The Monster, CreatedApril 21st, 2009
by Andrew Johnson
HONG KONG, CHINA
It’s impossible to know whether the world is going the way of China or China is going the way of the world. An uncomfortable layering of capitalism and communism on top of one another, as embodied by the city of Hong Kong, is not the answer to this question.
Hong Kong is the question.
Is this the model for the city of the future?:
An ultra-policed liberalised economy surrounded on all sides by a paternalist one-party state to which money flows mostly one way.
Porous borders into and out of a two-tier system in which the obscurity of the local language, even to visitors from other parts of the mainland, creates a huge industry in catering for those unable to decifer it.
Boundless vertical density for a theoretically unlimited population in a fixed area.
At a superficial level, Hong Kong is like Kafka and JG Ballard getting together on a UK Garage remix of Two Tribes, with Beckett on the ones and twos.
As a reluctant British ‘subject’, it melts my head to see just how far the UK went with its economic experiment in Hong Kong; still the freest economy in the world. The creation of Hong Kong is the equivalent of devolving Anglesey from the rest of the UK, installing a mercantilist quango presided over by Nelson Rockefeller and demanding an exorbitant stipend for use of the road out.
I feel justified in complaining about most of this because we went there uninvited for the smack and started pissing about as always—so the guilt’s on the heads of my father’s and my grandfather’s generations, after all.
But, as I’ve said elsewhere, territories that have been forced to adopt western systems, papering over an iron-strong, unique and irrepressible vernacular culture, as in Vietnam, Japan and Hong Kong, will simply not be beat.
The degree to which the forms and elements of commercial excess are pushed in places like (The) Ho(le) Chi Minh city and Hong Kong is testament to the resilience and the individuality of the cultures we’re still desperately trying to subsume with our hackneyed bullshit. In the case of Hong Kong and the larger cities of Vietnam, it’s as though someone local at the top finally snapped at some point and started having fun:
“If you’re going to make us take on this miserable little system, we’re going to bloody well make you have it back — large, hard, fast and deep, motherfuckers. Get your laughing gear round this…”
The complete absence of seats, benches or any horizontal surfaces at arse-level in Hong Kong is the perfect expression of the ethically palsied western shopping ethos taken to a ridiculous degree. The private corporation that owns the underground system also owns all the malls and luxury apartments built above the stations; designing the exits from the underground trains to route passengers into the shopping areas, whether they want to go there or not. You can’t even stop, never mind stop shopping.
Most of Hong Kong Island’s ‘public space’ has a six-lane blacktop scything through the middle of it, in spite of the fact that the city has arguably the best public transport system in the world. There’s a genuinely C21st subway, light railway and ferry network and a reasonably efficient tram system before you even get to the busses and the taxis. I would love it if someone could explain to me just where, exactly, everyone is driving to and why they would even dream of investing so much in such flash cars to do so in?
Anyone who has ever spent any length of time in the city of Birmingham in the UK will find themselves fighting off an unusual sense of deja vu on arriving in Hong Kong. To someone steeped in the culture of Great Britain (by fair means or foul), on the surface, the place feels like Manchester occupied and lightly retro-fitted by the Kuomintang. The civic architecture seems based around the model of a 1950s public lavatory from Scarborough promenade and purposely renders the entire place into a much warmer suburb of South London.
The absolute dominion over the place by roads makes every intersection into a subtropical spaghetti junction; delineating with metal crash barriers oceanic concrete islands that necessitate proficient parkour to make any meaningful progress on foot.
Of course, 50-grand sterling for a Maserati for no other purpose than driving around the M25 corridor at rush hour, occasionally stopping off at convenience stores for processed snacks, is everyone’s idea of nirvana, isn’t it…?
It’s possible to tell a lot about a people by their attitude to space. Hong Kong doesn’t have any, so once it’s occupied, it jolly well stays that way, thank you very much. Turn around anywhere on Hong Kong Island with your arms extended even slightly proud of your body and you’ll be touching someone else. Lift up your feet and you’ll find somebody standing on the back of your sandals. Alter your walking pace even minutely and a concertina of bodies hits you from the rear.
The most over-populated island in the world, Ap Lei Chau in Hong Kong, has so many people on it that if they all came out of their homes at the same time, they would begin falling into the sea.
This, I can only pray, may one day start happening to England.