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Omaha Magazine

Living Abroad in Hong Kong: Political Unrest, Virus Fears, and the Threat of Economic Ruin

Apr 15, 2020 02:41PM ● By Will Patterson
Will Patterson in mask, Hong Kong

Photography by Tiffany Ip

Update, Feb. 13, 2021: I was hired by AFP (the French newswire) to help cover the U.S. Election through December, and now I freelance for them. I usually get called in when there is some big development in American news. So, I essentially came to Hong Kong to help a French news organization cover American politics.

The political situation in Hong Kong has deteriorated further since the National Security Law passed last July. The crackdown has seen media businessman Jimmy Lai and scores of activists/politicians go to trial for the involvement with "seditious activities." Despite the dire circumstances, foreign journalists remain safe for the time being.

(And an obligatory COVID update) Hong Kong is reeling in its most recent wave of infections that erupted in November after the city had largely contained the virus. Today there were 12 cases, and the hope is that we return to single digits in the next couple of weeks. It's been over a year and a half since I left. I never meant to go this long without visiting back in Nebraska, but Hong Kong is making returning arrivals quarantine for 3 weeks in a hotel roomwhich is something I can't afford or mentally withstand. I'm hoping to get back to see my family and friends as soon as possible.

I had not planned this through.

The thought struck me with sudden realization after I pulled my luggage out of a bright red taxi and was left alone on a dimly lit Hong Kong street on my first night in the East Asian country.

My phone was almost dead, I wasn’t sure if my new SIM card was working, and I had no idea how to find my hostel. I didn’t have a plane ticket home—only a vague idea about how I was going to begin this new chapter of my life.

Luckily, Hong Kong is no stranger to clueless travelers. The hostel owner found me after being tipped off by a construction worker working late in the evening. I imagine he told her a confused guy with luggage was pacing back and forth in front of the building—too anxious to enter any of the four doors that seemed to match the hostel address.

That first night was arguably the best sleep I’ve ever gotten. After 24 hours of traveling, I didn’t care that my new hostel-mates were the loudest snorers on earth. My body ignored the jet lag and stepped into its new sleep schedule out of sheer exhaustion.

My eyes crept open in the morning, and to my surprise there was no stained coffee table, no dirty red couch, no television—or anything else from my studio apartment in Omaha. For better or worse, I had committed to a year in a city with which I was unacquainted.

I came to Hong Kong to work on my master’s degree in journalism at the University of Hong Kong. I can safely say that I got more experience than I bargained for. Between the political unrest, virus fears, and threat of economic ruin, news stories practically wrote themselves. But it also forced me and other journalists to look under the surface.

The spirit of Hong Kong, for which the city has earned its incredible reputation, is still very much alive.

Hong Kong holds a unique political and cultural position as a former British colony.

Established officially as a colony in 1842 and legally returned to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, the region carries a history unlike any other. It’s not uncommon to hear the cliché that Hong Kong is “where East meets West.”

The weight of colonialism is heavy and visible everywhere. Even seeing a sign for Paterson Street was a bit jarring the first time. Here I am, on the other side of the world, and there is a street bearing a variation of my last name.

There’s a reason Hong Kong is a hot spot for urban photographers. Colonial architecture and iconic apartment styles make the urban landscape one-of-a-kind.

Cradling the blockish, multicolored residential buildings are rocky hills capped with thick jungle foliage.

A more mundane, but still unusual, sight is the bamboo scaffolding. Scaffolding gawkers flag themselves as newcomers instantly. I know, because I did the same thing when I arrived. Those visiting for the first time often stare at the intricately tied bamboo shafts climbing the sides of buildings. There is something strange about watching a construction worker use electric power tools whilst standing on hand-tied bamboo platforms.

The transition from Omaha to Hong Kong comes with challenges that any Midwesterner would experience. For one thing, looking at the region’s borders is deceptive. The total area looks spacious for a population of around 7 million, but most of the population in concentrated around Victoria Harbor and a couple other enclaves.

My first time on the MTR (Hong Kong’s subway system) was not a Nebraskan-friendly experience. I drove, or had been driven in, a car almost everywhere back home. At all times, I had a personal space bubble of a couple feet. Now I was suddenly thrust into these crowds tightly packing their way into train cars. Midwesterners should prepare to shrink their personal space bubbles before heading over.

But if I had to choose the best thing about Hong Kong it would be the people and their diversity. The city lives up to its reputation as an international hub. It’s strange to look at a group of friends and often be the only American—or the only native English speaker.

My greatest fear when moving abroad was that friends would be hard to find. Turns out, making friends is easy.

In my experience, when everyone is a stranger and from somewhere else, the socializing is easier. I’ve had the pleasure of sharing a classroom with people from across the globe. The rules for social interaction loosen up when you’re genuinely curious about others and they are curious about you.

An extension of this is the sharing of cultural experiences. This last November was my first Thanksgiving without family. The thought of sitting alone in my tiny apartment, eating cheap takeout food on Thanksgiving struck a wrong chord. So three classmates, two from Hong Kong and one from mainland China, joined me for a hotpot dinner.

Hotpot is a type of Chinese meal in which a table shares a bowl of boiling broth used to cook various meats, seafoods, vegetables, noodles, dumplings—you name it. It’s a communal experience, and it seemed fitting for the spirit of Thanksgiving, even if I was far from home.

One classmate, in true Thanksgiving fashion, treated me to a political argument after a couple beers. As fate would have it, tipsy arguments at dinner seem to be a multicultural affair.

Fragments of the familiar crop up, even on the other side of the globe.

Hong Kong may currently be best known for its political resistance and fight for democracy against the China Communist Party—complete with black-clad protesters, police brutality, Molotov cocktails, and tear gas. As a university student in Hong Kong, it’s not unusual to have friends who participated in some capacity. 

I have friends who fled the city during the worst days and others who spent those same days fighting riot police. Young people, fed up with Hong Kong’s flawed democratic process, have seen that there’s only one real way to have your voice heard: with road blockades and petrol bombs.

It’s been a complicated time for the city.

On the tail end of January, the coronavirus scare gripped the city. Face mask and hand sanitizer shortages led to mild panic and then price gouging. Ironically, the government had banned wearing face masks without adequate reason in October to counter the protester method of hiding faces.

I frequently tell people that I never saw “pre-crisis Hong Kong.” On one hand, I have always seen the city on edge, threatening to boil over. But on the other hand, I have witnessed the compassion of Hong Kongers in dark times.

The first time I was tear gassed while photographing protests, a stranger handed me a new, unopened respirator. Other times I was offered saline solution for my eyes when I didn’t get my goggles on in time. I always knew that if anything happened while covering the protests, someone would not hesitate to help me.

When I told local friends that I couldn’t find any face masks during the initial virus panic, I received multiple messages of people offering some of their own. That lack of hesitation still resonates.

“Seriously, let me know if you need more masks,” one friend said. “And please don’t worry about the money. I have plenty of masks.”

Before I came here, I read several travel guides that described Hong Kong culture as “cold.” I disagree. This place far from Omaha—both physically and culturally—has extended a warm welcome. And it takes more than a political crisis and virus outbreak to extinguish the Hong Kong spirit I’ve come to know and love. 

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This article was printed in the May 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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