Thursday, June 01, 2006

One Country, One System and a Half

At 44,000 humans per square kilometer, Kowloon, Hong Kong, has one of the highest population densities in the world. It was there that Stephanie and I were bound for last weekend. After having seen immense Tokyo, Japan, and lived in fairly sized Taipei for over six months, I was looking forward to experiencing Hong Kong, the main set for a couple of James Clavell novels and a place of intrigue for many. It was now my turn to experience it not in a book, not in a movie, but in person.

But for us, the excitement began before we’d even left Taiwan. In fact, the adrenalin started pumping the moment we presented ourselves at the Cathay Pacific counter at Chiang Kai-shek International Airport. It was around 17:20PM. We had made it to the airport much earlier than we had expected. We had three hours ahead of us, and yet we decided to check in the moment we reached the airport. It was a good thing that we did, for the lady at the Cathay counter requested Stephanie’s Taiwanese passport, which she hadn’t brought with her, as she intended to travel on her Canadian one (there is no visa requirement for Canadian citizens visiting Hong Kong). However, in Stephanie’s case, no Taiwanese passport meant no trip to Hong Kong. She therefore had to jump into a cab and ride all the way back to our apartment in by-now congested Taipei City, grab her passport, and rush back to the airport. Meanwhile, I stayed back at the airport, waiting nervously as the minutes turned into hours. In the end, Stephanie made it back at 8:00PM, very much in extremis as our flight was departing at 20:20. Needless to say, we were the last passengers to board the aircraft.

The 1:15-hour flight from Taiwan to Hong Kong is just long enough to allow for a meal and a drink. After landing at Chek Lap Kok airport (more than 240 international flights originate in that airport every day), we grabbed a train to Kowloon station (a nice, comfortable ride), then a cab, and headed for our hotel, the Miramar, situated at the heart of Kowloon. During the ride (all the cabs are small red boxes, and the city has retained the British system of driving on the right side of the road), we could see the tall and extremely lit buildings lining the waterfront of Hong Kong proper in the distance.

While we were in the line-up for check-in, it was interesting to note how the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2003 had left its mark on the city. Above the reception desk, an infrared camera was scrutinizing each and every one of us. As I was on the tail end of a bad cold and had had some fever a few days before, I was a little apprehensive, fearing that my high temperature could jeopardize our weekend journey. But no such thing happened, and we were allowed into our room. Right by the elevators, an automatic disinfectant dispensing machine had been installed. One by one, as we waited for the elevator doors to open, we put our hands under the nozzle and waited for the spray. It was evident that three years on, the scars of SARS were still there, and though I strongly doubt the utility of disinfecting one’s hands as a means to prevent a respiratory disease, I assume that it plays its role at the psychological level. (I remember reading in Karl Taro Greenfeld’s account of the SARS outbreak, China Syndrome, that during the outbreak, teams had been dispatched throughout the city to spray the wheels of vehicles with disinfectant as they drove by.)

The density of Kowloon became apparent to us the following morning as we set off for the day. The first thing that strikes you is the humidity, followed by the air quality—or lack thereof, that is. Like many other cities in Asia, the streets are tapestries of oversized neon signs, all vying for the attention of the thousands of pedestrians who throng the sidewalks at any given time. One of the things that I always do whenever I visit a new city is observe its people and try to gauge their level of happiness. In general, the residents of Hong Kong do not smile, and their behavior is on the rude end of the spectrum. Vendors themselves display a certain air of displeasure and impatience, especially so when the client does not speak Cantonese, the local language. People’s sense of fashion was next to nil, and in general I would say that one’s appearance does not appear to register high on one’s list of priorities.

This, of course, is also reflected in Kowloon itself, which has this brooding air of decadence. Underneath the grime, the buildings seem to be peeling off, and most are in a state of disrepair. Commercial facades are not given much thought, and everything there is utilitarian rather than aesthetic. The buildings are also piled next to and seemingly on top of each other, turning human beings into ants and cutting them off altogether from nature. There are very few trees, and there is no horizon to speak of. It is buildings, residential mixed with commercial—immense agglomerations of apartments designed for Lilliputians—that seem to exist in stark defiance of nature itself. The air of decadence is augmented by the prevalence of massage parlors and stores of ominous repute, advertisement for which is extremely overt.

People are piled up on top of each other, entire families living in diminutive and squalid environments. Kowloon is a melting pot of dirt, people, vermin and animals. Everything coexists, resulting in the perfect environment for disease to emerge and spread. It is no coincidence that SARS first struck there, as did avian flu. SARS disappeared on its own for reasons we have yet to understand. Already, scientists are waiting for the next outbreak. The live animal markets that are suspected of being at the origin of the SARS outbreak (among civet cats, mostly), which were closed down in 2003, have now reopened, and all the variables that had permitted for the emergence of SARS are once again in place. In a city where the value of life appears less so than anywhere else I have been to in the world, germs and viruses lurk in wait. It is only a matter of time. I do not intend to sound alarmist, but walking down the side streets of Kowloon, I could almost feel the disease hiding in the shadows and looking back at us, ready to pounce. No wonder most visitors to the city feel like they have a cold. Sore throats and dry coughing are part of the wall of noise one encounters in Hong Kong.

In the afternoon, we set out for Ladies’ Street, an outdoor market where a variety of knockoff products such as Burbarry handbags and videogames compete with T-shirts and jewelry and variegated apparel. The mini-stores, all of which covered by tarp, are packed, and moving around them is no mean feat, as every single inch is occupied by products, vendors, or clients. The store owners are extremely aggressive and will physically drag you into the store to peddle their wares. “Eighty dollars for you,” a vendor hollers, “very good price, very good.” Considering the markup on these items, this inevitably leads to a minuet of offer and counteroffer. The trick is to walk away, at which point most vendors will ask you for a price. More often than not, your price will be accepted. “Just for you.” (I purchased a T-shirt, which I managed to forget in the hotel room.)

The eye-opener occurred when a friend we were visiting with asked to see a travel bag she was interested in. “Step into my office,” the vendor said, whereupon all four of us were led to a dilapidated apartment complex behind the street. We were crammed into an elevator and eventually managed to reach the floor we were ostensibly heading for. Both at the entrance to the building and at the floor we were now on, suspicious-looking individuals observed us. The woman who was leading the way kept staring at Stephanie, as if she were trying to solve the riddle of where she was from. “Are you Chinese?” she asked at one point. “Where are you from?” she pushed on. “I am not from here,” Stephanie replied. Now that I think about it, I believe the woman was tactically trying to determine whether Stephanie could understand Cantonese or not.

We finally walked into what was evidently an apartment suite that had been converted into commercial space. This was the so-called office we had been invited to step into. I wouldn’t be surprised if at night the whole place reverted back to human dwelling. One thing is certain: this was no official, let alone legal, business. Inside, the walls were lined with purses, handbags and wallets. A very muscled man, accompanied by his wife and two children, was in the process of purchasing what seemed like a dozen handbags. He looked like the kind of guy who would be buying AK-47s in a place not altogether dissimilar from where we were now. The dealing resumed, with our guide joining ranks with another woman in pushing product after product upon us. Sometimes, they’d exchange a few rapid words among themselves, in Cantonese, whereupon we’d resort to our own languages to strategize. French, Mandarin, English mixed with Russian, Cantonese, and other languages. “How much?” the women would ask. “Too expensive,” we’d reply. The women would then hand us a toy-like calculator and ask us to type how much we were willing to spend. Our friend, who’s formidable at this, was able to bring the price down to such a level that one of the vendors had to place a call on a cell phone to the person who, we assumed, must be her boss. “That’s too low,” said one woman to the other as our friend handed her the money. “We’re dead.” Though Stephanie’s native language isn’t Cantonese, she can nevertheless understand bits and pieces of the dialect.

As I stood there in the stuffy room, my thoughts turned to China’s accession to the World Trade Organization and its alleged adoption of the trade rules of the game. Markets like this one—and there are thousands of them all over China—make it evident that China’s being part of the WTO only applies to a small percentage of its billion people and thousands of businesses. It is participation in name only, as there is no way such underground entrepreneurship will ever be eradicated. What would happen to Hong Kong’s parallel economy if, all of a sudden, the governor were to send officers in there to clean up the place? Millions—billions—of dollars would be lost, and I suspect that substantial amounts of that money are lining the pockets of high-ranking officials who see a great advantage to looking the other way. Vendors do not even try to mask the nature of their trade. It is overt, and everyone participates in it. From knockoff Armani suits (more than once Indian or Pakistani men would accost me and ask me if I was interested in buying suits, which I do not think was a euphemism for other kinds of services) to endangered species of animals consumed as delicacies (known as “Wild Flavor”), it’s all there for those who are willing to pay. Copyrights and intellectual property are absolute abstractions. I suspect, too, that everything else is available, given one’s willingness to pay and to sink deeper into the murky underworld of Kowloon. I could easily see firearms of all kinds, drugs, and women being traded in “offices” similar to the one we’d been lead to. (One can only imagine what kind of impact this sprawling underworld has on Hong Kong’s commercial port—one of the busiest in the world—and on international trade.)

Following the handover of Hong Kong from the British to China in 1997, numerous wealthy individuals left the city and relocated to cities like Vancouver, bringing their fortunes with them. As a result, Hong Kong suffered a drain that it has yet to recuperate from. In theory, Hong Kong is part of the “One Country, Two Systems” modus vivendi that Beijing has established. However, since then, the former British colony has seen some of its liberties curtailed, and until his resignation in March 2005, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Tung Chee-hwa, had but one objective in mind, and that was to please the Party leadership in Beijing. The city and the welfare of its citizens came second (hence my calling this “One Country, One System and a Half”). In terms of investment, Hong Kong has also lost out to the capital city and to Shanghai, which is now seen as the economic engine of China. This sense of abandonment is palpable in Hong Kong. One can feel the glory of the past, a Pearl of the Orient that hasn’t aged well and has lost some of its luster. Back in Beijing, Hong Kong has its uses. When it is convenient, Hong Kong is referred to as indisputably part of China. However, when trouble emerges out of the island—as it did during SARS—Beijing chooses to ignore it and to cut all lines of communication with it.

Evening come, we went to a Japanese restaurant for dinner. Future visitors to Hong Kong should be aware that certain restaurants will bring you appetizers that you didn’t order. Whether you eat them or not, you will be charged for them. It’s a form of hidden tax, and fighting it can only lead to problems.

The following day, monsoon seemed to have reared its ugly head, as it rained cats and dogs for most of the afternoon. This made visiting other areas of the city rather pointless. We nevertheless set out for an area where we though we could see some of the waterfront. Exiting at Kowloon Station, we went to the exit, D1, which was marked “to Waterfront.” After walking for a good ten minutes, we came upon a construction site with the largest apartment buildings I had ever seen. As there was no waterfront in sight, we walked over to a security guard, who informed us that the waterfront was in fact the name of one of the buildings. So much for seeing water. Indications in Hong Kong are reputedly atrocious, and we were given numerous occasions to test that out.

By then it was time for Stephanie and I to return to the airport. Once we got there, we were informed that our flight had been delayed by about an hour, as the aircraft we were supposed to return to Taiwan in had been rendered “unserviceable.” In compensation, we were each allowed 75 HK dollars’ worth at the food court. While most people grabbed hamburgers and steaks, Stephanie and I headed for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream (I had a three-scoop basket) and a restaurant, where we grabbed a Guinness beer and an Asahi. The hour expired, we returned to the embarkation lounge and minutes later were taking off for Taiwan.

On the bus ride back from the airport to downtown Taipei, I remarked how clean the streets were. There are many more trees, the streets are wider, and the buildings are in much better condition. I don’t know if this is some leftover of Japanese colonialism, but the sense of aestheticism in Taipei is orders of magnitude beyond that of Hong Kong. The way I see it, the Taiwanese took some elements from the Japanese, combined that with what they knew, and made something entirely new out of it. It is not quite Japanese, and it is not quite Chinese, either. This trip to Hong Kong was an epiphany for me, as I’d expected the famous city to be closer to Tokyo and Taipei than it is in reality. If this is the result of being incorporated into China, than more the reason for Taiwan to retain its independence. Hong Kong is slowly turning into an ecological, epidemiological and possibly social disaster. Not once did we run into a recycle bin. The amount of litter produced each year—each day, for that matter—defies the imagination. It would be pretentious of me to claim that those two days were sufficient to fully comprehend what Hong Kong really is, but the first impression it left me is a fairly negative one. I don’t know what will happen to it in the future, but the likelihood that it will once again be struck by and serve as an index case for an epidemic (or pandemic) is unfortunately high. It is a city that flaunts its lack of control. It is too big, and it has too many people in it. Tokyo is bigger, has more people in it, but it works. (Taipei, albeit smaller, works, too.) Nowhere will someone visiting Tokyo or Taipei ever be under the impression that things are out of control. It works, symbiotically. And yet, when it comes to political systems, Japan’s and Taiwan's are far less repressive than that which defines the Chinese system. Control and social success, therefore, result not from repressive rule, but rather from willingness, as a society, to make the project a successful one.


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