Hong Kong: Fighting for Freedom and Democracy

Hong Kong Kowloon, 7-10 November

On the 7th we leave China by fast train to spend a week in Hong Kong before jetting off to the Philippines.

We had prepared and booked our big Asia trip quite a while in advance, but a lot can happen in 6 months time. When we decided to visit Sri Lanka it had known peace for almost ten years, and then the Easter bombings happened, yet out of our whole itinerary, Hong Kong would likely have been the last place we would’ve expected anything to go down.

Since the protest movement started off in mid-June as a response to China’s extradition bill, many countries including the UK have issued travel warnings for Hong Kong. Until we got to China we’d been following the news every now and again, in the end deciding to go ahead with our visit as planned.

Media has a tendency to sensationalise stories, and as such, news articles about Sri Lanka described the situation as being on the verge of sparking into another civil war, but when we got there, people only seemed to be interested in putting the destruction behind them and get on with their lives. Granted, with a lot riding on tourism, it would be in the country’s best interest to make tourists believe visiting Sri Lanka is safe, but even still we didn’t witness any friction between Sinhalese, Muslims, Christians and Tamils. That is, nothing worse than a bumper sticker in poor taste, or a randommer talking shite at the pub. At any rate, nothing that warrants headlines warning about civil war. Hong Kong on the other hand is a slightly different story.

As a former colony of the UK, when Hong Kong was returned to Chinese sovereignty, the so-called Basic Law was agreed, ensuring Hong Kong to retain its economic system, currency and people’s rights and freedoms for 50 years. Though only set to expire in 2047, China has been keen to get an early start on re-assimilating Hong Kong by slowly eating away at its liberties, for instance by introducing the extradition bill. What started as a peaceful protest has now spiralled into a violent fight for freedom and democracy, against the (inevitable) Chinese rule.

On Thursday we have no trouble getting out of China and into Hong Kong, although, Lauren is pissing herself laughing when it takes me a while to get my exit-stamp, because border control is scrutinising the three photos they have of me: a passport photo with a shaved head, a visa application photo with hair, and then the photo taken at the point of entry where I have a totally suspect looking moustache!

Our hotel is right in the busy centre of Kowloon on the fifth floor of an apartment building. With a population of 7,5 million living in a relative small area, Hong Kong is famous for its small living spaces and the room does not disappoint; you can touch both walls at the same time. At least it has a window and a (tiny) private bathroom, plus it’s clean, which is the most important thing.

The stairway has seen better days

We’re around the corner from the infamous Chungking Mansions, a building with 4,000 (mostly foreign) residents, low-budget hotels, restaurants, shops, and ‘other’ services. Out in front, Indian men are offering tailor services, as well as hash and Charlie.. Just 5 minutes away at the harbour every evening you can catch a light show.

Our first night in Hong Kong is pretty rough. The walls are paper thin and we have a couple of speed-freaks staying in the room next to us, making noise throughout the night and even trying to open our door, which thankfully is locked securely. First thing we do in the morning is speak with the manager. It turns out our neighbours are residents rather than guests, but thankfully the manager is very sweet and understanding (witnessing the sleep-deprived desperation on our faces) and she immediately moves us to a quiet floor and into a bigger room.

On Friday the protests start. We hear marches in the early morning, when news breaks that Alex Chow Tsz-lok, a 22 year old student has died of cardiac arrest after sustaining head injuries from a fall at a carpark on Monday, after police fired tear gas at protesters. Although the cause of his fall remains unclear, there is evidence of increased police violence against protesters (and vice versa).

We don’t see much else of it when we are out shopping for a tea egg and visit nearby Kowloon Park, which has a large terrapin population and, surprisingly, a Rhinoceros Hornbill!

In the afternoon we take the famous Peak Tram up to Victoria Peak. The line was first opened in May 1888, and has a maximum steepness of a whopping 48%! The Sky viewing platform at the top offers great views over the city.

Tamar Park on Hong Kong Island is a patch of green space on the river’s edge which is the perfect place to enjoy a picnic on Saturday in the glorious sunshine with views of Kowloon.

While we’re in the park some people are setting up a stage and then a lot of police begin to arrive. It turns out a vigil is being held here in the evening to mourn the death of Alex Chow, which is attended by a huge crowd of up to 100.000 people.

On Sunday we head out to one of the many country parks surrounding the city. For such a major city there’s actually a surprising amount of green space to enjoy, plus a bit of wildlife to see on top of that.

On our final night in Kowloon we take the ferry across to Hong Kong Island where Lauren has found a rooftop terrace accessible through a shopping mall. A rare bit of public space, where you can enjoy your cheap carry-out right next to an expensive bar. We’re now exactly in the middle of our trip, so it’s the perfect time to talk about all the fun times we’ve had so far.

With this our time in Kowloon has come to an end. Hong Kong has probably been our favourite city so far. Though pretty expensive, it has a good vibe to it, and it’s very easy to get around. Hopefully we’ll be back here at some point.

Contrary to the UK’s travel advice, it has been safe to travel here, but when we’re planning our next journey to nearby Lantau Island we find we may run into some trouble yet. The Indian shopkeeper next to our hotel tells us another big strike will be happening on Monday and checking the LIHKG forum and Reddit confirms this information.

Thankfully when we leave the next morning our metro station is still in operation, but it turns out that half the lines in the city have been shut down. While on the metro we hear that another protester has been shot by police at point blank range using live rounds and the video footage is pretty gruesome. The metro doesn’t make it to the final stop, but after a big delay we manage to arrive to Lantau by bus instead.

In the meantime things are kicking off all over the city, producing some pretty surreal images of police firing tear gas and live rounds and protesters throwing petrol bombs in the centre where we just came from. Railway services have now been suspended and roads are blocked, so it looks like we made it out in time; We’re completely safe here in the sleepy little Tong Fuk Village on the coast. While we do worry a bit about making it to our scheduled flight out to Philippines in a few days time, we feel for the people of Hong Kong in their fight for freedom. We’ll keep you posted.