The symphony of lights
Thinking of studying in Hong Kong? Don’t forget your business card, as Gareth Lewis guides us through the rich student life of the harbour city.
Words and photographs by Gareth Lewis
So how well did you eat last week? I enjoyed Hong Kong’s finest Michelin Star Dumplings for the princely sum of £4.70. I bet you couldn’t even buy peanuts for that price at Heston’s Fat Duck. Tim Ho Wan is renowned by food magazines everywhere for its hours long queues, tiny dining area and of course the best Dim Sum this side of Kowloon. It’s something I felt I had to experience whilst here.
My personal bucket list for Hong Kong rates a lot of eating activities near the top, along with drinking the night away in the Lan Kwai Fong district, ‘boosting my Buddha count’ in the city’s many temples, trekking around Hong Kong’s country parks and seeing one of the world’s most iconic skylines lit up by the ‘symphony of lights’ from the romantic setting of the Star Ferry. One might be forgiven for thinking I’d come on holiday. To be fair, having spent my reading week in Laos and Cambodia (yes, Angkor Wat is amazing), it’s hard to remember that I’ve got lectures to attend at the University of Hong Kong. For, in reality, I am not an intrepid traveller, but a humble exchange student. Though it’s difficult to keep focus sometimes.
This, it seems to me, is the classic exchange experience. The first month I arrived in Hong Kong, I had a blast and in this city-like-no-other, it’s easy to see why. From gambling at horse races to drinks at one of the world’s highest ‘skybars’, there is almost nothing you can’t do here. At the back of my mind however, I knew this wasn’t the real Hong Kong. It wasn’t a real student experience either. I wouldn’t do all that stuff back in Manchester. So this has been my mission these past weeks: To find out how an actual Hong Kong University student experiences life in the fast lane. This much I know.
It’s appropriate that I begin writing this article at 2am. It’s very reflective of the work/life balance here. I write to you from the 13th floor of my hall of residence, accompanied by the group screaming of my hall sports teams. The screaming, for the life of me I still don’t understand the purpose of the screaming. Students start their work late, very late. Just last week I came back from a night out, wandered into my hall kitchen to see one of my friends settling down on the sofa to read some article for a tutorial for the next day. It was 5am. But this commitment to work isn’t the respectful obedience Manchester students may expect from a Chinese university. Many local students don’t turn up to lectures and when they do, I can hardly hear the professor through all the chatting and snoring. I asked a friend why Hong Kong students do this, and the answer was surprising. Apparently lecturers at HKU aren’t held in very high esteem, either for their grasp of the English language or expertise in their field. My friend thinks most students trust themselves more than their lecturer – I suggested this might not be a mutually exclusive decision. At HKU the idea that learning can be conducted beyond the textbook is not something students are comfortable with.
In some ways, this can be refreshing, but also stifling. It means that during tutorials, students are generally well prepared and an informed discussion of academic points of view is possible. Exchange students will often find that trying to debate opinions with a local student is like trying to draw blood out of a stone, but this is not my experience. Possibly the most enjoyable tutorial of my university career was a discussion on the merits of a Confucian society. The news is often full of stories about China taking offense to slights against its culture but I didn’t feel at all inhibited from criticizing the central figure of Chinese philosophy. This is perhaps a good example of the difficulty of explaining modern Hong Kong’s role in China.
Certainly when I talk to the local students, there is no love lost for the mainland. They are highly critical both of their own government and of the mainland’s attempts to disenfranchise Hong Kong. At Beijing’s insistence, direct elections for the Chief Executive office of Hong Kong (basically the Prime Minister of Hong Kong but with more executive powers) and for the Legislative Council (Hong Kong’s parliament) are deferred to 2017. HKU Student’s Union voted overwhelmingly in 1998 to house the Pillar of Shame, a monument to the Tiananmen Square massacre, on HKU grounds; candle-lit vigils are held there every year in May.
Beyond this, little can be seen of students’ political activism. You won’t find any ‘Free Palestine’ leaflets shoved in your face and not one copy of the Socialist Worker strewn across campus. Beyond Hong Kong’s own sovereignty, politics is generally a subject kept to oneself. It’s not an impolite subject, just not talked about. Indeed, this privacy about higher ideals can be seen in the University’s approach to its students.
I can’t walk five minutes around campus without coming across at least two different career fairs, business society stands or CV workshops. The point of a degree here is clear – to get a job and get on in life. Private companies sponsor societies and their activities. Financial executives speak at forums where they are fawned over by suited and booted business undergraduates. This career-focused (almost obsessive) education can be confusing to the foreigner. If you ask any HKU student, they will tell you that high academic results are the be all and end all of your career. This is an educational culture where work experience is held in very low regard. Westerners may ask, in these job-straightened times, how you can get employed without professional experience?
This is where Hong Kong’s rapacious capitalist culture comes into its own, through the form of networking. Both studying at university and working at the heart of European politics in Brussels, I have never experienced networking practiced with such ease and on such a scale as I have here in Hong Kong. A business card is a must for students. Indeed, I was handed one in the University coffee shop earlier today. Had it been given to me in John Rylands, my private prejudices about that person would most likely have involved unprintable expletives, but here it is the norm, expected even. Having to write down my email on a scrap of paper on several occasions has left me more than a little self-conscious of the incredulous stares of my newly made contacts, stunned that I might use such a primitive means of communication. The exchange of contact details is an automatic part of any conversation here. It’s not necessarily as cynical and exploitative as you might expect. People here are genuinely interested to know you, regardless of what use you may be to them professionally.
And of course, Hong Kong University’s position as the best university in Asia gives it a certain star power in attracting speakers like former British Poet Laureate Andrew Motion as well as hosting smaller, career focused events such as the excellent ‘Green Jobs for a Green Economy’ forum. Walking around campus, one gets the sense that the university has been built for a single purpose, and for local students the only escape from this seems to be within the strictures of hall life.
Hall life was a bit of a culture shock for me. Even for a former boarding school boy, sleeping less than four feet away from your roommate leaves you yearning for a privacy that is impossible to achieve in this city. Each floor of the hall tower block is called a village and your floormates, villagers. We meet for village soup every Tuesday at midnight and have village dinners at a restaurant every month. All this contributes to a sense of family. Indeed, that’s exactly the point, say my fellow villagers.
For exchange students, the family can seem a bit dysfunctional. I know I am not alone in struggling to integrate or make friends with the local students, but I hesitate to distinguish between myself and the locals. For one of my HKU friends recently spoke to me of similar problems he had when moving into halls: whilst immersed in the sound and fury of Hong Kong life, he still found it possible to be lonely, to be removed and isolated from the energy of his hallmates. Given how close at quarters we students are to each other, I found this a confusing and humbling thought.
The students were perfectly welcoming when I arrived in halls, but it’s hard to get beyond this. There isn’t a pub culture among students here to help to break the ice. The only options really are coffee or a meal, neither of which really provide the necessary social lubrication. Besides, it’s not really how Hong Kong’s students like to make friends. It seems that they either decide they like you and spend their time with you, or not. But I don’t want to seem unsympathetic to the culture here. After going out of my way to join in with societies and club activities, I have found firm friends among HKU students.
I know exchange friends who haven’t got that far yet, or wish they had been able to make friends, or tell me they need to make more of an effort to do so. It’s really not an insurmountable difficulty when you get over the idea that it’s the same as making friends in Manchester. Suffice to say, when you make friends, experiencing the city becomes something different and more intense than the extended holiday it can seem like with other exchange students. You get taken to the cheapest dim sum cafes at 3am, calmest barbeque beaches and most bustling markets as if you really do live in Hong Kong. You have to see it to believe it.