Navigating Hong Kong During the Pandemic

Queen Mary History student and Turing Grant recipient, Dafina Brahimi, is coming to the end of their year abroad in Hong Kong and outlines some reflections from their time in their ‘second home’…

Growing up in London, it was very easy to make Hong Kong feel like a second home. The vibrant and busy city with considerably better weather provided a lot of comfort and familiarity in an otherwise unknown space. But despite the similarities, the two cities could not be more different. As a result of its colonial background, Hong Kong is a careful fusion of western and eastern culture where tall, modern skyscraper buildings (it’s honestly so towering, especially since most buildings in London don’t go above three floors…) meet traditional Chinese temples. Describing the beauty and intricacies of Hong Kong could take forever, I genuinely don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop talking about my experiences here, but I will try my best to fit them in to this post. This study abroad programme gave me the incredible opportunity to study and live in this remarkable area. So if this blog does help you with anything, I hope it helps you make the decision to use this programme.

Chi Lin Nunnery and the Nan Lian Garden

One of my favourite places to visit was the Chi Lin Nunnery (CLN) and the Nan Lian Garden (NLG). CLN is a large Buddhist temple in Hong Kong and NLG is a classical Chinese garden built nearby. The Nunnery and Garden are actually a perfect blend of the two western and eastern cultures, as the very traditional settings vastly contrast with the busy city which surround them. I was fortunate enough to have a friend from Sixth Form go to university here and show me the local life in Hong Kong. While the CLN is one of the more famous tourist sites, it holds a lot of sentimental value to the local religious population too. She spends her weekends here as a volunteer, making her the perfect guide for my visit. Fun fact: While CLN and NLG were modelled to emulate the Tang Dynasty, there are small elements of Japanese influence on the structure and appearance of the buildings.

There was also a photo exhibition nearby showing all the different Buddha statues in temples across China. Another fun fact: It is extremely disrespectful to take pictures of the Buddha, it wasn’t even allowed in CLN, so this exhibition (approved by the temples’ leaders) was a convenient mini tour around the different temples all in one setting, especially since the pandemic would have made it extremely hard to visit these temples in person.

Avenue of Stars

The Avenue of Stars was modelled after the Hollywood Walk of Fame, except it celebrates Hong Kong culture and celebrities. I visited the Avenue during the time when restrictions for Covid were introduced. It did unfortunately mean that places like the Cultural Centre and surrounding museums that celebrate art and culture were not open to the public, however, the experience was still great. The skyline of Hong Kong from Victoria Harbour is indescribable, and these pictures don’t do it justice.

Seriousness of Covid-19

One of the biggest contrasts between the UK and Hong Kong was their reactions to the pandemic. This is hardly news to anyone, but experiencing it was a breath of fresh air. In Hong Kong the main slogan is “Together we fight the Virus”. Truly I don’t know how much of an impact this slogan actually had on the public, but it was clear every time I went out that the people were very considerate. Everyone, even children, wore their masks without complaint, and refrained from invading others’ personal space. At the beginning of the academic year, where Hong Kong had almost zero Covid cases, people went about their day very relaxed from the consequences of the pandemic because they had earned it, and it was like I went back in time to before the pandemic happened. Hearing what was going on in the UK and of course the embarrassing party-gate scandal was shocking, because of how normalised living with the virus had become for me in Hong Kong. Sure the UK also started to try and get back to life before the pandemic, but that was more in disregard to the lives it affected. Hong Kong, like a lot of other cultures, have an immense respect for their elders and so when the Omicron variant hit, new measures were taken to protect them. While I am grateful for this serious approach, it did unfortunately mean that schools were back to being online and I couldn’t go home for the Christmas holiday with the heightened entry requirements in place, which were already very challenging. Although, on the bright side it just meant I had more time and opportunity to go sightseeing and experience Hong Kong during the festive season.

Advice

Some advice I’d give to anyone who wants to study here that I wish was given to me, is that it can get incredibly hot here. I thought I had clothes that would be wearable in the hot weather, but I was wrong. November to March is optimal cool, breezy weather – cherish it. Luckily I was able to do some shopping and air conditioners are everywhere. Additionally, on the off chance that you are not able to get campus accommodation, which was an anxiety-inducing reality for a lot of the exchange students this year, try to find accommodation that’s not in the Western/Central districts of Hong Kong Island as its one of the most expensive areas. The Turing Grant scheme is one of the reasons that I managed to make the most of Hong Kong even, during the pandemic. I could freely sightsee, immerse myself in local life, shop and pay rent without being financially burdened. Visiting Hong Kong again, preferably after the pandemic, is high on my bucket list and it was an experience I will never forget, and I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity.

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