Hong Kong, China

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
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Trip End Aug 10, 2007


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Friday, August 3, 2007

I arrived in Hong Kong at Hong Hom station on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong Harbor and very near the waterfront.  Despite carrying my big backpack I decided to take advantage of the unusual crystal clear blue skies and knock-your-socks-off views of the cityscape and walk along the waterfront to the Star Ferry Terminal to cross the harbor in style, rather than immediately hop on the MTR (subway). 


Hong Kong is said to be one of the half dozen or so most beautiful cities in the world that have that rare combination of urban landscapes, mountains, and seascapes, other contenders frequently making this somewhat subjective list being San Francisco, Vancouver, Rio de Janeiro, Barcelona, Istanbul, Sydney, and Cape Town.  Having been to all but two cities on that list, after seeing Hong Kong I think I'd give it the edge, as its blend of city, land, and sea views are more stunning than any other place I've ever been.


At least from a distance that may be the case, but as with any city when you get up close into its crowded, noisy, and hectic streets, Hong Kong is no longer the paradise it appears from high on the mountain or from a boat in the harbor.  Shanghai and Beijing may be bigger, but Hong Kong feels like its people are all packed more densely on top of each other than any other place I've ever been.  While the nearly 7 million people that reside in its 400-plus square miles don't suggest an especially high urban density, the fact is that the vast majority of its acreage consists of parkland and near wilderness while nearly all the people are housed in small rabbit hutches in the sky in massive highrise buildings, either in the glossy "new towns" built since the 1980s in the New Territories towards the Chinese border or in older highrises in Kowloon and the north shore of Hong Kong Island.  And from street level many of those highrise apartment buildings dating from two or three decades ago have a very cheap and somewhat decaying projectlike appearance. 


I feel like I received a firsthand experience in Hong Kong highrise population density through my accommodations in the Wang Fat Hostel which I booked over the Internet through the Hostelworld.com site I usually use.  Located within a block of an MTR station exit in the very crowded and commercial Causeway Bay section of Hong Kong Island, Wang Fat consists of a number of converted apartments on a couple floors of a highrise building.  My lodging budget didn't get me as much in Hong Kong as it did on the mainland and after about two nights I figured out that the room I was sharing with two other young travelers was in an apartment that was actually inhabited by a local family with children who mostly stayed behind other closed doors.


Despite the cramped accommodation and the crowded environment, it felt pleasant to be in a thoroughly modern place with a first world feel to it again.  Among the small pleasures of Hong Kong was being able to go to Starbucks and sit and read a slew of English languge newspapers, rather than only the propagandistic China Daily like on the mainland.  Other than some material comforts, however, there are few similarities between Hong Kong and home.  Honk Kong is the virtual antithesis of the average American city, almost an anti-L.A.  Whereas America is a land of privacy and isolation where people live (or aspire to live) far apart from each other in big suburban McMansions each with its own bit of front and backyard countryside, travel down freeways sequestered in their SUVs, while limited park land and public amenities fo underused, people in Hong Kong lead an entirely alternative lifestyle.  Lacking much private space in their tiny skyscraper cubbies, getting around almost entirely using mass transit, and packing their pedestrian zones, malls, restaurants, and public parks throughout the day, Hong Kongers live out their lives in the public sphere.


Hong Kong probably has the most efficient and well integrated mas transit system I've seen anywhere in the world.  One puts money onto an ""Octopus" fare card valid for all forms of public transportation (and even some other goodies such as McDonalds and 7-11), and the fare amount is deducted each time you enter and scan the card.  Meanwhile, a reviewable electronic record is kept of all card use.  In many places in the world getting on a bus requires a certain amount of faith and luck, faith that the number of the bus you were instructed to get on by another person or your guidebook will actually get you to where you want to go and luck that you actually find the right place to catch the bus.  In Hong Kong, however, the bus routes are so well marked at every stop that not only is every route's terminal destination posted, every stop in between is listed with a map as well.  Thus, there are rather few cars on the road in Hong Kong for such a large population, a real pleasure compared to the hellish sea of automobiles one is always surrounded by in America and so many other parts of the world.


Hong Kong has rather little in the way of historic or cultural sights for the visitor and is probably as much a town for partying now as it was during the Vietnam and Korean War eras when it was the big spot for American GI's R&R.  As well as a healthy stream of travelers, Hong Kong has a huge resident community of western expats that make it an especially fun city to spend some time in. 


After my touring I went out on Friday evening for a late happy hour in Lan Kwai Fong, an area of several streets of restaurants and watering holes catering largely to beer-loving Brits and Aussie travelers and expats.  I ended up at an outdoor table at a local brewpub named the Hong Kong Brewery where I spent the rest of the evening talking with a group of young Americans and Canadians who all worked in Hong Kong.  As I met more and more of their friends through the night, Hong Kong natives as well as Germans, Australians, Brits, Filipinos, and Thais, I couldn't help but think the life of an expat in Hong Kong looked like a really good one.


I was in Hong Kong shortly after the 10th anniversary celebrations for Hong Kong's return to China.  Hong Kong falls under China's "one country, two systems" policies, so it's not entirely clear how much things have changed over that decade.  As an American I don't need a visa to visit Hong Kong but mainland Chinese face restrictions and require visas to visit; one still passes through immigaration and gets a passport stamp when crossing between China and Hong Kong (thus, I consider H.K. a separate country for purposes of my count); Hong Kong still has its own currency which can not be used interchangeably with the Chinese Yuan; and vehicles still drive on the left in Hong Kong.  Hong Kong was also previously always a colony rather than a democracy, so it's not clear to me how much has changed politically, and economically it would appear that little has changed in Hong Kong as China gradually evolves to look more like Hong Kong as it adopts capitalism.
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