Travel + Leisure:Generation Hong Kong

Source: Travel + Leisure | Published: 16 Sep 2015

As the Prodemocratic movement in Hong Kong tries to gain steam—and the world watches—a new wave of artists, musicians, and activists is filling the city with entrepreneurial energy and newfound optimism.

Nothing stays the same for long in Hong Kong—not the skyline, not the fashion, not the slang. Even the fortune-telling business at the Temple Street Night Market, a tourist magnet in Kowloon, has shifted. Traditional numerologists and clairvoyants who read palms to predict the future used to dominate. “A few years ago, the tarot-card readers began to take over, appealing to Westerners,” Paul Chan, who runs Walk in Hong Kong, told me.

He regards such change with aplomb—that’s capitalism, and this is Hong Kong, after all. A former political aide and lecturer who then went into finance, Chan recently quit banking to give walking tours full-time. His itineraries are varied—one spotlights Sheung Wan, a Hong Kong Island neighborhood beloved by expats that’s full of art galleries and third-wave coffee joints, but several wend through Kowloon, where he grew up. “For a comprehensive feel, go to Hong Kong Island,” Chan said. “But you must come to this side as well.”

Chan’s meticulously researched itineraries use the streetscape as a classroom, weaving together history, economics, and anthropology. A couple of blocks north of the night market, we stopped into Yim Yeung Tin, a traditional singing parlor, where the $3 cover charge gets you a cup of tea and entrée to one of the kitschiest experiences in town. Plastic printed with gaudy pink roses covered the tables, and disco balls showered rainbow light all over the scuffed linoleum floors. Onstage, under fluttering paper banners wishing you a HAPPY NEW YEAR, a woman in jeggings and a rhinestone headband sang Cantonese and Mandarin pop standards, accompanied by a seventysomething man in khaki shorts and Crocs playing a Yamaha keyboard. It was magical. “To get in touch with local culture,” Chan said, “you have to visit these places.”

Like many people I met, Chan kept referring to Hong Kong’s “core values.” In his view, they had shifted. “One of the underlying causes of the Umbrella Movement was a value change between the generations,” he said. “In the past, the focus was on efficiency, prosperity, and stability. Now, it’s cultural preservation, worklife balance, and conservation.”

Conservation honors heritage, and heritage provides context. One morning, I visited the refurbished Yau Ma Tei Theatre. Built in 1930, it is one of Hong Kong’s only surviving cinemas from the silent-film era. Today, its Art Deco touches restored, the theater stages Cantonese opera, and performances take place at least once a week. (Though the operas are in Cantonese, English-language programs guide foreign visitors through.)

I sat in the 300-seat auditorium with Angel Leung, a law student and rising operatic star. She explained that Cantonese opera features minimal sets—when an actor opens a door, you’ll see no physical door, just vigorous hand gestures. Costumes, however, are lavish constructions of silk.

The stories in Cantonese opera are always rooted in history and typically reflect traditional Confucian values, such as filial piety. A few days earlier, Leung had performed in a piece that told the tale of a general who sends his son to war. The son falls in love with a woman, and his father orders him executed for getting married during wartime—a distraction to the warrior’s spirit. The story takes place some thousand years ago, during the Song dynasty, when China was also politically riven. “In those days, it wasn’t just one leader,” she said. Leung was cagey about her own views toward Beijing, but noted that her generation isn’t as politically monolithic as it may have seemed in reports about the protests. “How do you determine who was right or wrong? I wouldn’t die for a change in government—but it’s something I would do onstage.”