08/28/2012 04:39 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2012

What Hong Kong, Where Hong Kong?

I'm back in Hong Kong and it's as if I never left. Little has changed. Two months might as well have been two days or two minutes. On the surface everything is the same. There's the sticky humidity, a signature of the Hong Kong summer. There are the mosh pits of tourists and citizens. There's the mouth watering array of dim sum delicacies and desserts. Hong Kong remains a financial, food and fashion Mecca, lots of good shopping. There are the steady number of shopaholics from Mainland China who snap up name brand purses and cosmetics.
My friends back at home seem blasé about my adventures in the SAR, and are more curious about what goes on beyond the border. "Have you visited Shanghai or ever considered living in Beijing?" a friend asked. "That's where the things are really happening, not Hong Kong."
For other friends Hong Kong might as well have fallen off of the world map.

"How do you like living in China?" a friend asks. "You mean Hong Kong," I say. "Yes, Hong Kong," she said. After correcting her a few times I stop. "Hong Kong, China, what's the difference?" she asks. And that is exactly the problem that Hong Kong faces. The territory is increasingly overshadowed by not only Mainland China but the cities that surround (Singapore is becoming a hot number and attracting more companies and expats). In addition, it struggles with its identity and what makes it unique.

The big story now of course is China. China makes the front page headlines -- the fate of Bo Xilai, the sentence for Wu Yi the self-made tycoon, the growing throngs of upscale shoppers that receive a red carpet welcome from American department stores. Back in Gotham, Mandarin speaking nannies seem to be multiplying and learning Mandarin is now chic. Case in point, my Upper East Side friend who boasts that her 5-year-old has now mastered, "ni hao" and "zai jian." She's caught the Mandarin language learning bug too.

The Hong Kong people, perhaps no different than a dejected athlete who has lost too many games, seems to take a passive approach to change. Case in point, Hong Kong students are overall less hungry to practice their English, letting the Mainland Chinese students aggressively run over them like road kill when it comes to practicing English, asking questions and seeking opportunity. The Chinese students hunt me down to practice English and appear a lot hungrier.
My friends who have visited Hong Kong certainly enjoy sharing what they remember or know about the city. There's the tram, the peak, the floating restaurant, the Chow Yun Fat movies. Their memories are frozen in time or simply outdated. The simplicity of their questions and observations about Hong Kong is perhaps less their problem, then the reality that Hong Kong itself faces a crisis if it doesn't actively consider how it will remain competitive and stand out on its own. The city needs to get its spark back.