Can a Poor White Boy Survive Hong Kong?
by Tom Carter, author of CHINA: Portrait of a People
Having spent over two-and-a-half straight years in the Chinese mainland without leave, it was with both anticipation and apprehension that I recently crossed the southern border into Asia’s wealthiest city.
Despite its one-stop-shopping popularity with Mainland expats needing new clothes and a new visa, I truly had no idea what to expect in the former crown colony that supposedly makes even rich men feel poor.
Rather terrified of exacting reverse culture shock, I hence saved English-speaking Hong Kong and its “One Country, Two Systems” self for the tail end of my journey across the 33 Chinese provinces.
And it is here I report that all my preconceptions and fears about Hong Kong were... true . To quote the under-appreciated American writer Thomas Carter (me!) upon his brief sojourn in the legendary Chinese city, “I’ve never felt more poor than when I was in Hong Kong... I’ve never felt more ugly than when I was in Hong Kong.”
DAY 1: Cross the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border at Louhu and catch the immaculate KCR railway, immediately impressed that nobody is staring, shoving or spitting. Arrive in Kowloon’s southern peninsula and emerge from the underground into the land of lights – Tsim Sha Tsui. Blinded with excitement, I have to ask a resplendent group of Indian women draped in saris where the Mirador Mansion is. They point their gold-ringed fingers straight up. A towering, rust-stained concrete block, and one of Hong Kong’s only affordable accommodations. I check in to a claustrophobic dorm room (three times the price of a Mainland dorm and three times as small), then hit Nathan Road. Peering up into the neon lights, tripping in the crush of the crowds, I feel just like a migrant worker back in Beijing.
DAY 2: Awoken at 6am by one of my bunkmates stumbling in after a long night. His name is Pat, a young American backpacker with long red hair whose introduction is immediately followed by a long-winded narrative about his two-week romps in Hong Kong, including scoring with the mythical “Asian girls who LOOOVE foreign guys.” When I counter that I never had any such luck, the fast-talking but likeable Pat proffers some off-the-cuff advise (“Dude, lose the beard”) before launching into more useful information. “It’s Sunday, okay, and there’s gonna be, like, 120,000 Filipino nannies and maids on their only day off – and looking for boyfriends!” I’m a little dubious of Pat’s generalizations, but sure enough his mobile rings continuously with calls from adoring cleaning ladies he met the Sunday before. An afternoon stroll around Statue Square indeed reveals a literal blanket of thousands of picnicking South Asian women (Hong Kong’s largest migrant communities) whose collective chatter sounds just like a large flock of seagulls. When I attempt to candidly photograph one attractive young Filipino, she shouts “Hey! I klick jor azz!” So much for getting a date.
DAY 3: Fieldtrip to Shek O beach on Hong Kong Island’s south side, savoring the soft sand and splashing in the subtropical South China Sea. Supposedly this place is packed out on the weekend, but that’s what weekdays are for, no? It’s one of those moments when I enjoy being unemployed. Chase my fun in the sun with a tram ride up Victoria Peak for a breathtaking evening vista of skyscrapers, which appear to be constructed entirely out of lights. Dafnit, an Israeli girl clearly in awe of the Hong Kong skyline, remarks, “We have no tall buildings in Israel. Oh wait... we have one!”
DAY 4: Spend the day traversing Kowloon, the fashion billboards of TST turning into seedy massage parlor billboards as I descend northwest down the Nathan Road side streets, the sun lost behind precipices of neon signs stretching horizontally over the streets. The markets of Mong Kok are mobbed with uniformed students on lunch break: long-haired boys with untucked white shirts and loosened ties, and made-up girls in little outfits out of a Japanese kogal/hentai fantasy: knee-high black stockings, short skirts and a Louis Vuitton bag to carry their pencils and books. They have tattoos, tongue piercings and smoke cigarettes. After commenting that they are the hippest students in China I’ve seen, one 15-year-old boy replies in perfect English, “Yes, so cool, but so young.”
DAY 5: I want to see how the other half lives and spend the day in Central, Hong Kong Island’s microcosm of capitalism. Cross Victoria Harbor by the centuries-old Star Ferry through a morning miasma of pollution and follow white-collared crowds of businessmen contending with cell phones, briefcases and lattés into their respective skyscrapers. Later observe as many women shopping in designer department stores – these must be the wives. I notice that they all clutch their purses as I walk by, then realize why as I catch a glimpse of myself in the reflective facade of the Bank of China tower. My head cast down in self-consciousness, I almost get rolled over by a Rolls (driving on the wrong side of the road, damn Brits!), then almost again by a double-decker cable car. Everyone in Central must be against me. My insecurities are firmed up that evening in Lan Kwai Fong, a gentrified neighborhood of upscale restaurants and bars on the Island’s northern escarpment. The steep streets are congested with young, well-to-do westpats toasting yet another successful day of money-making. I can’t believe there are so many white people in China who aren’t English teachers! They are all smartly dressed and have well-groomed hair; I am wearing cutoff army pants, low-top fake Converse, an eight year old t-shirt that I bought used, nor have I shaved or cut my locks in the eight months I’ve been on the road. I want to belong, but I don’t. It’s one of those moments when I regret being unemployed.
DAY 6: I give the Island another chance and take the night ferry across the harbor to the north end’s older and seedier nightspot, the infamous Wan Chai. Recall it is where Richard Mason penned his 1950’s tale of forbidden love, “The World Of Suzie Wong,” though a lot has changed since he wrote “take a minute’s stroll from the center and you won’t see a European.” The pick-up bars still line the road, yum-yum girls luring passersby into their neon-lit dens, but these are the illegitimate daughters of Suzie Wong, not of Chinese but Thai dissent, wearing not elegant silk cheongsams but cheap miniskirts raised to immodest heights. And unlike the kindly ladies of the Nam Kok Hotel, these modern-day working girls are vicious, mercenary, cold. When a group of obviously disappointed white boys emerge from one venue exclaiming, “In Thailand they take off ALL their clothes,” the brown-skinned door girl in plastic go-go boots is quick to shout back, “Then go to Thailand!” Further down Lockhart I follow a couple of older Europeans primed with drink and flirting heavily with a lovely bouquet of girls looking for generous company. After making their arrangements, one of the men leans on me and confides, “Wy mife, I mean my wife, thinks I’m *HICCUP* at a conference.” The remaining girls give this poor writer a cursory glance then quickly cross the street away from me.
DAY 7: I wake up feeling dejected and classless; the expatriates of Central don’t want me, nor do the waterfront girls of Wan Chai. Take a stroll around TST, passing by friendly knots of third-world hustlers hanging out in front of the Chungking Mansions, the immigrant ghetto of Kowloon that serves as temporary living quarters for Hong Kong’s financially insolvent émigrés. A street corner tout from Kashmir says to me “The Mansions is where anyone not wearing pastel shorts or a suit stay.” I realize this mad cauldron of multiculturalism is the only place I truly feel at home in Hong Kong. The Africans on the never-quiet front steps always high-five me, the Pakistanis all think I’m Muslim (must be the beard), and the Indians bat their eyelashes at me. The Chungking Mansions are the international haunt for anyone who is no one, and I am one of them. It is a peasant’s epiphany – in Hong Kong, I am the ‘nongmin.’
Thank you for supporting photojournalist Tom Carter's CHINA: Portrait of a People, the most comprehensive book of photography on modern China ever published by a single author. Available now from Blacksmith Books.