In China's Shadow

Fifteen years after the handover to mainland China, Hong Kong residents worry that their identity—and their freedoms—are slipping away.

This story appears in the June 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.

At the edge of the South China Sea, the metropolis of Hong Kong flickers and glows, its iconic skyscrapers like molten columns, the bay reflecting all the cool blues and fuchsias of the city’s desire. With little available flatland and the most skyscrapers in the world, Hong Kong is so dense with buildings, up to a hundred stories high, that they rise from the mountainsides as if full of helium. Hong Kong is a floating city: It floats between worlds, on fluctuating currency exchange rates and IPOs, real estate speculation, and the yuan of Chinese mainlanders, who come in droves on a wave of new wealth. It floats over the sedimentary layers of its past: the ancient fishing village, pirate haunt, former British colony. Now a Chinese special administrative region, it is being remade yet again under diamond pressure. And increasingly this city of over seven million inhabitants floats on a growing sense of unease, a discomfort that stands in direct opposition to the heady, auspicious days when Hong Kong was one of Asia’s great business capitals.

What has cast the Hong Kong of once giddy acquisitive desire into a deep paranoia, of course, is the new China, the second largest economy in the world, which has become the shadow, the inference, the chimera, and the overlord in every conversation here. Mistrusted at every turn. Looked down upon—and up at in awe. You can feel the vapors of this unease everywhere in the city, like the mist that rises from the harbor or from steaming streets at dawn, a mix of confusion and fear and the sharpening premonition of erasure.

“If you want to see capitalism in action, go to Hong Kong,” economist Milton Friedman is credited with saying. Yet to idealize the city today as a free market paradise, thriving in its 15th year after the British handover to China, is to sorely oversimplify, if not misconstrue, the darkening forces at work here. It’s to miss the tensions and tectonic shifts beneath the glitzy financial center that Hong Kong shows to the world. In the city underneath, one finds asylum seekers and prostitutes; gangsters with their incongruent bouffants; thousands of Indonesian housemaids who flock to Victoria Park on their precious Sundays off; and those barely scratching out an existence, people crammed into partitioned apartment blocks of “cage houses” the size of refrigerator boxes. While Hong Kong’s per capita gross domestic product ranks tenth in the world, its Gini coefficient, an index that measures the gap between rich and poor, is also among the highest.

Hong Kongers say their city reinvents itself every few years, citing the ever morphing skyline as one visible example. “We feel all of these great changes, but we don’t know how to name them,” says Patrick Mok, the coordinator for the Hong Kong Memory Project, a $6.4 million effort to address Hong Kong’s identity problem by creating an interactive website of old objects and photographs. “The pace of the city is too fast for memory.”

Yes, Hong Kong is changing again, but into what and molded by whom?

A short walk from the tony designer stores along Canton Road and the opulent Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui district, a rundown, 17-story building called Chungking Mansions spreads over a block—home to 4,000 people who constitute an international brigade of buyers and sellers. They can be found at all hours under neon glare, ferreting through this world of no-frills hotels, restaurants offering African stews and Indian curries, and shops that sell everything from whiskey in a glass to saris and prayer mats.

Gordon Mathews, an American anthropologist who’s studied and written about Chungking Mansions for the past six years, says 130 nationalities embark here each year, hoping to do big business in what he labels “the ghetto at the center of the world.” When it was first built, Chungking Mansions was the domain of Chinese immigrants, who moved up and out. Today “this is more a Third World gentlemen’s club,” says Mathews, who estimates that 20 percent of the cell phones in use in sub-Saharan Africa pass through here. “This is probably the most important building in the world for low-end globalization,” he says.

Hong Kong was built on this sort of global trade, owing its birth to opium, which may explain why to this day the city blurs the line between its legal and extralegal activities. When British traders arrived by frigate in the 1800s, looking to swap an embarrassment of Indian opium packed in wooden chests, they spied the granite island that would become Hong Kong on their way up the Pearl River estuary to Guangzhou.

Then came the First Opium War in 1839: The Manchu empire ordered a halt to the trading of “foreign mud” by the “outer barbarians,” confiscating over 20,000 chests of opium and destroying them in public; the British retaliated, bringing their naval forces within a hundred miles of Beijing before a cessation of hostilities.

The superintendent of trade, a man named Charles Elliot, negotiated for the seemingly worthless Hong Kong, believing its deepwater harbor might prove a boon but leaving the imperialists back home in a swivet—Why not farther up the coast?—and prompting Queen Victoria to admit bafflement at “the unaccountably strange conduct of Charles Elliot,” while joking that her daughter should bear the title of princess of Hong Kong. Under British rule shanties gave way to granite buildings, a colonial infrastructure grew, and a city began to take shape on the shores of a booming harbor, one that acted as a transit point for trade with China.

It was the reaction to China’s communist revolution of 1949, however, that transformed Hong Kong into a center of industrialized capitalism. Faced with Mao Zedong’s nationalization drive, Chinese industrialists pulled up roots and reestablished themselves in Hong Kong, and a wave of refugees poured in, looking for work. A robust capitalism emerged, turning the city into a prodigious exporter of goods and a place of such unregulated ease that it invited money from all comers.

In time Hong Kong built its glowing skyscrapers—some by world-class architects like I. M. Pei and Norman Foster—as well as its more problematic housing estates, while behind its modern facade, social ills like prostitution, drug dealing, smuggling, and gambling continued to proliferate.

Chungking Mansions is a measure of how much has changed. “There’s not much illegal except the illegals working here, many of them seeking asylum,” says Mathews, who believes that the Mansions is where Hong Kong partly fulfills its promise, echoing back to an older version of itself from the 19th and 20th centuries: the melting pot, the open port, the unfettered global bazaar. “It is the truest encapsulation of what Hong Kong was, is, and could be.”

In a Chungking Mansions curry shop, I meet a man who says he is Pakistani and asks to be called “Jack Dawson,” after Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Titanic. He says he was threatened in his former country and came to Hong Kong without proper papers. He raised a bit of capital and began selling phones, and now he moves disposable “14-day phones,” pulling down $60,000 a year. Gesturing to the stuffy hallway thronged with people coming and going, Jack Dawson says, “This is my land of dreams.”

On Lockhart Road, in the Wan Chai district, the scene in a cramped lobby of a dilapidated building feels tense to say the least: male teenagers playing video games on their phones and suited men anxiously shifting from foot to foot, avoiding eye contact, all waiting to ride upstairs. When the elevator door draws open, one tribe of men glides out, while this tribe shuffles in—and up they go. Each floor of the 20-story building includes half a dozen thin-walled apartments offering one-woman brothels, barely masking the racket of the ministrations within.

During the 1980s human trafficking was facilitated by triads—criminal gangs who define themselves by dialect, profession, and political affiliation—who imported sex workers to Hong Kong in speedboats. The triads began as criminal secret societies in more lawless times but rose to prominence in the 1960s and early ’70s during Hong Kong’s golden age of corruption. The violent triad films of John Woo reinforced the concept of gangster as hero while highlighting the jagged dichotomy that still lingers over the city: In the gleaming towers the money flows on a white-collar stream of speculation and profit, while in the boiling, overcrowded streets, triads knife, blast, and amputate civilization until it lies bleeding on the brink of demise.

The truth today is much fuzzier—and less dire. Some triad-related criminal activity, such as the illicit drug trade, has shifted to the mainland. And the triads of today, says Alex Tsui, a former anticorruption official, no longer carry the vestiges of loyalty and patriotism that spurred some of the conflict. Rather, everything has been reduced to business. With profits in the offing, triads are more willing to collaborate with each other, resolving their differences around a table rather than in the streets. They run bus lines and dabble in interior decorating, while still holding on to everyday thuggery. But the lines have blurred. The children of the triad brass go to fine colleges and find their fulfillment in new iPads rather than in street bullying. High-level gangsters are more interested in their investment and real estate portfolios, or in buying racehorses, than in risking their lives in a bloody shoot-out.

“What some realized was that if you break the law in Hong Kong, you go to jail,” says Tsui. “But if you go about 20 miles away, to Shenzhen and the mainland, you have carte blanche.” Adds triad expert Kent Lee, “Those who’ve stayed aren’t as violent and are more profit-oriented now.”

Changes in the law have also minimized the triads’ hold on the underground economy. Today prostitution is legal in Hong Kong, with restrictions designed to keep it from the public eye and ordinances in place to shield sex workers from triads or pimps who attempt to profit as middlemen. Not that the law isn’t broken, but it’s ushered in a new era that has brought an influx of sex workers from mainland China, in numbers that have made policing the trade difficult.

Now entire apartment buildings, unmarked from the outside, provide floor after floor of single-room apartments filled with sex workers, who advertise their services on Internet sites where they are rated by their customers, who in this building, on this day, will pay $60 for 40 minutes.

Upstairs, I find a woman willing to talk, if not give her name. “After paying rent, I make over $100,000 a year,” she says in a Betty Boop voice, standing in a pink negligee of plunging décolletage in a room with floor-to-ceiling mirrors and a wet bathroom floor after yet another shower between clients. “Since doing this work, I’ve bought three apartments for my family,” she says proudly.

Doing the math, one realizes that, for better or worse, she’s a busy woman. And comparing this world to the misguided Hollywood portrait of exotic seediness and found love conjured in a film like The World of Suzie Wong (“With you, it’s different,” Suzie, the prostitute, tells William Holden’s character. “I feel something in heart.”), one also realizes that the most intimate act is just another transaction in a city of transactions, a service rendered in 40-minute clips, money exchanged, investments employed, money made to make more money—and sent back home to the family on the mainland.

In no other month does the ghost of China loom over Hong Kong more than in June. The anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown—June 4, 1989—is Hong Kong’s own symbolic 9/11. Coming as it did in the years just before the handover, the massacre of hundreds of protesters sent a chill howl through the colony, casting the Chinese government as a jackbooted police state willing to go to extremes to crush any claim to freedom of expression.

In the fashionable Causeway Bay district of the city, on the concrete plaza in front of Times Square, Sam Wong, 22, stands beneath massive banner ads of George Clooney sporting an Omega watch and supermodels striking sexy poses. Wong wears a white T-shirt that reads, “Freedom Now!” in English and a declarative headband reading, “Hunger Strike!” in Chinese.

Already stick-thin with a spray of stubble on his chin, Wong is 24 hours into his 64-hour hunger strike to mark the Tiananmen anniversary. He is joined by 18 other youthful protesters in an improvised tent city replete with brochures and sing-alongs that include lyrics calling for China to be more democratic and to release imprisoned political dissidents.

Shoppers stream past, barely taking note. Yet the evening before, a large group of mainland tourists stopped to watch a documentary about Tiananmen Square, viewing scenes of the massacre under a JumboTron of movie trailers. Afterward a group stayed to talk, some claiming they’d just learned for the first time what actually happened, others politely questioning what they took to be the protesters’ antigovernment version of events. “We’re not afraid of people with different ideas,” says Wong. “We’re worried that the police will overuse their power and arrest us, that they’ll squelch our right to free speech.”

This is an idea that gets expressed repeatedly in Hong Kong these days: the unpredictability of the authorities, who many believe are simply puppets for the hidden intentions and directives of their masters in Beijing. Despite China’s promise of “one country, two systems,” which guarantees Hong Kong’s right to an autonomous political and economic system until 2047, residents cringe at the specter of China’s control, limiting the freedoms and freewheeling ways of the past, imposing its will, subsuming what is quintessentially different about Hong Kong, and recasting the city in its image.

Leung Kwok Hung—a leading pro-democracy activist and legislative council member known as Long Hair, for the hippie mane that falls between his shoulder blades—rails against what he sees as a growing prohibition against free speech. “The police kowtow to Beijing, because if you say no to what the Communist Party wants, you’re saying no to your career,” he says. “But that extends to government officials too, and the tycoons who own the media or want to do business in China. More and more, we’re becoming too passive. Half the media won’t even report on our protests.”

Clad in a Che Guevara T-shirt and listening to Richie Havens in his book-lined office, Long Hair says he’s been arrested nearly 20 times over the years, convicted a dozen times, imprisoned four times. He is trying to defend what he considers the most important parts of Hong Kong’s identity: free expression, a free media—all of which were taken for granted under the “positive noninterventionism” of British rule and are now feared to a greater or lesser extent by the Chinese Communist Party. Because Hong Kong is neither autonomous nor a full-fledged democracy, Long Hair senses a dangerous vacuum. But on his best days, he believes that Hong Kong is an important bastion of civil liberties and, if put to it, capable of standing up to China.

Last year’s June 4 protests—the only ones allowed in all of China—seemed to carry extra gravitas given the uproar over the detention of a Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, whose provocative work and social protest caused him to run afoul of the communist government. (He was arrested and accused of tax evasion while boarding a plane for Hong Kong.) There were agitprop demonstrations on East Point Road: A man inviting people to scribble their protests on Post-it notes that were then attached to his body; a woman lighting an herbal powder on her palm, then blowing the flames out just before they burned her flesh.

Tens of thousands gathered in Victoria Park for a candlelight vigil. Organizers claimed 150,000 attended, while the police estimated half as many. The urgency of the protest was underscored by a profusion of T-shirts, banners, and buttons reading, “Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei?” There were songs (“We’re the new youth, and there won’t be fear”) and speeches, and a video screen showing messages taped by mothers of Tiananmen Square victims, calling for remembrance and strength. It was, by turns, heartrending, melodramatic, utterly compelling, and weirdly hopeful, but what made it most poignant was the real sense among the protesters that what happened at Tiananmen might indeed one day happen in Victoria Park, that they in fact might be next.

Afterward a group of young protesters cleaned the park, thoroughly scrubbing the pavement, using paint scrapers to bring up the candle wax. There was no rowdiness, no spontaneous call to march or occupy or throw Molotov cocktails. This was protest, Hong Kong-style, polite, temporary, fervent until the goodbye, then strangely complacent and without final provocation.

In the emptying park after the evening’s protest, I met a man with a red fan, wearing aqua blue shorts. He carried a bag with leaflets and brochures, some extolling the pro-democracy movement or calling for the release of imprisoned political dissidents, including Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and Falun Gong members. “The Communist Party hates me,” he proclaimed.

Part of a landowning family in China, he’d moved to Hong Kong in 1951, at the age of 17, to escape Mao Zedong’s rule. Some of his uncles had been imprisoned, while another uncle had become an official in the Communist Party. “Our family has lived all sides,” he said. He’d retired from the jewelry business in his 50s and since then returned once a month to his home village in Guangdong Province. “I scold the communists,” he said, “and preach Hong Kong’s form of democracy.” What was he going to do with all the pamphlets in the bag? “Bring them back to China,” he said.

If Hong Kongers are subtly exporting their political ideas to China, it’s the mainlanders who have buoyed the city with their buying power, especially after it was crippled by the bird flu epidemic in 1997 and the SARS crisis in 2003. “The Rolex store at Times Square sells 200 watches a day, mostly to mainlanders,” declares Francis Cheng, a leading event planner for some top brands in Hong Kong and personal assistant for Pansy Ho, the socialite and billionaire who runs the MGM China gambling empire. Where it was once Hong Kong that sent food packages to China in its time of need and supported the Chinese real estate market through investment, the tables have turned: It’s China that helps keep Hong Kong afloat these days, the mainlanders flocking to the metropolis to buy its real estate and goods, often in cash, since credit cards still account for only a fraction of retail purchases in China.

“Growing up, we felt superior to the Chinese,” says Cheng. In Hong Kong people joke about how the mainland’s nouveau riche visit fine restaurants and insist that their wineglasses be filled to the brim. In one case a mainlander is said to have toted a bag of cash into a fancy boutique and blurted, “Where’s the most expensive stuff?” Stories like these support the long-held stereotype of the mainlanders as ah chan, or country bumpkins, but as Cheng points out, today the city’s nine Gucci stores have long lines in front, a trail of seemingly endless demand. “There’ll always be the next group of mainland farmers who’ve made it big,” he says.

This shift in economic power has exacerbated Hong Kong’s identity crisis, to the point where it is now the mainlanders who refer to their Hong Kong brethren askong chan, or Hong Kong bumpkins. The University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Program reports that in recent surveys, most residents view themselves first as Hong Kongers, not Chinese, underscoring a growing resentment toward mainlanders, who were referred to in a Hong Kong newspaper ad as “locusts” swarming the territory. Nearly half the babies born in Hong Kong’s reputable hospitals last year belonged to mainlanders, spurring protests by Hong Kong mothers worried that, in this auspicious Year of the Dragon, when birthrates are sure to spike, the already overtaxed Hong Kong hospital system will be unable to handle its own.

At a Dolce & Gabbana store recently, Hong Kong residents were banned from taking pictures in front of the store’s window display. In response, over a thousand Hong Kongers gathered in the street in front of the store to demand an apology, while venting pent-up frustration that they were being treated as second-class citizens in their own home.

Tensions are building, layer upon layer in the floating city. “Visitors see Hong Kong as the emerald city on the mountain,” Alex Tsui says, “but it’s an ailing city. The head is not working right. The limbs don’t work. The footwork is off.”

Back at Times Square, Sam Wong approaches the end of his hunger strike so groggy and fatigued he takes refuge in a tent, holding his head and closing his eyes as the endless stream of oblivious shoppers comes and goes. He feels someone must stand up to China, though he will be glad when it’s over.

Night falls; the buildings are lit, lined like candles. The ferries churn in the bay. The planes glide overhead like silver pterodactyls, the streets a river of consumers. Hong Kong, city of a hundred cities, seems as restless as it ever was, morphing once more.

“People are shocked when I show them pictures of the rice paddies that were here in the 1970s,” says Patrick Mok, the memorykeeper. “Then, we lived in the streets, in the open-air markets and stalls. Afterwards, everything moved indoors, into the malls, behind closed doors, in air-conditioned spaces. We’re not sure who we’re becoming now, but we can feel ourselves disappearing.”