Expectations, everyone has them. When I was younger I’d expect good beer, good music and a session of hand-holding with a member of the opposite sex on a Saturday night out. Having the physique of a lean Mr Bean, the height of a child and a smile that would keep vampires at bay, this unfortunate composition led to many incidences of failure. The only thing I would wake to the following morning would be hangovers and regret. Now I’m older my expectations for a stimulating weekend are lower. Having met the love of my life, nowadays I’m more than happy to replace the beer and music with a movie, cheap bottle of wine and items of varying quality from the local supermarket’s reduction stand.
My expectations regarding travel have been completely the opposite. Like allowing a bottle of wine to mature, my desires and levels of satisfaction have only increased with time. Gone are the days when I could get over disappointments with a mere shrug of the shoulders, where I’d be happy to return from a trip with a handful of fuzzy, over-exposed photographs and the ability to count the number of times I’d been robbed or scammed on
As the years have crept by, not only have my experiences become less raw, but my expectations have increased. Not being so naïve, coupled with a raised awareness of what I should expect is one reason for this. Another I suspect are the niggling concerns regarding money, career and the desire for children, which realistically, will see this long-term bout of travel being my last for the foreseeable future. If my expectations aren’t met, I know fully well there may never be the chance to rectify this.
Coming to Hong Kong, my anticipation was lower than with other destinations I‘ve recently visited. On paper, it really didn’t appeal to me: a developed, Western-styled city famous for it’s shopping. I could enjoy this anywhere in England or America. Maybe it’s these reduced expectations that brought smiles and levels of satisfaction I haven’t enjoyed in a long time.
Leaving Guangzhou for the short trip past seedy Shenzhen to Hong Kong, it felt very much like taking the Eurostar to Paris, going through immigration and customs checks. Even though Britain relinquished ownership of Hong Kong to China over a decade ago, these two Asian countries are as different
as a petite Filipino lass and a bottle-blonde, morbidly obese Walmart shopper. Hong Kong is everything China isn’t. It’s everything China is aspiring to become.
Walking to my hostel it wasn’t hard to notice the differences; no spitting, no shouting, no honking of horns and no pushing (people queued!) Cars obeyed traffic lights and stopped to allow pedestrians to cross the road. Even ambulances were respected and given right of way. Passing double-decker buses driving on the left and walking along red-bricked pavements, it felt like I was back in London. Inside my hostel I was able to surf the internet uncensored for the first time in fifteen months.
There were many things that reminded me of Hong Kong’s colonial heydays; the architecture, the number of expat workers that still call Hong Kong their home, children playing rugby and cricket in the parks. But it was the prices that hit home the hardest. One of the greatest enjoyments of travelling is watching how far you can make your savings go. A few weeks in London equates to many months in most parts of Asia. In Hong Kong, it would only be a matter of days before you would
start to feel the pinch. Rather than complain and attempt to live off bread and instant noodles, I did something strange. I embraced the cost of living and threw caution to the wind. It’s amazing how moods can alter by changing your viewpoint.
Consumerism in Hong Kong is a serious sport and I soon found myself joining the queues outside Kowloon stores such as Prada, Louis Vuitton and Chanel for a peek inside. Like a posh nightclub, the bouncers on the door operated a strict one in - one out policy. My turned up jeans and creased shirt brought glances of disapproval from the immaculately dressed shop assistants. If my clothes weren’t a giveaway to the differences between other shoppers and myself, my spending power was. As I flicked through the price tags, shaking my head in disbelief at their extortionate costs, children who should be worrying about university and tuition fees freely spent their parents’ income. Feeling embarrassed I didn’t venture into any more of these shops.
Instead, I walked down to Victoria Harbour, where Asian and African migrant workers tried their best to entice me into buying their knock-off watches, illegal highs and tailored suits. Giving
them the slip through McDonalds, I caught the Star Ferry (a Hong Kong institution since 1888) to Hong Kong island on the opposite side of the harbour. In the narrow streets near the ferry terminal the frantic, fast-paced trading by family owned businesses was a welcome contrast to the neighbouring global corporations.
Here shops selling every kind of dried seafood jostled for space with traditional medicine stores, their floors piled high with shark fins, deer antlers and turtle shells. On an adjacent road specialty emporiums sold birds nests used for soups, a small bowl of which bought from a nearby canteen would set you back at least £25 (US$40). As lunch approached, boutique restaurants burst with businessmen scoffing oysters and wine, parting with their elaborately coloured Hong Kong notes like confetti.
Hong Kong allows tourists and travellers to mingle as one, and as I joined a tram full of foreigners to Victoria Peak, I realised at times there is little difference between a traveller and a tourist. Both travel to escape or experience new places. Both are enjoying a consumer experience. In fact, unless you stay in the same place for a prolonged period of time, travelling is
little more than a glorified holiday. The only difference being the amount you see and in some cases, the senses of perspective and attitudes you have.
After enjoying the panoramic views over Hong Kong island and Kowloon, where the narrow skyscrapers before me defied gravity, I journeyed to the beach resort of Stanley, located on the opposite side of the island. Luxury cars with personalised license plates like ‘JEDI’ and ’BOFFIN’ passed my public bus at regular intervals. Many of these vehicles were Japanese imports. Hong Kong has an infatuation with Japanese goods, something you would never witness in China with the bitter history between the two nations.
Stanley reminded me of a quaint seaside town in England, with old-style ice cream parlours and bric-a-brac souvenir shops. Runners took advantage of the quiet streets and families played on the beach. After being in China for so long, seeing children playing with their biological siblings was odd to see.
The only thing stopping me from thinking I was in Devon and not Asia were signs telling me how I should behave. Erected to help promote high levels of hygiene, or maybe to minimise the cultural differences of visiting
Chinese tourists, I learnt I couldn’t dry my clothes in public, spit on the floor, feed birds (for which there was a £120 fine) or sneeze and cough without placing my hand in front of my face.
With face sufficiently reddened from a spot of impromptu sunbathing, I ventured back over Victoria Harbour to Kowloon to watch the night time performance of ‘A Symphony of Lights,’ the world’s largest permanent light and sound show. This is played out from skyscrapers on both sides of the harbour. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting from this, but attracting four million visitors and dubbed one of the must-see Hong Kong attractions, I foolishly raised my expectations. Like promising a six-bed mansion but delivering a bedsit, it let me down. Now under the leadership of China, a country obsessed with neon flashing lights, I’d hoped Hong Kong would have delivered a show that would cause problems for every watching epileptic.
This was my last night in Hong Kong. Returning back to my hostel, I tried to side step past a group of Christians handing out leaflets that proclaimed the world would end on May 21st. Celebrating my third decade of
existence only a day later, I asked one plump, God-fearing, spectacled girl what my chances were of enjoying my milestone. She looked at me and shook her head glumly. “You have to repent and ask for forgiveness, then you will be saved,” she informed me with a wagging of the finger. “Can I ask for birthday cake and balloons instead?” I enquired. Ignoring my question she raced off towards a group of teenagers with leaflets ready to thrust into their hands.
Stopping off at a supermarket, I bought a couple of sandwiches off the reduction stand and finished the evening content. Expectations had been met.
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