A postcard from Hong Kong

In my recent posting on this blog I briefly described an excellent conference at Hong Kong University (HKU) on the theme of ‘Music and the Body.’ The three days that it occupied so intensively left little room for anything much in the way of sight-seeing, but I arrived a clear day early and left almost a clear day after it finished, giving me just a glimpse of the most obvious parts of this extraordinary and curiously beautiful city. It was my first visit; I’d done no preparatory research; the timescale was absurdly short; I’m no linguist; and worse still I’m lazy by nature, disinclined to pound the streets from dawn till dusk in quest of the authentic – in short, this is a thoroughly flimsy postcard from a thoroughly ill-qualified travel correspondent. Stop reading now if you’re looking for an insider’s view; if undeterred, here are a few vignettes.

The University nestles on the northern slopes of Hong Kong Island, where until recently (when the notoriously challenging airport was finally moved out from urban mayhem to a safe distance) the wealth, style and other accoutrements of power (both colonial and post-colonial) were crystallised in a veritable fusion of glass, alloy, concrete, a myriad people and a megaton of money in the main part of the city – an absurd ribbon of soaring architecture looking north across Victoria Harbour to prosaic Kowloon on the mainland, a short ferry-ride away.
From Kennedy Town at the western end of this ribbon, the curiously tall and narrow tin-box electric trams – in proportions recalling the squashable ‘Knight-Bus’ from the Harry Potter stories – stutter through the unremitting traffic all the way to Quarry Bay and well beyond at the eastern end, via the essentially vertical Central Business District and the harbourside areas of Admiralty, Wan-Chai and Causeway Bay.

The trams have been doing this for a century; and the ferries too still travel as of old, a return trip costing about 36 pence; but the mainland has caught skyscraper-fever and Kowloon’s development has ballooned along its waterfront from the smaller, stylish colonial epicentre. Now two preposterous sky-cities glower at each other across the water, though still in one jurisdiction enjoying, I was reliably told, considerable autonomy from China’s central government who sensibly see no reason to cramp the style of a key financial powerhouse.

Topologically, the landscape reminds one of an oscilloscope trace with the volume turned up high – all huge peaks and troughs. Absurdly tall dome-islands blossom out of very deep coastal waters: worryingly big ships anchor very near to the city, and the top of Hong Kong Island, Victoria Peak, was invisible in the clouds the whole time that I was there; (people kept apologising to me for the cool, misty, drizzly weather as if they’d not been maintaining the central-sunshine-system properly). I don’t mind cool weather but I was sorry not to have been able to take the funicular railway to the top of Victoria Peak, a trip rendered pointless by the cloud-base, which would have restricted the view to, more or less, one’s own shoes.

Amusingly, this also meant that I mistook the distinctive facia of the famous Bank of China building for the tallest thing around, on the grounds that I couldn’t see the topmost third of it, or of its neighbours. Only on the final evening when the clouds lifted a little did I see the full extent of two very much taller buildings – the International Finance Centre Building Number One is among the world’s very tallest, something one could easily believe. It tops out a truly staggering skyline; indeed the expression ‘jaw-dropping’ could have been coined for this view (which is best secured, I can attest, in the estimable company of Professor LC Chan, in the penthouse bar of the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon, with an unparalleled view across the Harbour somewhat compensating for beer costing £10 for a small bottle, tips extra).

Glimpsing the ‘canopy’ as it were of the city in this way was in stark contrast to the bustle of getting around on foot. Indeed, to pursue the analogy, one could get close to the impact of Hong Kong by considering it in three distinct layers. At street level, think of a benign version of Blade Runner – rain, neon, bustle, swishy vehicles, exotic food odours, shiny clothing, unexplained steam, and people mostly shorter than you are. At the top – an impossible frieze of glass pinnacles and electric fireflies, the city of the future. In between (this intermediate layer being typically, say, forty or fifty floors ‘thick’) – a gigantic, crazy game of Jenga, its elements being the ‘trunks’ of a thousand vertiginous towers of concrete blocks. In the interstices of the blocks, wherever there was a flat bit of roof-space, could be seen elderly Chinese performing tai chi exercises. Getting between the layers on foot involves lifts if you’re inside the buildings, or, improbably, outdoor escalators ascending the terraced levels alongside conventional stairways for the long hike back down.

Alarmingly, the collective Jenga game seemed to be still in progress: everywhere was construction, reconstruction, reclamation, digging, blasting (yes, really); a cacophony of demolition hammers and pile-drivers and a forest of cranes. Initially more difficult to explain was the curious number of small lorries carrying loads of buff-coloured pipes which on closer inspection turned out to be uniform lengths of stout bamboo. I joked with a colleague about their being some ecological form of scaffolding pole, only to be told that this was exactly what they were: scaffolding is typically made of bamboo both for some of the smaller jobs (fair enough) and also for constructing or at least renovating skyscrapers (unnerving).

I loved the whole Mechano-esque thing: get in touch with your inner small boy, and gawp.

Bamboo-propped skyscrapers might be almost a metaphor for this mixture of cultures – traces of French, Malay, but overwhelmingly Chinese and British – something that’s both overwhelmingly obvious and, no doubt, inexhaustibly subtle. Sometimes the effect is humorous: witness a modestly peeling skyscraper called ‘Sincerity’ alongside businesses called ‘Wondrous Pets Care’ and a colossal high-tech high-rise complex proudly named ‘The Belchers’. Generally, bilingual (English/Cantonese) signs festoon everything and regulate everything – street trade, traffic directions, safety notices, bargain-hunting, touristic opportunities – adding to the general visual hubbub. Shops selling French perfumes and designer handbags adjoin traditional foodstuff suppliers, these latter often proclaiming how long they’ve been in the business of selling and buying sharks’ fins. Amid the mixture of 19th century wrought- or pierced-iron gates and shutters, ancient trees, crumbling cement, modern alloy fascias, hot coals and smouldering joss-sticks, could be found a million dried sharks’ fins within a kilometre of my hotel alone. (In fairness, that’s a million fewer hazards to bathing. I prefer my sharks in flat-pack kit form, or else a very long way away indeed if they’re ready-assembled.) The vernacular foodstuffs I saw in the traditional stores were mostly dried and unidentifable. They’re limitlessly available if you want them, but you’d need to know whether you wanted them.

My short time here was so invigorating that it seems churlish to end on a note of unease. But on Sunday afternoon my walking tour took me through the endless shopping palaces of the CBD, linked by covered walkways so that one is effectively indoors for miles. However the floors of these walkways were themselves covered – and I really do mean covered – in ten thousand flattened cardboard boxes, each square of cardboard forming the picnic rug for a group of people apparently spending the entire day there, sitting or squatting on the floor in animated conversation, more or less oblivious of the shoppers and tourists. It was soon apparent that they were nearly all women, nearly all young, and nearly all Filipina; the exceptions were, perhaps, the children of some of them, an occasional older relative, and some mainland Chinese. My guide explained that Sunday was the official day off for all the domestic workers in Hong Kong city, and that this sedentary carnival was their ‘happy hour’ when they gathered in friendship or kinship groups and whiled away their one free day without, seemingly, a care in the world. Certainly it was hard to imagine happier faces, engaged as they were in chatting, playing cards, brewing tea or heating up picnic food, singing along to portable tape-decks, in a continuous sea of such activity on their kilometres-long cardboard carpet. Equally it was hard not to imagine other aspects of the low-wage, structurally-unequal reality of modern-day domestic servitude, and I found it difficult to look, and also difficult to look away. These women are at the base of the pyramid whose apex is the Icarus-wing of that wondrous skyline: for a day a week, with nothing but a sheet of cardboard between them and the concrete, they stop being invisible.

I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there somewhere linking this with the cloud-cover that shrouded the skyline; but I guess ethics and aesthetics alike forbid my looking for it. What an extraordinary place. Hard to know where to stop musing about it; so here will do.

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