It’s a cliche’ that’s used for a lot of places, but in this case it’s undeniably true – Hong Kong is the ultimate city (or territory) of contrasts. A favourite maxim – ‘where East meets West’- highlights the region’s Chinese roots and the western cultural elements it gained from its time as a British colony. This fusion of cultures can be seen in the architecture, lifestyle, and perhaps most clearly in the food. While sterile, ultra-commercial dining options like Mcdonalds or Starbucks abound, you can also wonder through chaotic market stalls past spiky, strange-looking fruit, desiccated, undefinable fish-things, and dark-coloured eggs that look like they’re boiling in tar.
One of Hong Kong’s most interesting contrasts is its symbiosis of an ultra-modernized lifestyle with traditional Chinese customs. Ancient concepts like Feng Shui – the Chinese art of positioning objects or structures so as to harmonize with nature – has firm roots in the city’s culture. In fact the plan and design of a building in Hong Kong is determined as much by Feng Shui masters as it is by engineers and architects. Often, buildings lack any floor number with a 4 in it, due to its similarity to the Cantonese word for ‘death’.
Hong Kong’s uniquely paradoxical and thus (I think) beautiful aesthetic is forged by determined efforts to reconcile the city’s origins as a humble fishing harbour and its current status as one of the most fast-paced powerhouses in the world. Flashing skyscrapers tower above immutable colonial buildings like the Old Supreme Court and the ancient-looking junks that timelessly cruise Victoria Harbour. The glittering, glass designer storefronts of the North Shore lie in stark contrast to the dingily romantic, slum-like noir of the alleyways of Kowloon. Kowloon is itself a microcosm of contrasts. Dark, empty backalleys are filled with the discarded trash from business back-exits while thick, tangled electrical wires hang like some sort of urban python. The wires feed the kaleidoscope of neon signs in the chaotic main streets of Kowloon, piercing fluorescent colour onto otherwise dreary, beige-grey towerblocks.
The hard-edged rectangles of these ubiquitous tower blocks are juxtaposed by the graceful, dimly-blue mountain peaks that surround the city. Though it boasts the status of most urbanised city in the world, country parks actually account for 40% of the total area. Hong Kong’s urban planning is necessarily one of the most meticulous and strategic in the world, but the nature around it remains wild, rugged, untamed. The hiking and coastal walks around the territory offer some of the most impressive views in China.
But you don’t need to head to the outskirts to find incredible views. Any high-rise hotel or apartment block will likely offer aerial views of the city and the perennial mist below. Standing amidst the clouds you feel strangely close to nature, at the top of a concrete tower-block, in a room 10 sq metres across.
Walking around at night feels like being in a Sci-fi movie or videogame. Some areas of the city – the functionally named Central and Mid-Levels – connect vertically rather than horizontally, reached by a network of interconnecting outdoor escalators, with drop offs on the way so as to access poky-looking noodle or dim sum stalls with flickering signs. I could picture Bruce Willis eating at his favourite floating noodle joint in Fifth Element. The view from Victoria’s peak on a misty night (almost always) is a scene directly from Bladerunner, with the fluorescent lights of the sprawling city piercing hazily through the inky Hong Kong fog.
It’s surely no coincidence that so much Sci-fi literature is based in Hong Kong. The territory’s various contradictions, particularly the juxtaposition of old and new, allows it to effectively present the message of a utopian, familiar past and a lonely dystopian future. The city offers nostalgia, while simultaneously existing in a shiny, futuristic realm. This uniqueness makes Hong Kong unlike any other fast-paced, commercial city. Singapore, for example, is just as corporate, just as ultra-modern, but it struggles to conceal its corporateness. For me at least, it simply doesn’t feel as exotic or seductive as the inky mist of Hong Kong City.