Even though the 1997 handover is well over a decade gone, the most common question I get about Hong Kong is: "How much has Hong Kong changed?"
If it hadn't dominated the news, I doubt the average tourist would even notice there'd been a handover. Entry formalities for most nationalities remain unchanged. English remains an official language, and the Hong Kong dollar, pegged to the U.S. dollar, remains legal tender. Scores of lanes, roads, and sites are still named after Hong Kong's former governors, and Queen Victoria's statue still graces Victoria Park. In hotels, restaurants, and shops that cater to tourists, it's business as usual.
The most visible difference after the handover was the immediate replacement of the Union Jack and colonial Hong Kong flag with China's starred flag and the new Hong Kong Special Administrative Region's flag emblazoned with the bauhinia flower. In addition, new coins bearing the bauhinia were minted (the old coins with the queen's head remain valid but have been snapped up by collectors) and new stamps were issued. The words "Royal" and "ER" (Elizabeth Regina) disappeared throughout Hong Kong, along with royal crests, crowns, and coats of arms. The police sported new badges.
Otherwise, today, as before the handover, you'll see ducks hanging by their necks in restaurant windows, bamboo scaffolding, Chinese characters on huge neon signs, wooden fishing boats, shrines to the kitchen god, fortunetellers, temples, and laundry fluttering from bamboo poles; you'll still hear the click-clack of mah-jongg tiles and the complexities of Cantonese. All these sensory experiences create an atmosphere that has always been undeniably Chinese.
As for the British population, although it noticeably declined after the handover and has since increased, the number of U.K. residents was never huge anyway (less than 2% before the handover). Yet the British presence loomed understandably larger when Hong Kong was a colony. In other words, the biggest change since the handover, in my opinion, is that Hong Kong seems more Chinese, with more in common with Shanghai and Shenzhen across the Chinese border than with its former colonizer. Hong Kong is overwhelmingly Chinese -- some 95% of its residents are Chinese, more than half of whom were born in Hong Kong. Most Hong Kong residents (referred to as Hongkongers in the local press) are Cantonese from southern China, the area just beyond Hong Kong's border -- hence, Cantonese is the most widely spoken language of the region. But the Chinese themselves are a diverse people, and today Hongkongers hail from different parts of China, with the city's many Chinese restaurants specializing in Cantonese, Sichuan, Chiu Chow, Pekingese, Shanghainese, and other regional foods serving as delicious testaments to the city's diversity.
Of course, Hong Kong has more links now -- financially and emotionally -- with mainland China than it ever had in the past. Tourists from Europe, North America, and Japan are now outnumbered by visitors from mainland China, especially since the 2003 introduction of relaxed travel laws that eliminated the requirement that they visit Hong Kong only in tour groups. Today, mainland Chinese make up more than half of all visitor arrivals into Hong Kong. And whereas they used to seem like poor cousins in awe of the big city, today they are just as likely to be affluent and shopping for designer goods, while Hongkongers travel to the mainland looking for bargains.
Perhaps most striking about Hong Kong since the handover is that it suffers from an identity crisis: What should be its role in a greater China? Long serving as the manufacturing liaison between China and the rest of the world, Hong Kong is now challenged by a dazzling, dynamic, confident Shanghai. Hong Kong manufacturers have moved across the border to Shenzhen to take advantage of lower production costs. Guangzhou threatens to take over Hong Kong's role as a transportation hub. Pollution, primarily from rapid industrial development in the Pearl River Delta and increased traffic, has reached an all-time high, threatening not only the health of its citizens but also Hong Kong's status as a major tourist destination. Even diminutive Macau, touted as Asia's Las Vegas, now challenges Hong Kong's historic role as the region's number-one tourist destination.
All these issues -- worsening pollution, the high cost of living in Hong Kong compared to China, a growing tendency for foreign companies to base their workers on the mainland, and the lure of job opportunities in Macau -- have led to a decline of professionals living in Hong Kong, both foreign and Chinese.
But if you ask me, Hong Kong isn't going to fade away as a global capital any time soon. Although it, too, is impacted by international events like the economic downturn and swine flu, its economy seems stable, recording more visitors in 2010 than in 2009, fewer bankruptcies, lower unemployment, and climbing housing prices. It seems increasingly clear that Hong Kong's future lies as a financial center, no longer in the position of the low-cost manufacturing base it once was. Several of Hong Kong's major attractions, including Hong Kong Disneyland and Ocean Park, are in the midst of huge expansions, and hotels in all price categories continue to make their debut.
I'm heartened, too, by a new generation of Hongkongers who show a heightened awareness for social issues that were largely ignored by the older generation -- indicative, perhaps, of greater freedoms since the handover but also of a greater global awareness. These issues include concerns for the environment, Hong Kong's cultural and architectural heritage, education, and social equity. Grass-roots movements are growing to fight pollution (http://cleartheair.org.hk and www.hongkongcan.org), protect Victoria Harbour from excessive land reclamation (www.harbourprotection.org and www.friendsoftheharbour.org), and even to save the Central Street Market on Graham Street from developers (www.savethestreetmarket.hk) and the Tsim Sha Tsui bus terminal from being turned into a piazza (www.ourbusterminal.org). Hopefully, growing public sentiment will curb the unbridled development that has ruled Hong Kong in the past and nudge it toward being a model city for the rest of China.
Still, no one can predict the future, as Hong Kong has always been a city in transformation. The Hong Kong I am writing about now is not the same city that existed just a few short years ago and is not the Hong Kong you'll probably experience when you go there. Changes occur at a dizzying pace: Relatively new buildings are torn down to make way for even newer, shinier skyscrapers; whole neighborhoods are obliterated in the name of progress; reclaimed land is taken from an ever-shrinking harbor; and traditional villages are replaced with satellite towns. Hong Kong's city skyline has surged upward and outward so dramatically since my first visit in 1983, it sometimes seems like decades must have elapsed each time I see it anew. Change is commonplace, and yet it's hard not to lament the loss of familiar things that suddenly vanish; it's harder still not to brood over what's likely to come.
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