Jottings from a trip where the best of the West met the best of the East
When you are visiting a foreign country as a tourist, it is one thing to check into a posh hotel and pore over the brochures handed out by the tourism department, and quite another to read the newspaper the next morning. The brochures invariably take you to fantasy land, where everything is perfect and where anything unpleasant safely belongs to the past – a place you would love to settle down if the laws permitted and if you had the cash. The newspaper, on the other hand, tells you the truth – though in some countries you may have to read between the lines.
In the case of India though – and I am not ashamed to say this – truth kisses you long before fantasy can take you in her embrace. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that the foreigners who adore India happen to be the ones in search of truth. But then, India is also a country where reality often fuses with fantasy: on one hand you can get fleeced or have your pocket picked, but on the other you will find total strangers inviting you to their houses for a meal.
Right now, though, I am going to talk about Hong Kong, where I spent five days recently at the invitation of its tourism board, which is eager to draw to tourists from south India. (A detailed account of the trip will be presented in the travel pages in the coming weeks). As you drive from the airport into the city, the first thing that will strike you is the flawlessness about Hong Kong – everything is in order. And once you get into the city, you will also find it an exciting place to be in. Hong Kong, after all, is a king-sized and far more vivacious version of London. Here, the best of West meets the best of East. But then.
On the very first morning that I woke up to in Hong Kong, I was greeted by a rather distressing piece of news. Axe hangs over private historic homes on Peak, screamed the lead headline of South China Morning Post, the largest English newspaper in Hong Kong and one of the most respected in the whole of southeast Asia. The Peak, once known as Victoria Peak, is a mountain that today overlooks the high-rises of Hong Kong. It used to be the summer capital of the colonial rulers and is still home to old bungalows, some of which have already been turned into high-rises while the remaining are awaiting such transformation, much to the concern of heritage enthusiasts.
“Heritage advisers said the government should make an effort to preserve those (houses) that were reminders of key public figures who contributed to Hong Kong’s development, or reflected the life of early residents,” the newspaper reported. It remains to be seen who wins eventually, the heritage advisers or the skyscrapers – though one knows the answer already.
The morning after, another piece of alarming news: Hong Kong is worried by the “growing youth drinking problem” and the government is urged to raise either the duty on alcohol or the legal age for drinking. There was a crime story too: that of a law student allegedly locking up and assaulting his girlfriend for three days to force her to reconcile with him. The reconciliation effort, however, landed him in jail, though he was released subsequently on bail.
And the morning I checked out of the hotel, I read, over breakfast, a piece of news which the newspaper thought should worry Hong Kong. According to the paper, the examiners for A-levels as well as Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination had blamed students for their “narrow-mindedness”, “immaturity” and “bad grammar.” One can understand the bit about poor grammar, but immaturity and narrow-mindedness? Welcome to Hong Kong.
Yet another headline on the same day, same page: Flasher strikes again in Sau Mau Ping. Oh well, even paradise must have its share of problems. Hong Kong is one such paradise.
Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, November 5, 2011.