Our hotel is in Wan Chai, close to central Hong Kong. The rooms have amazing views looking towards Kowloon and the New Territories. Everywhere, except on the steepest hills, there are almost identical tall condos and office buildings. A forest. We passed one such grouping on the way in from the airport that was like Co-op City in the Bronx times two. Most are unremarkable; though the new convention center on the waterfront looks like a giant sea turtle, and across the water I can see the distinctive curve of a performing arts center. In central HK, the Norman Foster bank building that looks like a vertical Beaubourg is dwarfed by the higher office buildings around it. Ferries and merchant ships move back and forth across the water; as the day advances the haze builds up.
The evening of our arrival, a group of us walk to a nearby restaurant — an unremarkable place specializing in local (Cantonese) food. 12 of us sit around a table and gobble down veggies, dumplings, abalone, crab and delicious shrimp. The place is a bit like the brightly lit joints in NY’s Chinatown — nothing to get too excited about. Daria, an acquaintance of Paul and Mauro’s from our previous trip to Perth, lives here now, and she offers to take us to a more interesting place the next evening.
C and I walk back to the hotel along the main street of the neighborhood. Beautiful old neon signs advertise hostess bars, seafood restaurants, rock and roll discos and Irish bars — where soldiers serving in Nam would sometimes get their R&R. It’s a pretty sleazy area, and it’s surprising that only a few blocks away is the sterile and lifeless zone of hotels, mirrored office buildings and the convention center.
The next morning C and I decide to try our luck sightseeing on bikes. A pretty crazy idea for this town, but we decide to see how hard it really is. Turns out to be pretty hard; not only are there no bike lanes — which is not a big deal, as lots of cities don’t have bike lanes — but sometimes there aren’t even sidewalks, not to mention parks, promenades or public amenities. We negotiate a road crossing under a flyover (underpass), and encounter a group of women gathered in the shade under a concrete column, huddled together singing hymns. We ride mostly on the sidewalks when we can find them — most of which are not crowded, until we get to Central where the shoppers are out in force.
Near the HSBC bank building and the ferry terminal we use an underground passageway to cross the street — there is no other way to get across. In the shade and semi-darkness under the street, hundreds of women are arranged, most on tarpaulins, sitting with bags of food, picnic-style, talking to each other and to distant friends and family on phones. When we reach the concrete plaza at the base of the bank building, there are hundreds more. They don’t look destitute — they’re passing snacks around and smiling as they chat — but what are they doing here? They don’t look Chinese, though they’re Asian — Malaysian maybe? Indonesian?
Later it’s revealed that they’re all Filipino maids, and today (Sunday) is their one day off. They gather to exchange news of home and socialize, but HK being HK, there are no shady parks, esplanades or plazas where the public can mingle and hang out. I’m not talking about a Central Park, Tiergarten or Hyde Park— here in HK there is nothing at all. They have nowhere to meet but in the shade of an underground passageway or around the entrance plaza for the HSBC bank, which of course is closed today. It presents the strange sight of citizenry improvising when their city government doesn’t provide for them.
C and I bike — slowly, carefully — along the glitzy shopping crowds in Central. I’ve heard that there may be a wet market open today; they’re “wet” because the stall owners regularly hose down their fish and vegetables. First, we check out a discount clothing market where the stalls are squeezed into the space between two high rises. There’s barely space to walk, but everyone makes room. With the good real estate around here in the hands of big corporations and brand name chain stores, the local merchants improvise and squeeze themselves into the cracks where they can.
Further down the road we lock up and head into the Graham St Market, still somewhat busy even though it’s Sunday and already early afternoon — and too late for the really fresh fish. The market is elongated, the stalls strung out in a long line between taller buildings. There are vegetables we’ve never seen, fruits arranged especially for the upcoming New Year celebrations, and Styrofoam containers of shrimp and fish swimming about. A system of hoses pouring into the containers keeps their water fresh. At one point we see a fish successfully flop right out of its Styrofoam tank and land on the concrete sidewalk right in front of us. The poor thing began to slither along the ground pretty rapidly, using its front fins for propulsion — as if the sea might be just a few feet away.
We run into my friend Andrew Corner, who lives here — I’d tried to contact him earlier, so this is fortuitous. Andrew is doing some vegetable shopping at his wife’s favorite stall. He says this market is due to be vacated (torn down) soon. At present it’s hemmed in by six-story old-style apartment buildings with clothing lines strung outside the balconies, but the local real estate developers (and the government) see financial opportunities, and plan to tear down the funky buildings on either side and erect much higher condos to squeeze the vendors out. Like many other places, the old, the handmade, the social, are all vanishing quickly — this is the last wet market in all of Hong Kong Island. Old colonial or deco buildings — many pre-air conditioning, with verandas and window vents — are almost a memory.
Andrew shows us a charming street nearby. Balconies and birdcages. He volunteers that traditional Chinese society doesn’t have a place for what he refers to as civics. He suggests that traditional Chinese social decisions came from two sources — the top down, via the legendary Confucian beauracracy, and from within one’s extended family. Any sense of community was therefore non-existent. You obeyed the Emperor and took care of your own, and the rest was none of your concern.
His implication is that those attitudes are deep-rooted, and the Communists simply inherited those social structures — which is a way of explaining both the general lack of public amenities and lack of a sense of community or of neighborhoods here. This city is truly all about business. Yes, there are undeveloped areas along the steep hillsides where one could conceivably enjoy fresh air (if you can get high enough above the smog) or take a walk or picnic with some friends, but those hard to reach areas aren’t much use in anyone’s daily life. They’re useless to the Filipino maids. It does seem that the idea of community-oriented institutions and events — like culture, for example— is simply not on the Chinese radar.
Andrew says some small groups are becoming active in trying to preserve green spaces, old buildings, places that have some charm — but it’s a new idea, and runs counter to the “It’s Glorious to Make Money” ideology that has overrun China for the last few decades. If that attitude, the disdain for civic life, seems rampant to me here in Hong Kong — where the British influence is still slightly felt — I can only imagine how it must be in Shanghai and Beijing. The future, as represented by the Chinese powerhouse, will be merciless, tasteless and heartless, but the food will be tasty if you can afford it.
It’s fitting that the US Republicans and the Chinese Communists — sworn enemies in the past — actually have a lot in common that way. They both could care less about public amenities and public good. Houston, Texas, a town dominated by oil money and the good old boys that profit from it, is in some ways like Hong Kong — a merciless machine for making money, but not a very good place to live if you’re not already rich or obsessed with scrambling up the ladder.
There don’t seem to be many cultural institutions here either. Not that Asian cities should necessarily be like European cities, with opera houses, art museums, theaters and symphony halls announcing their membership in the culture club. But some equivalent maybe? Someplace where people can get together besides a big round restaurant dinner table? Maybe someplace where issues are gently aired, social mores symbolically examined, or cathartic humor or common humanity let loose? Aren’t social institutions how we discover who we are as people? I’ve seen one performing arts center here and one in Kowloon, across the bay — and as far as I can see, that’s it. Our concert is in a sectioned off area of the convention center. It’s a beautiful and weird modern place — and the acoustics weren’t even that bad — but it’s typically cold and businesslike.
Maybe shopping and haggling at the traditional markets fulfilled that social role here at one time, but they’re rapidly disappearing. I’ve never seen a society (except in Houston or LA) so hell-bent on erasing every vestige of culture or history as this one. There’s a fury and determination to it. They can’t wipe the slate clean fast enough.
C and I take our bikes on the Star Ferry over to Kowloon. Besides the wet market, I suggested that she see a temple, and if we’re lucky, the shops that make paper funerary items. Having been here a couple of times before, that’s my itinerary for her. On the Kowloon side, we ride along the water until a gated apartment complex halts our progress. We retreat and head inland, past another forest of towering condos — each one simply numbered so you know when you’re home. There is no street life in this zone, but at least there are sidewalks. We could be in some big Middle American city with similarly vaporized street life, but here it’s more concentrated, with more towers — denser and more vertical.
Eventually we turn onto a street with shops and street-level activity — and luckily, the funeral supplies are there right in front of us. We see coffins and wreaths — but more interesting are the paper objects created to be burnt with the deceased. Symbolically, the burning sends the objects to the deceased wherever they are. There is money — Bank of Hell notes usually, but also more symbolic currency that is simply a blob of orange and gold leaf on a piece of paper (kind of like miniature Rothkos) — and material goods that the deceased might covet.
There are mansions (below) filled with paper furniture, full-size paper refrigerators, soccer balls, Adidas shoes and paper Rolexes. Paper boom boxes and neatly folded paper dress shirts. On the sidewalk, a paper Mercedes, turned on its side.
In the above picture, there are paper Louis Vuitton shoes in a bag, a full-size aqua-colored refrigerator and a few other luxury items you might need when you’re dead. Beautiful stuff, eh?
So, that's it. We keep riding in Kowloon, get on an expressway ramp, and eventually make it to the ferry back to Hong Kong. It was a real struggle. I would like to congratulate Hong Kong for being the worst city for cyclists that I have encountered in the whole world. That's saying a lot. Worse than Napoli, worse than Istanbul. Worse than Manila! Hong Kong takes the prize.