Dim sum with a side of scones: on exchange in Hong Kong

By Tiger Lin

 

As Super Typhoon Mangkhut tore through Hong Kong, flattening trees, snapping cranes and granting levitational skills to roofs, I was stuck within the confines of my tiny studio apartment watching one of the most densely populated cities in the world turn into a ghost town. Like countless prisoners before me, I discovered that a term of imprisonment is a good time for reflection – in this case, on my exchange semester at the University of Hong Kong.

I’m originally a Melbourne boy, so whenever anyone back home hears I’m at ANU, I automatically bear the brunt of the usual ‘nothing-ever-happens-in-Canberra’ jokes. But I must say, I much prefer Canberra’s peace and tranquillity to the hustle and bustle (or rather lack of hustle when trying to drive into the Melbourne CBD) of ‘big’ city life.

Hong Kong, however, is another beast entirely. Not only is it an incredible feat of city planning (squeezing two million more people than Sydney into an area ten times smaller, all the while still managing to boast swathes of hiking tracks in the surrounding mountains), its status as an international commercial hub has opened my eyes to the plethora of opportunities available once one leaves behind the isolated confines of Australia.

Hong Kong’s colonial history has left it a valuable legacy as a fusion between east and west – it is a city where all children grow up bilingual, Starbucks cafés mingle with cha chaan teng (‘tea restaurants’ – cheap Hong Kong-style cafés serving cheap Cantonese-western cuisine), and gleaming new Bentleys compete with the iconic red taxis to squeeze into a gap in traffic.

It is fascinating to see how this distinctly Asian city comforts Westerners with its familiar British atmosphere. Its position as a gateway to investment in China makes it an attractive destination for huge firms from all around the world. Combined with its proximity to Australia, Hong Kong has become a very popular destination for graduates interested in a global legal or financial career.

Its politics, however, are another story. It is very easy in Australia to just sit back and spend our time following the latest prime ministerial crisis. Many Australians’ knowledge of international politics probably does not extend past reading Donald Trump’s latest outrageous tweet. Hong Kong’s politics simply do not appear often enough in our news outlets for it to register as a source of controversy. Hence, imagine my surprise when I stumbled into a fervent pro-democracy, anti-China politics class about a conflict I did not even know existed!

This mistrust of the socialist Chinese government was an inevitable by-product of the return of Hong Kong (an ethnically Chinese society with democratic British institutions) to Chinese rule in 1997. A ‘one-country, two systems’ policy was established, whereby Hong Kong would retain its capitalist system for at least another 50 years. What will happen after that is a major sore point.

While Hong Kong has its own mini-constitution (the Basic Law) which sets out a British institutional arrangement (including a common law judicial system separate to that of Chinese national law), one of the recent legal controversies is the central Chinese government’s power of final interpretation of the Basic Law, leading to fears over judicial independence and protection of democratic rights. As a unique interaction between a democratic territory subject to the ultimate rule of a communist mainland, the Hong Kong-China relationship presents a fascinating legal and political challenge.

 

If the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong has piqued your interest, or you’re keen to examine Chinese-Hong Kong politics first hand through an exchange, here are my top three tips for exchange:

1. Plan your trips

This is a great opportunity to see your destination and the world – once you manage to escape the island we call home, the world is your oyster! Also, don’t forget to do your research – if you are going up a mountain to take spectacular photos – say Kowloon Peak – and want to avoid a two-hour hike down, remember that Uber drivers can choose to accept rides, and they will definitely not want to drive 20 minutes up a mountain to get you. That being said, you can’t really go wrong when the metro system has trains coming every two minutes!

2. Try something a bit different

I’ve always admired those who can comfortably play contact sports, but I have always been quite scared of them given my diminutive stature. Hong Kong seemed to be the perfect opportunity to try some rugby with people my own size – unfortunately, I forgot it is actually most popular among tall, broad British expats…

3. Catch your breath

Sometimes it is quite easy to get caught up in the frenzied pace of these global cities. Don’t forget to take some time to catch your breath – one of my own favourite ways to achieve this was enjoying an Earl Grey (milk, four sugars) 100 floors above Hong Kong, admiring the remarkable juxtaposition of ocean, dense skyscrapers and lush, forested mountains.

 

 

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