Saturday, March 8, 2014

Impressions of Hong Kong

Written by Adam
It’s funny how life pans out for people.  I remember traveling to Asia for the very first time in my life in 1984, when I made the long transoceanic trip alone to visit Tokyo, Japan.  I recall being in that city while the 1984 Winter Olympics were being conducted in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia - in present day Bosnia-Herzegovina.  I can clearly see within my pleasant memories the Japanese people being transfixed as British Olympians Torvill and Dean skated for the Olympic gold medal in the ice dancing competition, the televised images being beamed to a large video screen located right in the heart of Tokyo.  Shortly after those Olympic Games concluded, Sarajevo became a brutal killing zone as a civil war catalyzed by an ethnically fractured Yugoslavia rained terror upon all the good people living there.

The years have passed by rather quickly since then, and there have been a few more Winter Olympic Games that have been organized and completed.  Now I find myself in Hong Kong, China.  Interestingly, the Sochi Winter Olympics are being contested during my first stay here in Hong Kong.  I cannot fail to see the contrasts that prevail today.

The games have just started in Sochi, and I am not getting the impression that anybody in China actually cares very much about the Olympic Games.  I was out exploring the city on foot for several hours this afternoon, and the citizens of Hong Kong seem to be apathetic at best about the Winter Olympics.  Given the lead-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics, you just have to wonder about what might go wrong next after these current Olympic games conclude.

But, for now the Chinese people seem to be concentrated on one thing: being Chinese.  Coming from another part of the world (and thus another culture), you have to be really impressed.  Of all the cities that I have visited in the world so far, I have not ever been in one that is as vertical as Hong Kong is.  Hong Kong reminds me quite a bit of Vancouver, BC.  But, it is much, much denser and taller.  The building right across from my hotel window is at least 45 stories tall, and is chock-full of apartments.  At night, the dwelling lights that are on stretch from the top floors to the bottom, with only a few darkened apartments breaking the continuity.  There might be thirty five or more apartments with the lights on stacked directly on top of each other.  That’s hundreds of people living directly over one another’s heads in a permanent stack.     

Down on the street level, you see the tremendous presence of small businesses that support that level of population density which is organized vertically.  I have not had the good fortune to be invited to see what a typical downtown apartment in Hong Kong looks like, but I am sure that they are much smaller than what we are accustomed to in the USA if the size of hotel rooms here is any indication.

Our hotel is located in the “dried seafood” section of the city - I just can’t make this stuff up.  Each surrounding city block hosts hundreds of small businesses, all seemingly wheeling and dealing in dehydrated food products that are sourced from the nearby China Sea.  You see the sheer volume of food products - most of them unrecognizable to me - and you have to question if there is anything left living in the ocean off the coast of China.  You can sense a mildly defensive sensitivity to political activism, as shark fins on display are often accompanied by a sign discouraging photography.  You see presumably serious businesspeople equipped with clipboards and sharpened pencils (not iPads) sitting among the dried protein stacked to the ceiling in their cardboard display cases.  If you happen to need some dried sea cucumbers...I know where you can get at least a ton of them!

You are also struck by the narrow streets of Hong Kong that seem to be currently free from any major traffic for some strange reason.  Of course, since the Chinese dutifully follow the British example and “drive on the wrong side of the road”, you have to keep your head on a swivel and really pay attention to avoid those few vehicles when you walk around the city.

Pedestrians seem to be unusually quiet on the sidewalks and streets, and pervasive horn-honking (except for taxis) has been a rare occurrence so far.  Hearing an ambulance siren in the streets is somehow another rarity noted here.  Maybe ample foot reflexology services offered on any given block in Hong Kong has something to do with that?

You can sometimes experience an upsurge in activity at certain times of the day, when the crowds get just a little bit more thickened while personal space disappears suddenly as you are swept up in a stream of vigorous activity.  You harken back to the natural concept of ants fanning out over a forest floor, or bees suddenly taking flight from a huge hive.  You become one with the organism in a way, ultimately safe but subject to forces that are unseen by you.  You can duck out of the dynamic human stream for a cup of coffee and a pastry to eat, but the energy is always lurking just beyond the threshold of the door.  It’s palpable, constant, and in some way reassuring to know that being an individual is fleeting at times, but it can still be accomplished in downtown Hong Kong if you can just find a seat.
The other end of a Chinese apartment heating/cooling unit.  You just add yours to the externally mounted rack, controlling your interior environment from inside your apartment!
Robot-like tandem buildings in downtown Hong Kong. 
Vendors of every conceivable consumer product set up shop right in the streets to bring their wares directly to passing pedestrians.  
A street fair feel is quite common when walking in certain neighborhoods in Hong Kong.  Shopping opportunities are numerous, and competition is ever-present and fierce.
Boutiques are located simply everywhere, with tiny storefronts and minimal square footage available to display wares and offer personal services.
Seemingly a constant sight, the infrastructure in Hong Kong seems to be under repair at all times somewhere in the city.  Buildings do double or triple duty, serving as depositories for conveniences, services, and residences - often all at the same time.
Residential flats tower over the street below, with entrances often located in alleys that are adorned with massive overhead advertising.  Small bars and restaurants located in the alleys ensure that food and merriment are part of the neighborhood offerings.
With more contemporary buildings serving as a slicker backdrop, this older edifice exhibits the complicated plumbing, heating and cooling devices, and electrical wiring that allows the residents to go about their daily lives in relative comfort at the expense of visual clutter from the street.
Businesses often rise three to four stories above the sidewalks below, with signage used to suggest the nature of the establishment and where it might be.  Sometimes you have to do a little bit of work to figure out which door or stairwell will take you to the business that you want to patronize. 
Hong Kong at night - the architecture of the buildings is enhanced by applied lighting effects clearly visible from the ferries that service Victoria Harbor.
The world famous skyline that is Hong Kong.
A traditional Chinese junk that seemingly becomes a ghost ship amid the glare of thousands of lights reflecting upon the surface of the harbor waters. 
The ferry boat pictured approaches the ferry terminal to let off hundreds of passengers returning from places like Kowloon and Macau. The boats let off their passengers in mere minutes before taking on a new group and departing for the nearly seven minute commute to the other side of the harbor, where the process is repeated.

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