Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Surprise! Democracy and Congee

Yesterday and the day before, Max and I made a point of getting out of Central. He made the off-hand comment to a pair of local guys we’d met that so far, Hong Kong was actually more Western than we were expecting. They were pretty unimpressed with that, and let us know that once out of the main business district, HK became a lot more ‘Chinese’. Neither Max or I were totally sure what that meant, but we had been planning to explore other areas with our shiny new Octopus transit cards the next morning anyway. Wan Chai and the Northeast area of the Island were on our plate for the first day, and then the Kowloon peninsula was slotted for yesterday.

Aside from the massive scale of the buildings, this could be a Western city.  It's actually HK Central from one of the raise walkways by the Star Ferry terminal to Tsim Sa Tsui
I know what ‘more Chinese’ means now.

For the record, apparently Max and I were so wrapped up with being in Causeway Bay that I neglected to take a photo of the neighbourhood directly on top of the MTR (light rail) station for you to compare. You’re just going to have to take my word. Signs are hung horizontally on wire between buildings, there is much more Cantonese on the signage, and you hear significantly less English in the street. Instead of professionals in business attire, we were greeted by crowds of people in all sorts of clothing, from short-shorts and tank tops (for those of us who melt in the heat) to brightly-coloured full-length hijabs, and platform glitter sneakers with bows and K-pop street fashion.

Aside from all that though, our mission for the day was to eat congee at a local congee hotspot. Now, congee is essentially rice porridge. Having eaten it, I’m fairly certain there are some mild spices in it, green onion was sliced on top, and there can be an assortment of meat mixed in with the congee to add protein. Max and I found Hong Kee Congee without too much trouble, and were ushered in to a corner shop with about 20 peace officers for lunch. We weren’t sure exactly why Causeway Bay was crawling with police officers, but they seemed to be pretty relaxed, so we carried on with life.

I ordered congee with beef and pork, Max ordered congee with fish. Max ate all of his congee, I did not. Firstly, the texture of rice porridge is… an acquired like. It wasn’t unpleasant, per se, but it’s definitely something I would need to crave in the dead of winter to warm my bones and fill me. It was like eating beef stew in 35 degree weather. I also thought I was playing it safe by ordering a beef/pork meat option. Not so much. I’m fairly certain I ate intestines. I’m not sure whether they were beef or pork intestines. I don’t really want to know what sort of tubular, slightly gritty meat-bit I did ingest to be honest. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but it wasn’t something I’d volunteer to eat again.

Hong Kee Congee, complete with the little fellow who took our order, and grandpa in the right corner making rice paper from scratch.
The family that ran the shop though we were pretty entertaining. They were wonderfully kind, and being as they had almost no English, and we had no Cantonese, they had their school-aged son do all of the ordering with us. It was so good! He was hilarious. He took great pride in being able to translate and write down what we were looking for, and spelled out our bill for us when I couldn’t tell whether he was saying ‘thirty’ or ‘fifty’. “Fifty-four! F-I-F-T-Y!” So in the end, even though I’m not a fan of congee I had an excellent time watching the grandfather make rice paper for the various dishes from scratch, and meeting this awesome little kid. I’d legitimately recommend stopping by to have your own congee experiment if you’re in town.

After Congee, we went for large, decadent fruit smoothies. It helped mitigate the heat and heaviness of the congee.
After lunch, Max and I headed to Victoria Park. Victoria Park is pretty special in and off itself because it’s the only place in all of China where Tiananmen Square is openly commemorated. Last year was the 25th anniversary, and hundreds of thousands showed up for a candlelight vigil. That’s pretty impressive, by just about any standard. Max and I weren’t really expecting anything outrageous when we went though, we were just expecting to see a pretty green space with some spiffy sports facilities. Also a pebble path.

Apparently you're supposed to walk along this in thinly-soled shoes, or bare feet, very slowly, and it has health benefits like increased blood-flow and stimulation. The stones are set vertically, so that the thing-side is actually facing up. Thin-soled shoes would be more comfortable and massage-like than the barefoot method I tried. 
What we got was a fairly massive pro-democracy protest, which explained the very high police presence. Maybe I live under a rock, but I didn’t realise that the student protests in HK were still happening. I knew they had happened. I knew the students effectively shut the city down for an extended period of time, but only because a late friend of mine felt very strongly about the need for open discussion about democracy and HK’s future moving forward. Since she passed though, I hadn’t come back to it. If only to understand the scale of these protests, you should check it out too. LINK 

I didn’t know the protests were still happening though.

By the time Max and I were set to leave, the march had started. There wasn’t any violence, but the police-to-protestor ratio was incredibly, incredibly high. The protests I’ve seen in Canada - which admittedly are few and far between by comparison to many other places in the world - might have a couple officers present, and a van or two. Assuming the protest even attracts that many people. The example I’m thinking of is the obnoxious pro-life group that showed up on campus every year during my undergrad. There were a few arrests, and pro-choice opposition showed up, but at its largest there were maybe 50 people there all at once.

This is the street-side view we had. The march went on well past when I stopped filming.

The ratio here was easily within the range of 1 officer for every 5 protestors. I’m not kidding when I say the police presence was through the roof. Officers were at intervals lining both sides of the march route, in the observing crowds along the route, they led the march, were the tail-end of the march, and they escorted notable persons within the march who sought out media attention.

For example, as Max and I were headed back towards the MTR station we passed a fellow being interviewed at the side of the route by a couple TV cameras. He and 4-5 people behind him were the only protestor presence. Aside from the man being interviewed, none of the others with him were at all interested in having their face on the camera. They actively hid their faces behind protest signs, and ducked away when the cameras tried to peak around. A police presence of two motorcycles and a van filled with officers in the front followed them.

Posters and advertisements like this are literally everywhere. I've seen sources saying that the election is later this year, but 2017 is on all of these posters. I don't know if that means the election is this year and the CE takes power in 2017, or if something else major is happening in 2015 and the election is in 2017. Politics are complicated guys!
The guidebook and the Internet tell me that there have been accusations of vote-rigging and interference in HK’s democratic freedoms by Beijing since the hand-over in 1997. This year, the position of Chief Executive is up for election and Hong Kong’s residents are keen to keep the freedoms they’ve become accustomed to. I’ll be keeping an eye on this once I’m back home. Watching Beijing deal with Hong Kong under the eye of international media seems like an opportunity to see how far China’s really come compared to Tiananmen Square.

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