July 1 marks 15 years since Hong Kong was returned to mainland China.
I wasn’t around long enough to notice the significant changes, and I’ll let the journalists and long-time expats focus on that. There’s plenty for those writers to discuss about economics and politics. Everything I noticed was the vast differences when I crossed the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen.
Hong Kong was much more organized, efficient, and friendly. One of my friends commented that he was overwhelmed by the sight of so many foreigners–he was tempted to stare at them the way we were stared at in Shenzhen. Even though the streets were just as crowded as Shenzhen (sometimes more so), there was a greater comfort level in those crowds. And, of course, there was always HK Chief Executive Donald Tsang with his trademark bowtie–you can’t help but like a politician who always wears a bowtie.
The first few times I crossed into Hong Kong, I used the Luohu/Lowu border. On the Shenzhen side, it contains an enormous shopping mall that mostly sells knock-off products. The Hong Kong side has nothing except for the train station that took me to Tsim Sha Tsui. Probably the most striking difference at that border was that as soon as one crossed the physical border, the air conditioning got stronger. The Hong Kong side was definitely cooler.
I always found it a bit unusual that I had to pass through customs to enter the same country, albeit a Special Administrative Region as designated by the central government of China. One round trip to Hong Kong required four stamps in my passport–and the customs agents never wanted to coordinate their stamps and found it amusing to use completely empty pages rather than filling up already used pages. It’s all part of the “One Country, Two Systems” policy, which also applies to Macau (does that make it three systems?). This forced me to add extra pages in Bangkok during my second year.
Later on, I began crossing the border at Huanggang because it was slightly closer than Luohu. There were also a few times that I took the ferry from Shekou, but that was usually to go to the airport. When I moved to Nanshan, the trip was easier as I could take a 15-minute bus ride to Shenzhen Bay and another bus into Kowloon.
One constant at the borders was the unfriendly customs agents. They almost never spoke, even when a question was asked. Even when I brought back a Balinese statue that was the size of a small child, wrapped in paper to conceal it’s face, the officer (who looked rather confused) didn’t say a word.