IntroFor the month of July 2014 I spent time in both Hong Kong and mainland China. There is in fact a difference between the two, not so much as politically as socially, but I'll get to that in a bit. Between 1840-1898, the British purchased a lease for the various portions of Hong Kong (sort of like how New York City has 5 boroughs, Hong Kong consists of 3 main areas known as Hong Kong Island, Kolwoon, and the New Territories, along with another 260 islands and peninsulas). It wasn't until 1997 that Hong Kong was handed over to the People's Republic of China. However, during the hand off, the British stipulated that China must not impose socialism on Hong Kong, but rather preserve its capitalist system for 50 years, making it a Special Administrative Region. Hong Kong is specially situated as a point where east meets west-- literally where communism can meet capitalism.
However, this isn't only politically or economically a special zone, it's also very different in the minds of the Chinese and expats that live there. Thanks to the British rule, many Western cultural nuances have been brought to Hong Kong that are not necessarily common on mainland China. For example, on mainland China it is considered best for the health to regularly spit and it is common to see parents potty training their children on the street. These are definitely not acceptable in Hong Kong and people in Hong Kong are regularly horrified by these social norms in China.
However, I will say that I think the whole thing is blown out of proportion. Hong Kongers have often told me that they are actually afraid to go to mainland China because of the filth and danger. I found mainland China to be extremely safe and while there were some aspects to the Chinese culture that were a little shocking-- well, isn't that part of the adventure? China is beautiful and full of really awesome people. I met many Westerners who live both in Hong Kong and on mainland China and didn't know any Chinese people, and not surprisingly they didn't feel totally at home in China and over time grew to really dislike the culture there.
Anyway, in order to also maintain their independence, Hong Kongers of Asian descent speak Cantonese, not Mandarin, which is the official language of the Chinese state (many Westerners, not surprisingly, don't speak anything beyond basic Cantonese-- but you can definitely get on without it pretty ok). In almost every way, the people of Hong Kong have fought to keep themselves a little separated-- and in doing so have truly created a social anxiety about mainland China.
My travels started in Hong Kong, then took me to mainland China for 3 weeks, and then back to Hong Kong for a week (total of 5 weeks). For the purposes of this blog, however, I will start with mainland China and come to Hong Kong at the end. You'll find that I did not visit what Americans would call the main attractions... but little did I know that these were really touristy areas for Chinese people. You can definitely beat the crowds, but if you're not prepared for it, the Chinese tourists masses can be overwhelming. Even in China, many Chinese prefer to travel in large groups. And these groups tend to seem to be packed together, so that you are swarmed by hundreds of people.
From Hong Kong you can fly to Xiamen (pronounced "Shee-yah-men") for 1 hour or take a train from Shenzhen, just over the boarder from Hong Kong on the China mainland. When I went to get my Chinese tourist visa in New York, they required that I show my transportation confirmations from Hong Kong to mainland China-- train tickets are hard/impossible to buy online in advance, so I was forced to go the airplane route. I took Hong Kong Airlines and found it to be amazingly comfortable. The flight was on time (which apparently for China is quite shocking), really comfortable, pretty empty, and there were snacks and coffee/tea! It was actually a really nice flight-- better than JetBlue even!
I stayed at the hostel Koala's, which was really comfortable and in downtown Xiamen but pretty hard to find. The weather in Xiamen was scorching hot and super humid-- probably over 95 degrees and 95% humidity-- not ideal weather for wandering around a town with all of your bags. The hostel is located right downtown on a side street. It's a great location and has a cool hangout/lounge/bar area, though on a Friday night it really wasn't even being used other than by a few people watching TV. In general, not many Westerners come through Koala's, especially in the summer, though they do get a lot of study abroad students during the school year, so most of the guests are young Chinese travelers.
Once I dropped off my bags, I immediately headed out to the town. At a small shop I bought a Chinese SIM card for my travel phone for about $10. The credit didn't last me very long, but for the rest of my trip people were able to call me which was extremely helpful. Walking to the main shopping street is a bit of a shock-- in the back alleys behind this street the shops are very simple and grungy, the shopkeepers often live right in the back, and the facades of the buildings are dirty and decrepit; however, on this main boulevard, which is closed to cars during the day, there are big, beautiful, and expensive shops-- particularly Western chains, like Nike and Esprit. But as soon as you deviate, you're back in these poor, small alleys.
(Please note that despite the appearance of the alleys, they are completely safe. China is really surprisingly safe-- during the entire time I was there, I didn't feel unsafe and nervous. Especially for women travelers, sometimes you can find yourself in a city where the men are very aggressive. Contrastingly, in China I never felt that there were any local people hitting on me or making cat calls.)
|The view from Starbucks|
One interesting sight was that as I wandered through these mostly empty alleys, occasionally I would stumble across a wedding photo shoot. I must have seen a dozen of these couples wearing fancy wedding suits and gown, sweating like crazy in the heat. A quick Google search tells me that Gulangyu is the wedding photo hotspot.
I continued walking around and at one point stopped at a small stall to buy some water. The shopkeeper invited me to sit with him for tea, and since it was pretty hot and I was feeling tired, I agreed. He had a “point & speak” book that was supposed to have cartoon images to show the meaning of the Chinese words, but this was basically useless. When I saw the cartoon image for whiskey I made a joke since it was the only thing that made sense in the whole book. Next thing I know, they guy is offering me beer. I was feeling nervous about the tea (who knows how clean that cup is), but in retrospect I had nothing to worry about and should have just sat and enjoyed the company. I didn't speak any Chinese and this shopkeeper didn't necessarily have much, but here he was offering me all that he had as well as his company! This is such a great example of Chinese culture in this area-- very generous and welcoming!
|The ladder up to the lookout point|
After two very hot hours on the island, I'd had enough and headed to the hostel. A little while later, I met with Peter, a local who I was connected with through a colleague at Touro Law where I had been working the past year and a half. Touro used to have a summer abroad program in Xiamen and Peter was the liason. Now, peter works with the Chinese government in sending high school and middle school teachers and principals to the US and Canada to practice English.
|Dinner with Peter|
|Some interesting sites in the food market|
After this little adventure, I collected my things and headed to the bus station to head north to see the tulou, or round Hakka fortresses. This was just DAY ONE on mainland China! Still have four more weeks to cover!!! Stay tuned!!!