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Hong Kong Halos: Part 1

A red taxi races through a bustling Hong Kong street.
A typical scene from the concrete jungle that is Hong Kong.

Pareidolia is a tendency (maybe perceptiveness) to see the familiar expressed in everyday objects. Seeing shapes or faces in clouds is a mundane example. A more humorous one might be cats that look like Hitler. In any event, the observer sees what he wants to see in the visual before him. Hong Kong’s luminosity appeared to me in a polychromatic halo that grants the spectator a rare introspection, to see what they want to see.

Hong Kong – where to begin? Hong Kong is colossal, vertical, and compact, a true labyrinth of cement, concrete, steel, glass, and bamboo scaffolding. It is a metropolitan portal through which one passes from West to East and vice versa. First, let’s consider the players: the locals, the (Hong Kongese or Honky’s), the Mainlanders (Chinese), the expats (Japanese, Brits, French, Australians, New Zealanders, some Americans plus a smattering of others), and finally what the Chinese call “Helpers,” primarily Filipinos and Indonesian. Then there are the occupations: financiers, business folk, government bureaucrats, embassy staff, street venders, taxi drivers, ferrymen, longshoremen, caretakers, homemakers, and the hustlers, social-climbers and miscreants of the garden variety.

The Hong Kongese are an interesting bunch. I am told the difference between the Mainlanders and the Hong Kongese is profound. Since I have yet to visit mainland China, I will take the statement at face value. From a Western point of view, the Hong Kongese are a bit blasé like Italians in manners, certainly not impolite but not quite polite either. That’s about where the Western analogs stop. The locals are an affable group albeit with vastly different views on personal space, public discourse, and in some cases interpersonal skills altogether. Of course, the world outside the US and Europe is radically different so it should come as no surprise that East Asia is too.

Hong Kong's vertical living.
A view upward at the infinity of Hong Kong's heights.

The city is intimidating in its verticality. In fact, Hong Kong is the most vertical city in the world. There are more skyscrapers here than any other city in the world. There are almost 400 buildings over 490 ft (150 m) tall, wow! It is built like a 21st century Lego Land. Streets are laid out as small crevices in between giant blocks that zig zag in all directions, especially skyward. Make sure to pack your comfortable shoes because walking through hilly Hong Kong strains the knees and calves. Fortunately, there is a respite in the form of the world’s longest chain of escalators that ease your ascent upward.

Traversing the Hong Kong landscape is like leapfrogging across lily pads. The main hubs include: Central in Hong Kong Island where most of the expats live. Kowloon across the water is more local, prices are cheaper, and English is not widely spoken. The malls are enormous, stylish, and always air-conditioned. Effectively, they are the public square of the city. Some of the biggies are: Landmark, Harbour City, Pacific Place, Times Square, International Finance Center (IFC) and the list goes on from there. If you are into malls, Hong Kong is the place for you. The nearby islands: Stanley, Macau, and Lamma add a bit of contrast to city life. Macau is worth a trip. Think of Las Vegas with Chinese patrons, Portuguese culture, and a colonial vibe. The view from Victoria’s Peak is the best skyline I have ever seen, bar none.

Hong Kong has one of the best skylines of any city in the world.
A skyline for the ages from Victoria's Peak.

For a little history and culture there are two sites I recommend. Tai Kwun Prison is an interesting blend of history and nightlife. The prison housed the chief legal magistrate and served as a staging ground for colonial police. Here was the birthplace of Hong Kong’s judicial system, the real legacy of British rule. There is also a swanky jazz place nearby, but we will come back to that later. By far my favorite place is the Polin Monastery on Lantau Island. It is a bit of a hike to get there and worth every step. The main attraction is the Big Buddha. (see below). It took 12 years to build the statue, stands 112 ft (34 m) high, and requires visitors to climb 268 steps to the peak. The statue and the monastery are free to attend.

Big Buddha in Lantau Bay.
Up the 268 steps to the 112 feet tall Big Buddha.

Speaking of money, some cities are expensive and then there is Hong Kong. It takes the cake for the most expensive real estate in the world. Spending ten thousand US dollars a month in rent is pretty common. That’s not all that breaks the bank either. The cost of living here blows NYC out-of-the-water. Here are some specifics: English Breakfast Tea or Black coffee will run you about $5 dollars minimum. If you prefer cappuccinos like me, be prepared to pay more. The dry cleaning is not cheap, the food is not cheap, the drinks are not cheap, the nightlife is not cheap, and consumer goods are not either. There is one thing that is reliably inexpensive, McDonalds. Yes – it’s cheaper than in the US. (Not much of a recompense if you ask me.)

It is almost ironical that the only discounted commodity on offer is transportation. The army of buses, taxis, metros, ferries, skyways, and cars that circulate Hong Kong’s inhabitants around the city like arteries carrying oxygen rich blood from the heart to the body is very affordable. I suppose you can more easily stomach the cost of everything else if getting from A to B is cut-rate.

The nightlife is intense. The bars, clubs, speakeasies, Sky-bars, and hotel lounges to discover are endless. Some places I recommend are Café Gray, Whiskey and Words (speakeasy), and any place that references Hemingway (most of them are named after Old Man and the Sea). The Mid-levels is the epicenter of Asian-Western fusion. The bouncers tend to be African, the bar tenders are often Western, and the partiers are from everywhere. I will talk more about the night scene and city culture in the next installment, Part 2.

Hong Kong sheds its skin and exposes its real self at night. Like New Yorkers, Hong Kongese stay up late. People are out and about, restaurants are open, and business carries on well into the evening. The skyline is impressive during the day. When the sun goes down, it transforms into an urban planetarium that lights up the night sky with blues, purples, greens and reds glowing in patterns in a sort of visual Morse code. Asian cities reach another level of scale compared to Western ones. Simply put, there are more people, more skyscrapers, more alleyways, more districts, more of everything.

Highways at night are veritable light shows of intrigue.
An urban planetarium of blues, purples, greens and reds.

What did I see in Hong Kong’s halos – in a word, transition. As mentioned, whatever you look at is often a self-reflection. My life is radically changing at the moment and so is Hong Kong. I will talk more about the protests and politics in the third installment. What is clear, however, is that the old world, the ancien régime, the colonial culture, is fading away and being replaced by something new. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tze offered these sage words on the subject of change: “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” Whether you support change or fear it, the underlying spirit endures just in a different form, and so will Hong Kong. It is well worth experiencing up close to see what you can see, but no need to hurry in the process.

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