I am not a pioneer, that much is sure. There have been many of us “gweilo’s” here before. But more than ever in recorded history. Interaction between the East and the West goes back, way back. The Silk Road, mostly an overland network of trade routes to the riches of the Middle Kingdom, was established a century or two before the common era. It collapsed, but resurged again after the khans of the steppes of Eurasia established what was in essence a free trade zone. No entity blocked the road to the Far East anymore and the hordes kept the territory safe for the flow of goods. A veritable “pax” was assured under Mongolian rule and, inevitably, like every “pax”, be it Romana, Mongolica, Pax Britannica or Americana, it benefits trade and exchange. In its lap, the cosmopolis is born.
You could say this was the very first episode of Western expats in China. Before the Mongolian conquests in the 1200’s, there is no evidence of any Westerners in or going to Asia. Instances of Europeans visiting the Far East are virtually unknown and, if there were such cases, most likely extremely rare. There are reports of Roman embassies sent to the Chinese empire and vice versa, but that’s a topic for some other time.
The unmediated transfer between East and West and the physical presence of the latter in the former begins in medieval times.
Of course, thinking on this time the well-known Marco Polo his journey comes to mind, be it half fabricated or not. Though there were many Italian, especially Genoese, families in this distant land whose tombs are to be found. Some sources mention thousands of Europeans having ventured far beyond the Black Sea’s ports into the heart of the greatest empire ever seen in the history of man. Not only merchants hurried to these fresh new markets open for business, but also missionaries followed in their wake. I’ll talk some other time about those guys, as they relate to my personal journey around here, but let’s just say that the Holy Spirt cannot shut its mouth through those who have given Him their tongue.
Nowadays, the expats, they’re here again, as the result of a pax or two. They’re here working, studying or even having a family and not intending to return home anytime soon. Hong Kong especially is supposed to have many such foreigners, as I’ve been told many times by both locals and non-locals. I’m not sure if I can agree. Seven days is not a lot, but enough to get a decent estimation of the place you’re at. If this is considered ‘many’, then I think we in Belgium have many Chinese immigrants. Maybe by the standards of other cities in China, but nowhere near as close an ethnic mosaic as cities in Europe or North America.
Still, it is undeniable that the amount and percentage of foreigners now present in the East is vast in comparison with the centuries before. It is also undeniable that Hong Kong immediately affects you with its overcharge. The people are in a hurry, talk fast, deal quickly. The rapid pace of the people’s life is the result of its location in the web. It couldn’t be more ideally located in the flows of peoples, goods and services. Therefore, it couldn’t be more a stress on the people it inhabits caught in the middle of that nexus. Yet I do not wish to just reduce life in Hong Kong as fast paced and stressful. That would do it a great dishonour. Hong Kong is a flickering motherboard of trillions of bytes of information, among which are stories of immense love being born, of great loss being mourned and faint attempts of overcoming massive disappointment.
It is staggering to realize that in such close proximity – we are talking the 4th most densely populated spot in the world – millions of lives are unfolding in all its drama, day by day, and no one ever really looking the same against a backdrop that’s as temporal as themselves.
After having guided me from the airport to the heart to Kowloon, my friend Emily said goodbye as I arrived at my hostel. I heard her have a bit of smalltalk with the staff of the hostel after having picked up my bags and go to my chamber. As I closed the door behind me of the lobby, I had no idea for how long she was still talking to them, but I guess not for too long as she was tired herself. I was only longing for a shower and a bed now myself. From the courtyard I saw this view and I knew this is exactly where I wanted to be. Why? Probably because I had left the parochial and finally entered into something that actually looked like the modern world. Rhodes, an urban fountain spraying Hellenic influence over the known world, was found away from the Aegean.
I had become one of the many who has taken part in this exchange between worlds. How minute that might seem to many, and especially in these days, to me it means my own personal participation in the macrocosmic and continuous chain of reciprocity between Orient and Occident.