My back pages: Nomad histories 001: Hong Kong

Originally published 13 December 2001 on my old site, this was my response to my first encounter with Hong Kong. I thought I’d dust it off and have a look at it now that Nurri and I are headed back. I’ve left everything intact as written, but in any event I hope you’ll agree that it stands up to the passage of six years pretty well.

1. on the risk and delight of cities
I’m acutely aware that I probably look like an Apple ad.

I’m sitting in a child’s tire swing, at a pocket playground wedged into the margins of a reservoir on a steep hillside overlooking Hong Kong Island, tapping away on my Titanium G4 as I listen to Lou Reed croon to the ghosts of his mid-1970’s “Berlin.” The view down the slope is nice, but the view isn’t the point (aside from using it as an excuse to briefly note that Hong Kong has more, and more exciting, recent architecture than Tokyo, or indeed anyplace else I can remember being. Even if “exciting” does sometimes mean “godawful.”)

No, the point is that, from this swing, I can look up and be struck with fifteen hundred things I want to say to you. Everything that meets my eye seems to be freighted with meaning – and this is without lysergic assistance. This is the characteristic effervescence of a true urban place. And what I’m finding as I mount the escalator/”travelator” network up into the hills of Hong Kong is that this city is alive to me, in a way that Tokyo or New York or London have ceased to be, at least temporarily.

As I rise, I peer down into the neighborhoods backed up against this oddball thoroughfare. Signs of life abound: laundry and untended plants on balconies, second-floor diners in a blue-lit modernist pizza restaurant, the haunting evensong of a mosque. There’s an offering of incense outside the door to the travelators’ maintenance room, hard by a bar spilling hulking, balding gweilos into the street. You’ve seen this, at least as Orientalist picturesque in the background of films like Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book and Wayne Wang’s Chinese Box.

Climbing through the living tissue (not to mention the interstitial waste spaces) of the Mid-Levels, it’s clear that in Hong Kong there’s still a hellbent love of the things that make a city, in both the risk and the return. More, the sheer verticality of modern buildings hasn’t lost its power to thrill or to inspire: they stand arrayed in ranks like the proverbial dominoes, pieces of the city itself tumbling away down the hillside.

That it’s impossible, unmanageable, infuriating is a given. It’s what we expect of a city, of living in anything that meets the minimum definition of a city. The flipside, and the thing we also take for granted, is that when you surrender yourself to the act of living in such a place, you are also opening yourself to the possibility of meeting a work of art, a cuisine, a sound, a momentary juxtaposition, or especially a person, that bears a nonzero chance of utterly derailing your life. In Hong Kong, at least for the Western visitor, these possibilities aren’t even submerged, they’re right there at the surface: vectors that could take you up and entirely out of the life you thought you were living, for better or for worse.

And it’s vital to remember this when we start to think about what kinds of options we have when confronted with the urban future and its manifold possibilities – a topic that’s assumed new immediacy since the eleventh day of September last. To break the question down to its essence: what kind of place do we want to live in? Is this a desirable thing, this sense of charged possibilities latent within the city, this bargain by which tolerating the existence of banal, wasteful or even fatal contingencies means giving rise to others which wait like catapults on the deck of an aircraft carrier, to fling us off onto new and unknown trajectories? Or would we rather live in ways that guarantee our security at the cost of the throb and churn of city life?

It’s not a rhetorical question: apparently, some of us very much would. I came to Hong Kong in the company of a woman for whom cities mean little more than concentrated opportunities for shopping. I found myself all lit up as we plied the streets in a wood-floored double-decker tram, craning up at the impossible verticality like any six-year-old might, truly geeking out on the mere fact of cityness, and I suddenly realized that my companion was sort of tolerantly ignoring my occasional awed outbursts. Not for her, the thrill and the tension, the sudden glamour of a perfect sky in the narrowest wedge of possibility between two edifices, or the delight at the thought of a matrix of bamboo containing a twenty-first century construction site. None of it.

So for her – take note, Rem Koolhaas fans – maybe a city really isn’t much more than shopping, that “terminal human activity.” And maybe she could easily enough stand more surveillance, more restriction, more control in the world, just so long as it didn’t interfere with her pursuit of a good meal and a great bargain.

There are things beyond shopping, of course. For me, cities are the way a crossing signal ticks more rapidly before a light turns green, the brass lettering spelling out BROADBAND on a concrete service-shaft cover that looks as if it might have been there since the 1920s, the abjection of a homeless person so broken and battered by the experience of citying that I couldn’t determine his/her gender and the strut of a Gucci-sunglass’d young lady so buoyed by the selfsame experience that you’d swear it added five inches to her height.

And finally, for me, cities are always, always about sexuality – not merely the predictably mercenary transactions in the shadows, or the ones that occasion passing through certain neon lit entryways, but that quickening of the pulse and all-but-imperceptible shift of pelvic geometry that accompanies walking alone through the streets of a city one has never before known. How can someone not get these things?

Well, obviously, a great many people don’t, and not merely here in Greater China. For them, we can only suppose, telemetry and surveillance, cordons and checkpoints and quarantines present no great affront. Possibly they’re an inconvenience, a stutter-step on the path to gratification, but that’s about it.

By contrast, for those of us for whom the city resides precisely in its not-terribly-submerged sense of risk, for whom the speed of life exceeds that of the milling crowds, to introduce this armature of mitigation is to kill the thing we love. Don’t we come here exactly because to do so is to be deprived of the guarantee of safety? I mean, this is one of the major reasons we left the suburbs, right, or made the trek here from the ancestral village?

And, yes, there is safety and then there’s safety. There is such a thing as reasonably weighing the upside of a good time against the potential of a freeway crash or a mugging, a sexual assault or a massive myocardial infarction: adults do this all the time.

It’s far harder, on the other hand, to apply this kind of calculus to risks like subway nerve gas attacks, or plummeting airliners full of jet fuel and terrified hostages, which is why the temptation is so strong to clamp down on all of the things which could potentially give rise to such baleful contingencies. When chances are so hard to game out and get a grip on, the absolute answer is the only guarantee of safety, and a great many people are not going to be interested in anything less than a guarantee. After 09.11, it’s hard to blame them.

I don’t have the answer. I think you can probably gather from my tone, though, that I believe any solution that puts too high an emphasis on security is likely to destroy all the things I love about cities. For my money, the contemporary civis is the highest collective artwork of our species: more impressive in its own tumbling and disorderly grandeur than mapping the genome, or putting a few Iowan golfers on the Moon. And at the end of the day, as long as we retain any recognizable vestige of humanity, the challenge is always going to be how to spend the hours of our lives in ways that engage, in ways that produce meaning and value. The city is not the only valid answer to this challenge, but it is a beautiful one.

So, yes, absolutely, there is logic in distributing and decentralizing the functions of the city, as has been suggested in various quarters as a forestallment to terror, but it’s a cold and a fundamentally unsatisfying one. Scattering all the things a city is and does to a cluster of tastefully hardened and hardwired New Urbanist outposts would probably prevent the Aums and the Al Qaedas and the Timothy McVeighs of the world from achieving their operational aims, but it would also sunder that tissue of connectivity and potential that results in business deals, and innovative inventions, and especially in your getting laid this Friday night. Is this how you want to live? I didn’t think so.

2. on the village as blanket
Sitting here under the reassuring bulk of Sir Norman Foster’s HSBC Building, with the ground undulating away under me in crisply pleated ripples – are these the folds so beloved of D&G-besotted architheorists and so manifestly otherwise absent from Foster’s oeuvre? Knots and circles of Filipina domestics are gathered at the foot of each mighty pillar; apparently the local tradition of Maids’ Day Off (and what horrors are enfolded in that very nomenclature!) extends to the evening before.

This is the Filipino diaspora in full flower. I am the only non-pinoy present, and the only male save the fellows trying to peddle low-quality wares to the assembled women. They lie on spread sheets of newspapers and magazines and brochures: reading, playing cards, talking on the cellphone (to whom? to where?), lost in fogs of exhaustion or prayer. They’re almost all, at a guess, between thirty-five and forty-five, although hard life does have a way of prematurely aging one. Am I intruding? I doubt it, actually. Not so much as a raised eyebrow.

Here’s an African fellow trying to shift some unbelievably cheap-looking 14K chains.

Circles and knots. Settling into the easy rhythms and comfortable routines of village intimacy, here so far from home; if they were Japanese, I’d imagine a crooned “mmmmm, kimochiiiiiii” rising from these pillars and corners. (This is, of course, the kind of unwarranted extrapolation from the evidence for which an ex-girlfriend tore me a new one, one time on the uptown 1 train.) Has history dealt these women a bad hand, or a passably playable one? They have – in each other, and in their ability to send money home and support a village, and never least in their faith – something that I do not.

Is this how history, then, turns out? Expatriate servants pulling the village back around their shoulders, underneath what was not too long ago The Most Expensive Building In The World? The building’s belly swells with a curve whose index suggests, at most, the third month of pregnancy, but these women have gone the distance and lived to tell it. And here I am among them, listening to a ska-punk band from good old Berkeley, California, complain about artificial life from the speakers of my laptop computer.

What does any of this tell us about the global movement of capital? What does this tell us about the deep communicability of human experience, or conversely, about its literal idiocy? They say any two people of different “races” may have more in common genomically than two nominal members of the same race, but surely these women all share something that no one of them shares with me?

What do they see when they see a billboard that says “Where is the MPF provider you can rely on?” in clean Univers, black on Pantone orange 021C? What do I see when I see a hundred white-socked feet, each pair close by its sensible flat shoes, and a woman reading the paper with an air of vaguely miffed engagement that belongs for all the world in an Upper West Side bagel-and-coffee joint? (Just that, maybe, in either case.)

What would I feel, do, think, how would I react if I had to fly thousands of miles from home and undertake what is in every statistical probability an utterly thankless task, for people who had every likelihood of treating me shabbily, just to eke out a living? It’s getting dark under here.

3. on private currency and its uses
I had no idea that Hong Kong used private currency. There are apparently three different banks authorized (by whom?) to issue bank notes here, and the notes are themselves copyrighted. The HSBC bills are pretty enough, but except for some embedded threads they look like someone ran them off on an inkjet.

And these maids – it’s a full day later, now: Sunday – seem to have enough of them to spend. Any casual inspection of their numbers, strewn out along the science-fictiony skyways of Central and Admiralty, reveals something that skews any calculations of desperate exile: late-model cellphones, shopping bags from Prada, the occasional pair of kicky DKNY boots.

It would be easy to conclude from the headlines of reduced minimum wage and official disrespect that this is an open-and-shut case of mass human exploitation, but something else is happening here, too. This is the T’ai Chi Garden of Hong Kong Park: the corporate monoliths soar and glitter above the stones and the moss, young brides in unbelievable white get-ups throng like sugary phalaenopsis petals colliding in the surface tension atop an overfull basin.

It is romantic, in its way, and it certainly sets forth clearly the standard the young men and women of Hong Kong are expected to meet or exceed in their nuptials. One more thing to spend those banknotes on, I suppose.

4. on the Maids
I only thought I had seen this; the truth is, it’s a damn good thing that I thought to swing back by HSBC on my way to dinner. Maid’s Day Off is in full flower, and it’s like a deafening aviary under here: the unique rhubarb of a crowd where every raised voice sounds at the precise frequency of Filipina delight.

The paltry few blankets of last night, at the bases of the pillars, have spread until they cover the entire floor except for a narrow thoroughfare. I’m willing to bet there are neighborhoods in this ecology: here Metro Manila, there Cebu. It’s like a happy refugee camp, that smells tantalizingly of good, greasy food, noodles and rice and pork. And here I am amidst this, overhead: sitting atop a stilled escalator, the corrugated armor closed and making a roof inches above me. Sarsi, San Miguel, MoviStar.

Talk about “womenspace,” too: it’s not that men are unwelcome here, they’re simply and vastly irrelevant. Women cackling, stirring pots of stew, playing Scrabble and braiding each other’s hair. Who needs men?

I thought these cops were coming to bust me but it looks like they’re, instead, cleaning up the dishes and cups of their own blanket amidst the wards and sectors of the crowd. Either I’m completely misinterpreting what I’m seeing, or I’m looking straight at some of the most enlightened policing I can imagine.

Which raises further questions, of course: how did this get started, why didn’t HSBC put a stop to it as they presumably so easily could have? Or did they try, only to resign themselves to the understanding that their efforts were futile, and that if two thousand or so lively domestics wanted to renact a Mindanao village in the lobby of their gigadollar bank building one day a week they were damn well going to?

5. on the pleasure of nature, and the nature of home
In the Aviary, and marveling at all of this so very close to the towers of commerce. This feels like a triumph of urban civilization, actually: to all appearances, the deep complexity of a rainforest ecosystem in all its tumble and cascade of foliage has been preserved in the heart of the city.

It’s almost unbearably relaxing being in here, the absolute antithesis of the commercial gantlet atop the Peak, with its ticky-tacky giftshops and come-ons for Planet Hollywood, featuring the ever-unattractive Demi Moore and that grimace that Sylvester Stallone wears when he wishes to look intelligent. Contrast that to the beauty of birds’ song, the constant whitenoise of a downrushing stream, cooler and cleaner air – although one can still sense the low-frequency throb and monoxide stink of bus traffic in the surrounding streets – all of this separated from the city beyond by the merest membrane of netting.

Some bird out there is issuing an amazing sound, something like a recalcitrant hard drive spinning up.

Nature really is incomparable, it never disappoints. Let’s compare the feeling of ascending I.M. Pei’s Bank of China Tower in plastic and chrome elevators, to the drabbest of hallways some 65 stories up – where I encountered a stanchion whose bare plywood back nobody had bothered to sheathe, dust and bad carpeting – to a few simple minutes communing with the carp in the fountain at the tower’s base.

Which was more satisfying? Which experience made promises it could never deliver on, which offered nothing but some fish in a pool and yet brought me happiness and a sense of stillness, however momentary? Fish and birds, rock on.

I’m back at Narita now – or leaving it, more precisely, the limousine bus making its ponderous way out to the expressway and towards the ANA Hotel in Akasaka, from where I will hump my gear home.

“Home.” This is suddenly a strange and slippery idea. Where is home, precisely? My few days in Hong Kong reminded me that I am not precisely at zero, here in Japan. My understanding of nihongo even now exceeds any mastery of Cantonese I may ever attain, I can read a few of the glyphs lining the walls and corridors of the airport, I am well on my way.

Does that, combined with the fact that I have a bolthole of an apartment here, and some percentage of my precious things, does any of that mean that Tokyo is home? I’ve been reminded so often since flying to HK of a hippy-trippy illustration I saw as a child in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, of a long-haired and bearded traveler between dimensions, and especially the last codicil of its caption, almost an afterthought: Neither dimension is ours.

In Hong Kong I spoke naturally, or at least felt a lot less guilty about not speaking the local one. In Hong Kong I ate real Thai food and Mission-style burritos, with zest, stuff I simply cannot get here in Tokyo, and felt more or less justified and at ease (if a little privileged) talking to shopclerks etc. in my Californian English. Wow, right on, cool.

But here I am at quarter to ten on a Tuesday evening, on the freeway between Tomisato and Shisui, and something about this feels glove-comfortable. I know this bus as well, or better than, the Carey bus that takes you rattling in from JFK to Grand Central, the lights and the signs and the license plates by now look familiar to me in their form and meaning. I’m headed towards my bed fourteen concrete floors above Kamiyacho, the place where I read and dream and pull the covers up to my chin in the soft chill of the deep middle night.

And tomorrow morning I will head down the elevator – probably too beat to ride my bike, I’ll allow myself the Hibiya-sen – and I’ll go whistling off to work for a company that embarrasses me in everything that is most Japanese about it. The smell of stale smoke and middle-aged men who drink too much and wear the wrong colognes. The paperwork and the spirit-crushing rituals of meetings and the inability to give a fact its true name, and above all the mandatory and empty greetings called aisatsu.

HKG-NRT. Neither dimension is ours.

2 responses to “My back pages: Nomad histories 001: Hong Kong”

  1. Ben Kraal says :


    I’m going to HKG for a week in November for a conference. You have doubled my enthusiasm for *going* and trebled it for skipping out of the conference to have the feel of the place come up through the soles of my shoes. :)

  2. Bob Jacobson says :

    This may be the most exciting, insightful urbanography I’ve encountered. Thank you, Adam.

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