We made plans to visit Hong Kong in the early spring, before protests and demonstrations in the city had become a weekend fixture. As we drew closer to our late October dates for our time in the city, we had many discussions over whether we should visit. Would we be safe? Would we be able to navigate the city and get to know it? I was in touch with Meagan, a friend and former colleague from my days with the consulting firm. She encouraged us to come to the city and sent us a schedule for upcoming protests. Even as we saw that the protests were increasing in intensity and violence, they did not seem to be increasing in number and continue to be restricted to weekends. We decided to travel to Hong Kong but committed ourselves to being careful and staying close enough to our hotel when demonstrations were planned so that we could get back to our place easily.
The bright side for us as visitors is that crowds in the city are way down, mostly due to the fact that 70% of visitors to Hong Kong are those from mainland China and are currently staying away. Another plus is that hotels and other services are more affordable in a city that is typically very expensive.
Anyone up for the Protest Walking Tour?
That’s right, one of the walking tours on offer with a local company is the Protest Walking Tour, which is not, as you might imagine, a tour of the sites where protests have taken place, but an actual tour of a protest in progress. Participants are encouraged to don a mask (illegal now) and wear a black shirt to ‘fit in.’ As much as we love walking tours, this is one we decided to skip. We did sign up for a tour offered by the same company that is billed as an uncensored tour – one that tells the unvarnished truth. Our tour guide, Terry, walked us around Hong Kong Island and brought us up to speed on Hong Kong’s recent history of ‘one country, two systems’ and the genesis of the recent protests. Most people know that the new extradition bill, allowing criminal suspects to be extradited to the mainland, is at the core of the civil unrest. Since the first of the protests in early June, violence has erupted, tear gas has been used by the police, the airport has been shut down, and metro stations have been vandalized and have suffered temporary closings.
If you are like I am and haven’t kept up, this New York Times article might be useful.
At the conclusion of Terry’s tour, he mentioned that he was also leading an afternoon tour in Mong Kok, in Kowloon on the other side of Victoria Bay. The afternoon tour focused on housing inequality in the city, which is at its worst in the Mong Kok neighborhood. After a quick lunch we joined the tour, which began with the city’s charming flower and bird markets, but soon enough moved into the housing inequality issue. Although Hong Kong is a major financial center and a very wealthy city with gleaming skyscrapers and purveyors of luxury brands in upscale malls, the city has a big housing affordability problem. Looking at a housing affordability index, which shows the ratio of average housing price to average income, Hong Kong comes in second to the worst in the world, with a ratio of 49:1. By contrast, New York and San Francisco, two of the most expensive markets in the U.S., come out at 11:1 and 8:1 respectively.
The story that Terry told us was shocking: for decades now, people in Hong Kong, mostly in Mong Kok, have lived in so-called cage housing or coffin housing. In short, their only living space is barely enough room for a bed, and a cage provides security. Sometimes these facilities have a running water source or a toilet, often they do not. A family of five or more may live in a 10×10 space with no running water and only two bed spaces. Or, strangers may live communally, each in his or her own cage. These people have jobs and pay to live in these places, from $200 to $450 a month, depending on the place. The number of people living this way has quadrupled over the past ten years and is now at around 200,000. Just think, this is the population of Little Rock, Arkansas, or Grand Rapids, Michigan, of people who live in cages in one of the richest cities in the world! Public housing does exist in Hong Kong, but the waiting list is five years or more. The housing situation is part of what the protests are about. Again, a New York Times article tells the story well:
And the protests….
We knew about a Saturday protest across Victoria Bay from our hotel in Kowloon, so we made sure we stayed out of the way for that one and walked around on the Kowloon side that day. There’s a nice promenade for walking with a section devoted to Hong Kong film stars, including a statue of Bruce Lee. We also visited Kowloon Park, which has a lovely aviary and a sculpture garden, so it made for a nice day.
Later in the day, we learned that the Saturday protest was very peaceful. A second gathering, which was described as a peaceful, prayerful event, was planned for Sunday afternoon, just blocks from our hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui. The Sunday gathering was planned for the neighborhood’s waterfront, very close to the area where there had been a violent demonstration only the weekend before in which police had aimed water cannons with blue dye at protesters and had, in the process, sprayed blue dye on the steps of a beautiful white mosque. ALL of this was only blocks from our hotel, however, we didn’t worry too much: the Saturday protest had been peaceful and the Sunday one was planned as peaceful. We walked from our hotel to a local movie theater on Sunday afternoon to see the Downton Abbey movie. On the way, we saw several police heading toward the site of the planned event but didn’t think too much about it. Leaving the theater two hours later, traffic on the street was light and we saw participants in black tee shirts and masks. We read later that there had been violence and that a number of protesters had been tear gassed right outside of the Peninsula Hotel, a few blocks from where we were.
Brighter spots in our visit
We were able to manage schedules to have a lovely dinner with my pal, Meagan, from my consulting firm days, and her charming husband Emil. We met at a local hot pot restaurant near Causeway Bay. The Causeway Bay area resembles New York’s Times Square – bustling and brightly lit. It was our first time for hot pot and it was lots of fun. We ordered two different soup bases that were put on our table for us to cook various meats and vegetables. It was great to catch up with Meagan as well. We worked together in the late nineties and early aughts and we hadn’t seen each other for more than ten years.
We also enjoyed a Sunday morning visit to Victoria Peak on the Hong Kong side. A funicular that has been active since the 1880s takes visitors up to the top. We had read in our guidebook to expect the wait to be an hour or more but, due to the low number of visitors to the city, our wait in line was only five minutes. Views from the peak were beautiful, even on a slightly hazy day.