When I told my South African friends that I planned on travelling the 40 km from Shenzhen in Mainland China to visit Hong Kong, they often replied in puzzled tones: "But, isn't Hong Kong in China?"
Or they would smile and nod excitedly, which either meant they were cognisant of the big difference between Hong Kong and the rest of China, or that they had no idea where Hong Kong was.
Either way, I do not blame them at all.
Hong Kong is an interesting city indeed.
During World War II Hong Kong was occupied by Japan, but was liberated by Chinese and British troops in 1945. For fourty-seven years, from 1950 to 1997, Hong Kong with it's 600 000 post-war inhabitants remained under British rule. An influx of people followed suit due to the manufacturing trade and high-rise buildings emerged to house the growing number of people. In 1997 the city was handed back to China under the "One country, two systems" principle and is therefore a city within China, but very different from mainland China.
Today, this city of 1100 km2 is home to 7 million people - it's smaller than Johannesburg's 1600 km2, but with twice as many inhabitants.
So, what is the difference between Hong Kong and China?
Here are a few I have come across in my brief visit to the city - some are evident, cannot-be-overlooked, in-your-face differences. Others are more subtle.
- Visa requirements: South Africans don't need a visa to visit Hong Kong, but they do for (mainland) China. Crossing the border entails filling in forms, standing in a queue, getting your passport stamped, etc., etc. In other words, it is much easier to travel from Paris to the Netherlands than to travel from China to Hong Kong.
- Currencies: The currency in Hong Kong is Hong Kong Dollar, while in China it is Chinese Renminbi (Yuan). Neither "foreign" currency will be accepted once you cross the border. Yes, I have tried in vain.
- Traffic regulations: In China you drive on the right. In Hong Kong, on the left. If you have requested a taxi to take you from China to Hong Kong, the driver's steering wheel will be on the right, which means in China the driver will drive on the right side of the road from the wrong side of the car. Luckily, as soon as you cross the border to Hong Kong, the driver will find himself on the left side of the road and therefore on the right side of the car again. Yes, it is as confusing as it sounds.
- Language: In China everyone (except me, it seems) speaks Mandarin. In Hong Kong, the native tongue is Cantonese and (happy days!) most people can speak and understand English.
- Legal System: Regulations from the number of children you are allowed to have (one in China and unrestricted in Hong Kong) to the number of Facebook friends (none in China due to the Great Firewall and unrestricted in Hong Kong), and anything in-between changes as soon as you cross the China-Hong Kong border.
As for me, the more different the places that I get to visit on my journeys, the happier I am.