Below is the journal I kept during the year that I was a Fulbright scholar teaching history at the Hong Kong Baptist University. In addition to my teaching duties I was part of a team of US scholars that advised Hong Kong universities on the development of their general education curricula in preparation for the transition to a four-year undergraduate program. I arrived in Hong Kong on the evening of August 28th, 2009 and departed August 12th, 2010. Since this is no longer an active blog, the entries have been rearranged in descending order from oldest to most recent. 

Evening in Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong

Arrival and First Days

September 9, 2009 — I arrived in Hong Kong on a direct flight from Newark, NJ on the evening of August 28th and have been here for about a week and a half. My first impression of Hong Kong is that it is one of the most extraordinary places I have ever seen. Even before I touched ground I was able to get a good sense of how stunning this city really is. My flight came in southward over mainland China and banked eastward just past Macau to circle the city before landing at the international airport. If I had come here a few years earlier I would have had the thrill of buzzing the apartment buildings of Kowloon in a harrowing landing at the old Kai Tak Airport right in the middle of the city. Though deprived of that opportunity, I did manage to get a full view of the city when the plane made a sharp turn for a westward landing right over the harbor. We landed at dusk so I was able to see the city lit up while there was still enough daylight to notice the contours of the buildings and mountains. What I saw is one of the most breathtaking skylines in the world (not an easy thing for a New Yorker to admit). It is just starting to sink in that I will be living here for nearly a year.

I am spending the year on a Fulbright scholarship specially designed to help Hong Kong universities make the transition from a three-year undergraduate curriculum to a four-year one. This change stems from a government directive to standardize degree requirements at all Chinese universities. Now that a decade has passed since the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, the universities here have been given a deadline of 2012 to complete this transition. Since Hong Kong had such a smooth transfer of government in 1997 I suppose the bar has been set high for the educational system to do the same. The expansion of the additional year will focus largely on enhancing general education as a component of university curricula, many of which are still mainly pre-professional. My role in all this is to serve as one of the members of the Fulbright team of professors from US universities and colleges who are here to advise the HK institutions about developing their general education programs. My colleagues and I were chosen because of our experience in developing and maintaining these sorts of programs at our home institutions. We are each assigned to a different university but will be working together closely and visiting all the universities together to consult with them about their programs. In addition, we will each teach a course or two in our specialty at our host institutions. It is an ambitious undertaking in which we are involved and will undoubtedly require a lot of hard work. Yet, for me at least, this is the opportunity of a lifetime, both professionally and personally. I had always hoped to be able to visit Hong Kong and East Asia and now I will be able to live and work here for an entire year at an exciting time in the expansion of higher education in the city.

For the next twelve months I will live in an area called Sha Tin in an apartment provided by my host institution, the Hong Kong Baptist University. The apartment is in an eight-story building (a dwarf by HK standards) located at the end of Sui Wo Road which winds to the top a hill that is higher than most of the surrounding high-rise apartment buildings. From my apartment there is a commanding view of the entire Sha Tin valley (see below). My building is in an industrial neighborhood called Fo Tan that is part of the larger Sha Tin area located in the New Territories on the northern side of a mountain ridge that separates it from Kowloon where I work. Apart from its wholesalers and auto repair shops, Fo Tan is gaining a reputation as an artist colony (cheap rents for studio space) and definitely merits a closer examination once I get settled and get my bearings.

During the weekend I had the chance to explore my neighborhood and get to meet some of the other residents in my building. There is an outdoor swimming pool in the complex where many of the tenants and their families congregate on warm days. It has been incredibly hot and humid since I arrived and I really wonder how anything got done in this city before the invention of air conditioners. Indeed, the weather has been the hardest adjustment for me since I arrived. It is exceedingly uncomfortable to walk outside, especially when dressed for work. During the day I find myself moving back and forth between steaming heat and humidity outside and cold, dry air-conditioning indoors. I am told that the weather will slowly start to improve as the autumn progresses and, in fact, this weekend was noticeably better than the previous one. The weather this weekend was just bearable enough that I was able to walk around each day for a few hours and get the lay of Fo Tan and Sha Tin. After several meandering trips I managed to find a supermarket, taxi stand, dry cleaner, post office, and a Catholic parish with an English mass on Sunday. Gradually I am starting to feel settled in my new home.

View of the Sha Tin Valley from 22 Sui Wo Road, 9 September 2009

Happy Birthday, China

October 9, 2009 — It has been exactly one month since my last entry and nearly six weeks since I first arrived in Hong Kong. By now my daily life has settled into something of a routine: morning commute to the university on the Eastern Line MTR followed by a day of meetings, lectures, and admin work at HKBU or with my Fulbright colleagues at other universities. In the evening I usually go out to dinner with new friends or pick up some take-away on the way home (I’ve cooked only one meal in my apartment since I arrived). The ubiquity and ready availability of amazingly good food—whether at five-star restaurants or streetside noodle shops—is huge disincentive to cooking at home. I have really grown to appreciate the variety and subtlety of Cantonese cuisine and will now probably never again be satisfied with Chinese food in the US. But the most remarkable part of my first few weeks in Hong Kong is the ease with which I have settled in here and begun to feel at home. In this city I have become accustomed to levels of convenience, service, and efficiency unlike any I have experienced elsewhere and which will surely be hard to leave behind when that time comes.

One new item that I can add to my list of life experiences is taking off in an airplane in the middle of a typhoon. On September 14th I was scheduled to fly out to London for five days to attend a conference. Initially I was worried that my flight would be canceled because the news that afternoon was that the Hong Kong Observatory—the city’s meteorology service—had issued a “signal 8” typhoon warning (whatever that is). This was for “Typhoon Koppu” which was due to make landfall that evening. As the afternoon progressed the sky darkened and the wind picked up, but all the trains and buses were still running and when I got to the airport the flights were still departing as scheduled. So I checked in and waited. By early evening the rain had arrived and it was almost impossible to see out the window of the terminal as sheets of water slammed against it. By now I was certain the departure would be delayed but the plane boarded on time and, despite the fact that we could feel the wind shaking the airframe, we pulled away from the gate. As we taxied to the runway the only thing I could see though the window were the strobe lights of the other planes lined up to take off. When we lifted off, the plane was tossed around quite a bit and there was a lot of lightning but once we got above the storm it was a smooth and quiet flight. It was amazing to think that the HK airport was still open and functioning through it all. In the US a similar storm would have closed all the airports and created major delays. I still haven’t concluded whether or not this is a good thing.

Since arriving in HK, I’ve been through a few typhoons and the people seem to handle them without too much fuss. The standard drill is to go home early from work or school, close up all windows and bring in flower pots, garden furniture and other outdoor belongings, wait out the storm, and then go outside the next day, clean up the mess, and get back to work. I suppose it’s the same attitude that residents of Buffalo or Minneapolis have toward snow storms: a fact of life that must be dealt with and not something that should prevent people from going about their daily lives. To be honest, I’ve come to appreciate the typhoons since they tend to blow out several days worth of hot, humid and polluted air and the weather is always nice afterwards, if only briefly. Maybe I just haven’t seen a bad typhoon, and will change my mind when I do.

Apart from the London trip last month I have been here the entire time. My office is at HKBU but my work often takes me to other universities around town. I really enjoy that my job allows me to move around and become familiar with different parts of the city. For such a relatively small area, Hong Kong has a striking diversity of environments. These range from the unmatched urban density and vertical growth in the north side of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon on the one hand and the mountains, lush forests and rural and seaside villages of the New Territories on the other. During the last few weekends I have managed to see quite a bit. I’ve explored the markets and alleyways in Mong Kok and Tsim Sha Tsui, hiked along the mountainsides of Shek Kong, dived around the islands off Sai Kung, and visited the monastery and giant Buddha in Ngong Ping on Lantau Island. Every day is a new discovery and most of the places I encounter will require many return visits for me to appreciate them fully. Even better is that in the intervening month since my last entry, the weather has improved considerably. It is actually pleasant to be outside nowadays, especially in the evening.

Last Thursday was the sixtieth anniversary of establishment of the People’s Republic of China. The occasion was marked by a massive parade and military review in Beijing and speeches by Hu Jintao and other Chinese leaders. The preparations for the parade left nothing to chance. Security was extremely tight and the international airport was shut down for three hours during the parade. Tens of thousands of soldiers and dancers practiced their routines for months in anticipation of the big day and the Chinese air force even seeded the clouds with silver nitrate to prevent rain storms. Yet the people of Beijing were discouraged from coming to the parade and were told to remain home and watch the event on television rather than on the street. In fact, the whole event seemed to have a made-for-TV feel to it. Sinologists in the West debated the true intent of the display. Some said the overt militarism was a sign to the world that an ascendant China is poised to embark on a more aggressive foreign policy while others argued that the display was meant mainly to bolster pride and a sense of unity among China’s diverse population.

In Hong Kong the anniversary was met with mixed reactions from the local people. Since the handover in 1997, Hong Kong has been a “special administrative region” within the People’s Republic. The British may be gone, but Hong Kong still retains its own currency, legislature, an independent judiciary, and a relatively free press. “One country, two systems” is the mantra one constantly hears, yet it is not clear to what degree Hong Kong people associate themselves with the mainland—at least politically. Like most things in this city, the answer to this question probably depends on the individual being asked. However the general trend seems to be a carefully cultivated sense of indifference to displays of PRC patriotism. In Hong Kong on Thursday there were a few official flag raising ceremonies but nothing compared to the meticulously choreographed pomp and pageantry in Beijing. The big event here was a spectacular fireworks display over Victoria Harbor—which I was fortunate enough to see from a 22nd floor apartment of a friend of a friend (see below). The celebration certainly highlighted China’s rising power and its new self-confidence, but it also underscored the still ambivalent relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland.

Fireworks display over Victoria Harbor for PRC 60th Anniversary Celebration
1 October 2009

Life in the Fragrant Harbor

October 28, 2009 — Before Britain’s victory in 1842 in the First Opium War, the name “Hong Kong” (香港 “Fragrant Harbor” in Cantonese) was how locals referred to the inlet between what today are known as Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula. Until that point, the place had been a sparsely populated string of fishing villages along the coast and a few farming communities further inland. Some of these walled villages in the New Territories, like the ones in Fanling (see below), are still preserved as heritage sites. In its earliest days, Hong Kong was a geographically isolated and unimportant area compared to the nearby Chinese port of Canton (today Guangzhou) and the tiny island of Macau on the Western end of the mouth of the Pearl River Delta, which by then had been occupied by the Portuguese for almost three centuries. The undeveloped island on the eastern end of the delta was relatively insignificant and ceding it to the British seemed a good way for the Chinese to keep those troublesome, drug-pushing gweilo (“foreigners,” also “devils”) at a safe distance. From then onward the British began to use the name Hong Kong to describe the entire island that was now theirs. In 1898 the British gained a lease from China over Kowloon and the New Territories, thereby substantially increasing the size of their colony to 407 sq. miles. In 1997 the Hong Kong territory (no longer a “colony” in the truest sense) was handed over by Britain to the People’s Republic of China—or “reunified with the motherland” as the mainland Chinese insist. Today, over seven million people live in Hong Kong, making it one of the most densely populated places in the world. It would have been unimaginable a mere century and a half ago that the muddy banks of the Fragrant Harbor would become the foundation of one of the world’s greatest cities and a center of the international economy. Even now, Hong Kong never ceases to amaze.

Monday was Chung Yeung (重陽節), a festival held on the ninth day of the ninth month in the Chinese lunar calendar. The “double nine,” as it’s sometimes called, is an inauspicious date (too much yang) and many Chinese try to counteract it by engaging in such auspicious and worthy activities as climbing mountains, drinking chrysanthemum wine, or visiting the graves of ancestors to pay their respects. This weekend Hong Kong’s cemeteries were packed with the living as well as the dead, as thousands of families came to burn incense sticks and make other offerings to demonstrate their filial piety. There is no parallel in western culture, though it reminded me a lot of el Dia de los Muertos in Mexico when people leave candy skulls on the graves of their departed family members. It is also similar to the Tet festival in Vietnam that is celebrated during the lunar New Year. Many of Hong Kong’s cemeteries and mausoleums are located on the sides and tops of mountains and so the limited number of roads and paths were jammed with people. Because of the crowds the police closed off many of the roads to vehicle traffic, but this prompted complaints from the elderly and disabled who claimed that they could not walk such long and steep routes to visit their dead relatives. Maybe next year there will be shuttle service.

One of the more striking aspects of life here is the incredible attention given to public health. All day long one sees people going about their daily routines wearing surgical masks. These include waiters, chefs, librarians, receptionists, preschoolers, and hundreds of commuters on the buses and MTR. Public handwash stations are everywhere, not just at hospitals and clinics. Elevator buttons have plastic covers accompanied by signs declaring that these are wiped clean every two hours. Indeed, Hong Kong is regularly sanitized by an army of cleaners—many from the mainland—equipped with towels and disinfectant spray. Their ubiquitous presence ensures that most public spaces are spotless and, if possible, germ-free. But the health campaign relies on propaganda as much as Purel. Commercial time devoted to public health announcements is as common on Hong Kong TV as ads for Viagra and Cialis are on American TV. Viewers here are constantly reminded to keep sick children home from school, cover their faces while sneezing or coughing in public, and keeping their vaccinations up to date. Much of this no doubt owes to the worldwide onset of the H1N1 flu, but residents I’ve spoken to say that Hong Kong’s obsessive cleanliness really began in 2003 when the SARS epidemic broke out. That was one of the worst crises ever to hit the city and it really spooked the otherwise sanguine people here. The current H1N1 pandemic, by comparison, seems like it is being met with calm vigilance and the confident reinstatement of practices that were first employed to meet a much deadlier threat. For the record, I am being a good citizen and carrying a bottle of hand sanitizer in my backpack at all times and using it regularly. A practice that in other countries would mark me as a squeamish and pampered tourist now serves to help me assimilate with the locals. When in Rome…

The other health concern, unfortunately, is one about which nothing can be done: namely, the air quality. Hong Kong air is highly polluted. While much of this comes from local vehicle traffic, overall the city is energy efficient and relatively “green” for such a densely populated place. Most people use mass transit and conserve electricity whenever possible (air conditioners in the summer months excepted). The real problem is across the border. The province of Guangdong is one of the most industrially developed in China, which nowadays would make it one of the most developed in the world. Hundreds of factories and power plants along the Pearl River Delta spew a constant stream of smoke into the air which drifts southward over Hong Kong. The result is a haze that lingers over the city and never goes away except briefly after a typhoon (though it is not nearly as bad as Delhi or Mexico City). In my time here, I’ve noticed that one rarely sees a blue sky even when it is sunny all day. The best one gets is a washed out bluish gray or hazy white. Many of my photos from vantage points like Victoria Peak or the cable car on Lantau Island have a bleached look to them and colors that seemed vivid at the time come out dull and lackluster. Longtime residents say this recent development can be blamed entirely on China’s meteoric rise as an economic and industrial power. They insist that as recently as fifteen years ago Hong Kong residents would see the end of the typhoon season usher in several months of sunny weather with cobalt cloudless skies. While the Chinese government is beginning to introduce pollution reduction measures, it will be a long time before the bright blue skies of Hong Kong’s autumn and spring return, if ever. Meanwhile pollution levels continue to break records. Last Sunday was the highest ever recorded (174 on whatever scale they use) and people were warned to stay indoors. Indeed it is a cruel irony that the Fragrant Harbor of all places should suffer from such foul air. It would be like one of the most polluted and industrial regions of the US being named the “Garden State.” Can you imagine?

A walled village on the Lung Yeuk Tai Heritage Trail in Fanling, New Territories
17 October 2009

Home, Sweet Home

November 6, 2009 — On July 1, 1997 at midnight, Hong Kong was handed over by Great Britain to the People’s Republic of China. After 155 years of British colonial rule, the Fragrant Harbor was once again formally part of China. The handover ceremony was presided over by the Prince of Wales and Chris Patten, the last governor of the territory, and attended by Jiang Zemin, the Premier of China, and Tony Blair, the newly elected British prime minister. Amid a monsoon downpour a British military band played “Last Post” (complete with bagpipe solo) as the Union Jack and Hong Kong colonial flag were slowly lowered. Moments later, a Chinese regimental band struck an especially spirited version of the PRC anthem as their national flag was hoisted. Alongside it was the new flag of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, an attractive design with a white bauhinia (Hong Kong orchid) set in the center of a field of bright red. The rain could not dampen the spectacular fireworks display over Victoria Harbor that began shortly after midnight, yet it was hard to describe this occasion entirely as a celebration. The handover, or “reunification” as the Chinese insisted, was met with mixed feelings by Hong Kong’s residents. While few of them embraced the elegies and nostalgia of the misty-eyed British community (many of whom had spent their entire lives in Hong Kong), they also viewed the territory’s incorporation into communist China with tremendous anxiety. It was a mere eight years after the Tiananmen Square uprising and at the height of Beijing’s hostility toward Taiwan, its “renegade” province. While Deng Xiaoping had earlier promised that Hong Kong’s autonomy and special role as a gateway to the West and capitalist powerhouse would be respected, nobody knew for certain what would happen when the British departed. Once the handover ceremony was done, the British delegation boarded the royal yacht HMS Britannia and sailed away at the same time that trucks and buses filled with soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) crossed into the territory from the now unguarded border post at Shenzhen. When the sun rose the next morning, Hong Kong appeared no different than the day before, but it was the dawn of a new era.

I have arrived in Hong Kong over twelve years after the handover and so I can offer no personal “before and after” observations about the territory. As an historian of the British Empire, I must say that I regret I never had the chance to visit Hong Kong in its former incarnation as a remnant of empire. Hong Kong has always been a puzzle both to those who ruled it and those who made it work. When the British took over in 1842, there were only a few thousand residents in the territory. Most of the seven million people who live here today are Cantonese-speaking Chinese whose ancestors migrated here from Guangdong and other regions of China once Hong Kong was already under British rule. They made a conscious choice to come to a part of China ruled by the gweilo. For their part, the British in Hong Kong administered (rather than ruled) a chaotic and prosperous mix of British, Chinese, and Indian entrepreneurs. The British—at first, more often Scots than English—governed with the usual mix of social insularity, military heavy-handedness, and attitudes of racial and cultural superiority. Yet they also eradicated piracy in the region, initiated an ambitious series of public works projects, and established a legal system based on English common law in which contracts were enforceable. All of this was good for business and Hong Kong soon became a regional commercial center to rival the Straits Settlement (now Singapore) and the great treaty ports of Shanghai, Tsingtao, Tientsin, and the other British outpost at Wei Hai Wei. Hong Kong thrived and its freedom (economic, if not political) attracted thousands of Chinese immigrants as well as the Sikhs, Gurkhas, and Irishmen who guarded the territory and the Parsis and Iraqi Jews who helped found its financial system. It is hard to believe that such titans of international finance as HSBC (the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation) and Hang Seng started out as small mom-and-pop operations in a tropical backwater, but that is how it happened.

To their credit, the British had the good sense not to try to fix something that wasn’t broken. The mystery of Hong Kong’s success continues to be debated, but as far back as the nineteenth century the British adopted a colonial policy of economic non-interference—perhaps a more successful version of the “benign neglect” shown toward the American colonies in the eighteenth century. The Chinese in Hong Kong chafed at their racial exclusion from high office but enjoyed the protection of a relatively honest and impartial legal system. By the late twentieth century, most of the racial prohibitions were gone and Chinese civil servants served at the highest levels of the Hong Kong government. On average, its residents enjoyed a higher standard of living and fewer economic regulations than people in Britain, so Hong Kong could not be considered a colony in any real sense. More importantly, throughout its history Hong Kong’s British keepers had mercifully shielded the territory from the worst horrors of modern China’s tumultuous and tragic history: among these the Taiping Rebellion, the warlordism of the 1920s and 30s, the civil war between the Kuomintang and the communists, the famines of the Great Leap Forward, and the insanity of the Cultural Revolution. The exception, of course, was Japanese occupation during the Second World War (more about that later). Yet toward the end of the twentieth century things in China were improving—somewhat. While the Beijing leadership in the 1980s and 90s seemed to be shedding its atavistic hatred for capitalism, it showed no signs of tempering its centralizing and authoritarian style of government anytime soon. The certainty and stability of British non-interference, such as it was, now functioned on borrowed time (perhaps it always had). Even as the countdown toward 1997 was well underway, nobody could say for certain what would come after.

The flow of capital and people out of Hong Kong in the run-up to 1997 never approached anything like a panic, but it was not insubstantial either. Hundreds of millions of dollars were transferred into banks in Europe, North America, Taiwan, and Singapore while thousands of Hong Kong’s wealthier residents bought property in New York, San Francisco, London, Vancouver, Sydney and Taipei. Some of them hedged their bets even further by taking advantage of their status as British subjects (while it lasted) to attain British citizenship. Ultimately, however, their worst fears did not come to pass. Hong Kong today is more vibrant, prosperous and stable than at any point in its history and its people continue to enjoy a substantial (though incomplete) degree of political and economic freedom. Officials in Beijing, like their British predecessors, seem eager to avoid killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. In fact, as far back as the establishment of the PRC in 1949, the communists saw the benefit of Hong Kong as a link to the West, especially during the days when Red China was otherwise virtually cut off from the western world. Perhaps more importantly, they want to reassure Taiwan that reunification with China can occur peacefully, amicably, and with the retention of substantial political and economic autonomy and historical distinctiveness. Taiwan has always meant more to Beijing than Hong Kong and thus a deft handling of Britain’s former colony may set the stage for a more important reunification sometime in the not-to-distant future. “One country, two systems” might perhaps become “one country, three systems.”

And so Hong Kong continues to thrive. Mainlanders, western expats, and immigrants from other parts of Asia are arriving in record numbers. Some, like me, are transients, but many are here to stay and all of us need a place to live in a city where the population density is greater than almost anywhere else in the world. In overall terms of people per square mile, Hong Kong would seem to be less dense than cities like Calcutta, New York, or Sao Paolo, but one must keep in mind that almost ninety percent of Hong Kong’s dry surface is unoccupied. Hong Kong is no Gotham, nor is it an endless grid of urban and suburban sprawl stretching to the horizon. A satellite image of the territory reveals that most of the land is mountainous green and a scattering of islands; amid this green, patches of gray show the dense urbanized clusters. A similar image of New York City, by contrast, shows mostly the gray of concrete, buildings, and asphalt dotted with a few green squares and strips where the city parks are located. Likewise the tremendous sprawl that is characteristic of Los Angeles, Delhi, or Mexico City is a geographic impossibility in Hong Kong. To expand, Hong Kong has no choice but to grow upward rather than out, yet even this can only partially offset the intense demand for affordable housing. The key term is “affordable.” Not everyone here is wealthy and the legions of cleaners, maintenance workers, restaurant staff, taxi drivers, municipal employees, nurses, shopkeepers, and their families also need places to live. While this situation is similar to other notoriously expensive cities like London and New York, in Hong Kong it is even worse. The working and middle classes are left scrambling while the super-rich pay exorbitant sums for the best accommodations. Last week an anonymous purchaser paid the equivalent of US $56 million for an apartment in a new ultra luxury tower on Conduit Road in HK Island (I’m guessing it comes with a parking space, but you never know). Real estate speculation here is especially reckless and the oscillating waves of boom and bust are a well-established pattern. The plummeting value of property in Hong Kong over the last two years would make overheated markets in the US like San Diego and South Florida pale by comparison. Many property owners here are heavily mortgaged and are hoping just to recoup their lost value. Lately the government and private sector are both warning that Hong Kong’s emergence from the worldwide recession has already started to inflate the next real estate bubble.

For decades the government has taken an active role in ensuring adequate housing for a growing population on the territory’s limited space. At the end of the Second World War thousands of Chinese from the mainland crossed over into Hong Kong and these numbers increased even further with the communist victory in the civil war in 1949. The impoverished newcomers settled in large, overcrowded slums in Kowloon and the New Territories—many of these were built precariously on the slopes of mountains. A catastrophic fire in 1953 in Shek Kip Mei killed hundreds and led to the clearance of the slums and a massive project to build high-rise flats in their place. Even now the demand for low-rent housing continues. This problem was the focus of the recent policy speech by the chief executive Donald Tsang (that is his actual title; there is no “mayor” of Hong Kong). Mr. Tsang tried to assure the city’s residents that subsidized housing would continue, but everyone knows it will be hard to fill such a pressing need. Indeed, the law of supply and demand is not something that needs to be explained to people in Hong Kong.

In the end, the only solution seems to be designing residential buildings that squeeze the most possible cubic space out of the least amount of square footage of ground. The result, not surprisingly, is row upon row of very thin and very tall apartment blocks (see below). Despite their impressive stature, however, many of these buildings are not much to look at. They tend to be squalid and functional structures with little or no artistic flair. Their faded, rust-streaked and crumbling concrete or tile exteriors are pock-marked with ugly window unit air conditioners and fans while makeshift clothes racks hang from the balconies. In a way, though, I find these buildings and neighborhoods strangely appealing. Despite their ugliness they have character and a kind of humanity; this despite their being built on anything but a human scale. The ground floors are often rented as commercial properties and are occupied by rows of shops and small businesses. The dozens of stories above them are teeming with people and echo with babies crying and dogs barking while the streets below are crowded with shoppers and merchants. Parks are always filled with children playing games and middle-aged and elderly residents doing their daily tai chi. Yet these many details, both good and bad, are not noticeable from afar. In fact, on a grand scale the combined effect of dozens of these tall, thin, gleaming white (again, from afar) structures set against a backdrop of pristine green mountains makes for one of the most stunning cityscapes anywhere in the world. I am lucky enough to have such a view from my flat. Though I may be starting to feel like a “Hong Kongese,” the truth is that I have been spared one of the more onerous rites of passage for new arrivals: namely the search for an affordable place to live. My flat is provided by my university and it was empty and ready for me on the day I arrived. It is spacious and fully furnished with three bedrooms, three baths, a balcony, a laundry room, and access to a pool and gym. I have never lived alone in such spacious accommodations and that I have a flat like this all to myself, in Hong Kong of all places, is really amazing. It will be a sad day indeed when I have to pack up and leave it behind.
Hong Kong high-rise apartment blocks (look closely)