After the fun of Art Basel Hong Kong, we pretty much just hung out in Hong Kong doing a little shopping, plenty of eating, and visiting with our friends Shideh and Lars when they were available (apparently some people still work for a living). This is an interesting city in so many ways. It’s a city of somewhat over 7 million people – about the size of New York City – and yet is only the 11th biggest city in China. Still, it is exceptionally dense, has a spectacular skyline with great architecture, a world-class and inexpensive subway system, and is a buzz of international banking, shopping malls, and local jewelry shops.Lots and lots of jewelry shops. Mark & I just kept asking how much money people spend on jewelry to justify all the shops. There were a couple of chains where you’d see an outlet of that chain every other block and sometimes two on the same block, or across the street from each other. And amid all those seemingly thousands of smaller, perhaps independent jewelry shops. It’s weird; we just can’t imagine how they all stay in business.
Meanwhile, the city’s history is tied up in great – and sad – stories of international trade, drugs, colonialism, and China’s revolutions. The quick story is that, by the 19th century, Britain had a huge appetite for China’s silk, porcelain, and tea, but China didn’t really want anything from Britain; they were pretty much self sufficient and liked it that way. Why would they need anything from those barbarians on a cold island in the middle of nowhere?
As a result there was a huge transfer of silver from Britain to China, with little of it repatriated. Those cagey Brits, though, found something they could grow in abundance in India that Chinese did want: opium. And so, thanks to the British East India Company, opium started flowing into China. The Chinese officials were not amused and launched an early version of the War on Drugs. Literally; they sent the military out to confiscate the opium. The British attacked and inflicted a decisive victory over the Chinese Navy. As part of the Treaty of Nanking of 1842, Britain took possession of Hong Kong. They added neighboring Kowloon on the mainland in 1860 and then took a 99-year lease on the New Territories – a much larger peninsula on the mainland – in 1898.
China’s own troubled 20th century history led to the dominance of Cantonese-speaking people in Hong Kong. When the communists took power in 1949 large numbers of Cantonese-speaking skilled workers escaped from neighboring Guangdong province to Hong Kong. Twenty years later, when the Cultural Revolution swept China, hundreds of thousands more fled or were pushed out over to Hong Kong. China’s loss was Hong Kong’s gain.As the end of that 99-year lease approached, Britain and China began negotiations to return all of Hong Kong to the Chinese. Given how Hong Kong had become such a hub of capitalism, and how China had gone in another direction, this wasn’t going to be easy. For Deng Xiaoping, China’s preeminent leader, though, anything was negotiable except continued British control of what was clearly part of China. Thus he devised the “one country, two systems” policy, supposedly guaranteeing Hong Kong’s essential independence under China’s defense and foreign policy umbrella. In 1997, then, Hong Kong was returned to China.
One of the things we were intrigued with in coming here again – we’ve been in Hong Kong a couple times before starting this adventure – is that over the last year or so Beijing has moved to exert more control over Hong Kong’s internal governance, moves that generated significant protests. Specifically, the central government determined that only three people could run for the top political position in Hong Kong and that those three would be selected by Beijing. That’s not exactly the sort of democracy many Hong Kong citizens expected. Protests and an “Occupy” movement followed; for a while last year it was feared that Beijing would send in troops to assert its authority. By late last year, though, the protests were fading and ultimately on December 15, police removed the last of the Occupy protesters without incident.
So what did we find here? A lot of shopping. For now it appears that the protests have subsided. They were, after all, interfering with making money which is the primary mission in Hong Kong. Beijing seems to have imposed its will on Hong Kong democrats, at least for the time being.
Thus we didn’t see protests. We saw a lot of jewelry stores, a lot of beautiful skyscrapers, a lot of morning exercisers in Victoria Park across from our hotel, and lots of good food.
Good food is surprisingly difficult to uncover in Hong Kong, in large part because restaurants might be on the 7th floor of a building, or the 15th or the 30th. We like to discover restaurants in part by just walking through hip districts and seeing what looks good. That’s hard to do, though, when the restaurants are 10 or 20 stories above street level. So it takes a little more research. Ultimately we found some success.One of the meals we had was particularly noteworthy. The number one-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor is a “pop-up” kitchen, an occasional restaurant that borrows space when and where it can. We emailed the proprietors and were told they didn’t have anything lined up while we were in Hong Kong but we could have dinner in their apartment if we wanted. So we booked a night, bought wine, and headed over to a rare home-cooked meal. Andy is a 30-something native of Hong Kong, though he lived in the U.S. for several years where he met his partner Jason. Andy’s the cook and Jason helps out, and they cook a great meal in the single smallest kitchen I’ve ever seen. And, as it’s all custom ordered, they did the whole thing pretty low carb for us. Then we had dinner with them and a beautiful after-dinner drink on their roof-top deck surrounded by some of the city’s skyscrapers. Fun, unique, and interesting all at once.
Oh, and we saw one more important item here in Hong Kong, or at least Mark did. Part of the mission for the visit was for Mark to get an MRI on his knee to figure out what was causing so much pain. He did some research online, found the right doctor, and then we contacted our friend Shideh to make sure she and Lars would be around if we came by this week. They were, of course, and Shideh added that her best friend’s husband here did just that sort of work. Turns out it was the same guy Mark had identified as the specialist he wanted to see. How’s that for a small-world story?
At any rate, he got the MRI, the doctor found a tear in something or other, and recommended arthroscopic surgery to repair it. Given that there’s no evidence the problem is going to fix itself – it’s been getting worse and worse every week for quite a while – we’re coming back in a couple weeks for Mark to have a little work done. For now, though, we’re going to take a ferry over to Macau to see China’s other Special Administrative District, a city that has apparently surpasses Las Vegas as a gambling mecca. Given how much we love to gamble, it should be fun!