By Matt Salyer

Essay

and there were streetlights
of blue mercury poison.
geologic infiltration of delirium
nocturnal urban ranting, fluid as snowflakes.
but they were beautiful
chromatic in their way, in the stars
the brightest, analog of the city.
terminal moraine of arc lamps
spread in spectral meridians above and below.

evolution of streetlights
become alien vaporized pink salt,
blurred pandemic of spreading fugue.
here, the stars find no sisters.
contained, the city finds no sky.
flat ceiling of orange rotting glass:
opaque, tautologous, masturbatory,
grounded in recent days and all but buried
in smoking cobble pre-determined.
resign to safety this pure disgorged sodium—
it kills only the heart,
and then
only slowly.

It’s impossible to know whether the world is going the way of China or China is going the way of the world. An uncomfortable layering of capitalism and communism on top of one another, as embodied by the city of Hong Kong, is not the answer to this question.

Hong Kong is the question.

Sandwiched between ‘capitalism’ and ‘communism’, is Hong Kong the model for the city of the future?:

An ultra-policed, liberalised economy surrounded on all sides by a paternalist one-party state to which money flows mostly one way.

Porous borders into and out of a two-tier system in which the obscurity of the local language, even to visitors from other parts of the mainland, creates a huge industry catering for those unable to decifer it.

Boundless vertical density for a theoretically unlimited population over a maximised geographical area, perfectly positioned at the heart of the land and sea infrastructure of the world’s busiest commercial area, The Pearl River Delta.

At a superficial level, Hong Kong is like Kafka and JG Ballard getting together on a UK Garage remix of Two Tribes, with Beckett on the ones and twos.

As a reluctant British ‘subject’, it melts my head to see just how far the UK went with its economic experiment in Hong Kong; still the freest economy in the world. The creation of Hong Kong is the equivalent of devolving Anglesey from the rest of the UK, installing a mercantilist quango presided over by Nelson Rockefeller and demanding an exorbitant stipend for use of the road out.

I feel justified in complaining about most of this because we went there uninvited, peddling smack for tea, and started pissing about—so the guilt’s on the heads of my father’s and my grandfather’s generations, when all is said and done.

But territories that have been forced to adopt western systems, papering over an iron-strong, unique and irrepressible vernacular culture, as in Vietnam, Japan and Hong Kong, will simply not be beat.

The degree to which the forms and elements of commercial excess are pushed in places like (The) Ho(le) Chi Minh city and Hong Kong is testament to the resilience and the individuality of the cultures we’re still desperately trying to subsume with our hackneyed bullshit. In the case of Hong Kong and the larger cities of Vietnam, it’s as though someone local at the top finally snapped at some point and started having some fun with it.

Just like in central London, the complete absence of seats, benches or any horizontal surfaces at human level in Hong Kong is the perfect expression of the ethically-palsied western shopping ethos taken to a demented degree. The private corporation that owns the underground system also owns all the malls and luxury apartments built above the stations; designing the exits from the underground trains to route passengers into the shopping areas, whether they want to go there or not. You can’t even stop, never mind stop shopping.

Most of Hong Kong Island’s ‘public space’ has a six-lane blacktop scything through the middle of it, in spite of the fact that the city has arguably the best public transport system in the world. There’s a genuinely C21st subway, light railway and ferry network and a reasonably efficient tram system before you even get to the busses and the taxis. I would love it if someone could explain to me just where, exactly, everyone is driving to and why they would even dream of investing so much in such flash cars to do so in?

Anyone who has ever spent any length of time in the city of Birmingham in the UK will find themselves fighting off an unusual sense of deja vu on arriving in Hong Kong. To someone steeped in the culture of Great Britain (by fair means or foul), on the surface, the place feels like Manchester occupied and lightly retro-fitted by the Kuomintang. The civic architecture seems based around the model of a municipal lavatory teleported from a British seaside promenade in the 1950s, and purposely renders the entire place into a much warmer suburb of Central London.

The Chicago Loop c/o Creative Commons

The absolute dominion over the place by roads makes every intersection into a subtropical spaghetti junction; delineating with metal crash barriers oceanic concrete islands that necessitate proficient parkour to make any meaningful progress on foot.

Of course, 50-grand sterling for a Maserati for no other purpose than driving around the M25 corridor at rush hour, occasionally stopping off at convenience stores for processed snacks, is everyone’s idea of nirvana, isn’t it…?

It’s possible to tell a lot about a people by their attitude to space. Hong Kong doesn’t have any, so once it’s occupied, it jolly well stays that way, thank you very much. Turn around anywhere on Hong Kong Island with your arms extended even slightly proud of your body and you’ll be touching someone else. Lift up your feet and you’ll find somebody standing on the back of your sandals. Alter your walking pace even minutely and a concertina of bodies hits you from the rear.

The most over-populated island in the world, Ap Lei Chau in Hong Kong, has so many people on it that if they all came out of their homes at the same time, they would begin falling into the sea.

This, I can only pray, may one day start happening to England.

“Visiting London, I always have the sense of a city devised as an instrument of political control, like the class system that preserves England from revolution. The labyrinth of districts and boroughs, the endless columned porticos that once guarded the modest terraced cottages of Victorian clerks, together make clear that London is a place where everyone knows his place.

-J.G. Ballard, Airports: Cities of the Future for Blueprint magazine, September 1997

As in every big city, perhaps in every large concentration of human beings, London regards itself as quite considerably more important than everywhere else. Areas within London even posture themselves as somehow superior to their closest bordering neighbours. The same ‘narcissism of minor difference’ is expressed clearly by the amplified hatred of one obscure group of sports fans for their closest neighbouring rivals eg. Liverpool vs. Manchester, New York vs. Boston etc. etc. It’s just another reminder of what a bunch of witless, retrograde animals we actually are, despite all the protestations of highly-evolved, right-brain thinking.

People talk about tiny areas of London as if they’ve magically earned as much a right to a place in the collective consciousness as Sparta or Crete simply by being within the boundaries of the North Circular road. Londoners tend to assume in the listener a detailed geographical grasp of the city, regardless of where they might be from, just as New Yorkers refer to esoteric distinctions in ‘uptown’, ‘midtown’, and ‘downtown’ culture as if they are as intrinsic to human development as the Out of Africa migration patterns of Pleistocene man.

How have the supercilious people of a cold, rainy conurbation in an isolated corner of Northern Europe come to such licence to lord the relative merits of either side of a grey, begrimed river over the rest of the world.

Especially now, it seems that London didn’t get the memo that the system it developed and propagated across the globe has almost no ethical, spiritual or economic currency anymore, anywhere. It’s a situation that makes the half-mast-drainpipe-red-jean brigades look extra-specially ridiculous

Like the revival of the cravat in the early nineteenth century, in the 1980s, and then again in the early 2000s, the choice of that hat looks very much like a ‘top of the economic bell curve’ decision.

It’s very hard to avoid making them. It’s a rare individual that manages to transcend economic determinism, and avoids falling into the trap of thinking that things might be even remotely similar to how they were five, or even three, years ago.

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m with this guy, and therefore, with Nicholas Sarkozy:

“That a head of state should allow Eros to plot the trajectory of his life, rather than the travails of the global credit crunch, is so life-affirming it moves me to tears.

-Peter Aspden, Financial Times, August 2, 2008