By Sandy Myhre
Hong Kong used to be a British colony but is now a special administrative region of China with its own governing and economic systems, separate from mainland China. Hong Kong is classified as an alpha world city meaning it has considerable global influence as a trading city.
There is so much to explore; the harbour, the hills, the streets of Hong Kong (which is on an island) and Kowloon which is essentially a suburb of Hong Kong and renowned for wonderful shopping.
Just about every type of edible something can be found from hundreds of street stalls scattered throughout the territory. Some of the food, it must be said, can be of dubious quality and won’t rest well with Western palates.
More sophisticated restaurants are dotted throughout every main road.
There is every type of tour available from a casual stroll through the city’s streets to exploring the history, the temples, to a ferry trip to Macau and everything else in between like Chinese massages, facials and acupuncture to chauffeur-driven excursions.
There are beauty shops, jewellery stores, clothing labels from all over the world (probably made in China) handbags, suitcases, Chinese medicine shops (herbal and other substances not generally understood) outdoor markets with meat and fish hanging close to flies, nuts, vegetables, shoes, pearls and diamonds.
Hong Kong is a tourist dream and for a woman travelling solo, it’s safe. At least, until early May this year, it was. That’s when weeks and weeks of protest began and still, five months later, don’t look like stopping any time soon.
The protest gatherings were generated by opposition to what was known as the Fugitive Offenders amendment bill. If enacted, it would allow local authorities to detain and extradite criminal fugitives wanted in territories with which Hong Kong does not currently have extradition agreements including Taiwan and mainland China.
The bill was eventually quashed but the protests have continued almost every weekend. The original cause seems to have been somewhat lost in the confusion and a growing propensity for violence is manifest. For anyone, let alone a solo woman traveller, Hong Kong is no longer secure, especially on weekends.
I was staying at the Novotel in Kowloon, just off the prime shopping street of Nathan Road. It was a Friday. I window-shopped, bought a couple of small cosmetics and because of the long flight from Brussels, had dinner in the hotel and went to bed early. That night several fires were lit along Nathan Road. They were promptly put out, but the small crowd grew as a flash mob and moved northwards to, I am not sure where. I was sound asleep and missed it all.
By Saturday morning Nathan and Peking Roads were peaceful once again and for someone not used to spending the day shopping, it was pleasurable to do so even if the heat and humidity is draining. The solution is to go to the big department stores and rest up in air-conditioned comfort.
I had planned to meet a former colleague who now lives in Hong Kong. I was to get a taxi to the ferry terminal and a ferry to Park Island where his house is, so I flagged down a taxi outside the hotel. The driver said he wouldn’t go into Central Hong Kong because ‘there’s a riot there and it’s not safe’. He added no other taxi driver, or in fact bus driver, would go there either and the metro train system was out of action at two stations. This protest, it seems, was serious. Hundreds of protesters and hundreds of police with water cannons were squaring up and facing each other in Central Hong Kong.
I wandered over the road to a little seafood restaurant which seemed to be family owned. The waiters and chefs were glued to the television in the restaurant which showed coverage of the protest, the riots, in Central Hong Kong. They clapped when one of the protestors threw what looked like a Molotov cocktail over a make-shift barricade and towards the police so clearly this family were pro-democracy.
The language barrier prevented me from asking questions and that’s another thing about Hong Kong – a relatively small percentage of the population speaks English today whereas before 1997 (when the colony was handed over to China) a great many people did. It’s a significant sign of the times.
I was due to fly out of Hong Kong to Auckland the following day, a Sunday, at 5pm. The road to the airport and, indeed, the airport itself had been subjected to crowd protest and blockaded only two weeks before. I thought I should go early to the airport just in case and, when in doubt, ask the concierge.
These young Hong Kongers are constantly on their phones. They know what’s going on. I asked two young men if I should go to the airport early. They smiled politely and said an emphatic ‘yes’. So, I booked the shuttle bus and arrived at the airport at 10am.
As a security measure the Hong Kong authorities would not allow anyone without a boarding pass or a flight confirmation on to the concourse of the airport. It means no friends can bid you farewell. That wasn’t my issue and all I had to do was wait six hours for a flight to depart.
An hour later a loud noise erupted from the first floor below which was visible from a balcony overlooking the arrivals area. Here was a crowd of about a hundred or so protestors, at the airport, and how they got in without a boarding pass is a guess but, here they were. They were certainly pursued by media in distinctive yellow vests.
Half an hour later another bout of noise erupted and about one hundred police ran towards the protestors. After taking a photograph from the balcony I retreated to the relative safety of the floor above. I’m no frontline war correspondent and in any case, after that the noise stopped.
The check-in desk then opened for the flight and I was rushed through with unfamiliar speed. We were told to go through to Immigration immediately and not to linger.
Several hours’ wait and almost at boarding time. There’s an announcement. Our flight to Auckland will be delayed over one hour. Why doesn’t that come as a surprise? Still, in this part of the airport and as a solo woman traveller I felt relatively safe for the first time in two days. We heard later there were several blocks on the road to the airport and some passengers had to walk around 4 kilometres to the airport with their luggage.
When the Cathay Pacific plane finally took off, many of the passengers clapped. I settled in to watch Darkest Hour, wonderfully starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill. It’s about a war zone and, quite frankly, I felt I’d just come from one.