Wellington journalist Charlotte Graham spent six weeks at the Hong Kong bureau of the New York Times. She describes the contradictions of life in Hong Kong and some of the issues that have been making headlines in the Special Administrative Region (SAR).
During my time at the New York Times' Hong Kong bureau, I tried to find gaps where more stories were needed, and pitched my own ideas to help fill those gaps.
The Times is highly staffed and resourced by top, veteran journalists, so this was a challenge – but a good one. On my first weekend in the city, before starting work, I took an unusual walking tour of Hong Kong island, which highlighted a number of the political and historical problems the SAR has faced, and what some locals really think about them.
My tour guide, Alla Lau, was an informed, interesting young woman with a Master’s degree in sociology and China Studies, and I learned so much that I returned the following day for her walking tour of Kowloon. It was delivered with stories of the social problems and struggles to make ends meet that many local Hong Kongers face. These tours yielded my first story in the Times: Homelessness, Poverty, and Injustice: Touring Hong Kong’s Darker Side, which appeared online and in the international and US print editions. I also had the chance to talk about the story on Radio New Zealand.
The challenge in writing New Zealand political stories for an international audience is to explain parties, leaders, and an electoral system they’ve never heard of. The Times’ editorial process is exacting, and it was an invaluable experience to have my writing improved by the editors here.
“Hong Kong housing costs much, much more than in New Zealand, and groceries cost more than I’d pay in Wellington.”
Hong Kongers’ view of New Zealand
Many of the Hong Kongers I met have not been to New Zealand, but they’d all heard of it.
Our country’s marketing efforts have certainly made an impact: People here know about the Aotearoa's beautiful outdoors, Manuka honey, the All Blacks, and of course, Lord of the Rings. That’s something New Zealand businesses are no doubt capitalising on. At a recent New Zealand Chamber of Commerce networking event, I met a New Zealand-Hong Kong businessman, Benjamin So, who is doing just that. So runs 178 Degrees, a B2B and B2C startup importing fresh New Zealand meat, seafood, and other produce. At the event we were attending, the hotel had purchased So’s New Zealand products for its chefs to turn into canapés for the function. I was standing with a local food writer as she tried her first steak-and-cheese pie – apparently a fairly astonishing, but enjoyable, experience.
A tale of ‘two cities’
I’ve been surprised and intrigued by the contradictions of Hong Kong, which would be easy to miss as a Westerner if you kept only to the expatriate areas. Considering how expensive the city is – housing costs much, much more than in New Zealand, and groceries cost more than I’d pay in Wellington – one would assume Hong Kongers are fairly well-off and enjoy a good standard of life. But with the median income just HK$2108 a month, something doesn’t quite add up. It feels like there are two cities, segregated not necessarily by geography but in stratified layers of class and wealth.
Other than the Umbrella Revolution, which I’d helped cover from New Zealand when it happened in 2014, I wasn’t aware of any major political tensions in Hong Kong, but what’s going on beneath the calm surface has piqued my interest since I’ve been here.
Just before my arrival, Hong Kong marked the 20th anniversary of the handover of the SAR from Britain to China. It was a glitzy affair with fireworks and speeches (and some protests), but in the following weeks, local news reports revealed the unhappiness in pro-democracy quarters with how Hong Kong is being run, and who is running it. The expulsion of pro-Democracy lawmakers from parliament was a big news story, and people took to the streets after student protest leaders from the Umbrella Revolution, including 20-year-old Joshua Wong, were jailed for their roles in the demonstrations.
The current stalemate between the factions seems untenable; the jailings and expulsions of pro-democracy leaders have seen to that: Both parties cannot co-exist happily. It is difficult to imagine this outwardly calm and prosperous city erupting again, and it will be interesting to see what happens next.
Will Hong Kong erupt in protest once more, or is this the beginning of a slow slide to total assimilation with China?
Charlotte Graham’s six-week post at the New York Times in Hong Kong was made possible through an Asia New Zealand Foundation media internship.
– Asia Media Centre