15 things we love and hate about Hong Kong since the handover

15 things we love and hate about Hong Kong since the handover

A look at the good, the bad and the downright ugly as we celebrate the 15th anniversary of Hong Kong's transfer to Chinese rule

Hong Kong handoverWhen Deng met Thatcher and sealed the fate of Hong Kong's handover, captured in an exhibition.

On July 1, it will be 15 years since Hong Kong transferred from British to Chinese sovereignty on June 30, 1997.

Like handwritten letters and privacy, pre-handover Hong Kong is becoming a distant nostalgic memory for many and a total mystery to tweens. 

But for the rest of us who lived through the 1980s and 1990s, through the angst of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the firestorm of Tiananmen Square, the popularity of the egg tart-eating governor "Fat Pang," the glory of the late Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing's acting peak and the sobriety of Martin Lee's pro-democracy politics, here is a look at how far we've all come.

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1. We love that Hong Kong survived

Remember the fear-mongering before the handover? It was like everyone thought Hong Kong would be razed to the ground after the last British governor leaves.

Pre-1997, the idea of "One Country, Two Systems" was drowned in public skepticism triggering a wave of mass migration amongst those who could afford to move to Canada, the United States, Australia and the like.

In the years 1993 to 1996, the public wavered between having "confidence" and "no-confidence" in One Country, Two Systems for 35 and 45 percent respectively of people polled by the University of Hong Kong.

Hey, guess what? Hong Kong didn't die from the handover after all.  

Although, the system is far from perfect. Many incidents of local government yielding to Beijing have occurred since the handover, the most notable of which was the controversial introduction of Article 23 in the Basic Law.

That hasn't stopped the deserters from returning to Hong Kong en masse. Chinese media reported that the 300,000 Hong Kong people who immigrated overseas between 1992 and 1997 have all but returned. 

As Deng Xiaopeng put it, the horses continue to run and the dancers continue to dance in Hong Kong -- life has continued on.

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2. We love the strong sense of Hong Kong identity

Hong Kong handoverGrinning big, pre- and post-handover.It's never been easy to classify a Hong Konger. We're proudly Chinese, but distinctly westernized. We were traded back and forth between two big political powers and never really had much say in our own destiny.

Who is the Hong Konger? What are the Hong Konger's hopes and dreams?

Fifteen years on since the handover, the Hong Kong identity is at its strongest.

The University of Hong Kong asked 1,016 residents to rate how strongly they feel themselves as being a "Hong Kong citizen." On a scale of zero to 10 -- 10 being the strongest -- the average rating was 8.23, the highest in 10 years of regular polling.

The rating for their feelings about being a "Chinese citizen" averaged at 7.01, a 12-year low. 

This sentiment of being a unique category of people, distinct from Chinese or westerners, is being expressed in a stronger sense of civic duty and an open embrace of local culture. 

It gave rise to the Commissioner for Heritage's Office, the iconic homeware store Goods of Desire and a Crystal Bear award for a nostalgic local film backed by the Film Development Fund.

3. We hate Hong Kong's sense of identity when it is antagonizing

Hong Kong handoverThe infamous full page ad calling mainland mothers "locusts" of Hong Kong.Sometimes it feels like Hong Kongers and mainlanders define themselves against each other.  

While the issue of Right of Abode has burned from the start, antagonism on both sides has increased in the last year. 

A heated argument between a Hong Konger and a mainlander about eating on the MTR went viral. It cued a Beijing University professor to call Hong Kong people "running dogs of the British government" on television.

Mainland mothers flocking to Hong Kong to give birth prompted a full-page add in a newspaper calling mainlanders "locusts" in Hong Kong.  

And who can forget the most uniquely Hong Kong phenomenon of all -- people taking to the streets to protest being denied the right to photograph the Dolce & Gabbana store on Canton Road while mainland tourists were allowed.

Can't we all just get along?

4. We love Hong Kong's political coming of age

Hong Kong handoverTaking to the streets is standard practice every Hong Kong handover anniversary.Since the handover, Hong Kongers have learned to voice their desires to the government. So much so that Hong Kong protests became a tourist attraction.

With the rise of political awareness and a growing tribe of "post-80s" activists, Hong Kong is a protest city that knows how to put on a great rally complete with stage shows, performance art and creative rally cries. 

I mean, we've got our own cult hit protest song by indie outfit My Little Airport, with blunt-as-batons lyrics -- the title is "Donald Tsang, Please Die."

And how many other cities have used the iconic World Cup 2010 instrument, vuvuzela, in a protest rally before? 

In true Hong Kong fashion, many in the city will be celebrating the handover this year by taking to the streets for the annual march for democracy. The Civil Human Rights Front predicts 50,000 people will turn up for the rally on July 1.

More on CNNGo: Hong Kong gets its first museum dedicated to Tiananmen Square

5. We love that Hong Kong weathered many economic storms

Hong Kong handoverThe economy is doing good as a whole, but Hong Kong's income gap is one of the largest in the world and continues to widen.For some reason, the weather has always been a great metaphor for the economy, and Hong Kong's economy in the last 15 years can be compared to a No. 13 typhoon with sunny intervals. 

Global financial downturn as well as internal factors contributed to many troughs in Hong Kong's economic charts, but the city has always bounced back due in large part to the Chinese mainland's helping hand. The result is a yoyo-ing of economic prospects, post-1997.

The Asian economic crisis of 1998, the bursting of the dot com bubble in 2000, as well as SARS in 2003 seemed to spell the demise of the Hong Kong economy.

And indeed we may have had a much bleaker economy today if it weren't for two main adrenaline shots -- the timely launch of the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) by the central government as well as the introduction of the independent travel scheme for Chinese mainland tourists to visit and spend money in Hong Kong.

The motherland has got our backs. So while the United States and Europe flounder economically, Hong Kong has an unbelievably low three-percent unemployment rate and a booming tourism industry. 

6. We hate Hong Kong's air quality

Hong Kong handoverThere's a gorgeous skyline under that smog. We swear.Hong Kong’s air was polluted in 1997. Today? It’s even worse.

Last year was Hong Kong’s most polluted on record, according to the Environmental Protection Department, which said that the Air Pollution Index exceeded 100 at roadside monitoring stations in Causeway Bay, Central and Mong Kok more than 20 percent of the time, compared to just two percent of the time in 2005.

Green activists say the main culprit is Hong Kong’s ageing fleet of trucks, buses and vans, which are polluting more as they grow older.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s air quality objectives still lag behind global standards, despite being updated by the government this year. Even India and Bangladesh have tougher air standards than Hong Kong.

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Measures that were introduced to fight pollution have been ineffective. Last month, the South China Morning Post revealed that the government has quietly added more than 200 vehicles to the ban on idling engines, which a previous report said is rarely enforced in any case.

All of this comes at a very high price. Pollution is so bad that it kills 3,200 people per year, according to researchers from the University of Hong Kong and it costs the Hong Kong economy more than HK$40 billion a year.

7. We love the rise of the Hong Kong indie class

Hong Kong handoverTai Hang's café culture.It's not that creativity didn't exist before the handover, just look at the golden era of Hong Kong cinema to dispel that myth. It's just that since 1997, the creative class got a little more bold.

We've seen fascinating cultural ecologies growing first out of Fo Tan and more recently in Chai Wan. We applaud those underground music scenes and festivals that stubbornly grew, while not all survived. We love the temporary art and music set-ups in Aberdeen and Kwun Tong.

Of course, when the idea of West Kowloon Cultural District came along, it took the level of discussion up a notch and belatedly the government realized the economy could benefit from nurturing a creative class. It set up the Create Smart Initiative in 2009.

There are officially 188,000 creative practitioners who currently contribute to just 4.1 percent of the GDP. Still, the Hong Kong hipster has been born in happening hoods such as Sheung Wan, Yau Ma Tei, Shek Kip Mei, Sham Shui Po and Tai Hang, using their entrepreneurial flair to make a go across various creative industries. 

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The best part about the rise of indie culture is that it's encouraged many a dream of opening a cafe to become reality and after 15 years, there's finally decent coffee.

This point was contributed by Louise Wong, the co-founder and editor of Creative City, Hong Kong's only design and culture map.

8. We hate the importance of tourism

Hong Kong handoverTourists: can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.Mainland China got our factories and in exchange, we get tourists. Lots of them.

In 1997, just 2.3 mainland Chinese visited in Hong Kong. Last year, the number was 28 million.

The boom started in 2003, when the mainland and Hong Kong governments reached an agreement allowing mainlanders to visit independently, instead of in a tour group. The influx of tourists has been a boon for the economy, pumping HK$166.7 billion into the economy last year.

But it is also changing the face of Hong Kong and not necessarily for the better. 

More on CNNGo: 6 things mainlanders like to do in Hong Kong

According to the Hong Kong Tourism Board, mainland tourists spend most of their money on shopping, unlike tourists from other countries, who spend mostly on accommodation and entertainment, and what they’re shopping for is jewelry, watches and pretty much anything stamped with a Louis Vuitton logo. 

As a result, Hong Kong’s main shopping districts have been turned into playgrounds for brand-crazy tourists, pushing aside anything useful to locals, like restaurants, bakeries and independent shops.

Rents in Causeway Bay are now beyond the reach of all but the biggest of chains: Forever 21 is forking out HK$11 million per month for its new shop on Jardine’s Bazaar. 

Even incoming Chief Executive C.Y. Leung is worried about the impact. Last week, Leung said Hong Kong can’t handle any more mainland tourists, earning a sharp rebuke from the head of Beijing’s Hong Kong liaison office, who said that “it is inevitable for there to be some clashes,” and that Hong Kong people “need not make a fuss.” 

It's ironic to think that before the handover, the more paranoid corners of Hong Kong worried about tanks rolling down Queen’s Road, but instead we ended up with an army of tourists.

9. We love Hong Kong becoming an art hub

Hong Kong handoverThe Hong Kong International Art Fair was a catalyst for the city's art boom.The idea that Hong Kong is a “cultural desert” has never really been true, but it was always fair to say that our art scene was lacking. Until now.

Buoyed by the mainland art market and the success of ART HK, the local contemporary art scene has exploded.

Things are happening on all fronts. Hong Kong artists like Lee Kit are attracting international attention while events like the Fotanian Open Studios are more popular than ever before.

The Asia Art Archive serves as a regional hub for art research. Cutting-edge galleries like Saamlung have opened their doors, while big guns like White Cube and Gagosian have made Hong Kong their Asian base.

There’s still plenty of room for improvement.

“Logistically Hong Kong is an art hub, but a logistical hub is not an intellectual hub,” Saamlung founder Robin Peckham told CNNGo in May.

More on CNNGo: Hong Kong: An art hub minus grassroots buzz

But at least there’s a ton of potential. Two new contemporary art museums -- M+ and the Central Police Station -- will open their doors in the next five years.

The cake is still in the oven, but it already smells delicious.

10. We love Hong Kong heritage activism 

Hong Kong handoverHistorical architecture transforms into luxury shopping center Heritage 1881. In a way, mainland tourism propels conservation.Colonialism may not have been the most glorious part of Hong Kong's history, but post-colonial Hong Kong has a sort of mixed nostalgic affection towards colonial heritage. 

Many of Hong Kong's most beautiful heritage buildings disappeared during the 1980s boom when heritage preservation was not a championed idea. 

Since the handover, the city witnessed the birth of a new generation of heritage activists who petitioned fiercely to protect the objects important to the city's collective memory.

The original Star Ferry Pier and Queen's Pier in 2007, Graham Street Central open-air wet market, 1881 Heritage (the headquarters of the Marine Police until 1996), Wing Lee Street and more are all representative of heritage conservationists fighting the good fight. 

The wishes of the activists are not always granted, but at least our wishes are voiced.

11. We hate that Cantonese is being threatened 

To ensure their kids won't lag behind in the rat race, Hong Kong parents do whatever they can, even if it means not speaking Cantonese with their kids

Although Cantonese is the official native language in Hong Kong, English has been hailed to be more superior and more efficient for climbing the social ladder.

And now, with the rise of Mandarin, Cantonese is further bumped down to a third-ranking language. Its future surely looks bleak.

12. We love that Hong Kong was part of the Olympics

Hong Kong handoverGolden moment: Andy Lau carries the Olympic torch through Hong Kong's streets.

It's one of the side benefits of being part of a big country -- we got to be part of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. Pretty cool to step on that world stage.

13. We hate SAR passport problems

With fancy high-tech features and visa-free entry to 145 countries, the Hong Kong Special Administration Region passport is theoretically awesome. 

Yet, with the "People's Republic of China" printed on the passport, this doesn't guarantee easy entry everywhere. 

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Be prepared to face extra questionings at security screening by immigration officers unfamiliar with Hong Kong visa requirements and master explaining the complex idea of "One Country, Two Systems" without rolling your eyes. You'll make it through in the end. 

14. We hate the decline in press freedom

Hong Kong handoverHong Kong's biggest English language paper suspected of self-censorship. What's next?More people may be taking to the streets to voice their opinions but the media is showing signs of suppression.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association says that 87 percent of local journalists are of the opinion that access to information has been restricted and news coverage has been limited in the past five years.

The survey comes after the territory's leading English newspaper the South China Morning Post was suspected of self-censorship.

15. We love pandas

Hong Kong handoverWe're suckers for panda diplomacy.Freebies are always good, especially if they are adorable pandas. In 1999, the central government gifted Ocean Park two pandas, An An and Jia Jia, a diplomatic gesture usually reserved for important countries.

The hope that they will mate and bring Hong Kong more panda babies grows lower over the years. But it's OK, the mainland has plenty to spread around. In 2007, Ocean Park welcomed two more pandas, Ying Ying and Le Le, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to China.

Hong Kongers and tourists can watch the pandas lying around, eating and get excited at their slightest move such as switching their sleeping positions. 

Other rare gifts include 10 Chinese sturgeons (three of them have died), seals and Chinese giant salamanders.

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