Thursday, August 21, 2008

Live from Hong Kong -- Part 2

It's strange, but I thought before coming to Hong Kong that it was one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world and therefore, would have things like ubiquitous cheap or free wireless internet. What I found was that there was indeed ubiquitous internet, but that it cost an arm and a leg, on the order of 50 cents a minute. It seems the US isn't the only place where communications carry a high premium and are run by large monopolistic corporations. Ironically, the only time I've been able to find decent internet access here is at the airport (I'm about to depart). Here's it's free and fast.

My preconceptions of Hong Kong were based on rave reviews of friends who've visited and the fact that I've heard people refer to it as the social and economic center of Asia. I imagined a cross between Singapore and Taipei, basically a large and fun westernized metropolis but distinctly Asian in character.

What I got was, in a way, exactly what I expected, yet that extra zest of "Asian-ness" was noticeably missing. Hong Kong feels like New York City of the Asian world and is distinctly Western. The myriad of saturated colors and flavors of what might have been an organic Eastern city have been tempered, refined, and quantized into an aesthetically pleasing yet limited palette.

The most blatant example is the Temple Street night market I never went to. How could something I've never been to indicate anything? Walking it by day, I had high hopes. It was very Chinese -- narrow messy bustling streets with strange smells abounding. Well, I never went to it because it wound down at 11:30pm and closed at 12am. What kind of night market closes at night??? I've never even seen when the Taipei or Beijing night markets close because I've never been able to stay awake that late!

Fortunately, natural geography plays a critical role in keeping Hong Kong from becoming just another large city in the world. The heart of the city lies on Hong Kong island which basically amounts to a smallish yet steep and magnificent mountain jutting out from the sea just across from the mainland. It's lush and green sides fall quickly toward the city built on the narrow shore and into the ocean. Therefore, it's a short trip from the highest peaks into the fantastically built city, and then to the soothing ocean filled with boats of all shapes and sizes. It's incredibly dynamic.

The buildings themselves are an incredible sight: tall, graceful, and awe-inspiring yet tasteful. I've seen too many cities fall into the "mine is bigger and louder than yours" trap. Think Shanghai where the buildings are huge, purple and pink, and gaudy. Or New York where the contest has been going on for so long that the city has turned into one large concrete cube. Hong Kong is an architectural work of art. My favorite building is what I call the "bamboo shoot building." It's the tallest building in Hong Kong and normally a building this size risks looking like a huge garish spike in the city. Yet this building is organic and gentle despite its size and compliments the green mountains behind it. It really looks like a bamboo shoot with tapering segments and a rounding top growing out of the soil at the foot of the mountains.

Alright, more next time -- my flight is about to take off.