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Shanghai Calling: leaving the mainland

Student Eleanor Jolliffe uses a trip to Hong Kong to renew her visa as an excuse to explore a captivating city

Every ninety days I need to leave China to renew my visa - so recently I visited Hong Kong. What I initially approached as a necessity became a wonderful excuse to explore a captivating city.

Hong Kong is, on the face of it, a very Chinese city. But scratch the surface and the parallels to the UK are clear. There is a quirky mix of the subdued and understated British taste (pared back and rather elegant) and Eastern taste (flashier, expensive in a much more obvious way and altogether more colourful) which makes for an engaging spectacle.

Somehow, despite this clash, Hong Kong has moved beyond the confused identity that might be expected of its shared parentage and embraced its own diversity, creating an identity that embraces and rejects both east and west. 

When I came out of Central Station the palm trees were my only clue that I was not in London

The architecture of Hong Kong is fascinating. The rooms are small and rather western in dimensions but the building heights are often greater than anything in Shanghai. I spotted many buildings identical to my residential block in Shanghai - down to the bamboo drying rods - except five to six times as high. Alongside these stretched Chinese tower blocks with their flashing neon signs are remnants of Hong Kong’s colonial past and a financial district that feels distinctly western. When I came out of Central Station the palm trees were my only clue that I was not in London.

I also found Hong Kong easy to navigate. It is not just that every sign is in Chinese and English (most streets signs in Shanghai are too). Rather it is the logic of the city layout and road network which echoes the UK cities I have grown up in. The dimensions of the roads and pavements, and even the steps, seem familiar. Despite the weather, tropical fauna and Chinese script, a part of me felt very much at home.

This easy connection to nature is missing in Shanghai…mainland Chinese taste veers towards the man-made

After three months of megacity I was delighted to find large British style parks - as opposed to Chinese public gardens – and empty mountains an hour’s MTR ride away from the city centre. This clear and easy connection to nature is missing in Shanghai, which is a city that is very much about human progress and innovation. Mainland Chinese taste seems to veer towards the man-made. A friend working on a project in the mountains said that his clients were very much of the opinion that hills looked more beautiful with a building on top - we both ruminated on this for a while before deciding it was not an opinion likely to catch on in the UK.

With its success in blending eastern and western cultures Hong Kong has aspects that appeal to all. Visitors to Hong Kong can feel they are experiencing the elusive appeal of ‘otherness’ while finding enough elements of their own culture to make this comfortable to do. Nevertheless, despite the cosy reminders of home I was glad to come back to Shanghai. Hong Kong, for all its glamour, has less personality than Shanghai - it’s not really a city I could be friends with for life. Shanghai, with all its dirt, smog and bewildering bureaucracy, has an attitude and appeal that will stay with me long after the glamour of Hong Kong has faded from my mind.

Eleanor Jolliffe has just completed her Part I at Nottingham University. She is currently doing an internship in Shanghai.This is the fifth of a series of regular blog posts.

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