A look at Hong Kong's independence; 20 years later

It’s been more than two decades since Britain handed over Hong Kong to China. Bonnie Munday, a former resident, returned to find the city as vibrant­—and quirky—as ever

Victoria Harbour is breathtaking, especially during the nightly laser show, when the pleasure junks, ferries and container ships seem to dance in the lights. My husband, Jules, and I are standing at the rail of a rooftop restaurant on Hong Kong Island, in awe of the spectacular skyline. Brightly lit skyscrapers—some 1,300 of which are over 100 metres tall, by far the most of any city in the world—spike the night sky around us and across the teeming harbour on the Kowloon peninsula.

As the breeze shifts our hair, we feel Hong Kong’s energy. In the distance twinkle the lights of the Tsing Ma suspension bridge, the world’s longest for cars and trains, whisking people toward the modern 20-year-old airport on Lantau Island. Beyond it is a nearly completed multi-billion-dollar bridge linking Hong Kong to Zhuhai in China, and the gambling haven of Macau.

It feels good to be back. Jules and I lived here in the 1990s, before Britain relinquished Hong Kong to China in 1997. Now, more than 20 years later, we’ve returned for ten days to see how the city has fared. It’s also our 20th wedding anniversary. Where better to celebrate it than in the city where we met?

How has the change effected the locals?

Next morning, we leave our Causeway Bay hotel and walk toward Wan Chai, a district just over a mile away. Walking is the best way to experience Hong Kong’s colourful sights, sounds and smells. First we must negotiate throngs of Saturday shoppers in this retail mecca. We join the sea of people in a wide pedestrian crossing on Yee Wo Street that leads us past one of the city’s largest department stores, Sogo, swathed in posters advertising designer labels. Young women sporting sleek heels and luxury handbags—a couple of them with beribboned apricot poodles tucked under an arm—are a common sight this morning.

By the time we reach Wan Chai, we’ve left the brand shoppers behind. This district is grittier than Causeway Bay, although its former reputation for girly bars has somewhat given way to shiny office towers. At Bowrington Road market, which spans a couple of blocks, housewives are haggling loudly over meat, fish and vegetables. Street markets are a must-see in Hong Kong, but be prepared for the smells—meat, seafood, infamously stinky durian fruit—and a little gore: I watch a vendor prove to a customer how fresh his fish is by slicing along one side, folding the fillet back and exposing the still-intact beating heart. Nearby, beneath an overpass, we encounter a curious sight: an elderly woman chanting while she beats a paper with a shoe. A customer has written on the paper the name of a person who has upset him, we learn. Afterward, the paper is rubbed with pork fat and burned. This ritual beats the “villain” out of the customer’s life. “Only in Hong Kong,” Jules says.

Later we stop to check out the wares of a grey-haired woman hanging men’s shirts on the metal grill of an office building. As Jules peruses the shirts, I ask her, “Do you feel Hong Kong has changed under Chinese rule?” She’s dismissive. “I’m just part of the little people,” she says. “I only want to make enough money. I don’t care if Britain or China is here.” Other entrepreneurs we encounter seem to agree it’s business as usual. Before the handover, many people here feared Communist China would curtail the capitalism and human rights protections Hong Kong enjoyed under British rule, even though China promised self-rule—“one country, two systems”—for 50 years. But, as Christine Loh, a legislator here before and after the handover, expressed in an email to me, “The degree of freedom in Hong Kong on a day-to-day basis remains very high.”

Hong Kong is thriving

We'll Hear a similar opinion over a lunch of dim sum—a local Cantonese specialty—in Kowloon, where we’re heading now on the Star Ferry. It’s been chugging across Victoria Harbour since 1888. The trip costs HK$2.70 (24p), a bargain in a pricey city. It’s a short walk to the vast Serenade Chinese Restaurant. There we meet my longtime friend Junko Watanabe. With her are Ronnie and Jennifer Ho, retired teachers in their late fifties who have just moved back from Boston to their home city after 23 years. Over bamboo baskets of har gau (steamed shrimp) and siu mai (pork dumplings) and an order of yi mein (egg noodles, fried), Ronnie and Jennifer tell us they’re delighted to be home. “We haven’t noticed many changes in daily life,” Ronnie says. Their parents had fled poverty in China for colonial Hong Kong at a young age. Ronnie’s father encouraged the couple to emigrate before 1997. “Our parents knew China was to be feared,” says Jennifer. The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre influenced their decision to leave. They returned to Hong Kong to be back among their family. Says Ronnie, “We’re too old to worry about politics now.”

"At a 2014 protest in Hong Kong, mainlanders were denounced as 'Locusts' eating the city's resources"

Clearly, Hong Kong is thriving. In a recent survey of the world’s cities by human resources consulting firm Mercer, it ranked sixth for infrastructure, which includes such criteria as drinking water and public transit. It ranked 71st among 231 cities for quality of life—higher than the 11 other Chinese cities included. The outlook for press freedom is less encouraging: a Reporters Without Borders (RWB) survey shows Hong Kong has slipped from 18th in 2002 to 73rd today (China ranked 176th). RWB cites growing difficulty in covering sensitive stories about Hong Kong’s government and mainland China, and finds the purchase of Hong Kong media by Chinese companies “extremely disturbing”.

Another point of contention is tourism from mainland China. Before 1997 most visitors came from Japan and Taiwan, but when Beijing relaxed its rules in the early 2000s, the number of mainland visitors jumped from about 7 million per year in 2002 to 43 million by 2016. For some locals, that’s too many; they say the visitors are rude and loud. And they blame mainlanders for the scarcity of such necessities as baby formula and medicines. Indeed, when Jules went to buy shaving cream, he was mystified to see shop staff unloading countless boxes of baby formula onto shelves. Mainlanders snap it up due to tainted baby formula scares in China. At a 2014 protest in Hong Kong, mainlanders were denounced as “locusts” eating the city’s resources. Signs read, “Go Back to China” and “Reclaim Hong Kong”.

Late one afternoon I meet up with Mark Sharp, a South China Morning Post editor and writer since before the handover, in the seaside town of Sai Kung, in the New Territories—the mostly rural region between Kowloon and mainland China. Over a beer ironically named Gweilo, a rude Cantonese term for “white person”, he confirms locals are more outspoken nowadays. “People worry that as more mainland Chinese come, Hong Kong will lose its identity.” Young people, Sharp says, are especially vocal. They’re Hong Kongers first: a recent Hong Kong University survey showed that only three per cent of people aged 18–29 identify as Chinese, an all-time low since the surveys started in 1997; back then, that number was 17 per cent.

The nature

On a sunny morning, we hop onto a ferry bound for Lamma Island. It’s a 30-minute trip to Yung Shue Wan village—and a world away. Although Hong Kong isn’t often associated with green spaces, there are many, and Lamma, where we lived, has some of our favorite hikes. We drop our bags at our guesthouse and walk for two hours on paths that wind down toward sandy beaches and steeply upward again. At a hilltop pavilion, we buy refreshing pineapple slices from an old woman in a straw hat.

From a nearby path we can see the fishing boats and stilted seafood restaurants of Sok Kwu Wan village below. Walking back, we spot graves set into green slopes that face the sea for favourable feng shui. They’re tidy. During the Ching Ming Festival two weeks earlier, families had swept loved ones’ gravesites and burned incense for departed spirits.  In Yung Shue Wan, we head to Andy’s Seafood Restaurant on Main Street and find a table with a view of the sun setting over the sea. It’s a slice of Hong Kong heaven to dine on grouper with soy sauce and ginger, and razor clams in black bean sauce.

Back on Hong Kong island, we walk from the pier into Central and Sheung Wan. The walk is a few minutes longer than in the 1990s; the shoreline has shifted to accommodate new skyscrapers. One thing hasn’t changed: most high-rises under construction are clad in traditional scaffolding of bamboo tied with nylon strips. We browse antique shops along Hollywood Road and Cat Street, looking for an anniversary gift to each other. The symbol for the 20th year is, fittingly, china, and we find the perfect thing: a gold-painted teapot with wicker handles, featuring the Chinese character for double-happiness, a wedding symbol. “It’s HK$150,” the shopkeeper says, about £15. I offer her HK$120 in cash; it’s a deal.

The wrapped treasure tucked under Jules’ arm, we pass galleries and, surprisingly, coffee shops with a hipster vibe: Winston’s, The Cupping Room, Cafe Deadend. When I lived here, tea shops were ubiquitous. Stores selling olive oils, vinegars, cheeses and wines also exemplify changing tastes; before 1997, we had to search those things out. This evolution contrasts with Man Mo Temple, a Taoist and Buddhist temple dedicated to the gods of literature (Man) and war (Mo). Built in 1847, its sloping roof is decorated with carvings of dragons and human figures. The quiet, candlelit interior is scented with burning incense coils hanging from the ceiling. We watch worshippers set oranges and candles on a table, offerings to statues of the gods placed there.

Final thoughts

It's humid on our final day, and threatening rain. We have time for a last lunch. In Sheung Wan, past the pungently scented dried-seafood stalls this district is famous for, we find a noodle house on Des Voeux Road. It’s full of chattering office workers. At the front window, the chef is dropping fresh noodles into a huge pot of steaming broth. “Sorry, no English,” says the waitress as she drops Chinese-language menus on the table. No problem; we point to bowls of noodles the chef has topped with barbecued pork and Chinese broccoli, then sip on tall glasses of sweet iced lemon tea while we wait.

We copy the locals: stab at the lemon slices with a long spoon to squeeze out the juice, stir, sip, repeat. On the street, it’s raining. We sprint to our hotel, grab our luggage and hail a taxi. “Central Station, please, Airport Express,” I tell the driver, a man in his sixties. “Oh, you go home?” he asks. He says he loves showing visitors around. As we weave through buses, trams and luxury cars, I point out to Jules an elderly man wearing a pointed straw hat riding a rusting bicycle. Tall propane tanks are strapped to either side, and he’s negotiating traffic through the rain. Only in Hong Kong. At the station, the driver points to where we can check our bags to the airport. “Make sure, come back soon!” he says, waving. “This is world’s best city!” I couldn’t agree more.