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.

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Andy is a freelance magazine writer and editor from the North of England. He has rapidly divested himself of his life and reassembled it so many times in so many different countries over the last several years that he feels like his hair is on fire. He is at work on a novel ostensibly about the British Empire.

2 responses to “The Monster, Created”

  1. Comment by tip robin


    First off, what vocabulary. At one point I was both impressed and overwhelmed. My English vocab is suffering at the hands of Spanish.

    I really liked the notion of there being no benches to be found in the city. Here in Madrid, you can’t go 100 meters without seeing one. At every junction here, people want the option of sitting down and taking her easy. So your very valid assertion of the “perfect expression of the ethically palsied western shopping ethos taken to a ridiculous degree” would imply that this culture, the Spanish one, is already at that ridiculous degree. Or maybe it’s just the heat? Either way, I can’t imagine a society without benches (then again, I’m moving back to the US where benches are for parks and outside the occasional ice creamery).

    As always, fitting photos, formidable writing and excellent video, Andrew.

    Thanks for the intro to Hong Kong. For the moment, I think I’ll pass…

    Comment by Andy Johnson

    I don’t really know what to say but thanks for the praise, Kip.

    Don’t they have sofas on the street in case the obese of Middle America get tired waddling between branches of Wendy’s? (This is the image I have in my mind.)

    Comment by Bave

    I’m terrified of the prospect that one day, I’ll read something by you that implies you actually enjoy being somewhere. Vietnam? Shit. Thailand? Awful. New York? Awkward. It’s your dour cynicism that keeps me in good ol’ Blighty. If you actually LIKED anywhere, I’d have to think about going for a look! Thank god everywhere’s awful, eh?

    Comment by Andy Johnson

    Thanks for reading, as always, Bave and good point but these aint postcards, man – they’re dispatches from the coalface of cockitude; they’re gusts of persiflage in the bumgut of satan; they’re barbs in the arsecheek of something-or-other i.e. it’s a hoary old load of wanking and shouting.

    Spain’s nice. (But if you’re looking for travel advice, I suggest Judith Chalmers.)



    Comment by Bave

    I had a fortnight in Judith Chalmers a few years ago – I wouldn’t recommend it.

  2. […] in Palm Springs. *D.R. Haney ponders the childishness of people, is astonished. *Andrew Johnson wonders if the world is going the way of Hong Kong.  *We make noise.  *Justin Benton has the 29-year-old blues.  *Darian Arky hears […]

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