City on a Rock

Every tourist’s view from the Peak.

Totally by accident, I booked myself a 15-hour layover in Hong Kong. Not surprisingly, it’s been a fascinating start to the trip.

None of my revelations will be news to those who’ve visited this former British colony in the last few years. But while Hong Kong carries elements of other cities, like Cape Town and New York, this has a degree of intensity I’ve never seen before. So for the sake of the uninitiated, an outsider’s take:

Let’s start with the density, because it manifests everywhere you look.

  • There are cars everywhere, but no surface parking lots, and I doubt underground ones; they’re all in  relatively well-disguised garage structures.
  • The residential towers on the hillside are impossibly tall and thin! I have no idea how these rock ledges support that much weight without crumbling. 
  • Speaking of ledges: The extremely steep slopes from the waterfront up to the peak of the island are carefully maintained through drainage and reinforcement. In fact, it looks like each one is labeled and individually monitored.
  • Nevertheless, there are still a good number of tranquil public gardens that provide some relief from the crevasse-like streets.
  • Retail and restaurant spaces are tiny. Innumerable little boutiques, galleries, and antique shops occupy spaces the size of a large bathroom, cramming three into the store frontage that just one might take up in America.—even chains that usually stick to a standard format, like McDonalds and 7-11. I’m not sure if this is because real estate is just that expensive, or because stores figured they just don’t need as much space to display things, or what.

Relatedly, the city is also decently walkable—there’s no way it can sprawl, so everything is close by.

  • There seems to be every kind of public transit imaginable, from an expansive subway system to trolleys to buses and minibuses.
  • As mentioned above, private vehicles still prevail; Benzes and Beamers are par for the course. I didn’t notice any gas stations, though.
  • The thing about cars, though, is that there are lots of alleys interspersed with stairwells where they can’t go, creating delightfully pedestrian-centric spaces.
  • I saw exactly one bicycle, and there’s no cycling infrastructure whatsoever. Perhaps logical, considering the verticality of most of the surface area.

Considering the concentration of people and businesses, Hong Kong is astonishingly clean. Stairways and alleys are trash and odor-free. The reasons for this seem fairly obvious:

  • There are trash cans in many public places, and in some of them, even recycling receptacles.
  • There are signs everywhere encouraging people to double bag their trash (it attracts rats), minimize cut flowers (they attract mosquitoes) and not let their dogs poop in public (it’s “unpleasant”).
  • Public restrooms are decently common (more than can be said for most American cities). They may be pit toilets, which are going to be a hard thing for me to get used to, but they’ve got to keep the desperate from going on the street.
  • The government long ago established an aggressive recycling program, realizing that it soon wouldn’t have many places to put the thousands of tonnes of garbage it generated every day. There may be a landfill problem, but the public space problem is being handled fairly well.

Judging by passersby in the center city on a Sunday, while it’s not exactly diverse, there’s at least a sizeable contingent of Europeans wandering around as if they lived there. British rule only ended 15 years ago, and many folks who’d been living in the former colony just stuck around. Two things about that:

  • The restaurant scene seems totally global and very modern, but skews heavily towards French and British concepts, with a smattering of Latin American and Middle Eastern joints. Not much in the way of African or Northern European cuisine.
  • There are also some 250,000 Indonesian and Filipino domestic workers who live with families in the residential towers. Sunday’s their one day off, and thousands hang out downtown, laying down cardboard on overpass walkways where they sit and play cards, give each other manicures, watch movies, whatever. It’s kind of awesome.

I spent a good few hours climbing up to the top of the mountain overlooking the city, eschewing the very crowded and scary-looking tram that tugs people at a 45-degree angle from the bottom to the top. It’s a tourist mob scene up there, with two separate malls and dozens of overpriced restaurants (including, bafflingly, the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.). But not a bad place to have a cup of coffee as rain squalls pass through, looking out at the harbor thousands of feet below.

Their waterfront is under construction, and looks like it’ll be one of the biggest open public spaces in the whole city.

Three restaurants in the space of one.

From midway up the hill.

Everything that can be double decker is double decker.

Domestic workers, relaxing on the overpass.


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