When I was growing up and I thought of China, or Japan, or any place in Asia really, I imagined this; narrow streets bustling with people, skyscrapers enclosing on all sides, and an energy that can’t be described but one that is enhanced by the neon signs, the lights, the noise. When I first visited Tokyo I remember experiencing this, feeling the incredible energy of the city, but there was still something that was lacking due to the sheer scale of everything; the incredibly wide streets, the massive buildings and mega malls. And of course in China, this sort of dynamic is often absent, except perhaps walking on the Bund or East Nanjing Road at night. Hong Kong however, was everything I had ever imagined a bustling Asian city to be. Even after just arriving and speeding along the elevated highway, past a blur of narrow streets bursting with shops and lights and people, I knew that I had found the place I had been seeking.
One of the most astounding things about Hong Kong, besides just it’s vertical scale, is also the horizontal compactness of the city. HK actually takes up a similar amount of land area as the west side, downtown portion of Portland, Oregon (each is approximately 7 miles across from one end to the other). And although the climate differs (HK is of course sub-tropical, while Portland is temperate) the terrain is strikingly similar. Both cities have bodies of water separating them from the rest of their “sprawl”, and are bordered on their inner edges by beautiful hills and forests, adding unique dimension to the neighborhoods that start winding and twisting their ways up toward the “wilderness”. But that of course is where the similarities end.
Wandering through the city feels, physically, akin to trekking through a narrow, twisting cavern in Moab. The streets feel as if they are literally an afterthought, a slice, a void, carved out of the solid mass of buildings and lights that surrounds one on all sides. The structures even look as if they have always been there, with streaks of salt dripping from the window ledges and cracks in the building, moss and mold creeping around corners and over awnings. The natural aging of buildings, being accelerated in this climate, takes on a whole new dimension, as concrete and brick and metal no longer resemble the pristine blocks of material they once may have been; now they are multi-faceted, rough and worn swirls of color and texture, displaying the process of time in a dilapidated yet vivid manner. One remarkable quality about the buildings in Hong Kong, adding even more variety to the streetscape, is the color and variation you find on each building, which is often severely lacking in many Asian cities. Even in Shanghai and Tokyo, once the icons are looked past, most buildings are often gray masses of poorly designed modernist concrete blocks, or a mess of hastily constructed tiled facades. Hong Kong however, was astonishing. Whether new or old, every other building was a different color or had some crazy design splashed along all 30 or 40 stories. There were blue buildings and purple, or pink and yellow, lime green, or black and white checkered. Sleek, contemporary structures clad in metal panel screens sat next to decaying apartments painted bright pink with yellow trim. Although on their own many of these buildings would be thought of as “ugly”, but when mixed together all in one place they formed a delightful, lively tapestry of texture, material and color. It made me realize the presence of color of is a quality that most cities I’ve been to are lacking.
Beyond just the wonder of visual experience however, were so many other dimensions that enhanced my experience of just walking through it. Combined together were the colors and textures, the lights, the smells, the sounds, the ENERGY which can’t be fully described or done justice. Especially at around 6 pm in the evening, when most people are off work, the city exploded, with people spilling out onto the streets and out of shops, neon signs slowing coming to life in the dimming twilight, the chatter of friends (in a plethora of languages) meeting up for drinks. Pop music would be blaring from some random store, or Chinese opera could be suddenly heard from overhead as some older man just arrives home from work. And there was something incredible about the SMELL of it, that was so unique and I will only ever attribute to Hong Kong. There was never a bad smell (unlike the unpleasant whiffs you get constantly in Shanghai) but it wasn’t good either, it just was what it was, unique to that place and time. As I wandered past all the unique shops, it was the smell of tea, the smell of dried mushrooms, the smell of all other dried sorts of things, the smells coming from the restaurants or bbq, all mixed with the faint whiff of salty ocean air. This, combined with all the other sensory experiences that were assaulting me, made the act of just wandering the streets more interesting and worthwhile than any of the other tourist attractions I had done.
The other thing I will note is in regards to the overall quality of the city. It was exceedingly crowded, and not someplace I would want to permanently live. For many people, especially Americans who are used to their wide open spaces, it might be overwhelming and claustrophobic. I however, loved that aspect of it, but it was augmented by the fact that, compared most other cities, it was exceptionally clean and well organized, easy to get from place to place, and the people are absolutely delightful. Littering, along with spitting and hawking is not allowed. You won’t find people letting their toddlers go to the bathroom in planters or right on the sidewalk along a busy street. Everyone was pleasant, polite and friendly, relaxed, and no one cut line or pushed and shoved when getting on the subway. It was a breath of fresh air after not having left Shanghai for many months and made it that much more difficult to have to leave. I can’t wait until I can return again. If you ever have the chance to go somewhere in Asia, make sure you go to Hong Kong. It is incredible.