Just how do people live here?
It’s the question I kept asking myself in Hong Kong, this city of a million towers of twenty-story minimum. What’s it like, living your life midway between the noise and the sky? No such thing as parks or fields or an ocean that doesn’t send up fumes when it’s stirred. Is it really as miserable as a landrich westerner makes it out to be? Or is it all just a shift in perspective?
Those questions kept running through my head the whole time here, in this rip-roaring bender of a 4.5 days in Hong Kong—I couldn’t ever completely get it. That’s not to say Hong Kong isn’t a living city; coming from the many Japanese cities that run so efficiently they seem to remove the human from the equation—great wide streets, miles of six-story concrete houses stretching out for as far as you can see.
“A House is just a machine for living in,” Le Corbusier, the great pioneer of modern architecture, said in the 30’s, and sometimes, wandering through Hiroshima or Osaka or Nagoya, it feels like he was talking about Japan. Walk along Coal Harbor or Yaletown, and you’ll see Vancouver does the same. The city without the human.
I was reaching the point of mental exhaustion with those gray, silent places—and then, Hong Kong. Hong Kong was a cymbal smash to the senses, hitting me with a rip-roaring clatter of smells (the tang of garbage, the raw fish and overripe fruit, the curries and Dim sum) sounds (horns blazing, the shouting, the fog horns the blaring advertisements) and feelings (the heat, the dew, bodies squishing pushing you down those alleys). I was lost in seconds, and I’m not sure I ever did completely find myself again during those (incredibly long, sleepless) four days.
It’s a true international city—the whole world swirling around you—and walking down a street here, it’s not unusual to be hit with Hindi, Arabic, English, Mandarin, Korean, and Cantonese at the same time. A kebab restaurant run by an Indian family yelling at each other while customers filter through. The Turkish 7-11. The French massage parlor. Seeing burkas, saris; t-shirts, suits; beards and long hair, ties and military buzzcuts, all on the same crowded block as we wait for the light to change.
London still bears the title of the most international city, but London at times can feel extremely uniform: outside of subculture dens like Camden, the suits make the rules there. While that’s true here too, I never noticed a distinct pressure to assimilate. Not in Kowloon, at least, the more mid-class immigrant centered-island that’s far more interesting than its glitzy brother across the bay.
It’s wrong to say Hong Kong doesn’t have an identity. When you’re down amongst its insanity, it’s more like there are a thousand identities clamoring at you at once. The glazed financial district could be London. The mangrove avenues could be Malaysia. The screaming markets could be Delhi. One time I was riding the ferry back to Kowloon, and a fog hung over Hong Kong island so that the towers took on this impenetrability, like they’d always been there and always would be, and I had this sudden, overwhelming feeling I was in New York.
It’s at the meeting of those various fractured identities: it’s there where Hong Kong sits.
And that all becomes so much that I have a really hard time writing about Hong Kong, about trying to say anything that doesn’t just feel like you’re shouting into the void, the flash-canyon of the global. Either bland or complete gibberish. So I’ll try to tackle it by unpacking what I found to be, while I was there, the three symbols of the city: it’s transportation, the great Buddha of Tian Tan, and Victoria Peak.
I’ve never been in a city where transit is a, if not the, tourist attraction. It’s got the best public ferry in the world: price-capped at a whopping 30 cents (Canadian) a ride, you’re given a little green token and get to ride this polished old woodchamp that chuggs along the channel, 7 minutes a ride. You’ll find yourself taking it eight or nine times, running back and forth along the deck to get the best view of the skyline.
Though the city is too condensed to have more than nine or ten metro lines, it’s the fastest, cleanest, and best organized I’ve ever seen (even designing the stations to have your transfer train facing opposite the train you’re just getting off, cutting out the 5-10 min transfer walk you have in pretty much any other city). Add to that comfy double-deckers, skinny clanging trams painted in vibrant blues and reds, mountain trolleys and peak cars, and you get a city defined by its transit.
At the core of this is movement; the never stop flow of bodies and machines at a pace that always seems to be accelerating. It gets at the strange, almost paradoxical, phenomenon that a city this chaotic is also so organized. It needs to be, doesn’t it? And being part of that movement, you get sucked in.
Because when I think of Hong Kong, it’s all movement: of people and cars and me. I never stopped going. So much so that it’s really hard to put it all into words. Some kind of sense. Because I ran through that city. Never napped, barely slept; get off the plane and immediately it’s the museum, the bar, the street. All-night every day. I needed to be a part of everything, and somehow the more I put in, the faster I went: by the last day I was sprinting, never mind that my head’s about to float away, stomach drop out from under me, and the strange tingling in my spine that’s probably never a good sign. I never felt like I was allowed to stop. Not here.
The only time this pace was interrupted was on my daytrip out to find dat big Buddha. As the largest seated Buddha in the world, the Tian Tan Buddha is one of Hong Kong’s signature attractions. Nestled deep in the mountains of Lantau Island, you can see its hand raised in benediction from miles away, and getting to its level, up those long narrow steps, will give you a perfect panorama—the mountains towards the sea on one side, Hong Kong on the other. Photo opportunities galore.
As a tourist attraction? Boom, #1. As a religious one? That I’m not so sure. Completed in 1993, it doesn’t have that force of generations that places like Ise Jingu or Nanzenji hold over you, and the temple ground around it feels much less like a monastery and much more like Disneyland—what with the plastic mangrove trees, souvenir shops, and rides (rides, damnit!). It’s a must-see for sure, but you gotta wonder just how much the statue actually means to people in Hong Kong—there it sits, nestled high in the far western mountains, staring beyond us, bronze and aloof.
It reminds me that I’m living in one of the most spiritual places in the world, in a land just soaked in myth, where every temple holds onto me and won’t let go. Maybe it’s there too in Hong Kong, but I was so bowled over by the sounds and smells I never noticed. And so the fact that the world’s largest Buddha statue left me cold is an important one. The whole time I was up there I just wanted to get back to the city, where the people and the real were.
Because there’s a much more relevant place of worship right in the heart of the city: the HSBC Building. When it was completed in 1985, it was the most expensive building in the world (pretty fitting monument, then, to the ‘H in HSBC’ branch of the most powerful bank in the world). Stepping inside of it, you get a feeling you’re walking into a space ship and a cathedral at the same time, great echoing roof, the crystal railings and jagged neon edges like electric stained glass. There’s a hush inside that manages to withold the outside. This is Hong Kong’s real church—a thought that, to me, feels strangely exciting and terrifying at the exact same time. Gaze and wonder.
Though nothing quite gives you a gaze in wonder feeling as much as the nightview on top of Victoria Peak does. Looking down at Hong Kong’s starfield. The towers no longer feel dark or imposing, and instead shine (“look at the stars, look how they shine forrrrr you”). Hong Kong has some of the most beautiful, artistically designed towers in the world, and the tallest, proudest of them have their own personal lightshows happening down across their sides. Slanted rain, collapsing numbers, literal lazer beams from their roofs.
You could look on it for hours; in this quiet park, the warm glow of the lanterns on the walkway and the buzz of insects. You could look at it for hours and forget that it’s a city at all and not just your personal movie projection—forget about the markets and the noise, the mess and the smells. The people. When you’re up this high, you can remove the person from the equation.
And people at the top of the tallest, wealthiest towers—they can do that too. Sitting just like that Buddha, high and aloof. I realize up there that this feeling I get, well, it’s partly buoyed by the realization that this is the first place I’ve ever been to that is not a democracy. That’s never been a democracy. Whether under the British or under the Chinese, the dollar’s always been the first and the last to speak. Of course this is completely true for every other country I’ve been to—the wealthy are the ones that make the world move.
But in Hong Kong, the banks issue the banknotes, not the government; in Hong Kong, you lose even the pretense that there you have a voice and you matter. That was the implicit feeling I got, standing over the starfield on Victoria Peak, when the houses above me are practically gilded and must cost entire companies, entire countries just to rent them out. When bank towers stand high above the rest like rainbow crowns and make lightshows for the tourists.
So what about the hundreds of other towers, nesstled in around the shine, with their dusty windows and heavy box fans? It’s easy to forget in those moments people actually live in those towers. The Turkish mother pulling her boy out the apartment block (the same little brat who’d keep pressing the ‘open’ button when we were all crammed in–“no no no! Don’t you dare!” it’d close and he’d open it again with this devilish giggle that sounded way too self-aware for a three year old). The man with the silver moustache and heavy bags under his eyes, hands on his hips, sweeping the streets with his eyes, shouting “watches, I’ve got your watch, like this watch?” to every visible tourist in the throng. The girl in the hijab reading Lena Dunham. The old man in his white shirtsleeves, gently opening his birdcage to let out his grand rainbow parrot—smile growing wider with every child his bird manages to scare with its screech of “CHOCOLATE?”.
People say there’s not much to do in Hong Kong, but I swear I could watch these people forever and not get bored. There’s so many stories between these alleys, so many noir novels just waiting to happen at that half-lit streetcorner. I look up at all the laundry hung out on the 13th 17th 23rd floor of these places, the green shirts and yellow dresses, and wonder who’s gonna wear them, wonder if you ever come down when you find yourself living on the 30th floor.
And I’m left asking again, how do you live in this place?
And then it flips: well, how did I live here? That’s maybe even more difficult to answer.
Where was my head, those four days? There was so much there in so little time it’s hard to pull at the split ends, see where I began and the city ended. That sounds silly to say now, but on so little sleep I got this airy feeling wandering through the streets and I meshed with the screech of the tramcar, the markets of still-flipping fish, the ferry buffeted by waves. Harder, still to split the nights apart: the bars, the hills, the half-finished adventures with people I met that night—who I was with and where, what we were doing and how we got there.
Losing yourself, in these alleys under towers looming so high and squeezing so narrow there’s no light and feels like there never would’ve been. Inner chambers with ladies selling suitcases; massage parlors and sauna lodges. Jumping through apartment block after apartment block like trick doors of a funhouse, the sliding walls and flashing lights.
Now? What was I even saying? If I’d had the energy to write those thoughts down—though that would’ve been too much energy (that mental power) for me on most moments—they’d probably sound somewhere on the border of dribble and self-satisfaction. I could only pull myself from one second to the next. It was so much fun, so much goddamn fun in that city you’d lose your mind in. And then, what was it worth in the end? Everything was so formed in the moment, that I was a different person here to there to there:
But I was breathing the city. I understood it then; even if I don’t understand it now, maybe that was enough. We can’t all be Buddhas after all, looking barely-down with unconcern, getting capped up in bronze in order to understand the perfect order of the world. Maybe I prefer it down below, even though everything’s happening so close to my face it’s hard to sort out my hands from the birds and the stalls and the stone. It doesn’t make a lot of sense—this doesn’t make a lot of sense—but does it have to?
And so I’d probably do it like that all over again.