Sunday, September 09, 2007

Week in review (now for my first week in Hong Kong)

Hong Kong is very crowded. Obvious, I know, but it's sort of uniquely crowded. They make ample use of space that, in most American cities, goes totally unnoticed or underutilized. Advertisements and signage jut out dramatically over the street. Skyscrapers incorporate advertisements for totally unrelated corporate entities onto their tops. Skyscrapers themselves are decoratively lit and colored for extra effect. The streets in several neighborhoods are so regularly overcrowded that huge blocks of city become pedestrian-only zones at night, including Mong Kog (a amusingly-named shopping area in Kowloon that's pictured here) and Lan Kwai Fong (a bar-and-restaurant district I've mentioned before). The city is also incredibly vertical. Even in the area where I live, which is sometimes actually referred to as "Chinatown" because it is so non-metro/cosmopolitan compared to the rest of Hong Kong, apartment blocks routinely rise 30 stories into the air. One rather unique set-up involves a 5-floor mall, which is underneath a 30-story luxury apartment complex, the top of which then connects you to the street on the adjacent hill. Which brings me to my next point.

Hong Kong is very hilly. Insanely hilly. The HKU campus is an impossible tangle of staircases and elevators to try to deal with just isn't a sane place to put anything, let alone a fairly sprawling campus. To get from my dorm to the student lounge where I sometimes meet some of my friends, I walk from my building down a large hill, then up and across an overpass that connects to the general campus area, into an underground parking garage and up 5 floors on an elevator, across a long pathway, down some stairs into a courtyard, down some stairs, into a walkway, up some stairs into a building, down the elevator to the Lower Ground 2 floor, out the building and down a ramp, and into the lounge. That is not an exaggeration.

The city is no different, which eventually led to the creation of another Babyccino and the Hot Perfections song, Too Lazy to Walk (think something mellow and electronic, like Portishead). From a civil engineering standpoint, the topography has led to some very interesting urban quirks. The city is like a giant Chutes and Ladders boardgame. Drive along a street in a lane on the far left (they drive on the left here, British influence and all) without paying attention, and you may suddenly split off onto a windy one-way overpass that leads you downhill to another totally separate part of the city (the Chutes). Getting back where you started involves either winding back and forth through streets that climb the hill, or if you're on foot, the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator, the "longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world" (people here love superlatives), which lets you cut across the various levels of the city vertically (the Ladders), and is an absolute godsend (even if it turned out to be something of a public works financial disaster for the city).

The hill situation is especially unfortunate in light of the next point.

Hong Kong is very humid. People like to say that weather is "something you get used to," but really, you don't get used to humidity like this. It just is physiologically impossible to adapt to without the benefit of, you know, generations of natural selection. It's not just the white people who are chronically damp around 12:30 pm, the locals look as moist and matted as everyone else.

Hong Kongers* l-o-v-e to shop. Every neighborhood is a shopping neighborhood. It might be luxury shopping, it might be flea market shopping, it might be European designer brands or it might be cheap and obvious knock-offs. But everywhere you go, people are buying things, and damn are they excited about buying things. The picture here is of the Times Square mall in Causeway Bay, which is a higher-end shopping area. The street is full, the building is overflowing, the escalators are totally full. It's a typical scene here. Britt has described Hong Kong as "the most western city in the world" because of its commercialist obsessions.

The city is also specifically designed to maximize shopping. Every MTR stop (the subway system) is a shopping mall, every major commercial skyscraper is a shopping mall. The thing is, it's not that the prices are particularly great. Prices for legitimate goods are comparable to those in the United States, and in some cases higher. The city is generally economically prosperous, so many of the locals are prepared to pay these designer prices. CNN reported this year that Hong Kong is the 5th most expensive city in the world to live in, trailing only Moscow, London, Seoul, and Tokyo (New York is 15th, Los Angeles is 42nd, and San Francisco is 54th).

There's a social commentary to be made here. It's reminiscent of how people have to come to view American culture in the 1980s: not merely as commercialistic, but as embracing a form of commercialism where material goods are an end in themselves, rather than a means to an end (success, happiness, fulfillment, whatever). By contrast, I think that American culture is still commercialistic, but it has also since evolved a bit to recognize that while money and possessions may help one lead a happy life, they are not, in and of themselves, the equivalent of happiness. I read an article once that summed up this change as the move in the U.S. from regarding Donald Trump as the model of success and happiness to crowning Oprah the queen. Hong Kong doesn't look like it has made that distinction just yet.

*Note: Because I have not determined what, if anything, is the appropriate term to refer to residents of Hong Kong, I will be using various terms interchangeably. Other possibilities include Hong Kongians, Hong Kongites, Hong Kongards, Hong Kongsmen, and the Kings of Kong).

1 comment:

GlobalJanine said...

The volunteers from hong kong were referred to as hong kongese by the chinese. ask chattie and christy--- im sure they will want to join the band--- as groupies or bandaids.