Sunday, January 13, 2008

HK/Aussie trip: Layers in Hong Kong.

I have enough notes on this trip that I figured I'd better break stuff into different chunks that I can post over time. It feels like a good place to start is with my weird ambivalence about Hong Kong.

So to begin with, Hong Kong is totally overwhelming even on like a normal day. This was my first trip to Asia, and therefore my first trip to a big Asian city, and Hong Kong is a very special kind of big Asian city. There are over eight million people living and working on several islands the total area of which is one tenth the size of New Jersey, and after about 2 pm daily, it seems that every single one of them is out and about. The city is this weird combination of modern and ancient and the worlds bump into each other all over the place. Hong Kong has the skyline to end all skylines -- seriously, I cannot say enough about this skyline. We stayed in Kowloon, which is across the harbor from Hong Kong Island, and crossing the ferry across the harbor (which is a steal of a tourist deal -- it's less than 50 cents US per crossing) affords you great views of both sides. There is some really interesting architecture among several of the individual buildings, but it is the sheer density of skyscrapers as the skyline is viewed as a whole that struck me. The view from Victoria Peak, from which you can see the harbor and the rest of Hong Kong in every direction, is justifiably famous, but I preferred the skyline view from the harbor. Every night at 8pm -- like every night of the year -- the city sponsors a laser show across the harbor skylines, complete with music and light choreography that includes every major building on the harbor. It is totally bizarre and also totally reflective of the city's love of modernity and spectacle.

The areas surrounding the harbor on both the HK island and the Kowloon sides are meant for tourists. Rich tourists. There are times when the whole city feels like an upscale mall, when every transitway connecting buildings seems to include a Prada store and every subway station a Versace. If you want to spend money, Hong Kong lets you do it in a pretty spectacular fashion. The crowds in these areas, and indeed in every area, are unlike anything I've seen anywhere else. On a good afternoon it takes five minutes to walk a block. The streets are dense with people just as the skylines are dense with skyscrapers. Walking around Hong Kong is definitely a contact sport. The crowds, combined with the crappy air quality, may be the motivation behind the interconnected indoor walkways above street level that connect much of the city. You quickly learn that you don't get anywhere fast in Hong Kong, but if you need to try, you use the truly excellent subway system and the above-street walkways.

But buried among and behind the modern skyline and the super-efficient mass transit and the upscale malling that seems to be everywhere, there is another Hong Kong. Drop down to street level from the raised walkways with their Armanis and Miu Mius and you'll find hole-in-the-wall noodle shops and dim sum teahouses and storefronts shilling traditional Chinese medicine. Turn a corner and walk a couple of blocks away from the main thoroughfares and you're apt to find passageways spilling over with stands selling dried fish and flowers and stinky tofu, so narrow that you need to walk single file to pass through the alley. This is an old place, regardless of the layers of shiny new that have been built on top of it. And in its way, the old is as overwhelming as the new. This is a city where chaos flourishes amidst tightly constrained and deliberately architected infrastructure.

In light of that, the public parks in Hong Kong are a marvel. We visited Hong Kong Park, Kowloon Park, and Victoria Park, and every one of them offers a perfectly manicured respite from the city. They are green and blue and like the rest of Hong Kong, composed of several different landings connected by hills and stairs and interconnecting paths -- this is a hilly city, and the design of the streets and public spaces accomodates that. But the most remarkable thing about the parks is the way that they are an unabashed celebration of the artificial. Every color is Crayola. The waterfalls and ponds are heavily chlorinated and placed evenly among the pathways, which are themselves frequently symmetric over acres of land. There are miniaturized Olympic stadia and postcard-perfect wedding registration offices and exquisitely tended gardens with symmetric flower displays. And yet tucked among the perfectly crafted green space are hundreds of elderly residents doing their daily tai chi, anywhere they manage to find a spot that offers sufficient sanctuary. There are loud groups of teenagers and families having picnics that range from pork dumplings to KFC. We saw one group of about 15 teenage girls taking pictures of each other, singly and in clusters, with modelly poses on the steps of the miniaturized Olympic stadium in Hong Kong Park. In Victoria Park there was a big Chinese product fair set-up, kind of the Hong Kong equivalent of the Puyallup Fair. It cost $10US for entry and featured the expected mix of food vendors -- selling fried rice instead of hot dogs and dumpings instead of funnel cake -- and as-seen-on-TV hawkers, with automatic freeze-driers and vacuum cleaners and ancient herbal remedies.

Everywhere we went, it was impossible not to notice the deliberate crafting of the infrastructure of life: the sleek subway system; the perfectly crafted public parks; the above ground walkways; the choreography of the laser light show at 8pm nightly. And everywhere we went, it was also impossible not to notice the way chaos seeped not just through the cracks, but also spread itself out and made itself at home in total ignorance of the cracks even existing: every subway car packed people in like sardines, at any time of day; the hundreds of tai chi practicioners spread across the manicured park lawns, each moving at their own pace and in explicit and indifferent dissonance to the hundreds of other tai chiers around them; the hawkers trying to sell you copy watches and fake Prada bags and the religious missionaries trying to make you take green Jesus stickers in the above ground walkways; the pushing and shoving to get the best view of the laser show and the loud conversations and turned backs among people who ended up with the best positions. You can design a city to be neat and orderly, but eight million people in 2,000 square kilometers just can't be neat and orderly.

(And it turns out that you can take over a city and make everyone study English for over a century, but you can't really make them speak English. I went into Hong Kong expecting a truly bilingual city from everything I'd read. This isn't it. But more on that in another post.)


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