Article: Hong Kong 2023: A Travel Adventure Free Hong Kong? The Locals Might Disagree by William Gensburger

If you ask a Hong Kong person, whether a local or a Gwai-Lo (foreign devil, as they used to be called,) you find that the subject of Hong Kong freedom is far from that described by the foreign media, especially in America. Despite the global headlines screaming out to ‘Free Hong Kong,’ most residents here consider the hype to be fodder for media ad sales, rather than reality.

The reality is that under Chinese rule since the British handover in 1997, with the agreed ‘One country, two systems’ rule for fifty years, Hong Kong has, for the most part, remained ordered, clean, and safe. 

Sure there were riots and protests a few years back, the ones that made global news as students demanded democracy and were arrested, disbanded, and silenced, but locally most people above the age of the students will tell you that it was folly, unnecessary, and even that foreign actors had been paying money to the leaders of the protest movement. Whether true or not, remains unclear. The facts are simply that Hong Kong under British rule, with the harsh British penal system for offenders, and Hong Kong under Chinese rule, with an equally harsh punishment for offenders, just don’t seem to be that far apart.  

Yes, the governing body of Hong Kong went from elected leadership to CCP-placed leadership and yes, China despises criticism and actively silences those who publicly do so, but compared to the current American system of censorship of anything critical to the Biden administration, or ‘fact checkers’ as they like to be called, the differences can be noted only by the state of each place.

Crime is low in Hong Kong. There are gangs, or triads, that occupy some parts, but generally, like a scene from a Batman movie, this happens in the depths of darkness and unnoticed unless you happen to live in those few and far-between neighborhoods. And the police are swift to act.

I was born in Hong Kong in the late 1950s, when the tallest buildings of this former swampy fishing village, were less than 12 floors high.  Before that, in 1841 when Great Britain obtained Hong Kong along with four other trading ports as the spoils from the Opium War with China, it was considered unimportant, a swampland riddled with mosquitos that many considered useless. Hong Kong, which translates to ‘Fragrant Harbor,’ had just that, a spectacular harbor mostly insulated from the wrath of the seasonal typhoons, that would make it a world-famous port for exports, and later imports, for the rest of the world. 

Hong Kong is divided into three parts: Hong Kong Island, just over 30 square miles, the Kowloon Peninsula on the other side of the harbor, just over 18 square miles, and the New Territories,  368 square miles, north of the Kowloon Ranges and south of the Sham Chun River, as well as the Outlying Islands, leading right to the border with China.  Together over 7 million people live here, mostly in the former two locations, a dense urban sprawl crammed with endless high-rise buildings reaching for the sky and glowing like a geode at night, the lights producing a constant glow off the clouds. 

“What is freedom?” a man identified only as Lau asked me. Middle-aged, born in Hong Kong,  he drives a Tesla Model 3 as an Uber driver, deftly weaving and braking in the insane Hong Kong traffic. It can only be described as organized chaos, with cars jutting in and out against each other with the trams, the cabs, the mini-vans, the busses, and the ride-shares. I note that locals walk the same way they drive, almost on instinct, meandering around the others like an odd dance of sorts, generally avoiding collisions. 

“No freedom in America,” Lau tells me. “Only pretend.”  It turns out he has relatives in San Francisco, a popular destination for Chinese to move to, and he tells me what they share with him: dirty streets, endless homeless tents, and expensive cost of living. And taxes. No shortage of taxes. They are also afraid to speak out for fear of retribution.

“What do I have to protest about?” asks Evelyn Talbot, a former Shanghai resident who moved to Hong Kong in 1949. “It’s a life that’s been good to me. Hong Kong is an exciting, vibrant city with very little crime.”

“What about the poor people forced to live in cages?” a passenger next to me on the inbound flight asked. “It’s criminal.”

And while true that cage apartments exist, usually small apartments subdivided to allow many people to live there, which given the exorbitant rents, are hardly imprisonment; rather it allows the occupants to secure their few belongings against theft. The only other alternative for many would be living on the street, which for Hong Kong means sleeping in walkways that pass beneath busy streets, or in the city parks where areas are designated for shelter. Unlike America, most city parks have many bathrooms that are always attended to and include showers. They close around 11 p.m. and open again at dawn. 

Rent for a 600-square-foot apartment in the mid-levels goes for US$15,000 per month. Companies bringing employees to work in Hong Kong need to pay for their housing or the whole reason for coming would not be economical. 

The Chinese are also a family-oriented culture, often living together with aging parents who are revered, not discarded. Ancestor worship is also common, with rituals that include leaving food and paper goods for the deceased at the cemeteries and, of course silently feeding those living close there.

The other class of people seldom mentioned in the foreign media are the many wealthy Chinese. Hong Kong has almost 130,000 millionaires 290 centi-millionaires (those with a net worth of more than US$100 million) and 32 billionaires*. China has 43 billionaires, by comparison, ironic if you consider it a communist country. And does America have that many?

Wealthy Chinese families often send their children (usually sons) to study in America and  England at the best universities, making contacts and securing their financial futures. 

You also find a high number of expensive automobiles. Rolls-Royce used to hold the title as the highest per capita vehicle. These days the cars include McLarens, Maserati, Lamborghini, and more, slightly amusing since it is almost impossible to high-speed drive in the cities—you’d have to go to the New Territories for any sort of speed.  If you’ve watched the Academy Award-winning film “Crazy Rich Asians” you’d understand that it wasn’t just a movie.

You really do not need a car here. The license fees are high, the price of gasoline (petrol) much higher than what Americans recently experienced, and only those living up the island’s mountainous region, mid-levels and above, The Peak, where the affluent live, night require the convenience, one they certainly could afford. 

For everyone else, there is an abundance of public transportation, taxis, and Ubers. Trams that run from one end of the island to the other, always available without much waiting, cost US$0.70 for an adult, and less for children and seniors. A taxi ride would cost under US$10 from one side of the island to The Peak, a fifteen to twenty-minute ride depending on traffic.

The Airport Express, a luxury BART-like train from the airport on neighboring Lantau Island to Central Hong Kong, takes twenty-five minutes and costs around US$15. 

If you had to describe the city in a word it would be ‘efficiency.’ An example of this is when the old Kai Tak Airport in Kowloon was closed one evening at midnight, and all computers were trucked to the new airport at Chek Lap Kok, for a 7 a.m. start, the only malfunction was a brief problem with the baggage system. To appreciate this you need to know that they built the massive 500-plus gate new airport after reclaiming the land from the water, built the tunnel for the Airport Express, and three large bridges joining Lantau to Hong Kong, including the necessary roadways in less than seven years. 

By comparison, the eastern span of the San Francisco Bay Bridge took almost 13 years of discussions and a ridiculous amount of time and money to complete and it still has problems. And while many Americans discount the manufacturing of buildings and the like as substandard and shoddy, the simple truth is that in its life only one Hiong Kong skyscraper ever had an issue after a major typhoon eroded the land beneath it.  One of over 653 skyscrapers built over the last half-century. 

Hong Kong is a part of communist China. The surveillance state, like everywhere in the world these days, is visible. Aside from the usual traffic cameras, if you look you can see many cameras. I have no doubt many eyes are also watching, but I did not catch any.

  As a U.S. Citizen, I wondered, on his trip, after all the glaring news items about the CCP and Hong Kong, as well as a dire warning from the State Department not encouraging travel because, in their words, it was not uncommon for Americans to be detained upon exit, for any reason, and would be unaided by the U.S. Government if that might happen. It did not. In fact, there was no indication of any concern at all.

Upon arrival, you pass through camera facial recognition, and friendly immigration officers, almost no waiting as all counters are open, and you are at baggage claim within ten minutes. It took longer to board the United Airlines flight in San Francisco which now also uses camera facial and passport scans that are slow and make the boarding process longer than usual.

     I was not followed as I meandered the streets of my youth. There were many police officers, casually minding the flow of people, happy to talk to you, hardly the threatening image presented by the media.  And even upon departure, an equally fast transition through immigration and into the departure hall. That we could adopt some of these efficient practices would be a blessing in America.

So what is Hong Kong to China and why is it allowed to remain? The answer can be seen in what happened in China since the 1997 handover of the colony. Across the border, Shenzen popped up, virtually another Hong Kong. And elsewhere across China, similar hubs of commerce and manufacturing. Shanghai, the former colony that became stagnant after the 1949 Communist takeover—and location for the 1987 Steven Spielberg film “Empire of the Sun” featuring a young Christian Bale— has become a new, bustling city rivaling any in the world. In short, the Chinese are adept at taking success and duplicating it. They have to be. With a massive 1.8-plus billion people, they have to be an economic giant. But like most of the world in these post-Covid days, economies are having a tough time.

     As a visitor to the place of my birth, many things stood out. In America we believe in a divine right to exist, a special bond with the Creator. But when you stand in a city of seven million, and watch the bustle as though it were one giant ant colony, no matter how efficient, you are left with a feeling of insignificance, not unlike our global presence in an infinite universe. Relevance is a purpose and here that translates to being active, in business, and movement, peddling everything from newspapers and magazines to food, to knock-off designer bags.

At Victoria Park in Causeway Bay (the Eastern side of the Island) groups of elderly gather at dawn to practice Tai-Chi, their slow, deliberate movements a cross between meditation and combat.  Youth are always busy with sports,  usually soccer, a huge favorite, or swimming in the large aquatic center at one end of the park. They are polite, respectful, and usually in uniform for school, traits sadly lacking in American schools. They are expected to work hard and play hard, not to let down their parents with poor grades. You do not have school shootings here. Weapons are not allowed. It is simply unheard of.

“You do not hear about politics here,” Talbot says. “We have no blackouts, no strikes. Anything broken gets fixed quickly. Hong Kong runs well and Hong Kong
people are law-abiding.”

And that last part is true, especially post-SARS even before Covid-19. Over half the people still wear masks even though it is no longer required. It has been ingrained into them and they do not question it. The rates of the virus are as high as in the US, but nothing is closed, tourists abound again, and considering the close proximity to each other you would think that the chances of infection would be higher. But everywhere is cleaned, and sanitized by workers whose job is to ensure that floors are disinfected with large moving UV lights, handrails, tables, and doors. All spotless. 

In restaurants, everything is clean, far cleaner than American standards. Everything that can shine, does shine. The staff are immaculate. They greet you personally and attend to you. They make the experience pleasurable where otherwise it might not be. Service is paramount.

So when I consider the question of freedom: what is freedom? Is it the ability to do whatever you want, when you want? Society cannot function without law and order. The illusion of democracy, especially the image of democracy that we are trained to believe by our media, is just that; an illusion. 

     Recently, in America, we have seen the disparity of conflict within our own system. Without being partisan, it is clear that we have a dual system of freedom in existence. Censorship under the guise of fact-checking across social media. Contradictory reporting in print and television media depends on the partisan position. The struggle for truth has been replaced by convenience; who can discern the truth anymore, part marketing hype and part illusion? Even deepfakes and AI have muddied the waters. You just never know, anymore. Nothing is as it appears.

There is no doubt that, for whatever reason, we are told who the enemy is. As someone with the opportunity to see many different sides, in person, and not just reported, my conclusion is that unless you witness something firsthand, you cannot know the truth. And even then you need to become well-informed, generally by people who live there rather than media.

Hong Kong is a good example of that. Most people mind their own business, live their lives as best they can, enjoy their family, with what little or however much they may have, and do not engage in theoretical posturing as seen on television. 

In that regard, Hong Kong may be more free than many of us realize.

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*Source: South China Morning Post, April 19, 2023 [] 

All photographs by William Gensburger, unless otherwise noted.