Last week, my family and I spent a considerate number of days in two China territories: Hong Kong and Macau. It was a wonderful vacation with no unpleasant experiences and one filled with wonderful memories. The food, the shopping, the sights, the sounds and the people made the trip memorable and enjoyable.
One thing though that I noticed in Hong Kong and Macau was the two Special Administrative Regions’ (SAR) use of heritage for tourism development. Again, I, a Pinoy, learned many lessons and insights on cultural heritage in that travel of mine.
In Hong Kong, for example, there were many opportunities to experience “Hong Kong”. Though the Hong Kong (HK) brand would always be associated with shopping (AND THEY DO LIVE UP TO THAT REPUTATION), there were so many other ways to experience HK. First was the gastronomic adventures of HK. Unlike in Manila where everything is packaged as “sosyal” or “alta” (more like pa-sosyal/pa-alta) [to those unfamiliar, sosyal is a word that describes one who has money], there were many establishments in HK that totally exhibited no pretension and capitalized on their being authentic. These cheap, ubiquitous eateries, street food kiosks, take-out-only joints are an experience tourists love or would love to have. I remember two dinners we had in Hong Kong where we ate at two different al freso eateriess along Temple Street right smack at the night market. The food was fast, piping hot and no frills. Spicy clams, stir-fried noodles, boiled veggies, hot fried rice and bottles of Tsing Tao made our palettes craving for more Hong Kong. Alongside us in these cheap but enjoyable establishments were white ex-pats in their suits, other tourists and locals enjoying dishes that were full of heart and of flavors.
But tourism is also about variety. Hong Kong is a very cosmopolitan and chic place in our side of the world and so, they also offer high-class restaurant choices. For example, on our first lunch there, we were hosted by mama’s former student who works for Merrill Lynch based in Hong Kong. We ate in this swanky restaurant in West Kowloon’s new mall, The Elements where the new tallest building in HK is located. The entire area reeks with “sosyal”. Even the public washrooms were amazing. For the Pinoy like me who hates going to public washrooms in Manila, their unusually free (yes, the clean washrooms in Manila, in order to again give-off that “sosyal” vibe have to be pay washrooms) featured state of the art washroom amenities and attentive staff. On top of Elements were more chi chi restaurants like a Spanish Tapas bar and a New York-style café.
The same goes with our Macau experience. I remember very fondly the best noodle soup we tried during our trip. We were resting in a small plaza along the route coming from the Ruinas de Sao Paolo when we noticed a couple serving hand-pulled noodles at the foot of the apartment. We decided to give their product a try. It was extraordinary (well, the food I mean). There was no ambiance (unless you consider eating at a dimly lit apartment foyer overlooking a busy plazuela) but the rich piping hot broth, the al dente noodles and the milky, creamy beef tendons and the generous fillings of the wantons made the dish stand out. Though it was 17 degrees in Macau when we visited, we were perspiring after having bowls that wonderful noodle soup.
In Macau, one could really notice how they capitalize on their Portuguese heritage. First and foremost was the entire area of the Largo de Senado, an expansive series of plazas, plazuelas, streets and sights that exhibit a very Portuguese (a very European) feel that makes Macau stand out. There were the old heritage buildings, the beautifully maintained churches and the highly-capitalized Ruinas de Sao Paolo, a standing façade of a once imposing church of the Jesuits. Lining the streets and reusing the old buildings are different kinds of enterprises. From long respected pastelerias (pastry shops) to modern affairs like Starbucks and McDonald’s, establishments that bring in revenue and offer comfort to tourists and locals make the place vibrant and alive. Again, there can be variety in heritage tourism.
The very example of Sao Paolo attests to the potential of heritage to tourism efforts. Old buildings, ruined or not, can attract tourists, investors and small entrepreneurs. We could see that happening in the Lacson mansion ruins in Negros, which also serves as a restaurant. Intramuros could have also offered such an experience if only the Americans didn’t pull down the facades and walls of the churches and palaces after the War, and if the religious orders were more sensitive to cultural heritage back then.
In Hong Kong, there were also the experiences of riding the tram through the city and to Victoria Peak, taking the Star Ferry to cross the harbor to get to Kowloon from Hong Kong and vice-versa, and to also shop in an area that was once home to the Navy Police of Hong Kong (Heritage 1881, which gives off the turn-of-the-century feel of once-British occupied Hong Kong). Hong Kong also features the Avenue of the Stars, a very modern, very Western concept that nonetheless capitalizes and maximizes local heritage: the view from Kowloon to Hong Kong island. Go here at night and be mesmerized by the lights of the skyscrapers of Hong Kong. Simple joys like vistas, open spaces and walking through spacious sidewalks are appreciated by tourists who would like to savor the places they visit.
Why, even language, an aspect of heritage and culture, plays an important role in stimulating the interests of the tourist. In Macau, for example, in spite of the fact that presently less than 1% in Macau speak Portuguese, one can still see/read Portuguese signs/warnings/phrases all over the place. My parents asked me why and I simply answered that Macau is banking on the historical fact that an undeniable part of its culture is its Portuguese past. And so, in order to capitalize this heritage of theirs, they continue putting up signboards in Portuguese. Highway signs, restaurant labels, food names and many other things have Portuguese subtitles. Again, we could do that in the Philippines. Our Hispanic heritage shouldn’t be ignored and shouldn’t be forgotten because it will be more promising to both locals and foreign visitors if they still read signs and see visual traces and reminders of our Spanish past. Not only would it be helpful to Spanish and Latin American tourists and residents, it would also serve as a historical reminder to all Filipinos.
Visiting Macau and Hong Kong this year was a beautiful experience for me and my family. As tourists, we never get tired of these two places.
But would it be the same when foreigners visit Manila? Will they remember us fondly or simply condemn us Manileños for exhibiting no love for our heritage or concern for our culture? Will they associate the Philippines simply with our heavenly beaches and not with our chaotic pungent capital city? We Filipinos, especially those in the city centers like Manila, Cebu and Davo, need to realize that we need to make and realize our cultural heritage an important asset of our tourism, and more importantly, of our daily lives.
Enough of our parochial, 3rd world mentality of always copying Los Angeles and branding things “sosyal”! Real development is not about being sosyal; it is about knowing your people’s potentials, history, background and identity, and from there, tailoring the development programs needed to ensure growth in commerce and maturity in politics. Cultural heritage is that important that a meal in a carinderia of famous and well-loved Pinoy dishes can make the foreign (and local) investor invest millions in dollars in our economy. We need to vigorously campaign for cleaner wet markets (where tourists and locals can appreciate and purchase the various products of our regions), bigger and vendor-less sidewalks, a more efficient public transport system, more venues where heritage is featured (where do tourists get the chance to listen to traditional Pinoy music and watch folk dances but only in the imposing CCP?), adapt and preserve our buildings and most importantly, educate the citizenry that their heritage isn’t something that should be replaced by Fil-Am (or Fil-[country of father)]) culture but should be something one should be intensely proud of that he/she is able to capitalize, package, market and sell it.
I think the first step we need to do then is to travel, and with Hong Kong and Macau very nearby, it would be good to visit these two SARs of the great mother country of Asia, China.