Monday, April 18, 2011

Hong Kong, a land of signs

One has to be careful in how one labels Hong Kong. Technically it is a part of China, and as such not a country. It is not really a city, since it extends across several islands, and the city proper is mainly confined to a relatively small area. The territory is officially known as Hong Kong SAR [Special Administrative Region], and while a part of China, this is a part of China that is very different from the Mainland.

The differences were almost immediately apparent after crossing the border between Shenzhen which borders Hong Kong. The region returned to China in 1997, but there are many hangovers from British colonial rule. It was in many ways like Britain with Chinese characteristics, or was it the other way around?

Road signs and road markings throughout Hong Kong retain a very British feel, whether it be the Give Way triangles at junctions or the yellow lines along the road side. And of course the cars still drive on the left.

There is a difference between both Mainland China and Britain which will strike any visitor -Hong Kong is clean, scrupulously clean. There is barely a scrap of paper, cigarette butt or splatter of chewing gum to be seen anywhere.

A 'Keep Britain Tidy' campaign has largely failed in preventing people littering the streets. Stroll the streets of London and it is not uncommon to have to wade through discarded McDonald's wrappers, avoid treading on discarded gum or to navigate piles of dog excrement. The threat of a fine is not enough to encourage Britons to keep their country clean, partly because fines are rarely enforced.

In Mainland China, it seems that only the army of street cleaners prevents a build up of refuse. And there are certainly no signs warning of a fine, should one drop litter.

In Hong Kong order seems to be maintained by threats of fines and a barrage of informative notices plastered all over the place.

Everywhere one looks there are signs. In a park, situated in the Kowloon district, a sign asks visitors not to dry their linen and clothes, refrain from climbing, urinating, hawking, and even lie on benches. Further south another sign bans skateboarding and paddling in an artificial pond.

Many such signs do not threaten a fine, but others do. On the Hong Kong subway, known as the MTR, there are countless bans which all come with stiff penalties. Ignoring a 'No Spitting' advisory could result in a HK$ 5,000 fine [nearly £400 or $600], as could hawking, bill posting or smoking. Eating or drinking on the subway comes with a HK$ 2,000 fine [£150 / $260].

It was not immediately clear how often such fines are imposed, but there were no obvious transgressors.

Even where there was no financial penalty, it seemed that most people followed the advisories. On the subway passengers queued in an orderly fashion, letting passengers disembark before making a move to board. There was no pushing, shoving or queue jumping - as is commonly seen in the mainland.

Passengers kept to the left as they walked along interconnecting subway tunnels. Only a sign and a painted line was needed to help keep people on track. There were no physical barriers, yet people did not deviate. Even the traffic stayed within the designated road markings. The weaving of cars, a common sight in Mainland China was almost entirely absent.

In Hong Kong there is far less risk when crossing the road. The 'green man' at pedestrian crossings means that a person can cross with absolute safety. Anyone who has attempted to cross a city street in China will be familiar with crossing on a 'green man' only to find that they still have to avoid turning traffic, bicycles and mopeds. In Hong Kong drivers run the risk of fines should they ignore a red light with enforcement cameras a regular sight.

Where danger poses a risk on crossing, Hong Kong is not short on advisories however. At one road in Kowloon there were several signs warning pedestrians of the dangerous road. "Crossing ahead closed, use subway", "Please do not cross here" and "To Kowloon Park Drive subway" were just a few.

There is no escaping the signs at the beach either. One notice at a beach on Cheung Chau island in Hong Kong prohibits kite flying, fishing, cycling, skateboarding, the throwing of objects, ball games, dogs, and waterskiing. Fortunately swimming was not banned, though in April the water was still a little too cold.

For smokers, Hong Kong is a little frustrating in that it has adopted strict anti-smoking policies over the last few years. A ban on smoking in public places extends to bars and restaurants, and while visitors from the West may be used to such restrictions, it is one 'freedom' which visitors from Mainland China might miss. On the mainland smoking in bars and restaurants is commonplace, although new legislation is set to restrict this in May.

Cigarettes, like many things in Hong Kong, are very expensive. A packet of Marlboro will cost around HK$ 50 [$6.43 / £3.94 / 42 RMB]. This is some what cheaper than the UK where a packet of twenty would cost near to £7 [HK$ 88 / $11 / 75 RMB], but way above the 15 RMB [HK$ 17.85 / $2.30 / £1.40] seen on the Mainland.

Bars are mainly confined to just a few areas of Hong Kong, as is often seen in Mainland China. And the prices are generally quite high with prices upwards of HK$ 50 [$6.43 / £3.94 / 42 RMB].

The cost of public transport is on a par with London or other western cities, and for those arriving from Mainland China, this will be the biggest shock. A bus ride in Beijing can be measured in pennies or cents, but in Hong Kong the cost will often rise into pounds or dollars.

Space is also at a premium, and as such renting and accommodation is extremely expensive. Many Hong Kongers live in tiny flats, and for visitors, hotel rooms are no less different. Only if taking an expensive room in the Hyatt, Ritz-Carlton or similar, will one get space enough to swing a cat.

There are many more freedoms that the people of Hong Kong enjoy compared to Mainland China. The political system is far more relaxed and of course there is little if any Internet censorship. The irony was that there were fewer freely accessible WiFi hotspots across the region.

In Beijing many bars and coffee shops provide free Internet access, many without the need to agree to Terms & Conditions. Even Shenzhen airport provided free WiFi Internet. Despite travelling extensively around Hong Kong recently, free WiFi hotspots were difficult to find or access. GovHK provides free WiFi at some locations, but despite many attempts tvnewswatch found it impossible to establish a connection on an Android device.

If you do achieve a connection, all those favourite social networking sites will return. And in Hong Kong they are very popular. It is not uncommon to see people check-in on Facebook and Foursquare, or posting a tweet on Twitter whether you're on the subway, in a bus or sitting alongside Victoria Harbour. There is no sign banning that.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China


Anonymous said...

Surely you mean "*no* pushing, shoving or queue jumping..." in P11

Newsjunky said...

Thank you. Indeed you are right, and the sentence has been corrected. Thanks again for the heads up.