center, after London and New York.

I wouldn’t mind going back to Hong Kong. Beyond the souvenirs, there are so many stories to tell and bring back home from this global city.

As we enter the train station on the way to the airport, we see foreigners alighting from the train. I wonder: How many of them are actual tourists? And how many, like Jocelyn, Almir and Alex, will stay in Hong Kong for good?

*The people mentioned in this article refused to have their photos taken for personal safety reasons.

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