The other Hong Kong
When Inquirer Opinion editorial assistant Tintin Ang-Buban texted me to follow up on my column, I replied that I needed a bit more time because I was in Hong Kong. I knew it would get her, and you, Reader, thinking, “Oh, he’s gone shopping.”
That’s one perception of Hong Kong which I have to say has basis: The place is crammed with shops that look alike, with names that repeat themselves every other block.
The plane to Hong Kong was packed with people who, I could tell from their conversations, were looking forward to shopping. In the hotel shuttle from the airport, there was a group of Filipinos whose conversation confused me initially with references to “bato” (stones), until I realized they were in the city for the Hong Kong International Diamond, Gem and Pearl Show, combined with the HK International Jewellery Show. With 4,300 exhibitors, that makes for a lot of bato.
But there is another side to Hong Kong that I hope more Filipinos can discover. In the train we passed forested mountains, and I was reminded that some 75 percent of its land area is considered countryside. There’s a lot of hiking and bird-watching, and even just nature appreciation, that can be done there. They also have a cable car that takes you through the most breathtaking scenery.
I finally arrived at the hotel, where I was to attend an event organized by the international weekly magazine The Economist. But I will write about that meeting at another time.
I very rarely go overseas now. I carefully vet each invitation to see if it’s worthwhile taking time off from the University of the Philippines, where the workload is staggering. Hong Kong, I will admit, has not been appealing because I think of the crowds and noise, as well as rude shop keepers and taxi drivers. But then I remembered a trip some years back which proved quite pleasant.
School in a hotel
I decided to say yes after checking online on where we were to be billeted: the Hotel Icon. I found, to my surprise, that it is run by Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s School of Hotel and Tourism Management.
Don’t think of dorms now, or a hostel, or even a boutique hotel. The photos on the Internet were impressive: a high-rise hotel of steel and glass. A pool overlooking the city.
Intrigued, I e-mailed the hotel officials in advance and asked if I could meet the administrators. They replied immediately, and arranged for a meeting and a tour which were held a few hours after I arrived, with Samrina Cheung, director of human capital, and Angela Yip, training manager (and main coordinator for student trainees).
The hotel site used to be a dorm, but the university’s planners wisely decided that they could build the dorm elsewhere and build a hotel instead, to be run by professionals as a training site for their hotel and tourism management (HTM, instead of the Filipino HRM) students. The tourism school is itself located on several floors of the hotel, with the most modern facilities. Samsung donated a lab which I first read, being a medical anthropologist, as “hospital technology.” It was actually “hospitality technology.” They also have a food and wine laboratory and a huge stainless steel kitchen for students to learn the culinary arts.
On the 10th floor there are innovation rooms, not used by guests but somewhat like learning labs where students get to think up new ideas for the room designs, with emphasis on meeting special needs—for example, of persons with disabilities.
Some of the best innovations are in the “little” things, like guests being provided with a smartphone which can be used for local and international calls, and which generates a wireless hotspot one can use with one’s Philippine phone as one roams the city.
Nature to boot
Amid the high tech, the hotel has found a way to bring in nature, exemplified by a vertical garden that rises from the ground floor to the third floor, 8,000 plants, 200 species, all indigenous.
My room was paid for by the conference organizers but I checked the Internet for the hotel’s prices. Direct booking is between HK$2,000 and $2,500 a night; multiply that by seven for the peso equivalent and the prices seem high, but when you compare them with Hong Kong’s five-star hotels, they’re still economical.
I thought of our UP Asian Institute of Tourism which many years ago had a hotel, too, with rooms donated by Manila’s five-star hotels. Alas, the hotel has closed down but the current dean, Miguela Mena, who turned out to have studied at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, is interested in reviving something like it. (Hotel Icon is probably too much of a pipe dream.)
Some years back, when I visited the Chinese University of Hong Kong, I was told that the government had generous scholarships for foreign students. But the number of Filipinos availing themselves of these grants was small. When I offered the scholarships to some of our faculty members, they would ask if the universities were good, and whether they had to learn Mandarin Chinese or Cantonese.
I would point out that Hong Kong’s universities are among the world’s best now, still trailing behind Singapore and Japan but moving up the ranks. In fact, during this trip the South China Morning Post’s front page featured a new “robo-op” developed by the University of Hong Kong and the Polytechnic University.
You read right, it’s robo-op and not robo-cop. This robot can do surgery, with almost no body invasion. Earlier the two Hong Kong universities developed the Da Vinci, a robotic system that does several incisions to insert robotic arms into the body. The new system needs only one hole, or a “natural orifice,” through which the robotic arm can be inserted to do obstetric and colorectal surgery. (Now you can guess which orifices are involved.)
The Chinese government is investing heavily in education, both in the mainland and in Hong Kong, which includes hiring professors from the United States and Europe. It is also constantly reviewing its educational system. It used to have a seven-year high school system, so college courses like the hospitality and tourism management degree required only three years. Now it has shifted to a six-year high school system, so the HTM degree will take four years.
The Philippines is moving in the other direction, from a four-year to a six-year high school, which should mean that five- and six-year degree programs like engineering, veterinary medicine and food technology, could probably be reduced by a year.
There you have it—forest and mountain treks, school hotels, and, may I add, museums. The Hong Kong Polytechnic and its hotel are on the same road as two impressive museums, one built around science and the other around history. Catch them on Wednesdays, when admission is free. There’s an ongoing exhibit on Hong Kong’s history which draws from ecology and archaeology to reconstruct the past. Some of it helps you understand the Philippines as well.
Take a break from Disneyland and shopping and discover the other Hong Kong.
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