Sunday, February 04, 2007

Postcard from HK

"Hong Kong: Live It! Love It!" is the latest slogan my former home is using to drum up the tourist trade. It goes without saying that I love it, and I'm glad to see it intact and in one piece a full decade after its handover to China. "1997" was on everyone's lips when I lived there, but, despite the severe economic downturn the old Crown Colony weathered, and residual nervousness over the Chinese government's intentions in the "one country, two systems" framework, 97 was as much a non-cataclysm as, say, Y2K.

And there is much to love in Hong Kong. Its subway system, a visitor's main tourist artery, is the pride of the world, a model of gleaming efficiency that even the most passionate New York booster will recall with tears of envy when boarding the cruddy old D train upon his or her return. Its ever-increasing verticality makes a happy home for its population of black kites, sleek and beautiful birds of prey who kept me enraptured just be wheeling around the sky level to our 32nd floor perch at a 40-story hotel in Tin Hau. [The hotel's name? L'Hotel. Hong Kongers are mad about anything French. The arrival of Sofia Coppola's vapid Marie Antoinette was a cultural event of some import, and its showcasing at fancy mall cinemas surrounded by shops a-glitter with French designer labels a fitting launchpad.] The Hong Kong Film Archive, opened in 2001, performs a valuable service in preserving that part of its past. The local cuisine is exquisite, particularly if you don't mind feasting on roast pigeon (delicious) and walking through grungy, entrails-strewn cooked food markets to find it. And the Pizza Hut is the best on Earth. Why that is I do not know.

But live it? I'm not so sure. The black kites see immune to the air pollution that smoggily beset most of our time there; never a model environment, HK has worsened since China's rapid industrialization took hold. And its most popular districts, like Causeway Bay and Central, are fast reaching Soylent Green levels of uninhabitability, or at least unwalkability; the streets are simply choked with people, some waiting to board ground transport that adds to the soupy air quality. And bloggers of my acquaintance who lament the passage of time and its toll on landmarks in New York would have a fit in Hong Kong; the picture above that I took of the historic Star Ferry Terminal is rather conspicuously missing the historic Star Ferry Terminal, which was torn down to make way for a new one not long before our arrival. The government promises to take "cultural sensitivity" into greater consideration before the next renovation project, but a little piece of my memories is now rubble.

I did notice that as Hong Kong extends deeper onto reclaimed land from its "fragrant harbor" (which in time will be a fragrant river) it's loathe to tear down too many buildings; the older ones are simply absorbed into the newer ones that front them, like some sort of hybrid organism connected by store-lined passageways. And it is never at a loss for creative ways to use its verticality. When I last visited in 2000, the Mid-Levels Escalator, or "Travelator" (pictured) hadn't quite sprouted the resaturant-laden economy that underlies its snaking to the upper reaches of some difficult-to-walk streets; now a stomach-popping variety of food options is available along its path, from Krispy Kreme to Russian. But here, too, a price is paid. The picture-perfect view of Central, once dominated by the transcendent HSBC Building, is now overly cluttered with too many mediocre skyscrapers, which at night try to outdo one another with fancy, zig-zaggy light patterns along their tops and sides. The skyline has lost its specialness. And I'm leery of some of those chockablock apartment complexes soaring ever upwards. I guess it works for Hong Kong but is that what Atlantic Yards, across the street, will look like?

There is, however, green space in Hong Kong, on the outlying islands like Lamma (pictured is a view not far from our friend Christine's flat). Improved ferry service and the addition of more homes, restaurants, and amenities over time haven't undone its quieter charms. I've lived, and loved, and again left Hong Kong, skeptical of a future that summons Blade Runner more and more insistently but relieved that its some of its smaller wonders are intact.

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