Friday, January 22, 2010

Hong Kong, at last

Using Singapore as a base for travel in Asia over the last six months has been wonderful. It's a beautiful city and I always love coming back to it because it is i) first world (has potable water and I can eat street vendor food) ii) safe (I can walk almost anywhere at any time without feeling at risk), and iii) easy (accessible for foreigners). This sets it apart from most of the nearby destinations that I have visited. It is truly remarkable how different a neighbours can be, and Singapore has set a fine example of the advancements that can be achieved through of a relentless pursuit of economic development through i) fighting corruption, and ii) enforcing rules (setting the stage to establish steadfast institutions that invite market development).

Thanks to subsidized housing, the government ensures that all citizens have access to affordably put a roof over their heads. A favourable tax regime has attracted expats and businesses from around the globe to set up shop in this island nation. By comparison to its neighbours, please in Singapore are living well.

Of course, this prosperity has come at an expense. I have heard some people liken the perfection that has become Singapore as 'sterile'. True, the nation's subsidized housing may not be showing up in any architectural digests (admittedly, this is changing with new developments). And, the arts scene in the city makes Calgary look like a wonderland (January's inaugural fringe festival was a respectable start).

I have also heard many criticisms of the 'ruthless conviction' with which the government has charged ahead to impose rules and change since it split from Malaysia. If you try to engage a taxi driver in a discussion on politics you'll see him squirm in his seat in fear that you are out for a sound byte that might incriminate him. The 'big brother' paranoia permeates almost every facet of Singapore life, if you have your ear open to it.

I might be forgiven in thinking that these are the necessary evils of economic development in the region. But wait...there's Hong Kong. I knew Hong Kong by reputation as a commerce centre for the region. Like Singapore, Hong Kong has been shaped by its roots as a British colony. And even more than Singapore, Hong Kong has established itself as the charter city for development. I don't know the intricacies of how the economy evolved here, but it was quickly obvious that this is no Singapore.

Prosperity? check. Safety? check. Accessibility? check. Sterility? nope!

The thing that struck me first when we landed in Hong Kong was how 'imperfect' it is. Sidewalk at an angle. A little bit of litter on the street. Moss on the walls.

Imperfection is beautiful.

I guess that the place just feels 'lived in'. And it's nice. It's like Europe. In Asia. And, yet, it somehow feels more asian than Singapore. I can't explain it, really.

A walk around our hotel took us to an inner city botanical garden that showcased a wide range of primates and generated an echoy 'ooooo oooo aaaa aaaaa' that resonated in the surrounding blocks.
The climate in Hong Kong is a bit cooler than Singapore, which made it nice to walk around. I've heard the heat can be oppressive in the summer - but, in January, it's perfect for a few Canadians, a Brit, an Austrian and a Slovenian to do some exploring on foot. It feels nice to be somewhere with seasons!
As you might expect from a densely populated island, the transit system is well developed. We found these 'add value' machines in the subway. I couldn't help but reflect on how I was always trying to add value in my old job. Too bad that I didn't have a machine to help me out! (side note: no idea what these kids in the picture are doing).
By night, we took a lovely harbour cruse to check out the city lights and make our way to a dinner spot across the water. Super cheesy tourist thing to do - but it was absolutely lovely (if a bit chilly).
The dining in Hong Kong was incredible. Affordable and top shelf. The separation between expat hangouts and local hangouts is notable (and somewhat takes away from the experience), but we tried our hand at both and were not disappointed. If you are planning to spend some time in Asia, Hong Kong is worth a visit. It's a nice example of how a place can move forward, while maintaining its character.


Blogger BikingBakke said...

I like the idea of enforcing rules and taxi drivers squirming, given the NY experience.

March 14, 2010 at 6:28:00 PM MDT  

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