The stench of tear gas lingers in my mouth and eyes. Numerous shops along the main street near where I live are shuttered closed. Anti-government and anti-police graffiti is strewn just about everywhere, much of it denouncing the Communist party on the mainland, calling for democracy, freedom, and justice. I look at my phone to examine the news, and The Guardian tells me a protester has been shot in the chest with a live-action round, the first recorded instance of such a tactic since the protests began. As I look around the eerily deserted streets of the Wan Chai district of Hong Kong late at night, I think to myself: “Hmm, well at least I don’t have Brexit to worry about at least.”
I left the UK on the 12th August from Gatwick Airport with my sister (Who had taught on the mainland for a year and had visited Hong Kong before), much to the worry of our numerous relatives and friends who feared we were heading straight into the lion’s den. And in their defence it’s hard to blame them, Hong Kong International Airport was at that moment a key battleground between the protest movement and the authorities, to the point where departing flights had all been grounded and cancelled the day of our arrival. But after a relatively relaxing flight via Cathay Pacific, instead of a violent pitched battle, my sister and I were greeted with a scarily quiet airport filled with a skeleton staff, a few wondering tourists, and some very polite protesters handing out flyers and leaflets. Were it not for the walls plastered with posters and graffiti calling for the revolution of our time, you’d think it was all pretty subdued for a transport hub for one of the world’s major economic hubs.
Soon enough, after two days spent in a local hotel, I moved into my privately rented accommodation (Courtesy of a university recommended landlord after my halls applications went nowhere) where I was the first of three flatmates to arrive. My two neighbors, an Italian (Sara) and a Filipino (Ari), would arrive some weeks later, and we currently share both a kitchen and a bathroom, but thankfully no bedroom as is often common over here. I did some basic touristy stuff after setting up some basic essentials, chiefly an Octopus card for the city’s Metro system, and some Chinese/HK social media apps such as WeChat (Although Facebook and WhatsApp both work perfectly fine as well). I went up a tram to see Victoria Peak, offering up some excellent views despite the fact that an impending typhoon, and I even visited a Buddhist nunnery at one point. But a large amount of my pre-term time in Hong Kong was getting to know Wan Chai a bit more, where to buy the essentials (A Wellcome store not even a minute from where I lived), my nearest Metro (A brisk five minute walk) and any other areas of note (A British-style fish and chip restaurant just two minutes away).
Western and Eastern culture meet in Hong Kong in perplexing and interesting ways. Most locals have at least a very basic grasp of the English language, which means you’re usually able to ask for help if lost and/or confused. Nearly all street signs are in the UK style as well, albeit accompanied by their respective names in Cantonese. And if you go the small army of always-open 7/11’s around the cities, you’ll find familiar Western-looking brands nestled in among all of the bizarre and alien foreign foods which you’d never in a million years see in your local Tesco’s. As of now, I’ve yet to venture much outside of my culinary bubble, outside of some Korean/Chinese cuisine at restaurants with friends, but we’ll see what the future holds.
Enrolling at Hong Kong University was relatively straight-forward, after some basic orienteering with fellow international students, which included a very nice performance from a traditional Chinese music group, studies began in earnest. HKU students have an increased workload than those in the UK, instead of 2-3 modules per semester, we’re expected to do around five. Happily all of mine are coursework based, but it means that I have very little free time to go around and explore since I spend a lot of my time reading (As well as avoiding that whole civil disruption thing going on outside as well). Definitely the highlight has been taking several film modules, which as I’m part of the Arts faculty, I’m allowed to take alongside my history modules, especially given my desire to be a film critic after I graduate. But for the most part, lectures are just about the same in the UK, with the exception of their 2 and a half hour length.
I realize that to an extent, me and the rest of the international student community in Hong Kong are in a way, like no other international students anywhere across the globe at the moment. We live in a city that is right at the heart of immense social upheaval, upheaval that makes our worries about Brexit seem like utterly small potatoes quite frankly. Sure we may live in a truly remarkable city, that I genuinely think is a wonderful place to live, work, and make friends in. But we do so under the shadow of escalating violence that only seems to get worse every single weekend, with seemingly no resolution in sight. One of the most interesting experiences I had at HKU was seeing the “Pillar of Shame” a powerful memorial to the Tienanmen Square Massacre of 1989. And as I write this on the 70th anniversary of the found of the People’s Republic of China, I fear that I may be in the eye of a storm that will see history repeat itself in the form of an immense tragedy. I suppose I’ll have to see what the upcoming months hold for both myself, and the city of Hong Kong.