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10.06.2006

Hong Kong

When it comes to the future, we were robbed. Raised in anticipation of the new millennium, we let the grown-ups fill our ears with sweet promises even as they failed to do any of the basic or applied science needed to make them a reality. The year 2000 was supposed to bring us flying cars, flying robots, moon cities, undersea bases, bionic medicine, artificial brains, orbiting lasers, monoliths, domes, hypersonic airliners, cyborg bodies and giant space stations. Instead, when the big odometer finally rolled over, we were told to accept as the acme of Western technological achievement the autonomous vacuum cleaner and animated smiley. The crushing sense of disappointment found its purest expression in the Millennium Dome, a combination of insane cost, masterful engineering and total pointlessness of the kind one usually associates with things in low earth orbit. But its lesser expressions were everywhere.

In some areas, our civilization had even regressed. In the 1980's, the bad guys were a globe-spanning empire with a thermonuclear arsenal, undisputed chess superiority, great graphic design and a rather catchy worldview. Twenty years on, the global enemy had become a loose coalition of fundamentalist beardos whose most potent secret weapon was the airborne beverage. Cobra at its least competent was a better global adversary than al-Qaeda. In the meantime, the Concorde had been grounded, the nuclear icebreaker Lenin was sitting in dry dock, and even the retro Space Shuttle was about to be replaced with a scaled-up version of its predecessor. The future was here, and it kind of sucked.

Hong Kong was the first place where I ever felt like I was in the 21st century. Free internet terminals in the subway, Jetsons architecture, a giant Central Escalator, chirping traffic lights, storefronts filled with tiny robotic gadgets - this was the new millenium I'd been waiting for. From the moment my plane docked at the world's most advanced airport and the cute policewoman scanned my eager retinas with her retina-scanning gun I felt like the future wasn't just a cynically oversold ripoff, but a place I might actually want to spend some time.

Like ancient Gaul, Hong Kong is divided into three parts. Taking the zippy and futuristic train from the airport at the western periphery of the colony past the new Disneyland takes you first into the New Territories (the mainland part of the colony) down into Kowloon and finally under Victoria harbor to the island of Hong Kong proper, the oldest part of the territory and the place where all the iconic buildings stand in a neat row, Hong Kong's equivalent of Manhattan.

The city center looks like it was designed on a "Free Cocaine Friday" at the Grand Theft Auto studios. Hong Kong island rises quickly from sea level to steep hills in the south, and property values are so high that every scrap of land that isn't on an eighty-degree slope has buildings on it. A system of concrete spaghetti roads and walkways connects the various levels of the city in a giant knot of unspeakably expensive infrastructure. Sidewalks somehow manage to weave under and over the main roads in a series of awkward underpasses, bridges and spiral staircases, but going long distances as a pedestrian is challenging. Attempts at cycling are rewarded with instant death. The climb from the old port district is so abrupt that there is even that Central Escalator, a strange bit of the indoors stuck in the outdoors, which looks like it escaped from one of the downtown malls and is trying to zigzag its way uphill to freedom. Commuters slide placidly up and down on its chain of moving staircases, looking into upper-story windows as they pass from the financial district up through the restaurant neighborhoods and finally into the posh apartments of the Mid-Levels.

It's hard to imagine how the economy here functioned when people and goods had to move around on foot, and there was no refrigeration or air conditioning. Even just moving along the city's contour lines in late August feels like taking a sauna bath (in the traditional, rather than ubiquitous Hong Kong girl-on-billboard sense of the term). If you turn and try to walk uphill, you can actually hear the faint hiss as all the moisture leaves your body and settles into your clothes. Here and there you may see a delivery person pushing a wheelbarrow up a vertical slope of concrete, two steps and rest, two steps and rest. The miserable people who actually have to work outdoors wear long coveralls and elaborate sunshades, covering up like Gulf Arabs.

My own hotel was in Kowloon, across the water from this alpine craziness, near the busy shops of Tsim Tsha Tsui. This neighborhood is an excellent place for those looking to buy a 100% genuine cheap rolex watch, a pallet of perfume and a digital camera while waiting for the nice Indian tailor to finish that bespoke three-piece suit in under two hours. My own reasons for coming were a bit more modest: I had made the trip down in late August in order to eat myself insensate and to get a new Chinese visa. The 'one country, two systems' agreement governing Hong Kong for the next forty years means that the colony is considered external to China for visa purposes, attracting expats like me who shuttle down as the most convenient way of cobbling together a long-term stay on the mainland.

The city's political status is complicated, but something about it struck me as strangely familiar. Here I was in a province autonomous in everything but defense and foreign policy, with its own beautifully colored play dollars, its own strange dialect of moon language, and a large population of people who secretly spoke English. Then it hit me - the place was a Chinese Québec, except with better food and dengue fever.

I was fully expecting to be amazed by the city, but to my surprise the first thing to jump out at me wasn't the crazy density or great wealth, but rather the fact that every street sign had come down with character cancer. Four months in Beijing had only given me the most rudimentary knowledge of Chinese, but there was still a bedrock class of characters ('street', 'hotel', 'restaurant', 'tobacco shop') that I had come to regard as old friends, and it was somewhat traumatic to see them gone, replaced by mysterious and intimidating usurpers bristling with ink. Like Taiwan, Hong Kong uses the traditional Chinese writing system, which looks like it was designed by someone who got paid by the stroke:

SimplifiedComplexificated

I may be exaggerating a touch in the last example, but the others are real. And just to really mess with the heads of foreign learners, the change in orthography comes with a brand-new spoken language at no extra charge. Whatever foothold you may have scratched in the sheer rock wall of Mandarin becomes useless in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong, dropping you back into the abyss of complete illiteracy and incomprehension so familiar from your first weeks in China. Simple everyday situations you may have learned to cope with on the mainland ("how much?", "which way?", "dumplings?", "massage?") once again become an insurmountable linguistic Everest. Hence the immense feeling of relief when you discover that everyone here secretly speaks English.

There are few other outward signs of the long British dominion over Hong Kong, but its effects run deeper than just language. A century of proximity has taught Hong Kongers one of the West's best-kept secrets, which is that Westerners are not that interesting. For the first time since coming to China, I found it completely unexceptional to be a white guy. Beijing is not a bad city in this respect at all - people don't stare, and there are none of the cries of 'laowai' that you might hear in less visited parts of China - but neither do you ever feel like you are blending into the background. People treat you with the kind of courtesy and deep concern that we might reserve for a particularly mentally deficient visiting dignitary. The most mundane interaction with merchants, waiters, officials, or ordinary passers-by risks unleashing Level 9 Chinese hospitality, with much fussing and solicitousness and gathering of clouds of people to hover and giggle.

In Hong Kong you can be white, black, blue, green or striped and no one will take a second look. The city has been a cosmopolitan port for centuries, and of course all parties to the mix have brought with them not just their customs and moon languages but also their grandmothers and their recipes, making the city a culinary paradise. The grandmothers get put to work in the kitchens of ten thousand hole-in-the-wall restaurants, filling the streets with the most amazing assortment of cooking smells. Anything that swims, crawls, skitters or undulates its way through the sea is hauled out of the water and prepared in an infinity of different styles, to suit every palate and price level. Particularly impressive is the Indian food, unobtainable in Beijing and possibly the best I have ever eaten; lunch at the venerable Gaylord restaurant activated taste buds that hadn't fired in over a year. It occurred to me that Hong Kong was a kind of anti-Argentina, with steak one of the only foods that was not readily obtainable on every street corner.

As it's late August, heavy rains come in and drench the city with tropical abruptness. One minute some clouds are wafting around, the next minute a few fat drops have burst on the sidewalk, and then the air is opaque with rain, ridiculous quantities of water exploding against curbs and soaking the innocent. Moments later everything is back to normal, with a fresh rain smell and people emerging back out from the awnings where they have taken cover, until the whole process repeats again a few blocks later.

You can hide from the rain most effectively by descending into Hong Kong's immaculate subway, the kind of light rail system you would expect to find in Heaven. Four months of riding the subway across the immensity of Beijing - with its lab-coat-wearing ticket-shredding ladies, the kittens on sale in tiny cages, the refusal to let any passengers step off before mashing into the subway car, the crowds of expense account fraudsters with their morose sales cries of fapiao (receipt), the high-powered fans blowing ninety-degree air through your hair, the sour compressed smell of a million Asian sweat glands struggling to break free, the teenage uniformed guards barking through megaphones, the one-way pedestrian tunnels, the five-minute train delays at each station stop, the little advertisements in plexiglas holders above each strap - had brutalized me and crushed my subway expectations into a fine powder. So I was completely unprepared for the Hong Kong trains, with their spotless wide cars, beautiful maps, cool air and all that effortless gliding under the harbor.

Even more fun than the quick train journey to Central is taking the Kowloon ferry, particularly at night, where you can see all of Hong Kong's buildings lit up and standing in a neat row. The iconic building in the skyline is supposed to be I.M. Pei's boring Bank of China tower, but I much prefer the Lippo Center, which looks like a pack of giant glass turtles humping a chimney. Most of this part of town is an imposing arid stretch of steel box malls and financial centers, but just a little way up the hill lies a stretch of parkland, with calm gardens and a small pond where giant carp glide around under the water like nuclear missile submarines. There are tortoises as well, paddling around in the water, escapees from the ferocious southern Chinese appetite. These small oases are surprisingly numerous throughout the city, and in fact the built-up part of Hong Kong is surrounded by over a hundred kilometers of wonderful hiking trails out of all keeping with the territory's reputation as a crowded urban monstrosity. Wherever the ground gets so pointy that builders had to give up in exasperation you can find families and tourists puffing around in the bush.

Climbing uphill from the skyscrapers of Central leads into a little warren of restaurants, the beautiful small bar district of Lang Kwai Fong, and then up through a small zoo(!) to steeper and steeper roads until the buildings abruptly transition into thick foliage that yearns to come down from the peaks and cover the entire island. This greenery is another testament to the industrious Hong Kongers. Vegetation here is so aggressive that it can grow on vertical rock; you can imagine what it would do to the rest of the city if allowed to spread unchecked.

The city can seem hectic and rushed during business hours, but that is only until you see it on weekends, when Hong Kong's equivalent of the bridge and tunnel crowd converges on the city for an orgy of eating, cosmetics shopping and the quintessential Chinese hobby, crowd formation. Every bus, sidewalk and subway car is packed, and in the middle of town, people put out cardboard and tatami mats to make a long, improptu picnic along the eleveated walkways. Domestic workers on their lone day off sit and play cards or dominoes, laughing and enjoying the shade. The incongruous urban setting makes it looks like a festive train station or particularly good-natured refugee camp.

I was sad to leave Hong Kong. With my visa in hand there was no pretext to stay, but I could easily imagine myself living there for good, puffing my way up and down the hills, slowly turning into a sphere of radius R, uniformly filled with dim sum.

My flight to Beijing was delayed for a couple of hours, so that it landed close to two o'clock in the morning. Nevertheless, I found myself stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic from just past the fifth ring road, the taxi driver helplessly pacing in and out of the cab in frustration. Without thinking, I had scheduled my return for a Sunday night, when every car-owning family that has fled in the outbound Friday night traffic jam tries to return to the city, clogging the roads again in the other direction until dawn. Hong Kong is an enchanting vision of one future China, but this surreal 3 AM gridlock amidst dirt and concrete served as a useful corrective. How do you bring seven hundred million subsistence farmers up to a First World standard of living? And how are you going to keep them down on the farm once they've seen Hong Kong?



To no one's surprise, there is a bitter debate about what to call the two writing systems. Very briefly, there was a spelling reform in the 1950's, most people outside mainland China use the old style, most educated people can read both, arguments in favor of the older method are that it is beautiful and preserves a cultural link to classical Chinese, arguments in favor of the newer are that it doesn't take you forty minutes to sign your name. [back]

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