So near, yet so far away for P.L.A. garrison
The People's Liberation Army Hong Kong garrison may be stationed in a free city, but its soldiers are bound by restrictions that prevent them from freely enjoying the city's many offerings that local residents take for granted.
Shopping, dining out and even romantic walks with loved ones along Victoria Harbour, located just downstairs from where some of them are posted in Central district, are off-limits for members of the garrison, which represents the world's biggest army in the special administrative region.
In a rare visit granted to the media on a non-open day late last month, sailors at the Stonecutters Island naval base talked with the South China Morning Post about life outside the mainland, away from most of their brothers in arms.
While in Hong Kong, the approximately 6,000 PLA soldiers, sailors and airmen are strictly confined to the 18 barracks scattered across the territory. They only return to 'normal' life when they take annual leave.
'We are not allowed to go out during days off or public holidays. ... But we encourage the sailors to cultivate healthy personal hobbies,' said Lieutenant Commander Shi Liqing, who overseas cultural activities at the city's only naval base.
The sailors only get one day off a week - which they must spend in their dorms. The PLA says it tries to keep the troops isolated from the public to prevent their military spirit from becoming contaminated by Hong Kong's capitalist lifestyle.
Still, the soldiers consider it an honour to be among the select few to serve in Hong Kong. The units here have relatively high standards when selecting troops, according to Lieutenant General Zhang Shibo, the garrison's commander.
Zhang said that when selected, troops were usually stationed in Guangdong to undergo a year of training. Officers are carefully chosen from other military command units on the mainland.
'For example, soldiers are required to be about 1.75 metres tall, and must have a high school education. Our requirements are higher than for other troops [on the mainland],' he said, adding that soldiers must pass further assessments after their training before they are sent to Hong Kong.
The monthly income of a navy lieutenant commander is about HK$14,000 - or about 40 per cent higher than for comrades with the same rank on the mainland, according to one sailor. Non-commissioned troops and officers also receive a cash allowance from the central government.
Zhang also noted that soldiers in Hong Kong get more paid leave than mainland-based servicemen.
'Our soldiers also enjoy 45 to 60 paid leave days [a year] when they are working in Hong Kong,' he said. 'Their spouses and children are also allowed to visit Hong Kong for up to 60 days a year.'
For the rest of the year, soldiers face a strict regimen of training and work. Spare time is limited in their strict daily routine: up at 6am, 20 minutes for breakfast, then off to work stations or to training and drills. All soldiers are required to take a two-hour nap at 2pm. They do their own laundry after finishing their duties in the evening. Lights-out is at 10pm.
To keep himself busy when he's not engaged in duties, Lieutenant Yang Guoyong, from Zhangzhou, Fujian province, has been building two models of PLA destroyers using scrap metal and wood since arriving at the garrison several months ago. He has also carved a wooden helicopter.
'First I drew sketches for my models, then I glued the metal and wood parts together piece by piece. It took me one month to finish my guided-missile destroyer model,' said Yang, a 29-year-old officer who signed up to the PLA 10 years ago.
Yang's comrades pass their spare time in various ways. Some play chess and cards. Others sing karaoke. But nowadays, PLA soldiers prefer to sing pop songs rather than revolutionary 'red' songs.
Lieutenant General Wang Zengbo, the political commissar of the garrison who overseas cultural and political affairs, said PLA troops were allowed to leave the barracks to meet their families, but prior approval must be granted.
When asked whether the everyday isolation would affect the wellbeing of soldiers, Wang said the garrison provided troops with psychological counselling.
'Military men are also common people who are affected by problems in society. Troops and officers may develop mental illnesses, so we designate consultants and provide them with psychological care,' Wang said.
All officers were trained to help their subordinates deal with common emotional and mental problems, Wang said. More severe cases were referred to professional care.
'We also sharpen and strengthen the will of our soldiers through organised military drills,' he said.
As part of their welcome to Hong Kong, newly arrived troops receive local tours and shopping trips. At the end of their rotations in Hong Kong they are given a similar send-off.
It is a life that may seem restrictive to outsiders, however, the troops take a positive approach to their unique situation.
'On open days [when the public and media are free to visit], many Hong Kong residents remind us that, besides our view of Victoria Harbour, the balconies of our bedrooms also feature beautiful views of fireworks - a selling point for luxury Hong Kong homes,' one soldier said with a smile.