Wednesday, April 06, 2005

A Sense of History

Hi everyone, this is Dave, a long-time resident of Hong Kong and co-founder of Walk the Talk. Our service provides audio-guided historic walking tours like those in museums, except that we've made them entertaining and fun, taken them onto the streets and onto your mobile phone. That's right, all you need is our map and a phone, and you can dial up our narratives for spots around Hong Kong (and Macau's) most interesting districts. For more info on Walk the Talk, how it works or where you can get it, please visit our website at

Why did Stefan and I decide to jack in our jobs in investment banking to start this company and become wireless heritage tour guides? Obviously, we both realized with the huge increase in mobile usage, in people using phones while they travel and for purposes other than voice, it was an attractive opportunity - especially given Hong Kong's 21 million visitors in 2004. As for personal reasons, well, I'll let Stefan speak for himself, but definitely for me it was returning to one of my life's passions - a love of history, of discovering the magic symmetry of the links between past and present. When I travel, I like to see and imagine cities in not three but in four dimensions - including that of time. I want to know what lies beneath the city's streets. I see a street sign, and I think to myself, "I wonder why this little alley is called Duddell Street. Who was this Duddell, I wonder if he was a scoundrel?" (he most certainly was!)

Also, it was realizing that Hong Kong, my home for eighteen years, had so many fascinating and exciting stories about its past just under its surface that were not being told. Sold to tourists since its earliest colonial beginnings as 'The Emporium of the East', a haven for shopping, entertainment and for living in the present, Hong Kong has never really felt the need to tell people much about its past. Perhaps it was less not feeling a need, and more wanting to cover up its past, for Hong Kong after all has a dirty secret - it was a city founded on the back of the Opium War and the suffering of thousands of addicts. Its meteoric rise, bolstered by thousands of talented immigrants (and economic refugees) across six generations, could not have happened without the weakness and anarchy of late Qing and Republican China. Is Hong Kong, indeed, not something like an illegitimate child of forced relations between Britain and China?

Of course the analogy is not only disquieting but appears unseemly given the great success of the former colony from its dubious, insalubrious and rocky beginnings. With little more than human will (British, Chinese and others), Hong Kong has been transformed over the course of just two human lifetimes from a barren, malaria-infested pirate den to a dazzling, cosmopolitan city.

That is why to me, one person more than any other was the living embodiment of the city - Sir Robert Ho-Tung. The illegitimate product in 1860 of a union between a Belgian father and a low-born Tanka Chinese, he excelled at the English-speaking 'Central School', and became the youngest comprador of the great hong of Jardine Matheson at just eighteen. His incredible business savvy had made both the firm and himself so wealthy that he was able to retire at age forty on the grounds of ill health. Wholly unjustified, it seems, as he lived into his ninetes, through some of the most dramatic (and traumatic) events of the city's past. That an illegitimate, low-born Eurasian was able to succeed and be accepted by both the European and Chinese communities (and get a Knighthood from the King to boot) seems to me the quintessential story of Hong Kong. Faith in Horatio Alger runs deep in Hong Kong's veins. It has to!

Well, that's probably more than enough for my first blog post, but I assure you that you can hear a great deal more about these stories and others on our walks and even on our websites (I mentioned the Walk the Talk website; there's also our corporate one for our company, Mobile Adventures). Tsoi geen!

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