Hong Kong, November 8, 1999
You want lights? You want action? You want Hong Kong!
As Jennifer and I climbed into the back seat of a taxi outside Hong Kong's
train station, I immediately knew I was no longer in China-proper. First,
the taxi was a full sized car. Yes, these Toyotas, while being steering
column-mounted stick shifts, had legroom! No backseat, knee-to-chin
claustrophobia for me! The slick leather had me sliding from window to
window as we maneuvered down Hong Kong's narrow streets.
When we finally stopped, I was sad to leave such a roomy and safe enclave, for a speeding double-decker bus almost immediately ran me down! Whoops, the British had been here before. Like in Merry Old England, everybody drove on the wrong side of the street and the imposing double-decker buses drove the fastest. Jennifer quickly dragged my shocked psyche into the nearest Cantonese restaurant, so I could recover while consuming tasty dim sum.
When I'd fully recovered, and was brave enough to venture outside again, I promptly hurt my neck looking up so much. No, I wasn't bird watching, I do that at pubs, I was contemplating Hong Kong's vertical living.
Do you remember playing with Lego's when you were a kid? Stacking bricks on top of each other until they became unstable and fell over? Well, I think Hong Kong's architects play with apartments exactly the same way. Four apartments will be joined together by a common elevator and stairs, then stacked one on top of the next, to dizzying heights. One of my fellow dorm-mates (Hong Kong's hotels are way out of my price range!) figured that the apartment prices would fall as you go higher cuz the fear factor would increase.
Knowing better, I happily accepted a dinner invite by Jennifer's mom. In her three room apartment (two bedrooms, living room, kitchen, and bathroom), I was amazed at the compact innovations such vertical living inspires. First, the bathroom is the same shower/toilet combo from my first apartment in Beijing, but unlike anywhere is freezes, in Hong Kong all the plumbing is external, snaking down pipes on the outside of the building. Then, the rooms themselves were tiny. Her mom and I joked that American homes were bigger cuz us Americans are twice as tall as Southern Chinese, so require twice as much space. Finally, anything and everything that can be stored outside, is. Hanging from every window (not of Jen's mom's apartment though) were drying clothes, bicycles, and junk of all descriptions.
As I descended from the slightly fear-inducing heights, I noticed that outside each door were little Buddhist shrines. Totally absent on the mainland, these little religious offerings were one of the little reminders that China's 'one country, two systems' program is working so far. Of course, the big reminder was the awesome skyline across the bay from Kowloon. Hong Kong Island is packed with banking towers, slamming home to me that this is Asia's financial capital. Under the British, with a stern injection of stiff upper lip discipline, lax controls and yet the backing of the Crown, money was Hong Kong's largest import and export.
Oddly enough, when I was first given Hong Kong dollars, I laughed, handed it back to the Forex dealer, and asked for real cash. He assured me, that although it looked like funny money, and was only backed by the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, not a central bank of some sort, it was the real deal. I examined a pre and post-handover note, and noticed there was a change in leadership at the bank, the signature changed, but past that, all seemed to be in order in the Chinese Hong Kong financial world.
The street life was another matter. Order is the last word I'd ever use to explain the chaos at the bottom of the man-made canyons. The photo at left is the best description I can offer you for how I felt about my Hong Kong experience. The lights, the motion, the backdrop of vertical cash all combines to express the speed at which Hong Kong moves. After sleepy Beijing, where riding your bike faster than a slow walk brings out shouts of fear, I was so relived to find a city where people would actually pass me on the street, that I entertained the idea of staying in Hong Kong permanently. Only my lack of clean clothes prevented me from emailing a resignation back to Beijing. Ok, that and my present precarious cash flow situation.
I was poor there but not poor enough to pass up the opportunity to see a European colony in the before-handover stage, so I took a hydrofoil to Macau. Stepping of the boat, I felt the difference between British and Portuguese colonization instantly. While the British instituted discipline, organization, and business in her lands (think USA, Canada, Australia), the Portuguese were definitely more relaxed (think Brazil, Angola). Macau was no exception, with derelict buildings and slow-paced people defining the older yet poorer sister to Hong Kong.
I did relax on one of Macau's beaches, a nice change from urban Hong Kong, and I wandered through a casino or two in the evening. No, Mom, I didn't spend any money in 'em, though I did have fun chatting with the Russian 'working girls.' They seemed to be enjoying themselves, happy to be making good money while escaping the cold winter that's already descended on their homeland. Needless to say, I didn't inquire too deeply about finer aspects of their 'profession.'
Once back in Hong Kong, I did inquire about housing prices with Jennifer's boyfriend. He shocked me when he revealed that like Russia and mainland China, the Hong Kong government owned all the land in the territory. Remembering all the stories about astronomical housing prices, I though it was due to private ownership of the land, exactly opposite of reality. When it allocated land, the British used the best estimates at the time, the 1950's, which didn't take into account the modern building techniques of today, so relatively little area was released for construction. Little supply, great demand. I think you can figure out what happened next.
Yes, I grabbed my new work visa, the reason for my trip down south, and headed back to Beijing's smog, where the adventure continues!