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Futurama - Hong Kong

Last stop: Hong Kong, all aboard for a wild ride!

What a trip… we came to visit our friends Alice and Bruce. Alice had studied in Chicago at IIT and we worked together at our first job out of school. Nothing like that to bond you.  Quite a few years ago, she went back to Hong Kong to be with family and we haven’t seen her since, so it would be a reunion of sorts.  

We flew Vietnam Airlines from Hanoi to Hong Kong, and once we landed, we noticed the differences immediately, and not just the dramatic rise in prices.  The new Chek Lap Kok Airport is an architectural masterpiece designed by Sir Norman Foster and it is a feat of modernism. So sleek, so spare, so efficient. Inside we bought tickets on an airport shuttle going into the city every ten minutes. We boarded the double decker bus and stowed our luggage on the bottom floor and headed up top for the view. Once settled into our seats, our paranoia crept up, and we began to worry about being separated from our luggage. But we had to look no further than the video monitors in front of us showing continual pictures of our safely stowed luggage. Not sure where to get off? You can listen to the continual multi-lingual annoucements of the stops or watch the videoboard which posts in five different languages. And of course, if your not comfortable, just adjust your personal comfort controls. All this for seven dollars! I think in Chicago, a crappy taxi to the city goes for at least $40.  

Hong Kong is a remarkable city, built on no-man’s land, entirely unsuited for building a city upon. Hong Kong has defied all expectations and continues to grow and prosper even after the hand-over to the Chinese in 1997. The people are free-wheeling, go-getters living in the city of lights and heights. The density of Hong Kong is absolutely unbelievable. In 1984, the view from Victoria Peak, rising above the city inspired the futuristic landscape of Bladerunner. Now imagine that landscape, fast forward sixteen years, and every available nook and cranny of the city is filled with heaven-hugging skyscrapers. They have taken the conceptual model of the modernist ‘Projects’ to new heights. Our friends Alice and Bruce live on the 37th floor of a fifty story building. In their complex, are twenty of these exactly the same fifty story buildings. They are like mini-metropolises with their own grocery stores, restaurants, shops, post offices, etc. If you could work in the building, you would never have to leave. As space is such a premium, condos are entirely too small and homes are nonexistant. Your average condo is just 350 square feet. To utilize every inch, furniture is always custom ordered to fit. Beds may have to be shortened, bookcases may have to hang from the ceiling over the bed, appliances in the kitchen will stack to the ceiling. And also different, each door will have a sliding vault metal enclosure for safety.

This concrete jungle is not just relegated to what little valley they have. The buildings have begun to climb up the hills. Hong Kong is a city that has no available space to grow out, so they head upwards, reaching higher and higher. They will build ten fifty-story buildings clinging to the face of a mountain. Also, the word ‘reclamation’ has come in vogue. Since Hong Kong is basically a number of very hilly islands, there is a lot of coastal land. A new scheme for more land is to fill in, or silt up the waterfront. 

The beautiful skyline of Hong Kong as seen from across the bay is dramatically changing due to reclamation. What used to be a ten-minute ferry ride across the bay has now been reduced to a six-minute ride. How much will they fill in, how far will they go. The famous Peninsula Hotel that used to be waterfront property is now three streets inwards! Will Hong Kong be the same without a bay. Driving  around, we noticed that they also take the phrase ‘concrete jungle’ quite literally. They fill in all the landscaping with concrete, leaving only holes for trees and bushes to grow out of. If they didn’t, when it rains, there would be massive landslides. So, grass and other green coverage is non-existent.

In place of the greenery, Hong Kong sprouts the most incredible imaginative architecture in the world. The verticality of the skyline is a statement of power and function in a forest of towering metal and sheer glass walls. Some of the more famous buildings include:

The I.M.Pei designed Bank of China, a hard-edged, brash statement of the new kid in town, China’s takeover in 97. It a geometric 3-D puzzle of a place.

The competition at the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking building, designed by Sir Norman Foster, is lovingly called the ‘robot building’ because it is like a building turned inside-out, it’s guts on display. Also breaking from traditional construction methods, the building hangs rather than ascends from an immense ‘coat hanger’ external frame.

The stunning Hong Kong Convention Center, also designed by the above-mentioned Foster, is like a graceful bird taking flight. Decidedly low and horizontal in stark contrast to its surroundings, enormous, graceful arcs  layered one atop the other and filled with a billowing wind to give an uplifting, light touch to a magnificent structure.

All this remarkable architecture was highlighted by whimsical external lighting for the holidays and especially the new millenium. Not satisified with just staid red and green lights, the sides of the buildings became enormous drive-in movie theatres with a dazzingly display of changing lights. On one building, there was a huge clock, continually counting down the days, hours, minutes, and seconds til the year 2000. On another, an ornate Chinese dragon kept writhing side to side, his tail slithering back and forth. And yet another kept proclaiming wonderful tidings for the new year to come.

An interesting event that we happened to catch was the handover of Macau from the Portuguese back to the Chinese. All of Hong Kong as well as China turned out for the festivities, and it was the talk of the town, of course for a variety of reasons. There is still anticipation in Hong Kong and a certain sense of dread that things may change for the worse. But so far, things have pretty much been left the same, although there has been some recent curtailing of judicial power, as Hong Kong’s free-wheeling judges are being reined in. And many in Hong Kong have been loath to hand over members of the Falun Gong group, banned in China as a subversive cult, but in reality merely a group of followers of Tai Chi. China, in it’s quest to rein in its ever-expanding population banns basically any group organization as it might lead to descent and crusades for democracy. An onimous note was the headlines of the main newspaper (now merely a mouthpiece for the Communist government) stating ‘Taiwan Next!’ to complete the trilogy of reunification.  

One good side effect of the proximity of Macau is the numerous restaurants touting authentic macau food, a unique blend of Portuguese and Chinese cooking. Delicious! We discovered a locals place, as evidenced by the long line of young Hong Kong trendsetters outside and tasted a little bit of heaven. Savory curries of lamb and potatoes served in a clay pot, with African and Brazilian spices thrown in, and a pork chop casserole baked with rice and a cream sauce also served in a clay pot. And even better, as it was a locals joint, for Hong Kong it was inexpensive!  

People in Hong Kong seem to be fascinated with technology. They have all the lastest, greatest gadgets. When we visited with Alice, she asked if we would like to see her wedding video in VHS, DVD, VCD or huh? Too many anacronisms! I can’t keep up. Coming out of the waterfront mall, we walked into a crowd mesmerized and staring above our heads, mouths agap, eye fixed, kids and adults alike. We looked up to see a Pokemon-like animation played on a huge screen with animatronic dancers in front. We watched for awhile, but the absolute silence of the crowd spooked us and we moved on.

Another interesting phenomena to watch for is Sundays in Central at Statue Square, best known as the weekly gathering place for thousands of Filipino migrant workers, almost entirely female. They come toting shopping bags of food and gifts to share with each other, spreading blankets on any available surface and chatting nonstop, the air musical with the constant hum of Tagalog. Working menial class jobs such as maids, cooks and nannies, they come for the source of steady income and are generally the sole breadwinners for their families back home. The joy of companionship in a far away land was palpable and the women looked happy for perhaps the only time each and every week, as they form Hong Kong’s lowest class and even now are threatened with expulsion at any time. Today, though… they were like birds released from their cages for a time.

And lastly, an installment on Hong Kong would not be complete without at least mentioning Chungking Mansions, a place unlike anywhere else in the world. This enormous high-rise ghetto of accommodations is a city unto itself. Lonely Planet describes it as: “a medieval town under permanent siege, surrounded by a netherworld of sleaze and horrifying odors. The lifts are steel coffins on cables, the light wells, dark, dirty, festooned with pipes, wires and unmentionable debris. Adding spice to your stay are the occasional midnight raids by the police searching for illegal immigrants.” The dump is divided into blocks, aka cells…B block, D block and each served by a single elevator making for long lines. Seedy, sleazy, disgusting people lurk at every corner, ready to pull you up to their hostel, restaurant, drug palace. As it is rock-bottom cheapest place to stay in Hong Kong, it has become a ‘favorite’ of migrant workers and cheap-ass backpackers and the scum attracted to them. So that you may never have to leave, you can get your hair cut, get food, get clothing, get high, find work …and so. When we mention to Alice that we might check it out, she was horrified and cautioned us to run, run away…

We did anyway, and lived to regret it. Walking in, we entered hell on earth. We were immediately accosted by four guys touting indian restaurants. Shoving their cards in our faces, they grabbed any available arm and began, quite literally, pulling us in four different directions. As they were becoming more and more insistant, and finally verging on violent, Doug finally lost it, and I’ve never seen him madder or heard him yell so loudly. Lashing out with threats and fists, they finally released us and scrambled away into the dark recesses of B block and we hurried out, vowing never to set foot again in that disgusting, vile place.

If you would like to enjoy this slice of hell in the comforts of your own home, check out Wong Kar Wai’s 1994 film Chungking Express, released in the US on Quentin Tarintino’s private label. It captures all the sleaze and labyrinthine environs in a haunting, captivating series of montages. Check it out, video pick of the week!

We want to thank Alice and Bruce for a great time. They showed us around, and we had a fabulous authentic Shanghainese chinese meal with interesting dishes like ju gai (drunken chicken) suenlat tong (hot and sour soup) fan gwo (steamed dumplings) and twice cooked pork and barbequed eel. Good luck Alice at her new job.

Well…this about wraps up our email installments, however look forward to the best and worst of Wanderlust 99, coming soon, to an inbox near you.

Ten four good buddies, signing out ...

Ann and doug

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