Hong Kong 2011

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This is Hong Kong, a southern Chinese coastal city with a population of about 7 million. But it's no ordinary Chinese city. With a well-developed capitalist economic system and a highly autonomous democratic system of governance (as oppose to the largely socialist economic and oligarchic political systems in mainland China), Hong Kong resembles more of a city state, much like ancient Athens or modern Singapore. The Chinese government call it a provincial-level Special Administrative Region (SAR), and more or less leave it alone (for now at least), and that's as far as political liberty ever goes under the Chinese Communist Party. The reason? Nobody want to tamper with a highly successful formula. Hong Kong is one of the most important financial and trading centers in the world. With exceptionally low taxation and free trading, it's constantly billed "the world's greatest experiment in laissez-faire capitalism." With the highest degree of economic freedom in the world, Hong Kong boasts the greatest concentration of corporate headquarters in the Asian Pacific region, and is widely considered the easiest place to raise capital. It's the also world's largest re-export centre. With the world's busiest airport for international cargo, and the world's second largest container port, Hong Kong redistributes a large fraction of the goods manufactured in China to the rest of the world. From all the hustles comes wealth. Hong Kong has the highest concentration of billionaires, as well as one of the highest per capita income in the world (7th in 2010 according to world bank). It's filthy rich.

Hong Kong Victoria Harbor

Hong Kong's political and economical freedom didn't come easy. Up until the early 19th century, it was just a cluster of farming and fishing villages in the eastern corner of the Pearl River Delta. In 1839, Britain started the First Opium War against China to legalize its opium import to China.. With superior weaponry and more experienced navy and army, the Britain won the war decisively, despite being out-numbered by more than 10:1. The results was the humiliating unequal (from a Chinese perspective) Treaty of Nanking of 1842, in which China was forced to legalize opium import from Britain, to subsidize the British large sum for their damage and cost in the war, to open its door for international trade, and to hand over Hong Kong Island to Britain. The war is generally considered a watershed that marks the beginning of modern Chinese history. And probably no place else has experienced that more profoundly than Hong Kong: in the next 156 years, it would become a British colony.

It was not incidental that the British wanted the Hong Kong Island. Between the Island and the adjacent Kowloon Peninsula is one of the finest deep-water natural sea port in the world, which the British called the Victoria Harbour. The 41.9 sq-km habour has an average water depth of 12 meter (39ft), sufficient to accommodate most modern ocean vessels. Numerous small bays and coves inside the harbour provide perfect shelter for Pacific typhoons. The British made Hong Kong a free port from the beginning (1842). Gradually Hong Kong become an important re-export centre of Southern China, especially for opium trade. Entering the 20th century, Hong Kong industry started to take off, and established itself as a manufacturing center in the 1950s. The real kick came in the late 1970s, when Hong Kong once again swiftly transform itself into a service-base economy: finance, management, business consultancy, IT, and other professional services. The transition served the city well. By the mid 1980s, its GDP per capita has breached $10,000, a bar that segregated developed countries from the rest of the world. From 1961 to 1997, Hong Kong GDP expanded a whopping 180 times. No wonder the Hong Konger proudly call their city "Pearl of the Orient."

The Chinese always wanted their pearl back. But in the last one and a half century, they've preoccupied themselves with revolutions, civil wars, Japanese invasion, wars with American (in Korea and Vietnam), and a series of domestic upheavals: the Great Leap Forward, the Anti-rightist Movement, the Culture Revolution... Finally, the charismatic dwarfish giant Deng Xiaoping stepped up to calm down the storms and steered China towards the right direction. A economic reform started in 1978. China was open for business again, voluntarily this time. Napoleon's sleeping lion was finally awake. Deng resumed the negotiation with the British, and insisted that Hong Kong has always been part of China. It was merely leased to the British, and it shall be returned to China in appropriate time. After long negotiations, the two sides finally settled on a date: in June 30th, 1997, China shall take over the sovereignty of Hong Kong. As a condition, Deng promised to honor the principle of "one country, two systems," maintaining a highly autonomous capitalistic systems in Hong Kong for at least 50 years. To commemorate the handover, a 6-meter tall gilded bauhinia (emblem of Hong Kong) sculpture and a Reunification Monument were erected in the Golden Bauhinia Square, outside the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center. Nowadays the square is perpetually crowded with tourists from Mainland China, all cheerfully taking pictures of each other with a peace sign in front of the sculpture and the monument, relishing the pride of China's recapture of the "richest jewel in the British Crown (words of Prince Charles)."

The Hong Konger, on the other hand, might have a slightly different perspective. On the eve of the 1997 transition, as the shadow of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests still lingered, many fled, to the US, UK, Canada, and Australia... For those who stayed, the initial days of the Special Administrative Area after 1997 weren't particularly smooth. In the very first year Hong Kong was hit with the avian influenza and the Asian financial crisis. One took away over a million infected chicken while the other gave Hong Kong 6 consecutive years of deflation. Then came SARS (2003), which paralyzed Hong Kong for 4 months and left 1,755 infected and 299 perished. In 2005, the people was so fed up with the high unemployment rate and political scandals, they gave their chief executive the boot -- good thing that they still have their democracy. Just as thing started to pick up a little, the 2008 subprime crisis swept the globe. Hong Kong as an important financial center took quite a bit of heat: stock and housing markets plummeted; unemployment rate climbed back. Nonetheless, the city weathered through all those episodes and bounced back again and again with its characteristic resilience. The fact that it's now under the protective wings of China, the world's second largest economy, only adds extra assurance of a quick recovery and its long-term prosperity. Today, Hong Kong is widely regarded as the most competitive (not "one of the") economic system in the world.

My brief visit to Hong Kong in early 2011 was a stopover for a trip to China -- that's one central role of Hong Kong nowadays, a hub that connects China to the rest of the world. Off the plane and out of the subway station in the Central District, I was 16 hours and 7000 miles away from the wide open and sunny California, and stepped into a completely different world. It was a reasonably bright day, as I¡¯ve learn from the airport, but the streets of Hong Kong, I couldn't help but noticed, were so uncomfortably dark and narrow. I realized immediately that I've wandered into the world's densest steel and concrete jungle. Everywhere there was just one small slice of the blue sky above me, while the rest was just towering shadows and silhouettes of skyscrapers. I was amazed, not by the height of these buildings -- many cities have tall buildings, but how singularly slender and fragile they look -- like a forest made of pencils, no, toothpicks. Hong Kong doesn't have very large urban area -- roughly 100 sq. miles, but it has the largest number of skyscrapers in the world (7,838 counted in 2009, New York had only 5,814 for comparison). So they all have to be tall and skinny. No other city can extract this much surface area out of so small a footprint. Give any Hong Kong developer a square the size of an American bathroom, he'll happily erect a 60-story apartment building on top of it. And you'll need 60-story to get some breathing room and to catch some sunlight. Anywhere below, such as the sidewalk under my feet now, probably never in their lifetime had even a glimpse of the sun, much like the gloomy floor of a dense forest, where fallen leaves are rotting away and only mushrooms will grow.

It was not the first time I visit Hong Kong, but after years of living abroad I was simply no longer capable of comprehending how people can live so densely and so vertically in such a small space. To illustrate the point, we shall visit the Mong Kok District in the Kowloon Peninsula, where we can have a taste of the real density of Hong Kong living. According to Guinness World Record Mong Kok has the highest population density in the world: 336,700 per sq. mile. That gives every poor soul in Mong Kok about 83 square feet of ground surface -- smaller than any prison cell I've seen (an average US maximum security prison cell measures 8¡¯ x 12¡¯, by the way). In order to fit in that many people, you have to stack them up into lots and lots of skinny tenement buildings, which is something of a Mong Kok specialty. Mong Kok has a floor area ratio of 4, which means it has four times more building floor than its soil. Isn't that amazing? But still, there's never enough room, and you'll have to keep growing upward. Every a few blocks I would see a concrete toothpick in construction, elaborately adorned with bamboo scaffoldings. In one rare corner, I was amused to see a row of abnormally vestigial flat houses and condominiums, but in the middle there was one lonesome yellow stick shot up like a prehistoric tribal phallic totem (2nd pic). Honestly I wouldn't be too proud to be in their tribe, just by how slim and frail that thing looks. But never mind, in a few years those flat houses around would be torn down and the totem would be buried and obscured in a forest of other equally skinny buildings. I knew this would happen because I've learn just how ridiculously expensive a modest apartment unit was by studying the ads posted outside a realty agent office (last pic): one 556 sq feet unit in those ugly tenement would cost you some $480K (US), beating the median house price of the San Francisco Bay Area by a comfortable margin (currently at about $400K). And mind you this is merely the lower end of Hong Kong's housing market. How so many people manage to confine themselves in such decidedly undersized and overpriced little cells, just to have a view of the grotesquely stained walls of the next buildings and the hanging laundry of the neighbors outside their windows, to overlap the bulk of their daily lives with a million other equally hapless souls, is honestly quite beyond me.

However, as long as you don't have to live in Mong Kok, and thus are able to view it with a kind of detached and touristy frame of mind, Mong Kok can be quite invigorating and charming. The name Mong Kok literally means prosperous corner in Chinese, and quite rightly. Mong Kok was an endless street carnival. Its bustling streets were lined with small eateries, karaoke, money exchanges for Chinese parvenu, hourly hotels, pet shops, and most of all, rows and rows of little tents that sell a riveting variety of crappy items: Money God frig magnets, T-shirt that says "I'm lost in Hong Kong," tawdry lingerie with shiny plastic pieces dangling all over, suspiciously cheap jade jewelry, counterfeit Rolex... things I clearly didn't want but were fetching to browse through nonetheless. At nightfall, the street carnival reached its climax. The overcastting neon signs flickered into life; the tents put up high-power incandescent bulbs that casted a fervid glow onto their trinkets; the eateries set up folding tables and plastic stools onto the sidewall and streets. I was tempted by the aroma and ordered a couple of dishes: pepper salt mantis shrimp and stir fried ong-choi. They were intensely flavorful and salty, much like Mong Kok itself.


After the overwhelming Mong Kok, I was almost content with an early and imprudent conclusion that this is it, I've seen Hong Kong. But how wrong I was; like any other sizable city, there is always another Hong Kong. Back to the Central District, it's common to see scores of uber luxury cars, Rolls-Royce, Bentley, or Maybach casually rolled by. And the pedestrian apparently thought nothing of it. Walking around I would from time to time bump into distractions like a Lamborghini dealer, although it puzzled me why anyone would want to buy a Lamborghini in Hong Kong. In the ever congested Central District, you couldn't drive it much faster than walking. On my way up the Victoria Peak, I spotted on some driveway parked a Porsche Carrera 4S and a Nissan GT-R -- hadn't the faintest idea why someone wanted two so similarly brutal and expensive cars. I imagined it must be one of those super rich and overly possessive guys (it has to be a guy) who wanted it all.

The point being, Hong Kong is teeming with the mega-rich, more than any other place on earth. Many survey found Hong Kong as the top city in the Asia-Pacific area favored by the so-called high net-worth individuals. In order to take a peek at the untold wealth of Hong Kong, I took the cable tram up the Victoria Peak, the apex of the Hong Kong Island. As the tram ascended the steep slope, I was practically climbing the social pyramid of Hong Kong -- Victoria Peak has long been the residence of choice by Hong Kong's high flyers (literally) because of its spectacular view, cool climate, and above all, an atmosphere of superiority and prestige. It has the highest property value in the world. Every square foot of building area on Severn Road, half way up the peak, cost some $7,308 (US) in 2011 -- the most expensive street in the world according to Financial News. I gazed admiringly now at these extravagant mansions, most of them half-hidden in dense woods. As far as I could tell, they didn¡¯t look all that expensive. No elaborated chateau, no towering castle, like what you would expect in a European mountain. What made it up however, was a breath-taking panoramic view of the Hong Kong Island, the Victoria Habour, the Kowloon Peninsula, and some 200 nearby islands. Apparently, life can be very spacious and agreeable, if you have the means.

The summit, fortunately, is reserved for the public. So ordinary folks like me would be able to enjoy the view as well, once a while. On the very apex was a peculiar-looking, top-heavy Peak Tower that shaped like an up-side-down shovel -- I wouldn't want to live there even if I can afford it. Inside the towers were more souvenir shops selling crappy items (though slightly better than those in Mong Kok) and overpriced restaurants. I've known better, so I went straight up to the terrace on the top of the shovel, and there I had it, the most arresting sight in Hong Kong, a 360-degree view of the Pearl of the Orient. Now I could overlook the steel and concrete forest from a superior angle without that heaviness and dismal feeling of being oppressed down there, which was wonderfull.

Well, I may not like how chokingly dense Hong Kong people have to live, but I certainly appreciate their willingness of cramming themselves onto only a quarter of Hong Kong's soil, and leaving the other three quarter the way it should be -- mostly lushly green. It gives Hong Kong reasonably good air quality, despite its high population density and the heavily polluted neighboring Guangdong Province. I was riding on the Ngong Ping 360 now, a 3.5-mile long gondola lift that hovers over the densely vegetated Lantau Island, Hong Kong's largest island and its lung. With large area of indigenous forest, the island nourishes a majority of Hong Kong's wildlife species. The best part is, the island is easily accessible from the Central by only 20 minutes of metro. You can practically go grab a piece of the nature during your lunch break -- the thought improved my view toward Hong Kong living considerably.

From the cable car, I had a full-view of the Hong Kong International Airport, which occupies an entire island (Chek Lap Kok) off the northern shore of Lantau. It was one of the busiest airport in the world, and one of the most orderly too, in my opinion. Near the end of the 25 minute ride, I spotted the enormous Tian Tan Buddha statue of the Po Lin Monastery from quite a distance. The 112-ft tall and 202-tons bronze Buddha meditated serenely on a gentle hill, overlooking the village of Ngong Ping, which was the end of the cable line. By the look of it, Ngong Ping tried hard pretending to be a traditional Cantonese hamlet, but somehow everything felt suspiciously fresh and glossy. And what do you know, it turned out to be another tourist trap filled with yet more retro-looking souvenir stores. I decided that I had enough dosage of gift shops and legwork for the day and turned back, ignoring even the warm invitation from the giant Buddha.


Pressed with time, I didn't have a good chance to explore in depth the culture of Hong Kong, which always fascinated me since I was a little Cantonese boy. But the least I could do was to have a stroll on the Avenue of Stars, to pay tribute to many of my boyhood heroes. The Avenue of Stars is Hong Kong's version of Hollywood Walk of Fame, a walking path along the Victoria Harbor with a collection of signatures and handprints of the celebrities from Hong Kong's film and TV industry. You may be surprised to hear it, but yes, Hong Kong does have an independent, sizable, and well-developed movie industry. In its heyday, namely the 1980s, its production was second to only Hollywood in terms of quantity and quality, eclipsing all other traditional movie powerhouses such as the Bowllywood, and almost drove the Taiwanese film industry to extinction. The success of the Hong Kong cinema can be rooted down to its free economy and the government's nonintervention. The industry is purely commercial and its movies mostly low-budget, highly formularized, and vulgar in a satisfying, pulp-fiction kind of way -- their sole purpose was to please the crowd and the box office. You can tell by the genres Hong Kong movies thrived in: action, crime, comedy, erotic, horror... Nothing terribly profound but perfectly delightful and relaxing whenever you have a couple hours to kill. They were entertainment in its purest form. I was particularly fascinated by Hong Kong movie makers' obsession in depicting and romanticizing Hong Kong¡¯s mafia (known as triad) lives in vivid details. A good fraction of Hong Kong's best movies, such as As Tears Go By (1988), The Killer (1989), Young and Dangerous (1996), Beast Cop (1998), The Infernal Affair Triology (2002-2003), and Election (2005) were of triad topic. I later learnt that several Hong Kong movie moguls allegedly had triad background or strong triad ties, and so did many of their staffs in the film industry. I supposed those movies were reflection of their own reckless early years in an artistic way. Well, we've all been young...

Inscribed into the promenade were so many remote yet familiar names: Sam Hui, Chow Yun-fat, Leslie Cheung, Anita Mui, Stephen Chow... They awoke infinite reminiscence. Those were the days, when Jackie Chan was in his physical peak and could smartly leap over a wall in one single shot, when Leslie Cheung was dazzlingly young and handsome and not yet revealed to the world that he's gay (oh those poor little girls and their broken little hearts...), when Amy Yip possessed all wretched men in the Chinese-speaking world with her ample bosom...

But none of these names had even remotely approached the fame and influence of the shinest of all stars...

...Bruce Lee. The original Kung Fu God, the ultimate tough guy, the incidental patriotic icon (for beating the crap out of imperialistic white Americans like Chuck Norris, and the Japanese too). Starred in only 5 movies, he almost single-handedly revived and transformed Chinese martial art movies as well as the Hong Kong film industry, brought Hong Kong cinema onto an international stage, and introduced into English vocabulary the term "Kung Fu", which now refers almost exclusively to Chinese martial art (it originally means all skills attained by effort). In addition, he redefined the image of Chinese on Western pop culture and stirred up a Kung Fu frenzy all around the world. His untimely death in 1973, at an early age of 32, all but intensified the frenzy. Even long after his death, his name, his acrobatic triple-kick and fancy nunchaku moves, and his furious raptor-like howl when delivering a deadly blow, have haunted my entire boyhood. In the cinema, you can find his influence on every single Kung Fu fighting scene, much like every metal band can trace their inspiration back to Led Zeppelin.

Another regret of this trip was that I didn't have enough time to fully appreciate Hong Kong's diverse culinary scene -- a fusion of Cantonese, Western, Southeast Asian cuisine. I was only able to stop by a few mainstream restaurants: Tsui Wah (quintessential Hong Kong tea cafe, Catonese and Western fusion), Yung Kee (Cantonese BBQ), and the Lin Heung Teahouse (Dim Sum). They were all tiny and cramp and horrendously crowded, even by Chinese standard. And the waiters and waitress always carried that same weary and grumpy look. I was usually asked to share a large table with three other parties, and had to stay cautious not to dip my elbow into my neighbor's noodle soup. But the food compensated for that somewhat -- they were properly authentic and prim, as they had been in the last 30 years. I also sat on a number of obscure eateries that served small dishes on the street side, whenever and wherever my fancy took me. Most of their food were authentic and prim too, which served me well.

Influenced by the nearby Cantonese, the Hong Konger invest heavily on their gastronomic pleasure. Every Hong Konger I know is a minor connoisseur. In the Central, I was delighted to see in the shadow of towering skyscrapers lied a traditional bazaar, which was not unlike those I grew up with. All meat hanging on steel hooks were fresh, bloody, never been refrigerated and would never be wrapped in packages with plastic sheets; fishes, shrimps, and lobsters were alive and could be killed and scaled and chopped in an instance. You could see inside an open fish steak the little heart was still pumping and the fins still flapping -- it could get a bit too bloody for Westerners. But the proprietor of the seafood booth would just leisurely holding that trembling steak, bargaining with his customers with a cigarette butt sticking out from the corner of his mouth. And you can watch all that from an office window in one of those surrounding high-rise skyscrapers. It was all wonderful.


At last, here're some random shots I wasn't able to fit into anywhere above. Random as they are, I found the mixture quite representative of my impression of Hong Kong: the intersection between the East and the West, tradition and modernity, democracy and oligarchy, metropolitan and nature; it's a small place with a big heart; everywhere it carries noticeable colonial imprint, yet it's Chinese to the bone. It's always, always unbearably crowded, but that's exactly the essence of its charm -- only when you grasp that, you'll begin to know Hong Kong.

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