Shopping and Voting: What Hong Kong’s identity crisis reveals about the state of Britain

All photos copyright Samira Ahmed. No re-use permitted.

This column first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine. Available from street vendors or take out a subscription here. 

I’m standing on the high peak of the Dragon’s Back trail, under a warm blue sky, looking back at a strange outcrop of tiny towers in the distance. They are the skyscrapers of Hong Kong island just a bus ride away.

Hong Kong in winter is a bit magic that way. You can get yourself an outsiders’ perspective on its money making commercial heart very quickly – whether with a bus or funicular railway ride or even a steep walk up its hills to stare down at its crowded and ever growing concrete and glass towers.

Small signs of its colonial past endure – A pharmacy chain called Watson’s; double decker trams to Happy Valley. And it is political perspective that Hong Kong offers us all. We’re always being lectured about the liberation of business. In Hong Kong everyone’s an entrepreneur from the market stallholders of Kowloon to the smartly dressed servers in the grand shopping malls.

The fabulous Metro system is a dream of what the London Underground should be like with its spotless stations, and cheap touch card Octopus fare system. I’ve posted a whole gallery on it here. But every Sunday crowds of East Asian nannies and domestic workers gather around Admiralty station to sing songs and share food on their one day off. It’s a reminder of the years of separation the poor endure from their own children as they raise those of the middle classes all over the world.

The mass pro-democracy protests that blocked off the heart of the city’s commercial district for weeks have been cleared away. I watched cleaners snip off each and every tiny yellow ribbon tied to railings. An officially sanctioned protest camp of tents lines the pavement outside government offices; gaffer tape marking their allotted space. They are a token protest, safely defused of any power or threat; just the kind of protest our governments like too.

Plenty of Hong Kong islanders didn’t like the disruption. After all, it hurt business. Why bother about a small thing like the Chinese government carefully starting to pre-approve election candidates?

Hong Kong had industrial glory days, too. In the 1950s and 60s it churned out cheap toys and clothes in hundreds of tiny factories for the West. Now you can find them only in a fascinating exhibit in the city’s excellent heritage museum. Hong Kong doesn’t make things any more. And like Britain its big name banks and legal firms rake in the golden crumbs from servicing the cash flows of regimes and corporations.

Hong Kong’s history museum has reconstructed old shops and whole streets for you to wander through. The museum cinema plays wonderful clips of old movies and tv shows from the days when Hong Kong rivaled Hollywood and Bollywood. Nostalgia is potent here too. But what struck me most was how much of Hong Kong’s energy and dynamism came from it being an island of refugees from the Japanese occupation and the Chinese civil war. Refugees like Ip Man, a Kung Fu master who set up a school where he was to train the young Bruce Lee; Hong Kong’s most famous son. Lee though born in America had begun his career in Hong Kong and was to seek refuge there, in a way, when the enduring racism of Hollywood barred him from the leading roles he deserved. The Hong Kong films he made before his sudden death in 1973 at just 32, turned out to be the catalyst he so desperately needed, thought he never lived to enjoy their success.

You hear a lot more Mandarin than you used to on the Cantonese speaking streets as more and more Chinese from the Republic move into positions of power in Hong Kong firms and it unsettles people who were perhaps used to feeling superior to the old China. Maybe part of UKIP’s appeal is similar.

Now, like Britain, Hong Kong wonders can service industries really sustain it? A surprisingly large number of central malls sell only Western prestige brands – Louis Vuitton, Chanel – for the huge influx of big mainland Chinese spenders. But as economic growth slows down there, too, how long can Hong Kong survive on selling luxury goods they don’t make and that no one really needs? Like Britain with banks and the Gulf regimes, is Hong Kong too dependent on those corporations and undemocratic states it services?

Both Britain and Hong Kong are islands proud of their dynamism, but under the bustle, in need of facing up to the fact that in the end real democracy matters more than anything.

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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