Monday, 29 April 2013

Differences Between Hong Kong and Taipei

I have already spent almost two months in Hong Kong, and the day of my departure draws nearer and nearer. I had already come to Hong Kong twice before, once in April and once in October last year. I had really had a great time back then, meeting nice people and having a lot of things to do every day. 

After spending more than a year in Taiwan, I made up my mind to explore the life in another place, and I chose Hong Kong, which is both a wonderful world city and a gateway to mainland China. I will write a post about my experience in Hong Kong some day; now I would like to make a comparison between Hong Kong and Taipei and list off some differences between them.

1) Thousands of Skyscrapers vs Two Skyscrapers

Hong Kong is a skyscraper city. Not only does it have one of the most stunning, beautiful and distinctive skylines in the world; but the majority of the population actually live in the thousands of skyscrapers that can be found on every corner of Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories. For example, the residential area in Kowloon where I live is full of buildings that are 30-40 floors high. 

Hong Kong's skyline

The "hugeness" of Hong Kong's streets 

View from the window of my room in Hong Kong

Taipei does not have an impressive skyline. Most buildings are small, I would say European-sized, and its most famous skyscraper, Taipei 101, stands like a lonely giant in the midst of average buildings, like a tree in a meadow. There are basically only two high-profile skyscrapers in Taipei: Taipei 101 and the Mitsukoshi Department store in front of Taipei Main Station. Of course, there are also other tall buildings, and some of them could even be described as skyscrapers, but they're scattered in different places, far away from each other, almost hidden, as if the city planners had been ashamed of grouping them together.

A street in Taipei - wow, houses with only three storeys!

A solitary skyscraper - Taipei 101

2) Huge but Small

As huge as Hong Kong's skyscrapers and residential complexes might be, the flats that these architectural giants were built to contain are surprisingly small. The contrast between the colossal looks of the buildings and the tiny flats inside is almost a joke. Entire families have to live in flats with only two rooms, and some flats are so tiny that Hong Kongers call them "cage homes". 

Taipei is the opposite. The buildings are not huge, but the flats have an acceptable size. To be fair, there are also many tiny flats, called 套房 (tào fáng), usually consisting of a single room and a bathroom. However, the problem of small flats cannot be compared with the situation in Hong Kong, where flat "subdivision" and cage homes are a widespread phenomenon.

3) An International City vs A Wannabe International City

As an ex British colony and a major global financial centre, Hong Kong has developed into one of the most international and cosmopolitan cities in Asia. Walking on the streets of Central or Tsim Sha Tsui, one feels the flair, charm and energy of a metropolis. In some areas like the Mid-Levels or Lan Kwai Fong there are so many foreigners (mostly Westerners) that if one could get there directly from the airport one would wonder if the plane was not diverted back to Europe.

Taipei, though economically globalized, is both geographically and psychologically insular. If you happen to be walking near a university campus and you are a foreigner, school kids - who know the best place where to find you - might come to you and ask you questions: "Where are you from?" "Do you love Taiwan?" This is their school assignment, and you have become part of it. I don't know how many times this happened to me. One day I was in a bad mood and I even told them I didn't love Taiwan, so I brutally screwed up their homework. 

Everyone wants to learn and practice his or her English. As a foreigner you are 'exotic' and 'cool', but if you fall in love with someone's daughter you may find out her parents are afraid you might be evil and unreliable and possibly a drunkard. There is a love-hate relationship between Taiwanese and foreigners, a mutual attraction that is often not coupled with an equal portion of mutual understanding - perhaps because there are not so many of us.     

4) Cantonese vs Mandarin

The official languages in Hong Kong are English and Cantonese, while the official language in Taiwan is Mandarin Chinese, the same as in mainland China. For a foreigner who cannot speak Mandarin, surviving in Hong Kong is easier than in Taipei. But if you speak Mandarin, it might be the opposite. In fact, it is true that many Hong Kongers can speak English (the level depending on their education), but there are also many people that cannot speak either English or Mandarin, but only Cantonese. So, if you speak Mandarin you can communicate with everyone in Taipei (maybe excluding some very old people who speak a dialect), but you might not be able to talk with a certain part of the Hong Kong population. On the other hand, if you're in Taipei and you can only speak English, you'd better learn how to use your hands to communicate effectively.  

5) PRC vs ROC

On July 1 1997, the flag of the People's Republic of China (PRC) was hissed for the first time in Hong Kong, and ever since then the former British colony has been a special administrative region (SAR) of the PRC. 

The flag of the PRC was never hissed in Taiwan. Taiwan's official name is Republic of China (ROC), the country founded on January 1 1912 in mainland China. The Communists and the Nationalists (Guomindang) both see Taiwan as a province of China. However, Taiwan has its own government and military, and it is still proudly something else than the PRC.

6) Banks vs IT

You may have heard of HSBC and Acer. The first - Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Corporation - is one of the most renowned Hong Kong brands in the world. The latter is one of the most famous Taiwanese brands and a world market leader in the computer industry. Taiwanese products - HTC, Asus, MSI, ot name only a few - can be found in every store of every country. Hong Kong's economy, after its industrial decline, is rather based on services and finance.  

7) Extremely Fast vs Less Extremely Fast

Life in Hong Kong is breathtaking. Not only because the polluted air may clog up your lungs, but also because of the rhythm, the speed and the energy of this city. Day in day out masses of people flood the streets, go to work, go home, go to party, go clubbing - it is a never-ending flux of activity.

If you compare Hong Kong to Taiwan - Taiwan seems slow! To a European they both appear to have crazy lifestyles, with work, money-making, slave-like life-corroding working hours as the absolute priority. Nevertheless, Hong Kongers apparently enjoy going to Taiwan because of the 'relaxing' pace of life.  

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Nan Lian Garden, Chi Lin Nunnery and Hakka Dinner

After talking with my flatmate for several hours (record broken!), here I am, at 5:02 in the morning, writing this post. Outside I hear the first birds chirping, reminding me that soon the sun will rise.

But before going to sleep I would just like to share a few pictures I took last evening. A friend asked me to join her and two of her friends (a girl from Hong Kong and a German guy) to visit some sights and have dinner - this pretty much saved my Saturday evening, because originally I had no plans. By the way, I'd like to thank my Hong Kong friends who were so nice to show us foreigners around.

First we went to the Wong Tai Sin temple, but it was already closed (at around 6 pm). So we went to Nan Lian Garden, which is near Diamond Hill MTR Station (see map below).


The Nan Lian Garden is a public park which despite its ancient looks was opened in 2006. It is a reproduction of the garden style of the Tang Dynasty era (7th - 9th century). It reflects the desire to rediscover the forms of the ancient Chinese civilization and offer the public an exotic, eye-catching version of the past (Rinaldi 2011 garden p. 116).

Adjacent to the Nan Lian Garden is the Chi Lin Nunnery, founded in 1934 and last renovated in 2001 after a major refurbishment (Wordie, p. 270). The resemblance between Chi Lin and the Zen temples for which Japan is renowned are due to the fact that the Tang Dynasty period, on whose architectural style the nunnery is based, was a time of great achievement for Chinese culture that deeply influenced its neighbouring country Japan.

After visiting the Nan Lian Garden we went to have dinner in Tsim Sha Tsui. One of our friends chose a really nice Hakka restaurant. Hakka is the name of an ethnic sub-group of the Han Chinese, who have their own dialect (or language, if you will), customs and cuisine. The Hakka group can be found mainly in Southern China, especially Fujian Province, and Taiwan. Here are some pictures of the great food we ate.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Peak - Hong Kong's Historic Heritage

The Peak is a must-see for every tourist coming to visit Hong Kong. Situated 1,200 feet above sea level, it commands an impressive view of Hong Kong's ultra-modern skyline and of its harbour. 

Here British settlers who arrived in the 19th century sought to escape the heat and the crowds of the city. Built on the highest spot in Hong Kong island, the Peak was the very centre and symbol of Western power and of the authority and strength of British rule.

Today the Peak is renowned for being the location where one can enjoy the best panoramic view of the world-famous Hong Kong skyline and the harbour.

How To Get To The Peak

The Peak is not close to the city centre, but it's very easy to reach thanks to the Peak Tram, a funicular tram that was completed in 1888 - in those days a masterpiece of Western technology. Before the construction of the tram, the only way to get there was to "hike up" the steep hill on foot, or to be carried there by local coolies on a sedan chair (see Wordie, pp. 73-74). 

The Peak Tram station is only a few minutes away from Central MTR Station exit K. This exit leads to Statue Square, and from there you can turn left in the direction of Chater Garden, go straight and then turn right towards Garden Road (see map below). 

The View of Hong Kong

What would Hong Kong be without its amazing skyline? This is the symbol of the city's dynamism, of its financial and economic might, of its vocation as a global metropolis at the crossroads between East and West. It is here that the success of Hong Kong becomes visible to the eyes of the visitor, a stunning proof of its breathtaking modernization, of its vitality and creativity. 

The energy and spirit of the millions of people that have built this Eastern miracle seem to have sprouted from the earth to reach for the sky, and even its once so self-indulgent Western masters can't help looking at it with a mix of admiration, reverence, and perhaps envy. 

View of Central and Victoria Harbour from the Peak in the first half of the 20th century 

A few houses on the Peak

On the other hand, this wonderful view is a veil that covers other, darker aspects of the city. But its visual power is so overwhelming that it indeed accomplishes its task: forgotten are all the flaws and imperfections hidden in the poorer, less fashionable districts, wiped away by the magnificent, imposing sight of the glamorous, wealthy, modern city.

The Peak Tram Lower Terminus on Garden Road

The Peak of Segregation: How Masters and Servants 

Shared a City

The Peak Tram
For more than a century the Peak was the symbol of British rule. This district, spatially separated from the city proper, gave the white settlers two things that they desperately needed: a more temperate climate and separation from the local population.

The Peak is only one example of the many secluded places that the British ruling classes that lived in the colonies chose as their "refuge", where they could re-create Britain in the midst of an alien environment. The most famous resort of this kind is perhaps the hill station of Simla in India, north of Delhi. There the British escaped the heat and ... the Indian people, with whom they  seemed reluctant to mingle.

The Peak was both a sign of the authority, but paradoxically, also of the weakness of the Europeans. As historians have pointed out, Western colonists did not have as much power as they wanted the natives to believe. Europeans were clearly outnumbered and wouldn't have had the capacity to resist against repeated uprisings. One way in which they tried to compensate for the lack of real power was to represent power, to set up an awe-inspiring stage that would make the locals believe in European superiority (Carroll 2007, p. 91).

Hill stations often helped the British keep their identity and create a strong sense of community in an alien society. Here the British could "restore the physical and psychic energies they needed for their imperial tasks, replicate the social and cultural environments that embodied the values they sought to project" (see ibid., p. 92).

When the British settled in Hong Kong, one of their first concerns was to find a place where they could be and live 'British'. The Peak offered a good location. It was far away from the crowded 'Chinese-populated' quarters, and thanks to its height it was cooler than the at times unbearably hot city.

However, against the stereotype of the Western capitalist as opposed to the 'Chinese coolie', the Chinese population was a major driver in the economic development of Hong Kong, and numerous Chinese businessmen amassed considerable fortunes. Already in 1879-80 the Chinese provided 90 percent of government revenues (ibid., p. 69). 

Accordingly to their social status, the Chinese upper class tended to move to the districts that the Europeans wanted to keep for themselves, and they indeed built or bought houses in the so-called Mid-levels, the area between Central and the hill districts.

The European District Preservation Ordinance of 1888 sought to solve this problem by reserving "a certain portion of the Town [...] not for exclusively European occupation, but for houses built according to European models and occupied in much more limited numbers than is usual with Chinese" (Tsang 2011, p. 48).

This solution seemed acceptable, because it shifted the attention from racial segregation to hygienic concerns. In fact, the Europeans believed the Chinese  lacked proper hygienic standards.

Colonial Hong Kong. Most of the old streets have now disappeared 

Nevertheless, this regulation was not considered sufficient by the expatriate community, and in 1904 the Peak Preservation Ordinance was issued, which specifically prohibited non-Europeans from settling in the area (Tsang 2011, p. 48). According to the ordinance, the only Chinese allowed to reside there were servants, cooks, and drivers employed by Europeans (Carroll 2007, pp, 90-91).

However, racism during British rule was never absolute. The British were to a certain extent willing both to recognize the political and economic role of the natives, and also to make exceptions to the rules. For example, Robert Ho Tung, who was Eurasian but "adopted the manners, deportment, and costume of a Chinese gentleman and did not seek to pass as a European" was allowed to live on the Peak. He was the wealthiest man in Hong Kong and he was among the first Chinese to be knighted and thus be admitted into the upper class of the colonial and imperial society (Tsang 2011, pp. 48-49).

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Lantern Festival (元宵節)

On February of this year I went with a Taiwanese friend to celebrate the Lantern Festival at Taipei Expo Park, right in front of Yuanshan MRT Station (see map).

I'd been planning to post the pictures I took that day for some time already, but for several reasons I never found the right moment to do it. Originally I wanted to write a post about Chinese New Year, but I couldn't find enough material, so I gave it up and decided to simply share the pictures of the Lantern Festival.  

The Lantern Festival (元宵節 / 元宵节; pinyin: Yuánxiāojié) is one of the major holidays in China and in East Asia. It falls on the 15th of February and marks the end of the Lunar New Year celebrations.

There are different stories about the origin of the festival. Some people believe that it dates back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 221 AD). On the 15th night of the second Lunar month the emperors used to pay tribute to the First Cause of the universe. Because the ceremony was held at dusk, lanterns were lit to illuminate the palace (Henderson 2009, p. 479).

In the High Tang era (705-780 A.D.), the Lantern Festival became one of the most popular festivities throughout the empire. According to a chronicle from that period a "spectacular lamp-lighting ceremony was held on the fifteenth day of the first month in the capital [...]. Jinwu loosened the restrictions and allowed people to pass the streets in the evening. Everybody, including aristocrats, royal relatives, bond servants, craftsmen, and merchants, went out in the evening" (Qian Ning: Art, Religion, and Politics in Medieval China. The Dunhuang Cave of the Zhai Family. Honolulu 2004, p. 131).

Whatever the religious origins of the festival may be, nowadays it has lost much of its sacredness. Throughout the Chinese-speaking world the Lantern Festival has turned into a popular, festive event with exhibitions of colourful lanterns in the form of deities and heroes of folk beliefs and myths.

The park was beautifully decorated with lanterns which were lit after sunset. We were wise enough to go there on a Monday, so that there were relatively few people compared with the weekend. The atmosphere was very nice, even romantic. That I was not the only person to think so was shown by the dozens of couples strolling around, enjoying the night view and the fresh evening air.   

This is Guanyu (關羽), a hero from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms

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