Sunday, 2 March 2008

Hong Kong

I'm back in London now and slowly getting over my jet lag. Overall my Hong Kong trip went very well, both for my work activities and for my leisure time.

Though I was nervous about it, my on-stage interviews at that conference went fine. I was fortunate enough to have a fairly engaging and outspoken guy as my interviewee, so he was able to keep the conversation lively and engaging. The panel I moderated about frontier markets also went well, though it was hard to link the disparate geographic regions we were discussing into larger themes. But I got good feedback from the audience afterwards.

So I thought I'd post a bit on my observations of the city and also show some of the pictures I took while there. The first one above is the view of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak, and the one to the left is a view of the HK skyline from the Star Ferry, going across the harbour. The most interesting thing about Hong Kong had to be the way the city is just squeezed into the small amount of flat area between Hong Kong island's mountain and its shore. When the British first acquired the island in the mid 19th century, Queen Victoria was apparentently none too pleased with what they had ended up with; a big hill-island with little flat area on which to settle. But the British managed to build a city in the small space they had and then expanded that buildable area through land reclamation, creating more flat land into the sea. The result is that the city is incredibly compact, pretty much on top of itself. The whole central area is linked by over and underground passageways so it's actually possible to walk around the whole area without having to ever actually go out onto the street. This is fairly handy because Hong Kong gets brutally hot over the summer.

While there I joked that I seem to be doing the British post-colonial circuit, as all my non-Europe travel seems to be to former British colonies. It's been interesting to observe all the similarities between the empire's former domains though. For instance, just like in Bombay, Hong Kong has double decker buses, and even double decker trams (pictured left). Hong Kong also uses British electrical sockets, and English is the official language along with Cantonese. All signs are in both Cantonese and English (or just English), and pretty much everyone there speaks at least workable English. You can also see the heavy British influence in the business culture and in the way people interact with each other. In fact there were a great many similarities between Bombay and Hong Kong. Both were built entirely by the British, and both were effectively offshore island settlements used to link maritime trade. Both also have dense centers surrounded by peripheral settlement.

Macau was equally as interesting. The European history there goes much further back than Hong Kong (The Portuguese started settling there in the 1500's) so the influence is much greater felt in the historial buildings. They were also the last ones to leave, handing the territory over to the Chinese in 1999, two years after the British handed over Hong Kong.

Interestingly, The Portuguese actually offered the territory to China in the 1970's after the leftists won power in Portugal, but Chian turned the offer down. Macau's gambling activity brought a huge amount of revenue into Chinese coffers, but the colony was also notorious for its lawlessness and seedy atmosphere. If the Chinese had taken it back, they would have had to abolish gambling and crack down on the lawlessness, thereby losing the revenue of the territory. But by the 1980s, as China was negotiating the return of Hong Kong with the British, the middle kingdom had already started its drastic change in direction toward the free market, and there no longer would have been an inherant conflict between the government and a lawless gambling outpost.

Hong Kong's handover is equally as interesting. The British were basically forced to hand it over because of the terms on which they had acquired the northern lands of the new territories. Although their treaties with China had given them Hong Kong island and the southern part of the peninsula in perpetuity, they had obtained the northern part of the peninsula, the so-called 'new territories' only under a 100 year lease, set to expire in 1997. By that point, the colony couldn't have functioned independently without the new territories, so the British had no choice but to give up the whole thing. It's rather ironic really.

Being in China really made me think about the realities the 21st century will bring. While there you could feel the heady excitement about China's rapid ascension to superpower status, and you couldn't help but wonder what Hong Kong will look like in 20 years. I have to say it really was an amazing city, so modern and efficient. I could see myself living there actually. I mean, I wouldn't go out of my way to get a job there, but if I was offered a good job in the city I might consider taking it, which is something I wouldn't have envisioned before I went there. So it's good to know for the future.

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