3/19/2013
A tale of two former colonies

The weather may be foggy, but it hasn't stopped this woman from taking a photo of Hong Kong Island's skyline.

I've always said that I want to go to Hong Kong a second time. The first time we went there - this was six, maybe seven years ago - we were first-timers to traveling overseas, and so in between the prerequisite city tours and the need to go to every tourist destination possible, we were pressed for time and did not have the chance to soak everything in.

Since then I've been to several more trips abroad. Okay, that's one trip to Bangkok and three trips to Singapore. Not exactly something to scream about considering I have friends who routinely find the money to go to South Africa before flying to Germany, but still, I've enjoyed those trips immensely. Okay, there's also my soft spot for Singapore, the fact that I can walk across the city center and find delight in getting lost. But still.

So when I had the chance to go back to Hong Kong - that was last week, our company outing - I was pretty excited. And then I realized why I shouldn't be.

We were taking a city tour. Not another city tour, I said. They'll just force us to buy jewelry. That happened on my first Hong Kong trip. We went from one landmark - the Avenue of Stars, the one with the Bruce Lee statue - and straight to a jewelry store. I remember the tour guide trying to sweeten the deal. Jackie Chan is behind the place. The prices are much cheaper, almost half off or something. Now, this was our first time, so I think my parents sort of looked forward to buying some pendants with our Chinese zodiac signs on it. I never wore mine, because I never really was a necklace person.

To be fair, that also happened on our Bangkok trip, only the jewelry store trip came after we visited every stop advertised on the tour - so it didn't feel like we were being held hostage by a group of tour guides looking to earn. That time, though, we were all tired and groggy and not willing to spend anything, so we meandered around the store, waited outside, and looked for a vending machine to buy drinks from. And then we vowed, silently, never to go on a city tour again.

We had no choice on our second trip to Hong Kong, though. I think half of the office has never been to the former British colony. Some of the other half was assigned the task of sketching up the itinerary, relaying anecdotes that might help make the trip enjoyable, or - in my case, since apparently my uncanny sense of direction still works - making sense of the train system. We were powerless about the city tour, though. Despite all that we know about Hong Kong it'd be hard to ferry fifty people (including young children - it inevitably became a family affair) in one piece to place after place. We needed a bus, for one. Buses, actually.

A man does his morning stretches at the To Kwa Wan Recreation Grounds. A couple heads down the MTR station in Mong Kok. A toddler has fun with balloons at Hong Kong Disneyland. His grandfather would later look at me as I took a second photograph of the kid.

My worst fears were realized when I boarded the bus after taking a bunch of photographs at the Avenue of Stars and asked our tour guide - a slightly droll lady named Mary - about where we were headed next.

"Jackie Chan Jewelry," she said.

Shit, I told myself.

Okay, British spelling. Jewellery. But still. I guess I'm just jaded about this. We're already paying you, the tour guide, to send us around Hong Kong, and now you're breaking the tour so we would be compelled to buy jewelry - American spelling! - so you could pocket a bit of a commission. Bah, that doesn't sound right. And it sounds worse when you get to the jewelry place and find yourself in a small room with seventy people - one of them being a Chinese salesman who speaks Filipino very well, constantly dropping Nora Aunor and Vilma Santos' names to show he's familiar with the Philippines, but not acknowledging Dolphy's death when a tourist mentioned his name to him. And Mary closed the door in what struck me as a "you're doomed to give me money!" manner. Or maybe it's the way the door closed. Rumble, rumble, rumble, dull thud.

And then memories of that first city tour started flooding back, the moment we boarded the bus and Mary mentioned how Filipinos love to shop, Oh, so that's why. We Filipinos do love to shop. And you are taking advantage of it! She mentions a factory outlet in the outskirts of Kowloon. Everything is half price! One of the items sold is, to my surprised, boxes of Fudgee Barr, and yes, it's the one made here in the Philippines. And then, those plates with our photos on it, thanks to her friend, the "official photographer". And then, the bus driver had something to sell. We should help him out by buying cheap key chains. Okay, that's being mean, because I have one of those key chains from the first trip - it doubled as a nail cutter - and it still works fine, perhaps because I rarely used it, mostly because I allocated it for when I need a nail cutter immediately. By the time the plates came in, I was pretending to be asleep in the tour bus.

Hong Kong is a progressive city. It is my first exposure to how much better Manila could've been: if things went right for us we'd have a decent public transport system and not-so-crowded roads and the ability to easily buy records that aren't from Justin Bieber. Being under the British for over a century and a half, and things remaining relatively calm throughout, meant that the colony soon grew to become a major shipping, and later financial, hub. I mean, we could've been that, or something like it, but we got too impatient, and now, Manila is an urban mish-mash, and no government can make us as good as we can be.

At a property seller's office near our hotel, the glass walls and doors are covered with rent rates for some far-flung apartment building. A possibly not-so-typical sidewalk in Hong Kong: a 7-Eleven, Bank of China, and McDonald's in one block. (And a Circle K nearby.) The busy streets of Mong Kok on a Sunday - and the busier signs. They get way busier at night, though.

But Hong Kong's free market past - "the greatest experiment in laissez-faire capitalism," Milton Friedman said - meant everybody is there to just, seemingly, earn. There are shops everywhere, and everybody will take an opportunity to sell. That's how I'd like to explain the tour guides holding us hostage with sob stories and opportunities to shop at a discount. You have a progressive city with tall buildings that have fancy lights at seven in the evening, but one that feels cold - and I'm not just thinking of the weather. Hong Kong feels ruthless. The newspapers have first world problems on their front page - in this case, a controversial law banning residents from bringing baby milk formula abroad - but they also have grotesque details of an elderly couple whose heads were found in a freezer in their home.

This is a city that thrives in intrigue. You get a feeling that to go up, you have to drag some down. The city may be progressive, but you have a feeling people still want more. (The following day's headline: the man accused of killing that elderly couple - his parents, he's the youngest - had a "sad childhood" and auditioned for a 3D porn film. Sounds like a headline only we could make.) The property market ballooned because of manipulators, Mary told us. Our hotel at Tai Kok Tsui was surrounded by property sellers, their windows plastered with colored sheets of paper with Chinese characters and Arabic numerals. She'd also talk a lot about her "rich uncle", Stanley Ho, and his four wives, and how many of the things we see in Hong Kong are connected to him. Or, if not to him, then to the many other oligarchs who made a fortune in the city. You'd see dilapidated (yet admittedly charming, in a way) apartment towers and then you'd see newer ones, clad in glass, barely filled.

But yes, I am being unfair towards Hong Kong. I blame the city tour. I blame how it spent more time selling us things we don't really need, rather than touring us around the place. "Hindi mo pa nakikita ang Hong Kong," a colleague told another colleague, as we left our ferry from Macau and went to dinner somewhere in the narrow roads of Tsim Sha Tsui. It was night time, and the neon lights (and LED billboards, as is the case with Nathan Road, the main drag in Kowloon) were on. We found ourselves in a noodle shop along Hart Avenue, whose owner thankfully wasn't grumpy, as opposed to the first time we tried a hole in the wall local shop, six years ago, where a communication breakdown led to extra orders of extra-oily Cantonese cuisine. The experience of walking the streets (and taking the trains) of Hong Kong without being forced to do anything else is perhaps my best experience in the city. Your feet may hurt, but at least it's because you chose to.

Oh, yes, I mentioned Macau, that other colony, this time by the Portuguese, and just an hour's ferry ride away. Again, it's not just the weather, but Macau is very warm. A charming place. The place used to be a bit backwards, but now isn't, thanks to the influx of money from all the casinos popping up. You go there from Hong Kong and it doesn't feel like a completely different place, save for the Portuguese signs. But it's a place that feels much more in touch with its past; the narrow cobblestone roads from the ruins of the St. Paul's Church leading to Senado Square may be full of shops, of people peddling cheap Rilakkuma trinkets to the ubiquitous bakkwa (and not-so-ubiquitous pork chop buns), but it feels more organic, more heartfelt than the coldness of Nathan Road, or even Singapore's Orchard Road.

I enjoyed our city tour in Macau much more. I put it down to the fact that our tour guide - a local with a lisp named Henry - seems to be really invested in his hometown. That, and the fact that he didn't sell us anything. There was an audible gasp in the bus when he announced that he was giving us free bottles of water - he's not selling it for HK$5 a pop. We pass by the hospital he was born in and he tells us of how he hopes to die in the same hospital. He talks about how lucky we are that there will be a lion dance in front of the A-Ma Temple. And, as he points at the many casinos that have cropped across Macau in the past decade, he talks about how he doesn't like it.

I assume they're siblings having a bit of fun near Senado Square in the Macau Peninsula. Buddhist worshippers light incense at the A-Ma Temple. A tourist gets her photo taken by one of the canals at the Venetian in the Cotai Strip.

"This used to be a stadium," he said, as the bus passed by the Grand Lisboa, a hotel and casino owned by, well, Stanley Ho, who got rich off running the only casinos in Macau until his government-enabled monopoly ended in 2002. "I used to play football here. And then they tore it down to build a casino."

He'd later talk about the Cotai Strip, a reclaimed area between the islands of Taipa and Coloane, where most of the new casinos - the Venetian, the City of Dreams, a second Wynn - are built. "As the casinos open, there will be more people coming here," he said, as we headed back to the ferry terminal. "They will build more infrastructure, give more jobs. But what if we need a new hospital? No, they say. All this land is reserved for casinos."

Macau, it seems to me, is a place on the verge of losing its soul. Granted, most of the old Macau, all of the ruins and the old structures and the cobblestone streets peppered with bakkwa stalls, are protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but that might lose its meaning as everybody sees the former colony, more and more, as a place to gamble. A multi-billion dollar industry, we were constantly reminded, as a report off CBS This Morning played non-stop on the ferry. It is bringing good tidings to the place, at least superficially, but inside it's going to have some lasting effects. If not now, then perhaps in a couple of decades' time, when the new generation takes over. The hotel I had lunch in promoted itself away from the others by calling itself "a place of serenity" since it has no casino nor nightclub. I'm afraid it's not to last.

I am obviously not an expert, but I think I've seen this in Hong Kong, in how the little transactions - that 7-Eleven branch where I bought a can of Tsing Tao, that customer service booth at Tsim Sha Tsui station that I had to go to when my MTR ticket refused to let me out of the gate - feel too straightforward, too automated, too cold. I have a feeling this will all happen in Macau too. I think about Singapore and how, despite me enjoying my stays in the city immensely - it's a place where, despite all the tall buildings, you feel that you can still breathe - it feels more like a place you go to for business rather than pleasure. I think of my four days in Bangkok, and how it, for all its progress, reminds me of Manila, for its evenly chaotic sidewalks and shrines to King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

I think of Manila, my hometown, which, for all its aims of being a progressive city, is still primarily messy. I cannot deny that we have bigger problems than we want to have - slums and floods and cars and billboards, both the commercial and political kind - and if we get around to fixing them our lives will be so much better. Everybody dreams of a city that's the middle of everything, where it's easy to travel from Fairview to Alabang, where there's green space all over and where music festivals have Vampire Weekend and not some rundown heavy metal band. But when we get there, something in us will inevitably change. We'll have too much fun among ourselves and we'll stop having fun with others, and considering how desperate we are to be as awesome as Singapore, or, well, Hong Kong, well, I don't know if I'd rather have it.

And then I go to a record store, sigh in frustration, and tell to myself, I wish I was in Singapore instead.

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