October: History, Culture...and Midterms

by - November 01, 2013

The Cenotaph, Central
September ended in a flurry of adventures and activities that October, as the month containing mid term exams, was always going to struggle to live up to.  I have been very lucky with midterms - with only one exam right at the end of the month, compared to some people having four or five, though in true HKUST standard there has been plenty of other assignments and tasks to do.  Ever the optimist, I like to think I have made the most of the month however, despite not being able to have any grand adventures.  Academically it has given me the impetus to knuckle down and work hard at a far earlier stage than I would usually, while as a ‘Hong Konger’, I have been able to explore a bit in the gaps in my schedule.  October has been the month where I have really been able to settle down and start to consider Hong Kong as home.

The Cenotaph, circa 1930

St John’s Cathedral
In terms of exploring, I was able to spare a few days to visit some of the must-see areas of Hong Kong, starting with the 'Central’ district of the island.  Firstly, a brief explanation of terms: Hong Kong (roughly translated as 'Fragrant Harbour’) is the name of the island at the south of the territory on the south side of Victoria Harbour, as well as being the name of the territory as a whole.  It was only the island of Hong Kong that was ceded to the British after the First Opium War and the other parts of the territory (Kowloon, the New Territories and Outlying Islands) were added after later conflicts and agreements.  Hong Kong Island is therefore the traditional centre of the territory and is home to the main government and financial buildings, which are mainly located in the district named 'Central’ district of the island - a new name for what was called 'Victoria City’ under the British.  Earlier in the month a few of us spent the day walking around Central to see the major sites, starting at the MTR station exit near the Cenotaph.  As the above pictures demonstrate, Hong Kong has totally changed over the last 80 years - in addition to the obvious differences, note that when I took the top photo I must have been about 500m from the edge of the harbour, such have been the affects of land reclamation.  The building to the left of the Cenotaph is the Hong Kong club, in both its old and new guise.  The building in the background is the Legislative Council building, one of the few colonial buildings to not be destroyed and replaced by skyscrapers.
Hong Kong Zoological Gardens

View from The Star Ferry
Walking from Statue Square, home of the Centotaph, we passed the headquarters of HSBC which was designed by Sir Norman Foster and at the time of building the most expensive building in the world.  Outside the building are two large statues of lions which are named after previous directors of the bank and have become a symbol of continuity in Hong Kong (one of them is literally covered in holes that were inflicted by Japanese bullets during the invasion of World War Two) and have always sat outside HSBC HQ.  From here we came across another of the few remaining colonial-era buildings, St John’s Cathedral.  The building sits, surrounded by skyscrapers, in a small park and once inside, the background organ music and simple English gothic design allows one to feel they have been taken back to a small parish church back home - I can see how it could have been a real place of comfort for the lonely expat over the years.  Near to the church is Government House, home of the governor of Hong Kong throughout British rule, and two parks - the Hong Kong Zoological Gardens and Hong Kong Park, both of which are little havens of calm in amidst the crazy buzz of Central. The latter of these, Hong Kong Park, is home to Flagstaff House, the earliest surviving colonial-era building that was saved to be home to the National Tea Museum.  We decided to visit the museum (mainly because it was free) and (maybe slightly surprisingly) it was definitely worth a look.  To round off the day, we ticked off one of the major tourist sites by getting the 'Star Ferry’ across Victoria Harbour from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon.  The journey is probably the shortest 'iconic’ journey that I will ever take (lasting a grand total of less than 5 minutes) though does, despite its brief nature, give a fantastic view of the harbour back towards Central.  The photo of the harbour taken just 50 years ago demonstrates again the drastic changes that have taken, and continue to take place, here.
View from The Star Ferry, circa 1960
Representing Bristol at the Exchange Fair
In amidst the sightseeing I was asked by the university to do a little bit of ambassador work.  My first duty, along with most of the other exchange students, was to attend the 'exchange fair’ where we all tried to sell our home universities to students from HKUST.  There was a surprisingly high interest in studying in the UK (I had heard that many local students opt for the United States) and it was pleasant to be able to discuss and show off British culture a little - for some reason British culture seems to be quite popular over here and, strangely, Union Flag based clothing is very common amongst local students.  The next duty was a bit more bizarre as I allowed myself to be followed for the day by a filming crew who wanted to get an insight into the lives of exchange students in order to encourage people to study over here.  I therefore spent a day trying not to look at a cameraman who was walking around my lectures and following me around campus before eventually standing on the common room balcony for an interview.  I have yet to see the footage, but I am going to have to assume that it will be cringeworthy in the extreme.  The last of my ambassador 'tasks’ (though I use that term lightly in this instance) was to have a lunch meeting with representatives from the university scholarship office, along with a few of my fellow British exchange friends, who wanted to discuss how to encourage British students to study full time degrees in Hong Kong.  It turns out that the opportunities to study out here full time are tremendous and there are a wide range of bursaries and scholarships on offer - however I just don’t know how many Brits would be willing to up sticks and move to East Asia for four years, straight out of school.  Having said that, apparently there are quite a lot of Europeans who are willing to do it - so there may be some adventurous students who would take the risk.  This was the second time in the space of a few weeks that I had been taken out for lunch by a representative from the university - a really great show of Hong Kong hospitality.

Filming on the balcony

Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra
The next stop on my 'October of Culture’ schedule was the (aptly named) Cultural Centre, where a group of us had decided to see the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra perform Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.  As students we were offered a monumental 50% discount, meaning that the evening cost about £10, which was money very well spent - Jaap van Zweden, the conductor, is apparently world renowned and we were all thoroughly impressed.  The Cultural Centre is in a prime location at the tip of Kowloon and after leaving we were able to make the most of the Victoria Bay skyline - amusingly (and to give you a taste of how the other half live) we noticed that one of the audience at the concert had arrived by luxury yacht which he had moored outside the Cultural Centre.  Alright for some.  After our night at the Orchestra things got a lot more boring as I spent two weeks hitting the library very hard (at least 6 months earlier than I would be used to normally in the UK) in preparation for my midterm.  Things picked up right at the end of the month however as midterms ended and I was able to get out and do some hiking (mentioned in separate blogs), with the month being rounded off with Halloween, which turned out to be the main night of the year when all of the local people come out for a few drinks.

Hong Kong Halloween 2013

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