Updated: Oct 6, 2019
Throughout Hong Kong you will see two lions at the entrance of various establishments. The stone lions or Shishi – as they are called – are gendered. The male lion sits across from the female and is identical except for one detail. Under the male lion’s paw is a ball symbolizing the sun, supremacy, and power. Under the female’s is a cub symbolizing reproduction and motherly nurture. The statues originate from Chinese Buddhist tradition and are displayed as guardians against evil forces. Shishi also represents balance, the Yin and Yang whose interplay maintains harmony in the human drama.
Unlike the lions that guard its facades, Hong Kong is not a well-balanced place in its present form. In fact, you might say that – like many cities in transition –at times it approaches the awkwardness of a lanky teenager growing into a stretched-out body. Hong Kong is the intersection of a great Venn diagram. The overlap encompasses Western forms (rule of law, liberal values, pro-business mindset), Cantonese roots, and the looming shadow of Mainland China. The protests in a way represent a growing frustration with the incongruity of these influences.
Outwardly, the city appears as a grand metropolis of style and sophistication. It has a stock exchange, billionaires and Lamborghinis, fancy restaurants, immense skyscrapers, fashionably dressed couples, and a constitution to boot. Plenty of expats still live here and the international community is strong. There are sky bars, Michelin star restaurants, and marble floored malls with haute couture brands: Hermès, Versace, Rolex, and Montblanc. However, Hong Kong’s heights do not define her today, if they ever did.
What lies beneath its breathtaking skyline is a more complicated story. The Honky’s (Hong Kongese) are separated from Mainland China by language and culture, though not nearly to the same degree as Taiwan where, for reasons that outstrip my thoughts here, large numbers reject being identified as Zhongguoren (Chinese National) altogether. Honky’s speak Cantonese, are more assertive and adventurous in a Western sense, and by virtue of geographic distance and colonial history see things a bit differently from their kin across the pond. Still and all, they remain Chinese through and through. Ultimately, Hong Kong’s colonial experience (a hundred and fifty plus years) was but a summer fling, a brief interruption to the inextricable bond with its paternal folk.
Its identity is complicated further by economy. Unlike Tokyo or Shanghai for example, a bigger but far less cramped place, Hong Kong’s expense and density shape so much of how this city functions. The living spaces (apartments / studio rooms / condos etc.) for Honky’s are more like temporary chambers, silos for a quick cryo-sleep to refuel before the next day. Since it is so unaffordable to live here people spend most of their time outside in parks, in the streets and alley ways, in cafés, and in the malls. The "Helpers" (Filipinos, Indonesians) have zero space of their own since they are not permitted to own property so on weekends you will see tens of thousands sprawled out on cardboard boxes playing cards, singing songs, or simply relaxing to some idle chit chat.
Most Westerners decompress in spacious living rooms that come standard with TVs, sofas, and coffee tables. Not so in Hong Kong. People here live in tin cans, tiny rooms with tiny showers / bathrooms, and no windows either. The lavish malls serve as makeshift living rooms for many. Going out for food and drink is therefore less a recreational activity than a pre-requisite for mental health.
The immersive social life of Hong Kong reflects this pent-up energy. Honky’s use the word hei – roughly translated it means to chill out, relax and do nothing productive. Living in Hong Kong is demanding so the nightlife is a cathartic release from the pressure cooker of a city that can overwhelm you with its inescapable crowds, brutal heat, penny pinching, and aching steps. People rush to imbibe, laugh, and dance the night away if they can to relieve the stress. Does it work? Probably for a bit.
What about the dating scene? If I had to sum up the experience in two words, I would use the adjectives – transactional and pyramidal. If ever there were a parallel universe in which wiry white boys with glasses and awkward social skills occupied the summit of the sexual pyramid, such a Geek Chic Shangri La exists in Hong Kong. Many Hong Kongese femme fatales romanticize the Gwei Lou (translated to "Ghost Man" meaning white person), likely the legacy of colonial rule and an exotic intrigue. In a land of homogeneity different is rare and rarity creates value.
Sexuality in Asia is often a sand castle of power asymmetry. A sand castle because as a friend tells me, relationships form quickly and they dissolve just as fast. Westerners with money, some Chinese and Japanese too, flex their sexual prowess based on the color of their skin as well as the liquid in their bank account. This creates odd pairings of much older men with much younger women, more often than not aging expats with South Asian beauties. One partner has all the power, the other has all the bloom.
It would be too glib to say that Hong Kong is hyper-materialistic and yet it rings true. Where rents are so high, cash enables game-changing improvements in livelihood. A fast track to accomplish the same is by means of hypergamy, the tendency of females to pursue males above their social status. In a world defined by money, one can easily see that dating ceases to be about chemistry or coup de foudre and instead favors finding that one-way Golden ticket out of a lesser life and into the chocolate factory of First World bliss. This desperate state of affairs shapes so much of the dating life in all the big cities now that websites like Seekingsugardaddy.com are skyrocketing in popularity. (Don’t believe me – check it out for yourself)
Like all cities, Hong Kong’s culture is defined by its people. As mentioned, the Hong Kongnese seem to have more verve than their Mainland counter parts. They have lived in wealth longer, escaped the horrors of life under Mao, and were exposed to the outside world in ways that much of the Mainland is only just now experiencing. Nevertheless, Hong Kong is not the outlier in Asia it once was largely because Mainland China and cities like Bangkok have transformed so radically in the last thirty years, even in the last ten.
It is important to understand that Hong Kong is not a Western city and it is definitely not the New York City of Asia. The pace of life is fast but not compared to the hustle and bustle of NYC, London, or even Paris. Hong Kong has plenty of city-wide events, but there really isn’t an organic art, music, theater, or alternative lifestyle scene here. There is no serious intellectual milieu of artists, thinkers, writers, or misfits that thrive in the hipster like dwellings common in Brooklyn or Walthomstow or Montmatre.
There are limitations that accompany this lack of organic cultural enrichment. The food scene is good and unfortunately very corporate. The best restaurants tend to be in the malls and most of them look like gaudy facsimiles of trendy Western ones. In a sense, Hong Kong’s strengths – its wealth, semi-autonomous political status, and global intersectionality – are responsible for these shortcomings. People who live in Hong Kong are themselves different shades of corporate – some financial services, others retail sales and big business. The expats are pretty wealthy too – you kind of have to be if you want to have a decent life here.
In Hong Kong the squeeze of life seems to pull you in different directions. Working, socializing, even dating can all be seen as expedient tools to manage expenses, or at least to distract yourself from them. Walking through the city by itself can be a dizzying adventure, a slight misstep can see you falling behind. All in all, the towering heights, the dazzling sights, the sundry social scene and the cross section of cultures is very much a balancing act that is off kilter for the moment. Rebalancing your life is hard as an individual and incredibly hard as a city of 8 million people. However, I am confident that Hong Kong will find its footing again and sooner than people think. Stay tuned for more on this in Part 3.