The Vanishing City

March 29, 2010 — Hong Kong may have the strangest weather of any place in which I have ever lived. A week ago the city and its residents were suffering in a cold, gray, and damp miasma. Yet, a few days later the temperature increased by twenty degrees Fahrenheit while a warm and choking haze settled over the city breaking all previous pollution records. The most recent 72 hours have seen fierce winds blow in from the mainland clearing out the smog and leaving behind cool, dry, blustery air and some of the clearest visibility in the entire time I have been here. When it comes to winter weather, I never know what to expect. It has been like living in London, Mexico City and Chicago at the same time. T.S. Eliot said April is the cruelest month, but then again he never lived in Hong Kong. If he had, maybe March or February would have had that dubious honor.

The worst days of a Hong Kong winter are when the temperature drops while the humidity index increases. It is impossible to dress for this miserable climate and, unlike in the summer heat, there is no relief indoors. This is because most Hong Kong homes do not have central heating and thus the chill of the outdoor dampness becomes inescapable. Inside my flat I walk around in layers of sweaters and fleeces while sweating from the humidity and shivering from the cold at the same time. At night I pile blankets on top of myself but this does little to warm me up. It feels like I am camping inside my own home. (I suppose I could buy a space heater or dehumidifier, but in my case laziness trumps discomfort).

The irritating part of all this is that it never actually gets very cold. Even though temperatures rarely drop close to freezing, they still have a bone-chilling effect because of the humidity. On the worst days, every cold surface is covered in condensation. The moisture in the air settles like morning dew on floors, wall tiles, and most metal and porcelain fixtures. The effect makes it appear as if the walls are sweating and the floors are constantly being wiped by invisible mops. Everything is wet all the time and it is impossible to hang clothes to dry since a week later they are still wet and beginning to smell of mildew. Because there is no effective way to get rid of the condensation, the custodial staff in offices and apartment buildings dutifully set out the “wet floor” signs normally used while mopping. They also regularly wipe down the walls with disinfectant. At first I thought this was more hyper-hygienic Hong Kong overkill until I realized that it is the only way to keep black mold from starting to grow on these surfaces. Without such vigilance, many places would quickly become serious public health hazards. I have never considered severe dampness to be in the same league of dangerous weather as sub-zero temperatures or scorching heat waves, but as with many aspects of Hong Kong life I have now have been sufficiently educated. It is easy to see how, without constant disinfection, this sort of climate might quickly become deadly. It reminds me of the first pages of Frank McCourt’s famous memoir, Angela Ashes, in which he describes the ubiquitous dampness of Limerick and the toll that it took on the residents:

"Out in the Atlantic Ocean great sheets of rain gathered to drift up the River Shannon and settle forever in Limerick. The rain dampened the city… It created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks. It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges… the walls of Limerick glistened with the damp… Clothes never dried… In pubs, steam rose from damp bodies and garments..."

Rereading this passage after spending winter in Hong Kong gives me a new appreciation of the ability of weather to be a constant nuisance and a health risk. But there is not much that one can do about it and in the end Hong Kong people, perhaps like the Irish, bear it stoically and get on with life.

Last week I was pleased when the temperature began to rise. The humidity was still there but it was nearly 80°F and a bit more bearable. It seemed like an improvement until the smog came in. For forty-eight hours Hong Kong experienced the worst pollution in its history. The pollution index was nearly 500, easily breaking earlier records. Meteorologists blamed a series of sandstorms in northern China that exacerbated the already high levels of pollution in the city. The effect was stunning. I first noticed it while having breakfast on the balcony of my building when I saw the high rise towers on the other side of the Sha Tin Valley shrouded in a sickly brown haze. Later that day, I was at the waterfront in Hung Hom on the Kowloon Peninsula and could just barely trace the skyline of Hong Kong Island, less than a mile across Victoria Harbor. As the Star ferries disappeared into and reemerged from the haze it really did appear as if the entire city was vanishing (see below). Public service announcements on radio and television warned residents to minimize any time spent outside and to keep a close eye on children, the elderly, and people with respiratory problems. As an international news item, this story was reported in the New York Times and the BBC. The really disturbing part of all this was that the smog merely made more visible what we normally breathe in but don’t see. Overall though, I didn’t mind it too much and must admit that, even at its worst moments, the pollution of Hong Kong is still better than what is the norm in Mexico City, Delhi, or Nairobi. A day later the smog cleared and now the cold air is back, though mercifully it is drier than before. The wind is picking up a bit and visibility is good. Yesterday my dive club went out to Sai Kung for the first boat dive of the spring and I noticed that the air is already starting to warm up even if the water is still quite cold.

Last month I was able to enjoy my first trip into China beyond the Pearl River Delta. I spent four days in Beijing with my parents, who were visiting from New Jersey for two weeks. It was a wonderful trip and we managed to pack a lot into a short amount of time. We stayed in an upscale hotel centrally located less than a mile from Tiananmen Square and were able to walk to most places. Our itinerary included the usual tourist sights: the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Mao mausoleum, the Temple of Heavenly Peace, and the Great Wall. We also wandered around the hutongs (alleyways) and markets in Qianmen and Dongchen. The weather was freezing, but also bone dry and sunny with clear blue skies (see below). I had been warned of Beijing pollution, but the frigid air seemed to drive it away. Since we were properly bundled up it was actually quite pleasant and invigorating to walk outside in the cold air and we spent most of the days outdoors. It was also really satisfying to return to a toasty warm hotel room and relax in the evening. The air was so dry that I actually got static electricity shocks while taking off a sweater or touching a door handle (something that I had altogether forgotten about while living in Hong Kong).

It was wonderful finally to get to Beijing, a city whose history has long excited my imagination. China’s capital presents a stark contrast to Hong Kong. Where HK appears as dense, vertical clusters of mountains and skyscrapers, Beijing is a grand sprawl of parks and boulevards. HK’s geography is a jumble of islands, inlets, hills, valleys and coastlines while Beijing’s is a massive flat grid moving out in all directions in nearly perfect symmetry and balance. I found Beijing an easy city to navigate since it was always sunny and clear and the intersections acted like points on a compass. Depending on the time of day and the position of the sun, it was simple to determine in what direction one was heading. It helped that the signs were almost always in English as well as Mandarin.

My first impression of Beijing is that it is a city clearly proud of its history and status as a major world capital. It is stately and grand in a way that Hong Kong—impressive as it is—could never be. In Hong Kong the constant energy of commerce and a forward-looking attitude give scant attention to the preservation of the past (though this is changing, thankfully). Beijing, by contrast is an imperial metropolis of monuments, fortresses, and palaces in which the passage of centuries is effortlessly showcased from one end of town to the other. Beijing is to Hong Kong what Delhi is to Mumbai, Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, Rome to Genoa, or Mexico City to Acapulco. Actually, in a way this might make Hong Kong the more impressive city of the two. Its rise as a world-class city in a mere 150 years from its humble origins as a colonial backwater (relatively unimportant, at first, even to the empire that established it) was an uphill battle that Beijing, the center of the Middle Kingdom, never had to fight.

Perhaps what made my trip to Beijing especially enjoyable was the chance to share the experience with my parents. This was their first visit to East Asia (my mother visited me when I was living in India ten years ago) so it was interesting to get their impressions of the city and of Chinese culture. We all had a good time. The weather cooperated, we had some outstanding meals, and we managed to see a lot of the sights. I especially enjoyed Tiananmen Square. It is the largest open city square in the world and is surrounded by the Forbidden City (to the north), the Great Hall of the People (to the west), the Mao Zedong Mausoleum (to the south), and the National Museum of China (to the east). In the center stands the Monument to the People’s Heroes. Above the Gate of Heavenly Peace at the southern entrance to the Forbidden City sits the famous portrait of Chairman Mao, the “Great Helmsman,” staring out into the square. On the opposite end of the square one can enter the mausoleum and view his mortal remains. To enter the mausoleum one must surrender all bags, backpacks and cameras, pass through a security screening, and present a photo ID. After that the queue shuffles through into an atrium where, if one wishes, one can leave flowers at the base of a large plaster statue of a seated Mao (not unlike that of Abraham Lincoln in Washington DC). Then one passes through the viewing room where a waxen Mao lies in state encased inside a refrigerated glass box. The Chairman is on view for only a few hours every morning and then he is lowered back into a deep freeze locker. There are rumors that the body on view is actually a wax effigy because the attempts to embalm him after he died were so badly botched that the remains are no longer presentable. For an excellent account of this incident, as well as of the more salacious details about the Great Helmsman while he was still alive, be sure to read The Private Life of Chairman Mao by his personal physician, Zhisui Li.

Apart from its history, an even more fascinating aspect of Beijing is how the dynamics of capitalism and communism today coexist in the same place. Not a mile from Tiananmen Square is Wangfujing, a pedestrian arcade of department stores, outlets, hotels, and shopping malls. For centuries it was a market area and these days it is a place where Prada and Louis Vuitton window displays jockey for the attention of passing shoppers and where new money is not shy about being seen. It is mind-blowing that this type of luxury and conspicuous consumption exists openly just a stone’s throw from the spot where Chairman Mao stood at the balcony during the Cultural Revolution and exhorted masses of China’s youth to purge the nation of any traces of western capitalism and imperialism. These boys and girls of the Red Guard then set about dutifully to punish and humiliate those among their elders in whom bourgeois or counter-revolutionary tendencies were merely suspected. Could they have imagined then that the youth of the next generation would be cruising shopping malls in Wangfujing with cell phones and the latest designer clothes? Maybe they never thought that China would be rich.

View of Victoria Harbor through Hong Kong smog, 22 March 2010

Sunset behind the Gate of Divine Might at the North entrance of the Forbidden City
Beijing, 18 February 2010