What is my worst fear? This is not an easy question to answer. I would like to think of myself as adventurous and daring, and so I am not someone who gets scared easily. However, after what happened in the past few months, I think I can provide a better answer to that question for myself.
I was born and raised in Hong Kong. Although I travel fairly often for business and leisure, and have in the past studied overseas for short-term periods, Hong Kong has always been my base. This, however, does not necessarily imply love for my own city. Quite the contrary, I used to see Hong Kong in a rather negative light: overcrowded, noisy, and polluted, to say the least. While I still find the above characterisation true to some extent, what happened in the past few months has led me to see Hong Kong from a different perspective…
- Overcrowding: True. Hong Kong has always been swarming with people. Who can deny that? With an area of just over 1,000 square kilometres and a population of more than seven million (Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department 2014), Hong Kong is a tiny place with extreme population density. It is, after all, one of the most densely populated territories in the world. Of course, the huge number of visitors from around the world, notably from Mainland China, does not help improve the situation either. In 2013, Hong Kong received more than 54 million visitors, three quarters of whom were from the Mainland (Hong Kong Tourism Board 2014). There is, sadly, nothing much we could do about the overcrowding problem, but let’s not forget that being compact also means that Hong Kong is easily accessible, thanks also to our first-class yet incredibly affordable transportation network. Within half an hour, you can get from the height of capitalism, as ostentatiously displayed by the IFC, to the havens of tranquillity, as revealed by such outlying islands as Lamma. For a stunning view of Victoria Harbour showcasing the city’s skyline, what can be better than to indulge yourself in a crossing on a Star Ferry, named one of the “fifty places of a lifetime” by the National Geographic Traveler magazine (The Star Ferry Company 2013)? For a nostalgic trip down memory lane of old Hong Kong, hop on an iconic double-decker tram and explore the historic areas of the Island. And with such modern, state-of-the art infrastructure as the MTR and the airport, the exceptionally high efficiency of Hong Kong as a transport hub puts it on a par with all the best metropolises around the world.
- Noise: Hong Kong can be unforgivably noisy. This, of course, is partly related to the overcrowding problem. Added to that is the unfortunate impression that Cantonese, spoken by the majority of the population, is a loud and not particularly pleasant-sounding language. Together with other types of noise typical of city life, these sounds epitomise the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong. While the noise level in the city may be unbearable at times, let’s remind ourselves that such noise also at least partly shapes the liveliness and vibrancy of a society in which different voices can be expressed by people from all walks of life. No matter which language you speak and regardless of your ethnicity, you have the freedom to air your view, even if it is different from that of those in power. And it is exactly this diversity of opinion which gives Hong Kong much of its energy. Without the right to free speech or the respect for dissent, any noise will be muzzled and any alleged harmony is nothing but an illusion.
- Pollution: Hong Kong has probably never prided itself on environmental protection and pollution of all kinds has haunted the city for decades. Increasingly, we find it more and more difficult to enjoy clear blue skies and clean air seems almost like a luxury. The perennial urban development over the years has turned the city into a concrete jungle. Yet, at the same time, let’s rejoice at the fact that despite rapid urbanisation Hong Kong is still home to a dazzlingly beautiful hilly landscape, much of it is protected as country parks and nature reserves. One hardly needs to go far from the centre of town to find a hiking trail to admire the greenness and the scenic beauty of the countryside which is so rarely associated with Hong Kong and nonetheless defines its terrain. We have in the past spent too long holding firmly the belief that progress and growth, conceptualised exclusively in economic terms, have to come through incessant reclamation and redevelopment at the expense of historic buildings and old communities. Perhaps it is time to re-consider the way for the city to move forward.
So to return to the question: what is my worst fear? Despite my initial harsh characterisation of my own city, I am immensely proud of the qualities which make Hong Kong unique: the hardware, the people, and the natural scenery. I shudder to think what will happen if all these attributes, values, and ways of living that we have taken for granted for decades vanish one day. And this, is my worst fear.
Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department (2014). Mid-year population for 2014. Retrieved from http://www.censtatd.gov.hk/press_release/pressReleaseDetail.jsp?charsetID=1&pressRID=3461
Hong Kong Tourism Board (2014). Tourism performance in 2013. Retrieved from http://www.tourism.gov.hk/english/statistics/statistics_perform.html
The Star Ferry Company (2013). The company. Retrieved from http://www.starferry.com.hk/en/theCompany
Phoenix Lam is Assistant Professor at the Department of English. “Room 101” was originally published in Eminence‘s newsletter. [Read all entries by Phoenix here.]