by Hema Kalamogan.

Hema graduated from the National University of Singapore with a degree in Life Science and is a gap-year intern at Skillseed where she manages various courses, including an upcoming learning journey on social innovation in Hong Kong. She is passionate about many things including the environment, hiking, and milk tea.

STEPPING OUT OF Hong Kong’s sophisticated MTR system and into the streets of Sham Shui Po, I was instantly struck by one thing - contrast. The next few days were going to reveal more of Hong Kong’s contrasting landscapes as we carried out the legwork and groundwork to prepare for an exciting new course on social innovation in 2016.

Our hostel was located in Sham Shui Po, one of the oldest estates in Hong Kong, lined with old buildings and roadside shops. On first glance, it reflected the trappings of any other so-called "developed" country, but a closer look uncovered the problems and struggles of communities trying to keep up with the development and progress the city is making. This was a stark contrast to the CBD area where we were to attend a conference; filled with skyscrapers, ferris wheels and fancy malls, it appeared to be a distinct world from Sham Shui Po.

With exponential growth comes other social problems, and this lead me to an over-arching question which would stay with me for the rest of our trip and beyond: to what extent should the well-being and culture of a society be compromised in the name of development? Poverty housing has become a problem in Hong Kong in recent years, with rents rising by over 200%. The free market in Hong Kong causes the prices of housing to sky rocket making it hard for most people to own homes and to make ends meet. Cage homes and rooftop homes, crammed in the smallest places, pose imminent fire, safety and health hazards to their residents' lives, and life-sized replicas of these "homes" could only give us the smallest of glimpses into what it's like to live under such conditions. 

There have been efforts to shed a light on this problem through mediums such as photography, with the aim of improving efforts to provide shelters and spaces for those who can't afford current housing prices. My companion and I had varying opinions about the most desirable way to learn about these issues without invading the dignity and privacy of residents, but we agreed on one thing: such conditions were not acceptable for any human being.

Something else compromised in the course of development is the culture and history of a place. Hong Kong has made efforts to preserve its history and culture through architecture: an example of this strategy is The Blue House, a Lingnan-style house build in the 1920s, which sits at the heart of the busy Wan Chai district.  The city is restoring this historic building to house a museum for visitors. The antique store on the first floor, run by an elderly couple, brings visitors back to a different era. The illegal gambling den, in a hole in a wall, right beside the store makes you feel like you are finally experiencing the "real Hong Kong", but you are immediately struck with contrast. On the other side of the road lies a modern office building with a hip café filled with office workers ending their workday with drinks. 

Standing at this crossroad of contrasts, I realised that the "real" anything is subjective. Is the “real Hong Kong” visible to the eye? And why does visibility matter?

An NGO we had the privilege of meeting focused on reducing waste by recycling used soap bars in hotels and distributing them to underprivileged communities, with the aim of promoting better hygiene practices and improving sanitation. An interesting point that struck me was that foreign workers, knowing the needs their own communities’ back home face, are more willing to take the extra effort to engage in these recycling activities.

This brought me to a larger question: When problems don't confront us face on, do we tend not to pay attention? What then is our role as residents, as travellers, and active citizens?

Hong Kong is known for its dim sum and milk tea (truly delicious!), and photos of high-rise buildings from Victoria Peak and OOTDs in the shopping district flood our social media feeds, but our journey showed us that there's so much more to Hong Kong. Maybe if we start looking a little closer at the places we visit - and even the places we live - we’ll begin to understand them and the stories they have to tell. Learning about Hong Kong’s stories has been eye-opening and intriguing. I cannot wait for our students to experience Hong Kong in a different light!