It started in Shenzhen, this feeling I had that something very different is going on over here in China. But I couldn’t get a sense of it. The obvious differences from the States are abundant, but that wasn’t what was bugging me. It was something about the cities, and the way they seemed to be working. And the insight came from not having my usual moorings.
I was finally knocked off them good as I stepped out of the Four Points Sheraton into the little limo—to Hong Kong I thought. But no, it was a limo to customs! There was an Arab from Los Angeles in the front seat and a Chinese couple from Singapore behind me. The driver didn’t speak English, but we soon realized that the traffic wasn’t working the way he wanted. He started trying different detours, with police blocking one way, and traffic the next. He got on the phone, yelling loudly in Cantonese. But we did finally arrive.
Then I realized we had to all get out, with luggage, and queue up inside a building as big as an airline terminal, with as many people – all queuing to get through Chinese customs. “Do you have your Hong Kong arrival card,” the Arab fellow asked? “No, just my China departure card,” I answered. “Well, I happen to have one here – and he dug in his wallet. “You’d be hung up a while if you came up without this. It’s all bureaucracy but they stick to it.”
I worked to fill it out as the pushing crowds moved forward. A couple got in a big screaming match a few lines over. This wasn’t an easy crowd, and there weren’t many Caucasians. I saw now why the Free Trade Zone set up a separate customs.
Some woman came and stuck a sticker on my coat with Chinese characters after seeing my ticket from the Hotel. Then another looked at it after I got through and pointed. I had to get my luggage through a scanner, then off to a sea of busses and people. Another person pointing. I found the bus. There was only one seat left. I left my luggage in the hold, wondering if I would see it again.
The bus only went a few blocks, and then we all had to get out, in a hurry.
A man behind me tapped me on the shoulder and was holding out my i-phone. I couldn’t believe it. It must have dropped out of my pocket. He looked at me like “are you aware of how close you came to losing this!” I was rattled now. I thought I’d have to come back so I was busy checking the number of the dock, and started heading toward the Hong Kong entry customers. The bus driver starting yelling at me and pointing at the bus’s luggage hold. It was empty except for my bags. Geez. I have to take them again I realized, and grabbed them out, heading off once more into the sea of people. “Number 16,” he said. “Number 16.”
More queuing. Surrounded by big signs in Chinese. (The preceding picture is actually of the Hong Kong customs. I didn’t want to risk taking pictures in China and gathering attention). “Take care to watch for pickpockets,” big murals said in English. Now why do they say that I wondered as I went on full alert? Pass through. Look for #16. It was the last in long row.
As I approached there were women holding signs for various places. I didn’t know any of them of course. I held out my ticket. They created a channel of pointing and soon I was in line again. One bus loads and leaves. Another in 5 minutes. I’m on, finally. And this one is going to Hong Kong (I assumed).
The feeling of going through this without warning was like river kayaking—basically safe, but full of surprises, and the possibility of getting seriously confused. But as I yielded to the fact that I was not the first confused foreigner, nor even close to the first who wanted to take this trip, I realized I was working off the wrong paradigm. This was a swimming, archipelagic experience, having nothing to do with firm ground, logic, maps, clarity, or being in control. The flood of people was in control and the system was designed to channel it. All I needed to do was stay in the strong stream and direct myself with light paddles, and stay aware of my pockets. I’m a kayaker for heavens sake. I know this. But kayaking through people—that’s different.
As I relaxed I realized there never was a sense of threat. These are all people just going about their lives, families, workers, basic people, AND some foreigners. I began to see the traffic as a giant river, flowing down into the heart of Hong Kong, to merge with the sea traffic moving in from all parts of Asia and the Pacific. We passed over bridges and by acres of cranes and containers. The apartment towers began to rise beside the road, 30 story piers crammed into every possible plot of land.
I found out after writing my first post on Shenzhen that probably most of the workers in the Free Trade Zone don’t live in the nearby apartments. They are too expensive. “The really rich live in houses out in more rural areas,” one of the Gore folks told me. “The well off middle classes live in the apartments. Most of the workers are from the farms and have to take buses to the outskirts every day.” So cuing and moving and flowing like schools of fish is second nature for these people. Many of the Gore workers are the prime support for their extended families, sending money back.
I read the paper as I rode. The manufacturing in the Guangdong Province has dropped hugely last year, with companies already laying off workers. The government, like ours, is scrambling to respond, and a big stimulus program is underway. But I had no feeling of recession this day. The sheer scale of commerce here is staggering. The goods were visibly piled up. The containers stretched for miles.
I found out that Shenzhen makes a lot of the little things we buy – the toys, clothes, party decorations, medical supplies, kitchen stuff and the like. Shanghai is the place for heavier industry and big electronics. And Hong Kong is the gateway.
Companies in the Free Trade Zone don’t have to pay Chinese taxes I found. The material comes in and the goods are to be shipped back out as exports. But the folks in the limo laughed when I share this. “They find ways to export out to Hong Kong and have it come back in.” Goods flow to demand. And judging from the coats, boots, mufflers, and ubiquitous fashion paraphernalia I saw on the young workers, there is a lot of demand in China.
I spent the next two days in Hong Kong over the weekend, just being there and experiencing this enormous, throbbing city. It’s getting ready for Chinese New Years. I needed to replace my computer, whose screen has stopped working, and headed out to find the recommended Apple store on Park Lane (see picture below). I succeeded, but the three hours it took to transfer my data left me with nothing to do but plunge back into the ocean of people. It was like the day after Thanksgiving rush on a normal holiday buying spree. Shoppers were EVERYWHERE. The folks at the store said I should go to Harbour City, the world’s largest mall. So I went looking for some sneakers, having forgotten to take them when I packed.
Without a clear goal, and with three hours to kill, I was able to just float. I found the shoes by luck. I moved into Harbour City. Eight floors of shops spread for 4-5 city blocks all along the western edge of Kowloon. View restaurants look out toward Hong Kong Island. I decided to try and replace my Jawbone that broke its ear holder. Where are the electronics? Up and down the hall.
An internal block later I’m in a crush of young people looking at cell phones. Every known kind seemed available, except for mine, of course. I couldn’t bring myself to buy anything. I was too fascinated with the experience. A light sculpture stopped me for a bit, allowing a view down into the core of the place.
I finally had to get out of the Harbour City vortex, and was drawn the side streets. A pile of bamboo caught my eye, and I looked up to see that an entire skyscraper covered with bamboo scaffolding, all lashed together by human hands. I’d heard of this, but seeing it underlined my growing sense that many things here happen because LARGE numbers of people are willing to be very focused and industrious for long periods of time. Add education and you get the next world power perhaps. The momentum seemed palpable. Right next on the ground floor of this building with the scaffolding, one of many shops that sells all kinds of dried vegetables, herbs, spices, beans and the like seemed another mirror of industry. How many hands and hours did it take to shell and organize all this food?
The next day I decided to go over to Hong Kong Island. I saw there was a ferry, but thought I would just head out – go “swimming” again. I as beginning to trust that this city was designed for this many people. They know something about it.
I could tell from the curtain wall architecture that most of what I was seeing down in the south tip of Kowloon, and many of the big buildings across the harbor were built these last six or seven years. I wondered if the huge growth is over. Is this just the inertia I’m experiencing? But everywhere this beautiful, smoggy day there were happy people. I moved down to the waterfront past the New World Centre. I wondered if this IS the new world center? I’ve been to most American cities and most of the big cities of Europe and never have I experienced anything like the intensity of industry I feel here.
Behind the Art Museum is a promenade that curves around the Opera toward Pier 3 and ferries. Big plazas were dotted with crafts people selling their wares, and a music festival was underway, with about 30 tourists being led in a drumming ensemble by a very enthusiastic leader. Dozens of other people sat on the steps of a gentle stone amphitheater and watched. The Hong Kong Island skyline lay just across the harbor.
I followed the flow around, and eventually onto the ferry, then right onto a big (nearly vacant) tour bus, then up to the tram, and into the cues again, and up the mountain to a sweeping overlook of the Hong Kong Harbor. I’d been here in the early 1990’s, but the buildings up top were new too – an eight story sky terrace, that of course, charged another $20 HK to got the last two levels to the viewing deck. The building was packed with shops carrying Louis Vuittone, Farragamo, and dozens of curio and art shops.
I got off the tram coming down around 6:00 and waited, but the bus tour didn’t come back, so I walked. Now I swam into the amazing sea of Filipino women who on their Sundays off all congregate in downtown Hong Kong for a massive sit-in picnic, card game, child picture-sharing gathering. It began around city hall and went for blocks, with more and more people, eventually many circles just sitting in the streets. The mood was wide-open enjoyment and laughter—a true community. A few of us outlanders moved through, but by this time I felt like I was snorkeling on a coral atoll, and the rich mixtures of people and movement all seemed completely natural.
It was then that I noticed how the new design of the downtown took all this into account. Flowing pedestrian walkways and bridges allowed the people to move freely in and around the core of buses and cabs. The towers rose like giant Sequoias and the people seemed to be in and amongst them like they belonged. It did not feel vacant and sterile this evening.
I followed the current to the walkway and saw a sign to the ferry, then on, and across, and out. The crowd poured out into the street. A colorful neon arrays caught my eye, and as I neared it I saw a glowing, round portal into Harbour City, with a river of people moving in like krill into a whales maw.
I went right, down a shoal of shops, back to the terrace that overlooked the city. I was an hour early but already people were sitting and standing, cameras and tripods sprouting out like antennae of crabs, chasing each other on the wet sand at low tide, girlfriends posing, ferries charging their engines, tourist junks moving out into the harbor for a view.
At 8:00 the Symphony of Lights began. “We will accompany it tonight in Cantonese,” the spirited woman announcer began. Trumpet voluntaries struck the beginning. Across the harbor a zigzag of white lights lighteninged down the knife-edges of the Hong Kong Bank building. Cascades of blue ripples scaled up and down a building with Apollo on top. The buildings to the left with the electronics giants—Sony, Philips, Samsung—anchored back with flashes and swirls. The banks midtown began to zap lasers off their roofs – all synced to the music that was now surrounding us. People gasped. The skyline danced to the music. On crescendos the International Finance Center tower, tallest in Hong Kong, exploded in a fan of lasers over them all. In all some 40 buildings participated, and for 15 minutes it was truly a Symphony of Lights.
How is done, I wondered? Who organized this level of integration? I tried to imagine an American city getting this kind of cooperation going. Was it dictated? Is there a Hong Kong Chamber that organized volunteers? I was sure that I didn’t know, but I did know that what I was seeing was a show of pride and prowess that made claims of this being a New World Centre credible.
Walking back to my hotel I remembered a graphic history of the Internet that I created for Coopers & Lybrand some years ago. It illustrates the hockey stick like rise of web sites in 1993 after Mosaic released the potential pent up in the slowly evolving Internet, created in 1968. In looking for a metaphor that would help me provide a background, I noticed that the long handle of the hockey stick lay across the years of the cold water, where two mighty continents were locked in an arms race. The Sears Tower was built then. It was a time of plate tectonics and massive polarization.
Then the USSR broke up, and the airlines deregulated, the banking industry deregulated, and the Internet took off. I could draw cracks in the ground, storms in the sky. Then I realized the metaphor had changed. We don’t build we “surf.” We don’t control, we “swim.” We talk of fire hoses of information, and floods of data. The world has become an archipelago – with some islands of certainty, the big tall towers, the city-states, and in and around swim the blooms of creatures that have no certainty other than movement, feeding and moving in large schools—and there are sharks, and crabs, and the crustaceans sucking on the rocks. I felt this metaphor viscerally this weekend in Hong Kong. Is it just that it is a seaport, or has the level of flow and flux in our world reached oceanic proportions?
I don’t think it means the world as we have known it is over. Far from it. But it’s not a place for people who only want dry land and certainty. People are on the move, and the earth will give way as it always has to the more mighty force of water.