THIS is a Communist country???
We grew up with the fear of the Red Menace, afraid that Communists might take over the world. Much American money and energy was spent trying to win the war against Communism (remember the McCarthy hearings!). Some of that fear surely was present in the uneasiness and anxiety around Hong Kong’s return from Great Britain to Communist China ..... but baby, look at her now! Sailing into this fabulous harbor brings a view of magnificent skyscrapers and architectural triumphs; walking on the streets brings a sense of pulsating energy and excitement and health. We saw only one slum, almost no litter, no smokers, and a dazzling array of world-famous shops. Attached to the cruise terminal is a mall with every major retailer in the world. The people are well-dressed and have leisure time and money to spend.
Our guide, Shermone Yan, is on the staff of Chris Rowthorn Tours, and we are grateful for the two days we spent with this young mother of two, former employee of the Cultural Affairs Department of the government, wife of an HSBC executive, a woman who is proud of being Chinese and proud of being from HK, a person who has well formed political opinions, appreciates democracy and also appreciates the HK government and how well HK flourishes under its current leadership. Shermone is fun and energetic, a native who knows all the ferry and subway routes (this is a city that requires the use of MANY different forms of transport), an instinctively kind person who appreciates her Chinese heritage and is full of optimism for herself and her kids.
With Shermone, we started by going through the Central to visit the Peak; we went on Sunday and the whole area was filled with Filipinos, almost all female domestic workers. They sat on plazas, on walls, under bridges, on every sidewalk - maybe 20,000 of them. They sat on cardboard boxes and picnic cloths in groups of 8-12, eating from Tupperware containers, playing cards, using their cell phones. Shermone said that in another area 20,000 Indonesian helpers gather each Sunday, the day off for all helpers. Around 7 pm, a cart carries away the cardboard and litter, and the helpers return to their places of employment. Shermone lives in a 600 ft2 apartment; her helper sleeps on the floor beside her sons’ bunk beds. Other workers sleep on plywood sheets atop the bath. The workers have no place to gather but the streets. If it rains? They move under shelters.
From there we went to the Peak which dominates the landscape and is lined with houses that overlook all of HK, are probably 5000 - 20,000 ft2 and grand indeed. Then to a street “wet market” with weird fish and chickens and odd vegetables and mirabile dictu - fat red strawberries from California, Driscoll brand, so not all US trade goes in one direction.
Four times we were at places of worship...
First at a syncretic temple on a busy street, with Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian elements and sections all interconnected. This is the end of Chinese New Year, so every temple has a lot of business, and business it was. There was no sense of reverence or holiness; I was able to take many photographs and offend no one. Many gods (the primary ones in this temple are for good grades/education and for health), many incense sellers (and some free incense sticks but Shermone says no worthy Chinese would use free incense, that in order to count you have to pay something), many tables with candles and sand to hold the joss sticks and raw meat and paper wrappers and fruits and vegetables and flowers and envelopes holding donations (never ever stolen, says Shermone). People stood before the statues and bowed and sang and waved papers before their faces and prayed and rubbed poles. The whole cacophony was as overwhelming as the smell. (And the smell was so strong that we had to send everything we wore to the laundry/cleaner.)
Second to St. John’s Anglican Cathedral for a 6 pm Taizé service. Maybe 80 youngish people, warm and welcoming, including an invitation to come forward and light a candle and place it in a sand filled container with a prayer request. Shermone went with us.
Third, we saw a private service on a street. An older man and woman squatted beside a cardboard box and lit incense sticks beside a little tray with fruit, a dead chicken and a hunk of barbecued pork. They sought a blessing on their kiosk which was opening that day.
Last we went to Chi Lin Nunnery, a huge and very elegant Buddhist complex of gardens, elderly housing (expensive - $3500/month semi-private), a school, and a mammoth temple that sprawls cloister fashion around the gardens. Although this is government owned (and never advertised - because the government doesn’t promote religion, it is run by (unvested) Buddhist nuns (not monks). Here tourists meander and gape at the magnificent architecture surrounded by the largest and tallest public housing buildings I’ve ever seen (so tall that occasional floors are left without walls to keep the wind from making them sway). Here folks came to the central hall and the side halls (chapels?) and prayed and chanted and bowed and swayed.
Our Shermone says that she’s an atheist - but she went to a temple and made an offering for her sons’ academic success and to another where she prayed for her ancestors - and she lit a candle at St. John’s. So it seems to me that there is an innate human need to pray, desire to pray, to hope that Someone is in charge of this world because we don’t quite feel up to that task. It also seems that prayer/contact with the gods begs for some sacramental object, whether a rosary or a statue or a song or flowers or incense or a dead chicken, because we want to offer something, to make a sign of our presence. It also seems that people like to gather together or to go to a place of holiness - praying in the back yard sometimes doesn’t feel intentional enough or important enough to do the trick.
Given my druthers, of course, the prayer and silences at St. John’s and the familiar liturgy made my heart sing. The first temple worship and the street worship seemed mechanical and transactional to me - and I also imagine that Anglican worship feels sterile to people who bring a grocery cart of food to please their gods.
Some of the significant images of HK are the ferries that ply their way across Victoria Harbor. They are large and people flow on and off them as they connect island with mainland, old with new, carrying executive and laborer. Maybe the ferries are the best icon of this incredible place, carrying and connecting, bridging easily, a part of the very fabric of HK.
Once again, Toto, this is a long way from home.