View of Hong Kong from Lion Rock, which overlooks Kowloon from the North, November 2011. Almost half of Hong Kong’s population lives in public or government-subsidized housing. Lit up at night, the glowing public estate blocks are hard to distinguish from high-end luxury towers.
Hong Kong rose up as the essential gateway into Communist China over the second half of the twentieth century—a British-run laissez-faire playground whose bottom-line pragmatism proved lucrative for all, maintaining a fluid, delicate balance between East and West, socialism and capitalism, the ancient and the hypermodern, legitimate society and the underworld.
In the 1997 return to a booming Motherland, official blurbage promised to continue this function, assuring “One Country, Two Systems” and “Hong Kong will remain unchanged for fifty years,” a showcase of Beijing’s good-faith efforts to foster democracy and rule of law. Fifteen years on, however, continued lack of universal suffrage and fading relevance are provoking local anxiety that Hong Kong is becoming just another freedom-deficient Chinese city.
Beneath the designer skyline and the gleaming hordes of suits and shoppers, we see mounting disquiet. Hong Kong’s rich-poor gap is the highest in the developed world. Nearly half the population lives in government-subsidized housing. Even gangsters complain that the scramble for scraps has displaced triad virtue and loyalty; a former enforcer from the organized crime group Sun Yee On said, “It’s more of a business for profit now.”
China’s presence has ratcheted up the economic pressure as well as the political. Hong Kongers once looked down on visiting Chinese nationals. Now, dependent on their spending power, they resentfully call them “locusts” for devouring real estate, luxury goods, and maternity beds. Meanwhile, news reports critical of China are disappearing, and schools are being “urged” to adopt patriotic, Party-whitewashed history texts.
This is the landscape of imbalance and unease in a Hong Kong that—after more than a decade and a half of Communist rule—is trying to preserve a unique identity that is both more cosmopolitan and more traditionally Chinese than China itself.
The Mongkok district in Kowloon is one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the world, known for its underworld controlled nightlife.
The dashboard of a “discount taxi” displays trinkets, charms, official placards, and several extra mobile phones mounted in view, connecting the driver to various dispatching syndicates who book discount long-haul fares to undercut the traditional first-come-first-serve rule.
The downtown Central district is the center of international finance and commerce and Gweilo (“foreign devil”) culture.
The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Company, headquartered in a Norman Foster-designed post-modern cathedral-to-capital structure that was built in 1986, is arguably, a quarter of a century later, the most powerful non-government institution in the city. Hong Kong’s traditionally dominant financial infrastructure continues to thrive as the balance of wealth and deals increasingly comes from Chinese interests.
A street scene of the Sham Shui Po district, December 2011.
Wong Tai Sin Temple, a Taoist place of worship known for fortunetelling, is popular among Chinese tourists, who make up about seventy percent of its visitors. On this day, December 10, 2011—the day before the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Races at Shatin horse track—the temple also draws in many gamblers looking for betting picks.
Mall stalls crammed with whimsical toys and doodads, mostly all made in China, are ready to be peddled for the right price.
A candlelight memorial in Victoria Park, February 27, 2011, for democracy activist Szeto Wah, who died at the age of seventy-nine. Under China’s one country, two systems policy, Hong Kong citizens enjoy free speech, but voting rights are limited.
High above street level, a bird’s-eye view of Mongkok district belies order and stillness, though the Guinness World Records has labeled this district as the world’s busiest.
A potential customer shops for Chanel’s new J12 Chromatic titanium ceramic watch at the company’s launch party. These watches run in the thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of U.S. dollars.
At a party for Chanel’s new line of watches. In Hong Kong, where expensive tastes and luxury goods continue to fire the economy, today’s biggest spenders now come from the mainland, putting locals in the uncomfortable position of being dependent on the visitors who not long ago they considered unsophisticated bumpkins.
In the restricted section of the Happy Valley racetrack, Hong Kong Jockey Club members and horse owners can see the animals up close between races. The Jockey Club, along with being the city’s center of gambling and society, is the largest single taxpayer and a major supporter of charity in Hong Kong.
“J,” a former factory accountant from Northeast China, poses for a photo in her current workspace, a legal one-woman/one-room brothel on Hong Kong Island, in the summer of 2011. In just a few years, “J” had saved enough money to buy two apartments on the mainland, and she is currently planning to buy another property in Hong Kong where the sex trade is legal.
Actors playing a mainland gangster boss and two of his bodyguards rest between scenes of the Johnnie To film Life Without Principle.
At Asia Game Show at Wan Chai Convention Center, young people dress up as their favorite video game and animation characters as they participate in the cosplay competition.
Artists act out in street performances commemorating the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations that ended in a bloody crackdown. A young man covered himself in sticky memo note paper that he had invited other artists and passers-by to inscribe with messages of protest, mostly to the Chinese government and their handpicked Hong Kong leadership. Among the messages inscribed: “Free China,” “End Totalitarianism,” “Release Activists,” “Don’t Be a Slave—Remember June 4,” “Investigate the Massacre,” and “Democracy Forever.” China’s tolerance is wearing thin, but the adherence to the one country, two systems policy still allows the freedom for such expression in Hong Kong. If this were in China, these artist likely would already be in prison.
Sun Yee On, a retired “red pole” enforcer for the organized crime triad, parted ways with the triad peacefully several years ago, but still has the phoenix-tailed dragon tattoo hidden under his shirt. “Back in the old days,” he says, “it was all about heart—about righteousness and virtue. Now it is more of a business for profit.” Criminal gang activity, though still present in Hong Kong, is decreasing as triads pursue more lucrative activities of varying degrees of legality across the border in China.
An ad for a Chinese movie above an alleyway in the Tsim Sha Tsui district.
Security cameras eye the traffic in Chungking Mansions, a seventeen-story hive of market stalls, restaurants, and cheap lodging where global traders do business. Indians, Nigerians, and Pakistanis all show up, buying made-in-China goods to sell back home. This block of grungy apartments has been called “The Ghetto at the Center of the World” by Hong Kong University professor Gordon Matthews, who says that the phone dealers, curry shops, sex workers, flophouse travelers, and asylum seekers from over 130 different nations engage in myriad daily micro-exchanges and that this is real world globalization in action.
A shanty town of corrugated metal shacks atop a Kwun Tong factory building. Hong Kong’s overwhelming density (6782.9 people per square kilometer in 2010) and lack of affordable housing mean that even such crummy homes can charge unexpectedly high rent.