My wife and I just returned from a long weekend in Hong Kong. For a pair of Taipei-ites, Hong Kong offers a quick convenient getaway. The flight is a smidge over an hour and the multiple flights per day keep ticket prices reasonable. It is the Taipei equivalent of driving from Saskatoon to Edmonton for the weekend. Hong Kong has become a nice little escape – nothing more. It wasn’t always that way. When I first began the expat life, Hong Kong was a lifeline, a beacon of westernization. A place I could go to find the Western products, food and amenities I craved.
I began working abroad in a place called Yeosu, on Korea’s southern coast, at the time little more than a fishing village. They had nothing. There was no Western food, not even snacks, fast food, or bread; nothing Western to eat. If you were inclined to cook for yourself there was no real hope of finding the necessary ingredients. Lettuce for a salad? Maybe on a good day. Steak or pork chops? No, any meat available was sliced paper thin for use in Korean soups and barbeque. Indeed there was a much wider availability of animal bones than meat. The bones were prized for making a healthful soup. There was a shortage of Western style drinks as well. Something as esoteric as a scotch and cigar, forget about it. Of course, there was no English entertainment, no books, no magazines, no TV, no movies; nothing in English. There was no way to buy clothes or other daily necessities. Deodorant? Sorry, not available in Korea.
I was in Korea in 1995-6. It is easy to forget what the world was like before countries joined together in the WTO. Now, even the most distant and disparate of countries are conducting trade, and the products of one country are, relatively, available within the other. We see this in our daily lives in the food we all eat. Cuisine has become much more international. (See: The WTO and My Waistline). Any moderately sized city is going to have restaurants serving a broad range of world foods. A scant couple of decades ago, that was not true.
The first time I came to Taiwan, in 1987, there was almost no Western food. The first McDonalds had just opened, and Jake’s Country Kitchen was operating in Tienmu. That was about it for authentic Western food. I recall being shocked that potatoes, hence french fries, were a rarity. I went to a Taiwanese owned, “American style” steak house, the fries cost a small fortune, and when the meal arrived, amounted to 5-6 hand julienned pieces of potato. I attributed the Taiwanese fondness for sweet potato french fries to the lack of real potatoes on the island. The notion that the Taiwanese might have liked sweet potatoes never occurred to me. Now Taipei is a foodie mecca, there are restaurants offering well-thought-out menus featuring food from virtually everywhere. For a veteran of the expat scene, the quality of the Western food available is stunning. Indeed, sometimes when I return to Canada, I find myself disappointed with the quality of the restaurants, as compared to what is available in Taiwan.
What the WTO didn’t deliver the internet did. The internet has brought a treasure trove of English entertainment and news worldwide. In addition, internet shopping allows the expat to buy virtually any product, in the desired size or shape.
When I first began my expat life in Korea, I used to fly to Hong Kong semi-regularly. I would hit Hong Kong like a whirlwind. I’d just go from fish & chip joint, to Irish Pub, to American style rib and burger joint, to Mc Donald’s in a near endless orgy of Western food intake, broken up sporadically by beers in Lan Kwai Fong, shopping for books, seeing some tv and buying enough stuff to (hopefully) survive Korea a while longer. When I first arrived in Taiwan, it was a similar situation, and Hong Kong was a place I looked forward to going for a touch of home. Things have changed. The availability of Western products and food in Taiwan beggars the imagination.
I still enjoy Hong Kong, but I don’t go there with the same need and yearning. My level of elation was once mirrored by the flight itself, coming into Kai Tak airport from the landward side, as the plane jinked left and right, I could gaze into people’s livingroom windows while the plane seemingly descended between apartment buildings. I would begin vibrating with excitement as the plane itself seemed to vibrate with Hong Kong’s frenetic energy. Now, arrival is a much more sedate affair as the plane slowly descends into the very large, modern, and rather antiseptic Hong Kong International Airport. It is still an amazing, vibrant and enchanting city, but it doesn’t quite make me chutter and soar as it once did.