07 March 2006

Second Impressions of Hong Kong

It’s an exciting place, I’ve got to give it that. In the right mood I enjoy surfing the crowds in Mongkok or Central. In the wrong mood I nearly split my teeth gritting them to endure it. I’ve been in the wrong mood a little more often than the right one since I’ve been here. But I have caught some pretty good human waves on occasion.

There’s a lot of new buildings, built on a lot of newly reclaimed land. You’d think that sooner or later vacancy rates would start rising, but they never seem to. Hong Kong works on the assumption that “if we build it, they will come.” And so far the place has been right about that.

Other than maybe the new Disneyland. I hear it’s not doing so well, at least initially. (Although, yesterday I was nearly trampled by a mob of Mickey Mouse ear-sporting Mainland tourists on a rampage through a super-glitzy new shopping mall.) But then, if what someone is looking for is brand name, pre-packaged faux culture and amusement, it’s awfully hard to compete with Hong Kong itself.

One of the things I didn’t like about living here is that the launch of a new designer wristwatch is (mis)taken for a cultural event. The introduction of a new-style Rolls Royce is the Hong Kong equivalent of one of those blockbuster art museum shows – like the greatest hits of Van Gogh.

Who needs art when the city itself is one giant conceptual work in progress. It’s a strange place. It’s solid. All those buildings and crowds are not figments of anybody’s imagination. But increasingly, Hong Kong is more of an idea than a reality. And to me, it’s beginning to feel dated.

Nothing much is actually manufactured here anymore, it’s too expensive. As a trading hub it’s beginning to decline as Chinese companies can increasingly ship directly to the rest of the world rather than transshipping through Hong Kong. As a financial center? Who cares? Nowadays most financial wheeling and dealing take place on an intangible cyber-plane, it doesn't require a geographic location. Hong Kong always had a bigger reputation than it deserved for finance anyhow. It has certainly never been a center of innovative economics. To the local tycoons, everything really boils down to property deals.

Economically Hong Kong is one huge shopping mall in which nearly everyone sells stuff to everyone else. The guy who runs the Rolex shop sells watches to the guy who runs the Guy Laroche shop next door who sells his clothes to the watch guy. It’s not unlike the Eskimo potlatches I studied in college anthropology class. Everyone brings everything they’ve got to the party and then they trade it to each other. Here they use money to facilitate the exchanges, but it’s pretty much the same thing.

That’s worked great for years. When China and the world required Hong Kong’s services as a port; when the region’s most important stock exchange needed a trading floor; and further back in time when you could still make cheap t-shirts and running shoes in the New Territories; Hong Kong’s economy kept expanding. Tourism pumped more money into the place, especially as China began to open up and Hong Kong was its gateway. But in the world that is rapidly developing, is that sustainable?

My guess is no. In 1992 I wrote a long cover story that nearly got me fired from my job as deputy editor of Asian Business magazine – and was never published. It was an attempt to gaze into the crystal ball and catch a glimpse of China and Hong Kong in the year 2010. In it, I predicted that by then Hong Kong would be just another big city in China, replaced on the world stage by Shanghai. It would certainly not be “Asia’s World City,” as the civic boosters here are currently trying to promote. I still believe that. I don’t think it’s going to happen in the next four years, but I’d bet on it happening by 2020.

For the time being, it’s still a very good place to tie one on. Last night I met an old pal at a new bar in a new shopping mall in Hong Kong’s newest, tallest building – the International Finance Center – which is, of course, built on newly “reclaimed” land that has obstructed the view of the buildings that came before it on then newly reclaimed land that is now quite a ways inland. (What is it with “reclaiming” land anyhow? Newly “created” land is more like it. So far as anyone knows the harbor never was dry.)

The bar is called Red and to get to it you enter through the Pure Fitness Club. At the top of the stairs you can turn left, change into your designer gym clothes and work out. Or you can turn right and pay exorbitant prices for cocktails in a truly beautiful bar with a great outdoor patio space.

I met Dave in the bar. Many overpriced single malt whiskys were downed. I recall having done a lot of that when I lived here. Inebriation seems to be the natural state of many, if not most, expatriates in Asia after work. We had a great time talking and catching up. I heard numerous unrepeatable tales of corruption, crime, greed, sex and violence in the course of Dave’s simply conducting his business in China. It was a good evening. My liver, however, is very pleased that I now live in California.

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