Big Trouble in Hong Kong

Arriving in Hong Kong was a relief. I loved sailing across the Pacific Ocean on Dolce but I’m not very comfortable being in debt. Dolce wasn’t insured and either was I if something happened. I wouldn’t have been able to get insurance for her If I tried, as I don’t have proof of sailing experience or a captains license. I didn’t owe anyone money (except for a “rental” fee to Dave) but if something happened to Dolce, or worse; someone else’s more expensive boat, I would be responsible and I would be screwed.

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So I was basically sailing $15,000+ of debt towards my “financial freedom”. It came when I stepped onto the dock in Hong Kong and handed the reigns back to Dave. That said, he was sailing with me from the Philippines to Hong Kong and would likely accept half of the responsibility for anything that might have happened.

Financial freedom in Hong Kong was far from what I had, considering it is one of the most expensive cities on the planet and I am living on a tiny budget. Thankfully we made landfall where a very friendly yachting community welcomed us at Hebe Haven Yacht Club. The night I arrived I met some fellow Canadians who offered me a place to stay for a few nights.

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It’s almost impossible for people to find an actual house in Hong Kong but I managed to score one of the few that exists. Ocean front too! It felt like I was in cottage country with few people and no buildings in sight. The city was hiding on the other side of the mountains.

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After a few days there the same folks offered me their yacht to stay on that was docked at the yacht club. It was luxurious and more spacious then most of the $4000 a month apartments in Hong Kong. It was, however, a motor yacht. I was a bit on edge that someone might start it up while I was sleeping. ;)

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The Hebe Haven Yacht club was very supportive and gave Dave and Dolce free mooring in return for a presentation by me about my voyage to get there. It was one of my more awkward talks with a small crowd of sea folk. Sometimes I feel like my speaking skills are improving and sometimes I feel like a fool. This was more on the fool side of things. I think the crowd still enjoyed it.

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As is usual for me entering a new city I searched for other opportunities to speak at schools and clubs, etc. I also searched for inspiring non-profits that I hoped I could help out with some media attention and more. Sometimes it’s easier to find the true leaders and inspirational people if you first discover a big problem and then search for the people who are working to solve it. Two big issues in Hong Kong surfaced soon after my arrival. The exploitation of foreign domestic workers, and the horrible air quality.

“Foreign domestic workers compose nearly 5% of Hong Kong’s population and 10% of the working population. The clear majority of domestic workers are women from the Philippines and Indonesia who leave to work abroad due to a lack of job opportunities at home. Through domestic work overseas, they can earn a far higher salary than what they would earn at home.” It was very common to see these workers on their days off gathering with their community in any available public space. Under stairs, on the sidewalk, all over the place.

“Unfortunately they routinely experience exploitative working conditions. Employers often deny them adequate rest periods and accommodations. Pervasive overcharging by employment agencies and fraudulent recruitment practices render many workers heavily debt burdened. Various legal requirements further compound foreign domestic workers’ vulnerability to human rights abuses and restrict their access to remedy. Extreme forms of labour exploitation, namely forced labour and human trafficking, are becoming increasingly more common.”

Thankfully there is some awesome people at helpfordomesticworkers.org who are working to solve these problems and help those affected by them.

Since the moment I spotted China on the horizon I was aware of an air quality issue in Hong Kong. What I wasn’t expecting was so many of the locals to be complacent about the toxic air. Many people I spoke with blamed the problem on China and said it wasn’t so much Hong Kong’s fault.

According to the Clean Air Network, 53% of Hong Kong's pollution comes from local sources – coal fired power stations, idling engines of cars, trucks and buses and marine emissions. Instead of taking serious action in solving the problem the government has long downplayed the risks and created their own air quality index to make the air seem safer. It’s big business at stake after all. Nonetheless, Hong Kong is one of the 5 most polluting cities on the planet. Check out http://cleartheair.org.hk/.

It took awhile for me to find an organization that was responsive and a good fit but eventually I connected with the Hong Kong Cycling alliance. They are working to make the city a more bike-friendly place. We organized a media event around the most challenging situation I would face in Hong Kong.

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From what I heard the public transit in Hong Kong is pretty effective at getting people around but the roads and cars that occupy them are not very safe or friendly for cyclists. At 275 vehicles per kilometer, Hong Kong has among the highest density of vehicles in the world and it’s rare to see cyclists commuting. That wasn’t my biggest challenge though.

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I was staying on the mainland side of Hong Kong but needed to get to the downtown island to visit with my friend Warren, get my Chinese visa, and do some speaking events. Problem is, the tunnels do not allow bicycles and the ferries are of course motorized. I would need to swim, sail, or paddle across Hong Kong Harbour. Dave was up for helping me with the SUP, but my friend Warren decided to buy one and let me paddle it across.

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I was definitely nervous about crossing a busy harbour with ships and loads of security everywhere. It was hard to get a clear answer as to whether it was legal or not. In the end I decided it was best to do it as quickly as possible and not ask for permission. Of course I was prepared to beg for forgiveness as well.

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Warren met me on the beach and inflated the SUP to first go for a little paddle himself. I then hopped on the board and waited for a gap in the boat traffic. The coast looked clear and I couldn’t see any official looking boats to cause me trouble. I paddled as fast as I could across the 1km waterway and into a harbour packed with fishing boats. I lifted the board up some steps and acted like I belonged amongst the fishermen cleaning their catch.

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Warren took the little ferry and met me on the other side with my bicycle. We then walked through the city back to his place in the centre of the action. Honolulu was the last big city I had visited, 8 months previous. The amount of people and electricity in downtown Hong Kong was intense and exhilarating.

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We arrived at Warren’s building and I hesitatingly locked up my bike on the street. I then climbed the 19 stories of stairs up to his apartment. The energy from the city was still buzzing within me. When I finally lay down that night I slept well.

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I met Martin from the Hong Kong Cycling Alliance the next day and we cycled through the city. He informed me of the unfortunate lack of infrastructure and respect that exists for cyclists in Hong Kong. There are some bicycle paths but they go around large apartment complexes, in circles. Okay for exercise but horrible for transportation or commuting.

There are no bike lanes and the people who can afford cars have little interest in sharing the roads. In a city with few cyclists there is a high amount of fatalities. Not very comforting. I then watched as he bullied his way through traffic and shouted obscenities at people breaking the rules of the road. ;). I quickly learned to become a bit more offensive on the road.

Martin also introduced me to the Hong Kong unicycle hockey team. I felt at home around them for several reasons; 1. It was a form of hockey (and I am Canadian), 2. It’s played on a rink without ice which is where I spent many days as a kid playing box lacrosse, 3. it was weird, and I like weird, and 4. I of course planned to travel by unicycle at some point on the journey.

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I didn’t yet know how to unicycle but the dry rink was a good place to learn. I could hold on to the boards and go around the rink practicing as the unicycle hockey game continued around me. After a few hours I was able to make it about ten metres before falling off. I was confident I’d be able to cross a country in no time! “Unicycle Ukraine” has a nice ring to it don’t you think?

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Martin and I organized a media event for the return trip across the harbour as well as an evening presentation later in the month for the cycling community. After a few interviews with some press, the paddle back across went over without a hitch. I made it into the largest newspaper in Hong Kong as well as some smaller Chinese language publications and websites. Warren helped to translate for one of the interviews. I think he said I’m doing this because my cat was hit by a car when I was a kid and ever since I’ve avoided using motor vehicles ;)

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I reached out to many schools but only a few expressed interest in hearing from me. During one of the presentations I was in the middle of sharing a story about life on the Ocean when a water main broke and started flooding the hall. The staff and teachers were so apologetic but I thought it was a perfect addition to the story. At another school I added something to my presentation that should probably happen every time; a dance party. I think all of the elementary school enjoyed it, teachers included.

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My two months in Hong Kong flew by. Rein was meeting me in Vietnam for the two year anniversary of the start of the trip and I needed to get moving. A new friend who runs epic and intense bicycle tours throughout Asia (Mad Dog Cycling Tours) had offered me a road bike to use. I managed to get a 7 year, multiple entry visa for China, and I was ready to roll. Except for one more big challenge…

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I was having trouble figuring a way into China. The border with Hong Kong is a restricted area. They don’t allow you to bicycle or walk in the area. Most people take the train to the border. My new friends had been working to get me special permission from the police and it seemed promising at first. I spoke to the head of police communications and they were keen to help. Unfortunately it wasn’t good timing. The president of China was due for a visit to Hong Kong around the same time that I was hoping to leave. They had bigger issues to deal with. What could I do?

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A few potential options came about. A reporter who had interviewed me was keen to paddle or sail over with me. He was training for a transatlantic ocean row so I knew he would be a good guy to do it with. I also had done a talk at the Royal Geographic Society and met a friend who was in a rowing club. She was keen to row over to Macau with me if we could navigate the permissions and bureaucratic mess. It had been done before but seemed like it would take a team of administrators to organize it. Support boats, safety boats, special permissions, endless meetings, etc. I didn’t have the time or the resources to organize it. Both options fell through.

I was feeling a bit of stress and concerned about being late to meet another friend. You might think it would be simpler to travel without a motor. Certainly not the case!

Would I be forced to sneak across the border into China? Find out next blog….

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