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A Letter from China
November 14, 2000

Letter from China: Hong Kong/ Macao

(Sixth in a series of letters about China by Ernest Pinson -- Ch'eng Ping Sun)

"Xiang Gang: Wo Xiang Lai Cai Guan" (Hong Kong: I'd like to do some sightseeing)

"Come in Hong Kong," these famous words allegedly said by Alexander Graham Bell to his friend in Hong Kong were the first words transmitted across the Pacific by telephone with his new invention. These same words are equally appropriate today in a different context. To some in the Western World, Hong Kong has submerged since its transfer by the British to China in 1997 after its 99-year lease agreement had expired.  To China, the words take on more expanded meaning as a "call" to the outside world now that she is joining WTO as a developing industrial power. So, they say, "here we come in like Hong Kong."  But I see these same words in the context of a tourist just returning from a 5-day trek as the only English-speaking foreigner among 26 Chinese middle-class tourists.

We flew in via China Eastern Airlines.  (China has several excellent airline companies all owned by the government, but run independently in competition with each other.)  We landed on the extreme southern part of mainland China.  Hong Kong locals like to call it the "peninsula" since it is, in fact, a part of the Autonomous Region of Hong Kong composed of some 250 islands and this section of south China.  We immediately had to go through customs. It may surprise you to know that one can pass through the whole of Europe without needing a passport, but you must not only show your passport going from China into Hong Kong, but you must also get a reentry visa to get back into mainland China -- even though technically you never leave the country. This sounds to us very strange and cumbersome. Not only is this the case with foreigners, but any Chinese visiting Hong Kong must also get a permit to enter and to return to China. The Chinese government keeps up with its citizens (and with me) religiously. They know the hotels I visit, the visitors who come to my apartment, every trip I make and every American dollar I cash in for Chinese currency.

Hong Kong is a gorgeous, clean, orderly  city. The absence of bicycles is conspicuous, and the queues at bus stops are very "un-Chinese." One steps onto clean streets and immediately a fresh breeze of freedom hits your face. The greater freedom of speech can be easily detected, smelt, heard, and tasted in the air. Ironically, one of our Chinese tour members purchased two magazines critical of the Chinese government, but had to surrender them to the border guards upon reentering mainland China.

Hong Kong has spectacular buildings soaring to the sky. The new Exhibition Center looks like a small Sydney, Australia Opera House design. Its harbor views are delightful, especially the stroll along what they call the Promenade. Unlike most of China, the water has a clean look. Even a portion of their coastline in a ritzy section of the city has been laced with artificial sand and made into a beach fit for swimming. Unlike some of our own Gulf Coast Beaches, there are few shells for beachcombers, but at least I got to wet my toes in the Hong Kong Bay of the Pacific Ocean. I also got to eat in the Hong Kong Hard Rock Cafe -- an old relic of by-gone years -- I'm sure few Chinese really know about or even care to know.

Hong Kong is a modern, bustling city. It is China's #2 money market and a show-place for many international companies, such as Ford, Toyota, Panasonic, Hilton, Ericson, McDonalds, KFC, Banana Republic, and Sears. It also has one of China's largest stock markets and is already a member of WTO, a feat China itself has yet to achieve. Its clean, multi-layered highways that wind through hills and valleys are something of an engineering marvel. Although Hong Kong must buy its drinking water from the mainland and import many of its foods and raw materials, it is nonetheless a technological, electronic, mercantile hub of immense value. No wonder China prized those islands.

Unlike Hong Kong, Macao is a single island once leased by the Portuguese but returned (like Hong Kong in 1997) back to China at the beginning of the year 2000. Like Hong Kong also, it has no bicycles, but does allow many motorcycles to clog its streets. Like Hong Kong again, you can sense Macao's greater freedom of speech and activities that it exudes, and that are quiet in mainland China.

Macao is Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi, combined to a "T."  Eight casinos dot the city, none of which, in all honesty, are the rival to ones on the Mississippi coast. I saw slot machines, roulette, blackjack and electronic number games, but did not see poker, and the slot machines are ancient. There were, however, some VIP rooms I was not allowed to visit and one stage show I did not attend because the Chinese people with me were semi-embarrassed. (The Chinese, by American standards, are quite conservative and rigidly moral; no pornographic material can be printed in magazines or seen on TV, or read in any form on university campuses.)

There is little to see in Macao except the casinos. (The local tour guide, by the way, was not permitted to take us there officially -- he could only point the way.) Consequently, we spent half a day looking at statues, bridges, and made three shopping stops. Something of a bore.

The islands of Hong Kong and Macao are connected by fast jet ferries that must transport, oh say, 2000 people every 2 hours or so. There is a tiny airport, but no activity, and no trains, only cars, buses, and boats.

Macao appears old, less modern, and unkempt in comparison with Hong Kong. Unlike the rest of China, all citizens receive free hospitalization and free education according to our tour guide. But despite the title "autonomous region" that it claims, the Chinese government clearly makes all final decisions. This is the key factor that worries Taiwan today - can it maintain its cherished freedoms?

Anyway, that's another story.  Next time an interview with a Chinese high school teacher named Jing Jing Nie.


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