When I first started telling people I was moving to Hong Kong, they often responded with some variation of, “Aren’t you scared of living in China?” (No…because I’m not living in China. And I probably wouldn’t be scared anyway.) or “Do you speak Chinese?” (No…but neither do the people in Hong Kong). Trying to explain how Hong Kong is separate from mainland China was (and is) confusing. I am far from an expert on the history or the politics, but hopefully this will break it down a little bit.
The Nitty Gritty Deets
At the end of the 19th century, Hong Kong became a British colony. Great Britain under Queen Victoria signed a 99 year lease with China for control of Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories, after which time it would revert back to Chinese rule. (Weird, right?) This lease expired in 1997, and Hong Kong politically shifted from being under British control to being under Chinese control. However, Hong Kong has continued to govern itself and is independent of China in most of the ways that affect day-to-day life. Hong Kong is considered a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of mainland China.
What the Heck Does That Mean?
Technically, the president of China is the head of the government for both China and Hong Kong, but for Hong Kong that relationship is somewhat similar to their relationship with Great Britain during their years under British rule. As a British colony, the Queen of England would have been their chief of state, but the actual day-to-day ruling of the country is in the hands of the Hong Kong Chief Executive who functions pretty independently.
The most important distinction is probably that China is a communist country, but Hong Kong maintains a limited democracy with a capitalist economic system. China asserts that they are “One Country, Two Systems,” but Hong Kong has an independent economy with independent finances and is a thriving hub of international business. Hong Kong doesn’t have its own army, and it does not have its own representation in foreign relations groups like the UN, but their day-to-day operations are mostly separate from those of mainland China.
My Life in Hong Kong
So what does all of that mean for me? It means that, as an American, I was able to enter Hong Kong as a tourist for up to 90 days without a visa. It means that although I live close enough to the border of mainland China that I could drive there in less than an hour, I would have to get a separate travel visa and go through passport control in order to cross over into Shenzhen.
It also means that Hong Kong is a predominantly Cantonese-speaking country, while Mandarin (often referred to as “Chinese”) is the dominant language in mainland China. So when people ask me if I speak Chinese, I say no, but speaking Mandarin wouldn’t help me that much. More importantly for my daily life, nearly everyone here speaks English. And after 100 years of British rule, pretty much everything is written in English as well as in Cantonese, so it is incredibly easy for me to get around the city, order at restaurants, or call the exterminator to check out our bedbug problem (!)
Even though Hong Kong is adjacent to China and is now technically under Chinese rule, daily life is very different. The Chinese government imposes a high degree of control over its citizens through things like restricted internet access or assigned job placements. Hong Kongers will vehemently insist that they are not Chinese, they are from Hong Kong. In fact, Hong Kongers seem to look down a bit at Chinese mainlanders. As one of my new friends was quick to point out scoffingly, “This is not China! We have Facebook here!”
Hong Kong is a mishmash of cultural influences, for example they celebrate both traditional Chinese holidays as well as Christian holidays. In fact, Hong Kongers who were born before the handover hold both British and Chines passports. Since Hong Kong is a huge hub for international business, there are people here from all over the world. The streets are filled with every type of food you can imagine and the shopping is legendary. Every morning on my way to work I pass the Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Cartier, and Valentino that line the street my office building is on. On one of my first days here, Jonathan and I went to IKEA and purchased two kitchen chairs named Stefan.
So…if you want to know what it’s like to live in China, I’m not your girl. But if you want to find out more about life in Hong Kong and other travels along the way, then come along for the ride.