This is Hong Kong. Markets invented from fishing villages and let to roam free, built up and pushed together into the most vertical city on earth. Imagine walking for a day in that city, the same footprint as Manhattan but with half again as many people, everything new but the things that ought not to be, everything in its box or on its tracks.
What we want is within our reach.
This is Hong Kong, a duty-free store on a city-wide scale, servicing a billion-person country halfway through the door to the market for luxury goods. Shops line up to compete in districts self-sorting by product, keeping their doors open and their A/C frigid enough to turn heads on the street. Young Chinese come with the life’s savings of family and friends and return with suitcases full of nice things.
This is Hong Kong, the city without suburbs. The urban areas of the territory today take up only a quarter of its total area, leaving plenty of room for parks and nature inside the city and out. The fact that Hong Kong never let itself sprawl allows 90% of its daily journeys to happen on public transport, the highest rate in the world. On most subway lines, trains come every two minutes.
Despite its emphasis on public transport, though, Hong Kong’s transit system is far from futuristic. The territory’s 100% tax on new vehicles turns car ownership into a far-off dream for most of its residents, but to the elite, it makes them even more important as a status symbol. Bugattis, Ferraris, Porsches, Lotuses, spotless sportscars and their dealerships line the narrow streets. Owning such a car means that you’ve made it, that you’ve joined the elite.
Even in a city that actively minimizes road traffic, cars are given the priority. Sidewalks are fenced in to prevent jaywalking and often take unannounced block-length detours over, under, up or down the city streets. Bicycles are explicitly left out of the transportation plan altogether, and members of the city’s growing cycle culture say they feel unsafe and unwanted in the city, and that they are the frequent targets of harassment by police and drivers on Hong Kong’s roads.
People drive Hong Kong forward, drive it stronger and faster than ever even as the heights grow heavy and instability multiplies. Pro-democracy protests have died down since their apex last year, but a slanted tension sticks in the air.
That tension is palpable for the city’s residents, and the protests and their underlying causes haven’t left people’s thoughts. After months of reflection, many participants acknowledge: self-determination may have been the nominal cause of recent demonstrations, but it wasn’t the fuel. Inequality (GINI) has been rising for years in the city, and it’s now among the highest in the world. Housing prices are reaching untenable levels, with the ratio of median housing price to household income reaching 14.9 in 2014–half again as much as San Francisco, and the highest among the world’s financial centers. And for a city that imports more than 90% of its food, the last decade’s doubling of staple food prices, which has been strongly linked to climate change, has left many choking for air .
On Sundays, Victoria Park fills with thousands of women, live-in domestic servants who have nowhere else to meet on their day off. They sit on patterned blankets in shady patches and talk and eat and laugh. Most domestic servants in Hong Kong are from Indonesia or the Philippines, and the city’s ample parks have become the defaults spaces where these communities exist. Victoria park is mostly Indonesian women and girls. They seem relaxed and together there, smiling without the guardedness of the city. Ferraris and Bentlys roll by on the bordering streets, so common that no-one notices.
Our cities are giant mirrors, held up every day to tell us This is who you are, this is what you’ve made together. Hong Kong wasn’t built for people, though. It was built for people with money. It’s consciously a city of the rich, today’s foundations built as a monument to Thatcherite laissez-faire markets in the mouth of communist China, and its structure built by reform and opening.
Maybe it’s the reading I’ve been doing (1,2), maybe it’s the shock of the Pearl Delta Metropolis after a year in rural China, but there are questions that won’t quite settle in my mind: What if this soft, comfy world we’ve learned to build isn’t as robust as we imagine? Will there be space for our prosperity-built compassion when our food doesn’t reach so well and our homes are thirsty, burning, or drowned? Where do we look for an approach to mitigating our environmental catastrophe, in this of all worlds?
It must be here, in a place built with so much care and ingenuity, but also elsewhere, where avarice has not yet made it to the marrow.
I talked to various residents of Hong Kong in the formation of this piece, but because of the complicated and changeable nature of political statements in China and the Hong Kong SAR, chose to preserve their anonymity.