Saturday, October 17, 2009

[Travelogue] Hong Kong

Sorry about the boring title. I just can't seem to come up with a headline for Hong Kong. The place defies succinct description.

I live in the 14th largest city on the world (Los Angeles, measured according to the population of the entire metropolitan area according to this web site). I've spent quite a bit of time in the third largest (New York) and I've recently visited the largest (Tokyo). Next to these titans, Hong Kong is a laggard in 38th place. But Hong Kong is unique in having its development be the most severely constrained of any city in the history of the world in terms of geography. Manhattan is dense because it is surrounded by water, but if push comes to shove you can build a ferry or a bridge or a tunnel and escape the confines of the Hudson and the East rivers. That was not an option in Hong Kong. Although the British-controlled area did include a small piece of land attached to the mainland (the Kowloon peninsula), the border with China was an even more impenetrable obstacle to growth than the Pacific ocean. So when trade happened and prosperity and population growth followed, there was no place to grow but up. As a result, there is no place on earth that can match Hong Kong in terms of sheer skyscraperage. The Hong Kong skyline is Manhattan on steroids, one tall building after another for as far as the eye can see...

... which unfortunately wasn't very far when we were there. It was so hazy that at times you could barely see across the harbor. Still, we were impressed, and we had a wonderful time.

I think Hong Kong is probably the most interesting city in the world. It is arguably the most culturally diverse, with the British and Chinese having had more or less equal influence. Los Angeles is diverse, but it is still undeniably and overwhelmingly American. Hong Kong is not British and it's not Chinese, but a strange and wonderful amalgam of both, unique in the world as far as I know. If you want to dip a toe in the waters of Asia, Hong Kong is a great place to go. Everyone speaks English, but you can't go far without finding something that will nudge you a little out of your comfort zone.

The physical city is as diverse as its culture. Parts of it are astonishingly dense (the natives fancy themselves the most densely populated city in the world, but Wikipedia disagrees). But other parts, particularly the steep slopes of Hong Kong island itself, are completely undeveloped. It has the odd mansion on the odd hillside. It has a race track (horse racing isn't gambling, it's sports, kind of like Chinese capitalism isn't capitalism, it's socialism with Chinese influences). It has a golf course (only nine holes). It has a beach. It has mountains (well, OK, hills). It has parks. The only thing it doesn't have are suburbs. There's no room.

By far the most interesting part of the city for me was the street markets, which are everywhere. If it exists on this planet, you'll find it somewhere on the streets of Hong Kong. It seems that there's a store front or a street vendor around every turn, up every escalator, in every tunnel. And the city proper is thoroughly three-dimensional. In the city center there is an array of pedestrian sky bridges so extensive that you could live your whole life there without ever descending to street level.

We had a great overview tour led by a guide with a charming Hong Kong accent (think Jackie Chan or Martin Yan) who spoke with a disarming mixture of respect and disdain of the "filthy rich" people who live in the higher levels of the city and who (gasp!) drive their own cars. Cars are taxed at rates as high as 100%, and a parking space can rent for as much as an apartment in other cities.

Every night the entire city puts on a spectacular light and laser show that is all coordinated to music. If you've ever been to Vegas and seen the Bellagio fountains, it's kind of like that but with light instead of water and on a much grander scale (if you can imagine that). Dozens, maybe hundreds of buildings, all participate. It's quite the eye-popper.

I would very happily spend a couple of weeks more in Hong Kong.

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