Hong Kong - Everything and more
As I stepped off the plane and into Hong Kong airport, a man in uniform jumped in front of me and placed a pistol to my head. He stared intently at the back of the gun, before lowering it and gesturing for me to keep walking. Somewhat bewildered, I continued on, stopping a few meters away at a kiosk which, to my delight, was selling tourist SIM cards. As I slipped the card into my phone, instantly receiving high-speed internet, I realised he was measuring my temperature with a thermometer gun to ensure I wasn't about to spawn a new SARS outbreak. All this before I’d even been through passport control. I knew I was going to like Hong Kong.
Modern transport is incredible; I had stepped into the airport in Dubai and not been outside of an air conditioned capsule until I emerged from Causeway Bay metro station, in the heart of Hong Kong island. It's difficult to describe how I felt as I stood there, frozen in awe, staring at the perfect, beautiful storm of organised chaos that lay in front of me. People and traffic swirled in every direction. Concrete clambered to unimaginable heights and in so many disjointed sections, it looked like a giant, archaic Lego set. Cables sprawled overhead, wrapping in and around a sea of flashing neon signs. A huge walkway raised itself over the road, then disappeared into the side of a building on the other side. A distinctive red taxi zipped between two double decker trams, jolting to a halt as the clicking of a pedestrian crossing filled the air like a crazed locust and crowds of people swarmed across the road. It was a thrilling introduction to Asia's most famous city.
As it turned out, Causeway Bay would come to be my favourite place in urban Hong Kong. It has everything I love about the city, in one bright, bustling district. It's a place you can find great coffee, restaurants and bars, or stroll through a vibrant seafood market and see live fish caught from open tanks, gutted and sold in a blur and where you can find old ladies with mobile shrines casting voodoo spells under a huge overpass. And, most importantly, it's a place you can simply stand and watch the wonderful madness pass you by.
That's not to say other parts of the city don't each have their own chaotic charm too. The gleaming skyscrapers of Central, Hong Kong's money making financial district. The trendy bars and clubs on the slopes of Soho, the party district, home to the infamous bar street, Lan Kwai Fong (colloquially known as ‘LKF’). The delicious and varied restaurants and cafes of Tin Hau, the hipster district. The rooftop bars and stunning views of the island from Kowloon bay, the famous photo spot. The unbelievably dense markets and multi floor karaoke bars of Mongkok, the late night shopping district. Hong Kong has it all and thanks to the fact it's all squeezed into a tiny area with a near perfect transport system, you're never more than a few minutes away from any of it, even at rush hour. And on the rare occasion you are running late, you can let your date know: the slick air conditioned metro has full cell signal, even between stations.
But as great as all that is, it’s not why I love Hong Kong. You can find most of that in any developed city. What I love about Hong Kong is what it brings to your senses. To walk around, to look, to smell, to hear, to just be. It's an explosion of east meets west squeezed into a tiny three dimensional melting pot that means every single cubic centimetre has to be used for something and ingenious ways of achieving that usage have to be carefully thought out. Anywhere else in the world they just wouldn’t have bothered. But because of what Hong Kong is (and was), they have to bother. The result is tiny alleyways with more going on than a London high street, highways that climb over whole districts, weaving their way between buildings, pedestrian walkways that feel like embarking on a mini adventure and an outdoor escalator complex which spans three districts as it climbs the steep slope of the island. It’s all completely bonkers and it shouldn't work in any way, shape or form. But it does. It works beautifully.
At times it really feels like a sort of retro-future metropolis of insanity. It has modernity and technology everywhere it needs it, yet it retains its character, culture and charm because it can’t spare energy on vanity. While cities like Dubai and Singapore are shouting about how amazing they are, with the biggest this and tallest that, Hong Kong is just getting on with being amazing because it has to be amazing in order to function. It doesn't have to be pretty, or shiny, or consistent, it just has to work. And that’s what makes it so very special.
One more thing which really struck me having come from Dubai, is that although inequality is no doubt just as high here, the line between the "haves" and "have nots" simply isn't visible. Everything and everyone is mixed up together in the tumble dryer of concrete, traffic and lights. Does it make me feel any better when I see that hunched old lady, dressed in dirty rags collecting cardboard worth pennies to feed herself? No, of course not. For such a rich city, it seems far too many in Hong Kong are left in the cold. But, unlike Dubai or Singapore, at least it feels like that old lady has just as much of a right to be stood where she is as anybody else in the city. There’s no segregation in Hong Kong: everyone is on this crazy ride together.
And, as my last post about Hong Kong's ghost towns hinted at, the region is far more than just a city. Hop in a taxi and in less than 20 minutes you could be on a deserted golden sand beach, on a boat heading to a beautiful tropical island, trekking up a hillside taking in the stunning vistas, or indeed, exploring a rural ghost town.
Now don’t get me wrong, Hong Kong won't be for everyone. For a start it's dirty, those smells I mentioned earlier can be quite nauseating at times. When you pack 8 million people into a tiny space like this, rubbish is a problem. And although movement around the city works great, personal space is not really a thing here. You learn the flow of the crowd, or you get carried by it. Also, I wouldn't say people are that friendly. Not that they’re rude, but you won't be making friends at the 7eleven checkout. Finally, it’s damn expensive. You can find cheap food and drink, but accommodation is even more expensive than London and if you’re partying gets out of control, you very well might need a mortgage!
But, for me, those are all part of the experience. Hong Kong has everything I want and a whole lot more. It feels like a place I could never get bored of. I've left other places thinking they were great, beautiful or fun. I've even left places thinking I could live there. But leaving Hong Kong is different; I can feel it in my soul. I actually love this place. Which is why I've already been looking at jobs and apartments. At some pointing in the not too distant future, I am going to live here.
It's possible for a place to capture your heart in a very real way that you simply can't explain.