Most places in the word command little explanation. Many sites, cities, and even countries can be described in a word or two. For example, I passed through the 7 million-person metropolis of Shenzhen on my way to Hong Kong. The word “industry” pretty much tells you the whole story. “Sludge” is also acceptable. Some locales can be summed up by comparison. If you asked me, “What’s Massachusetts like?” I’d probably tell you “It’s kind of like Connecticut.” If you asked me, “What’s Connecticut like?” I’d be inclined to give you the dead-honest straightforward truth, “It’s kind of like Massachusetts.” Naturally, places with a little more swag about them than Connecticut (almost anywhere) could be worth a sentence. If we’re talking somewhere pretty special, like a Montreal or Shanghai caliber spot, a few remarks, maybe even a whole paragraph might suffice. “They kind of speak French in Montreal! Winter is cold! Hockey!” “Shanghai is the biggest city in China! It is very dynamic! There are a lot of tall buildings! Pedestrians are the lowest life form.” Then, there are places that deserve a page or even a chapter or even a whole book.
Hong Kong is none of these. Hong Kong is beyond description. It resists description. It is one of the few places that cannot be understood or even perceived until it is experienced.
I arrived in Hong Kong last week. My co-fellow Nicole and I came through the border crossing in the aforementioned Shenzhen. From the sky, Shenzhen looks like a miserable shithole. I didn’t get out of the airport, so I can’t give it the definitive shithole stamp, but I have a pretty good feeling about it. It’s kind of the poster-child for what many Westerners think modern China is: Gray and peppered with endless factories. We were headed to HK on a visa run. Hong Kong’s international status is ambiguous. It’s technically part of the PRC but retains a lot of the special benefits and government structure that it had in 1997. Having Asia’s financial epicenter fall into your lap after hundreds of years is rather fortuitous. So, China lets them have access to Google and Facebook for their troubles. I’ll refrain from delving into the complete and utter absurdity of the visa process because just thinking about it makes me want to waterboard myself.
If Hong Kong were a work of art, it would be a cross between a Pollack and an incredibly complex and detailed architectural blueprint. It’s chaos in its purest and most disciplined form. Initial thoughts: streetlights, white people, dazzling sensory overload. I’ve been living in a place that doesn’t have a restaurant or a non-Chinese person for miles. I also haven’t had a meal without rice in two months. Hong Kong’s energy smacks me in the face. And it hurts so good. I cannot imagine what someone from my village (my Chinese village, not Sherman) would do if they were snatched off the street, blindfolded, and dropped in the middle of central Hong Kong. They’d probably put the blindfold back on.
At first the white people are what really get me. Not just the white people, but also the black people and the very large population of brown people too. When I fly home, I’ll obviously see a lot of non-Chinese. But, that’s expected. Asians are a relatively small minority in the West. In Hong Kong, the majority is still of Chinese heritage (93% officially). That statistic definitely warrants downward readjustment in the tourist and finance hubs. Ninety-three percent may seem pretty Chinese, but it’s obviously nothing compared to my village, which at the time of this writing, as I am still in Hong Kong, has a non-Chinese population of approximately 0%. I unabashedly embraced the hypocrisy and stared at every white, black, and brown person I saw. How exotic they all are.
My hostel is located in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. “TST” is a five-minute $2.50 HKD Star Ferry ride across the water form the imposing vertical metropolis of Hong Kong Island. For simplicity’s sake Kowloon is something like Brooklyn and/or Queens and Hong Kong is Manhattan. After a metro ride to TST, I finally set foot on Hong Kong territory. This after a journey that began forty hours ago on the side of the road in my tiny village. Immediately, I’m swarmed by suavely dressed Indian and Pakistani men with slicked back hair calling my name. “Taylor!” “Hey Taylor, dude.” “Hey buddy, Taylor, Taylor!” This is my second go around in HK, so this time I know better. Whereas in Bangkok they’d be saying “Girls? Girls?…. Guys?” or in Shanghai they’d be saying “Rolex? Handbag? DVD?” in Hong Kong, tailored suits are the thing everyone and their mother is trying to con you into buying. I continue toward my hostel. As I move to enter the building, a bespectacled grandfatherly local man sitting on a stool stops me. I stop short, he kind of looks official. “Massage?” he inquires. I continue to my hostel.
Our booking is on the fourteenth floor of a fifteen-story building. Unfortunately, only one of the two elevators is operating. We’re told we are lucky, because last week they were both out of commission. They elevator fits a China seven. Basically, shoulder to shoulder, chest to chest. Space is the ultimate commodity in Hong Kong. Since it’s been an isolated city-state for the entirety of its modern existence, the only new frontier is up. What’s considered tight quarters in New York would be cavernous in Hong Kong (rents are somehow DOUBLE Manhattan rates). Nary a square meter is wasted. Endless skyscrapers jut out from steep mountain faces. Hong Kong’s endeavor to utilize every inch of their 407 square miles of land appears to defy the laws of physics. In Hong Kong, people live, work, and play in the sky. It is the quintessential urban jungle. New York is the only city that can even make a case for comparison.
TST is a mashing together of malls, flashing ads for hotel rooms 28 stories up, dubious Indian restaurants, and the notorious Chungking mansion. Chungking is a giant building that houses numerous different hostels. On the ground floor you’ll find men from south Asia and Africa selling almost anything you can imagine. It retains a somewhat pleasant smell of curry and cigarette smoke. I once read a statistic that 20% of in-use cell phones in Sub-Saharan Africa had passed through Chungking mansion’s doors. That statistic rather eloquently sums up the kind of things that go on inside.
Across the river is Hong Kong Island. This is the Hong Kong that people who’ve never been hold in their imagination. Beautiful skyscrapers with the logos of JP Morgan, HSBC, and Standard Chartered rise above the water like giant trees forming the canopy high above the urban jungle below. On the ground, masses of shops, bars, and restaurants feed the feeders of the international finance machine. At night the high-rises empty their contents into the streets. Leisure time appears to be an extension of office life. Competitive, fast-paced, and meticulously stylish. Cocktails cost $100 HKD (10+ US). Clubs charge $400 HKD to come in and have a look.
The jet set is alive and thriving in Hong Kong. But, next to all this are the equally fast-paced, equally capitalist, altogether much grittier local neighborhoods. Taxi drivers (driving on the left side) yell at pedestrians in Cantonese, English, and Mandarin. Old woman hawk live fish and frogs from giant tanks stacked on top of each other. Even marine animals get a taste of the jam-packed Hong Kong city life before they meet their demise. Sinewy shirtless 20-somethings excitedly mind streetside stalls that promise to fix any broken electronic device ever created. Among the pandemonium Cantopop finds its way from fuzzy boomboxes into welcoming ears. You can meander these districts for hours and not see a single foreigner. It’s insanity, but you can’t stop, you can’t even sit and think, because you’ll fall behind. And, in Hong Kong, the state of behind is the most feared state of all.
The mindset is the same, but the means are different. Champions of capitalism ply their trade from the 94th floor of grandiose superstructures. They wear tailored suits and gold cufflinks. They eat steak and drink wine. Deep inside the valleys and canyons others grind, and push, and fight to carve out their own piece of Hong Kong. They wear dirty white undershirts and listen to Raymond Lam. They eat giant crabs and fish balls. Perhaps the only tangibly binding tie is that they all ride the same unprecedentedly efficient metro rail.
To say Hong Kong isn’t Chinese is false. To say Hong Kong isn’t a first-world, Western city is false. It is both of these things at once, side-by-side, and inside out. However, in the street vendors and the financiers to the crazed taxi drivers and the pair of Indian brothers operating a hostel on the 28th floor of and the Nigerian guy hustling cell phones from the mainland across the Indian Ocean in some corner of Chungking mansion, there is a binding desire for something more. No one in Hong Kong settles. Like the city itself that climbs higher and higher into the sky and up the mountains even when it seems impossible, everyone is reaching up, not out. There is an ambition present here unseen anywhere else in the world. Not even geographically imposed limits can keep Hong Kong contained. One architect makes a tall building, another makes a taller one. One guy fixes iPhones for 30 bucks, another fixes them for 29. Hong Kong is in an endless race to squeeze every last bit of possibility out of everything. There is no why or how or where? Questions don’t exist. You must do before you are done in. You don’t have time to question how the machine runs so seamlessly, you just accept the fact that it does run, and it runs incredibly well.
Then you leave, and you have no idea what just happened.