Hong Kong is the most fascinating and impressive of hybrids. For centuries a refuge for those fleeing oppressive rulers in China and no more than an inconsequential island, it was to become one of the most crucial trading points in the entire world. Today, it remains a kind of westerner’s gateway into Asia and still feels like a kind of outpost.
The island was freed from British rule in 1997, but is still in the middle of a 50-year grace period where unrestrained capitalism is allowed to run riot before handover to ‘communist’ China in 2037. The result is a kind of Thatcherite wonderland, where there is still a whiff of Empire and the phrase ‘the colony that worked’ is used readily and not without good reason. Hong Kong is still thus its own country, and is home to the widest gap between rich and poor in the world.
I was lucky enough to see both sides during my stay – not just rich and poor, but old and new as well.
In the midst of all that wealth per square metre, what is there to be found in Hong Kong at street level? Who are the half-invisible figures who oil the cogs of that great machine?
Up until the early nineties, Hong Kong was home to a neighbourhood that could justifiably be described as an abomination. Kowloon Walled City is now a rather pleasant and serene park, but from the mid-twentieth century onwards was a revolting, densely populated den of 0.01 square miles that at its worst, housed around 33, 000 people. After the Japanese occupation left the island, squatters took residence in the area, and finding them to be a little difficult, us British decided it best to just leave the place be. Consequently, the rule of law disintegrated as the tower blocks grew higher and denser, cramming more people and less air into the nightmarish square of land. Living conditions declined continually, with many having no access to clean drinking water or working gas or electricity. Violence ran rife and criminal gangs took hold of the walled city as their own. As the rest of the island grew and prospered, a blind eye was turned for decades as people lived out appalling lives trapped in this urban prison. It was finally demolished in 1993, but on the site where it once was, a scale model still exists that gives a chilling impression of just how grim and claustrophobic conditions were there.