Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The view of the Hong Kong skyline and harbour from the top of Victoria Peak is incredible, both for what you can and can't see. I thought it was the second-most spectacular thing I have ever seen after the Grand Canyon. There are more than 7,000 buildings in Hong Kong that are over 115 feet (about 8-9 stories), compared with over 5,000 in New York, and 1700 in Toronto. The air quality in Hong Kong is also atrocious, pollution was classified as "high to very high" this weekend, and buildings about 5 km away were shrouded in a haze. So, standing at the top of Victoria Peak, this was not exactly the view I enjoyed, though even here the pollution are visible.

The entire place was unnerving. The buildings were towering, the people were everywhere (roughly 1 million people live on a tiny portion of Hong Kong Island's 80 square kilometres), the streets were narrow and everyone gets around, of all things, by reading traditional Chinese characters. Hong Kong is similar to Manhattan in being a densely-populated centre of commerce and culture, but Manhattan has the semblance of order from wide, numbered streets that ward off suffocation. Hong Kong just seems to happen. You might not realize from looking at it subway map that there are actually 8 or 9 lines leading every which way. Of course, it's true that much of Hong Kong is fairly remote and mountainous, and that only about a quarter of its land is paved.

In that sense, Hong Kong has everything: massive, crumbling high-rises that look airlifted from Detroit, more skyscrapers than anywhere else, a port that will send chills down your spine, but also mountains and go-nowhere highways that wouldn't look out of place in Canada. Of the world's 12 tallest buildings, 3 are in Hong Kong, 2 each in Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai, 1 each in Taipei, Chicago, Shenzen, Guangzhou and New York. Hong Kong borders Shenzhen in mainland China and is about 120 km from Guangzhou. Together, these three cities have 40 million people and constitute probably the most frightening megalopolis anywhere in the world.

Even Hong Kong's air is a unique mixture of heat, humidity, pollution, and cigarette smoke. It is thick from the perpetual humidity (though a newscast informed me that it was hazy because of dry weather) and has a texture that I've come to associate with pollution. In many cases, the buildings are so tall as to block out the sun. The window in my room looked into a narrow alleyway and another building. I thought it was cloudy every morning when I woke up, and I though it was cloudy when I walked out onto the street, and I didn't realize it was sunny until I looked through the wall of buildings into an opening where the sun was shining.

It's also very much a global city. I flew on Cathay Pacific, which seems to recruit flight attendants only from beauty pageants, where announcements were made in Chinese, English and Korean. Signs in the city were posted in Chinese, English and often Tagalog when it concerned littering. My quandary in mostly homogenous Korea, where I'm from Canada if you mean where I traveled from and from Pakistan if you want to know why I look the way I do, was non-existent. I was a Pakistani-born Canadian working in Korea traveling in Hong Kong, and it made for a bad answer to Hong Kong customs officer when he asked where I was from. Otherwise, I was just another fish out of water, along with the legions of British colonists.

Sadly (or fortunately), everyone speaks enough English that I didn't have any reason to use any of the few Cantonese words I learned. I already knew 'whyyyyy' from the TTC back home, but I also picked up yes and no, which I practised pronouncing for a while, along with thank you, which I never really managed to say right because when I said it to the women at the hostel, they stared at me for a second and then laughed politely. Still, that didn't stop me from spending a few hours before I left memorizing the Chinese characters I saw. I picked up 'exit' from doors, 'day' from customs forms, 'entrance' from street signs and middle or centre (if you know Chinese, it's the box with a vertical line through it) from the subway and coffee shops. Once it wasn't so completely impenetrable, I spent a few hours reading through a Cantonese dictionary, picking out simple symbols and memorizing them. Thankfully, by then it was time to go home, and I can put an end to the madness. All of it.

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