Hong Kong Takes a Holiday

“I once went to Philadelphia and it was closed.” – W.C. Fields

How can you compare the Philadelphia of W.C. Field’s feverish imagination, a sleepy burg where nothing happened, to Hong Kong, that money-mad mecca of moguls and millionaires? And yet I was tempted.

The last time I had been in Hong Kong was just prior to “the handover” in 1997, when Britain ended 150 years of colonial rule by returning sovereignty to China – Red China. Of course Hong Kong isn’t quite a worker’s paradise just yet. Under the terms of the handover agreement, China agreed to treat Hong Kong differently for a period of 50 years, the so-called “one country, two systems” approach.

Before the handover Hong Kong was a bustling multi-national megalopolis abuzz with a peculiar energy that was very familiar to me as a New Yorker. Except that in New York, the energy flows from many sources: Broadway, the publishing business, fashion, Wall Street, Silicon Alley, and any number of ethnic communities that are small countries in their own right. Hong Kong’s energy is about just one thing — money — and that focus, it seemed to me, gave the city a very special tone.

I was eager to see if nearly two years into its status as a “Special Administrative Region” (the ex-colony is routinely referred to as the SAR in the local press), Hong Kong had changed. Would I see a slackening of pace in its busy streets? Would there be fewer European faces in the Asian throngs?

Instead, I got to Hong Kong for a quick three-day visit and it was closed. Well, sort of. The beautiful and mysterious woman I travel with and I arrived bright and early on Easter Sunday but I figured Monday and Tuesday would be business as usual. I quickly discovered that Monday and Tuesday were also public holidays, marking the annual Ching Ming Festival when devout Chinese visit the graves of their ancestors to tidy them up and burn paper offerings, incense, and a good bit of the countryside. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Faced with three days of closed offices and quiet commercial streets, we realized we had been presented a golden opportunity to savor Hong Kong at its ease. We resolved to take a holiday along with Hong Kong’s busy residents.

Gathering together in and around Statue Square in Hong Kong’s Central district has become a tradition for Hong Kong’s legions of Filipina housemaids, far from home and oddly homeless. The posh homes in which they work give them shelter for six days a week, but on their day off they can’t invite friends over for tea. So they congregate in Central’s public parks and pedestrian plazas, in small groups, to catch up, to speak their own language and enjoy some sense of community. It’s become such a Hong Kong fixture that the tourist bureau has made it a tourist attraction.

I had seen these Sunday gatherings before but nothing prepared me for the crush of Filipinas we saw this Easter Sunday. There must have been thousands of them filling not just Statue Square but the surrounding streets and pedestrian overpasses for blocks in every direction. Everyone seemed to be speaking at once in high-pitched, girlish Tagalog. As we walked through the large public courtyard under the brooding hulk of the Bank of Shanghai and Hong Kong building the chattering voices were amplified and reflected back on themselves; it was like walking through a vast aviary. The women sat on makeshift picnic “blankets” of cardboard and shared meals from plastic containers. It occurred to me that some of the best food to be had in Hong Kong that day was being served up at my feet as we picked our way through the crowds on our way to Mass at the Catholic Cathedral.

There we discovered from the well-heeled Europeans and Americans spilling from the cathedral’s doors that we had missed the one English service of the day. Since our Cantonese leaves something to be desired, we asked the priest (who turned out to be a Brooklyn boy!) for alternatives. He directed us to St. Joseph’s, a far more modest church near the tram stop to Victoria Peak and just a short walk away.

Whereas the cathedral congregation represented Hong Kong’s moneyed class, St. Joe’s catered to the working class Filipino, or more accurately, Filipina community. We celebrated Easter in a standing-room-only crowd of these sad-eyed young women, girls really. There were virtually no men and not surprisingly very few children. It struck me how much loneliness there must be in that room filled with girls who surely nurtured the same romantic longings as their contemporaries elsewhere. Yet marriage seemed a remote possibility for them as they labored for more fortunate married couples, raising those people’s children, sending money home so that perhaps a younger sister could have the more normal life denied them in one of the world’s most affluent enclaves. It was a humbling and exalting experience to worship with them and I have seldom felt so close to the Christian message as when this congregation joined hands to sing His praises. As the overflow crowd filed out another overflow crowd, all women, all Filipinas, all in their Sunday finest, waited patiently to get in.