Saturday, November 18, 1995

Where First Meets Third

It hits you as you walk down any street in Hong Kong.  There are more buildings, more people, more traffic, more construction - more energy - than almost anyplace else on earth. From the bamboo scaffolding soaring high above the city, to the stores and stalls standing 3 deep on the sidewalk, to the impossibly thin double-decker trams packed with twice their normal capacity, this city is bursting at the seams. According to many analysts, just as the 20th century was the golden era of American influence, the 21st century could well be the Pacific century. And it certainly looks like they're getting ready for it today.

Not that there aren't problems. Most of Southeast Asia is classified as third world rather than first. And you see the inevitable collision of these two forces everywhere you look. Computer stores stacked to the ceiling with equipment are cheek and jowl with grocery stores selling live chickens. Ultramodern skyscrapers, with their skins turned inside out, cast their late day shadows over grimy, decrepit shanty towns. True, it's the same growing pains we have had (and in many cases, still have) in this country. The difference is that, by and large, we're working on those people and concerns that progress has missed; they're in the process of still reaching for the peak for the first time.

Friends who have traveled elsewhere in the region tell me its the same all over. It's no accident that the metaphors used to describe this economic area are things like "dragons" and "tigers." Nothing benevolent about it: sometimes, they kill each other, and sometimes, they eat their young. It's a different culture than the politically correct one we've grown accustomed to: one that places success above all other considerations. As an example, there's a new airport there being build on land reclaimed from the sea. Together with the roads, tunnels and bridges involved, it is currently the second largest construction project in the world (the first is a dam in China). It's under budget and ahead of schedule, unheard of in the west. But it has those distinctions because they don't even pay lip service to labor concerns (there's a huge, cheap pool of manual workers), environmental concerns (there's no organized interest in that area) or neighborhood opposition (it's being built on manufactured land, and includes an entire town with housing and shopping). Not that I'm suggesting we do business that way, but it does give one food for thought.

But that's the big picture, the institutional view. On a personal level, you encounter the same type of yin and yang of old and new, with a get-it-done, damn-the-torpedoes attitude. Let's start with the old:  I'm walking down the street in Yau Ma Tei on the mainland part of Hong Kong. It's a food market where the locals shop, and since it's a festival day, the place is packed with people. In the middle of the street - and I do mean middle - a guy selling fish from a straw mat. With no refrigeration around, seeing it on hoof, or in this case, fin, is the only way to guarantee freshness. As I walk farther, I see the next vendor has live crabs. A few more steps, and the next has a net bag in front of her, with lots of women gathered around, all jabbering in Chinese. At first I thought the bag had more crabs, as it was moving. But as I looked closer, I realized it was filled with frogs. A customer pointed at two, and the saleswoman hauled them out. After admiring glances from the crowd, she put them on some cardboard on the street, picked up a cleaver, and whack, whack, fresh frog's legs for dinner. Probably hasn't changed much in a thousand years.

But that's old world. A short ride on the MTR, a shining subway system, brings you face to face with the new Hong Kong, Through a busy street market selling clothes, watches, stereos and such, I head to the Golden Arcade computer store. Down a staircase, to where throngs of people are looking at merchandise in small stalls. I see a CD-ROM that interests me.  The saleslady motions for me to go with a guy:  I assume we'll head to the stockroom. He leads 4 or 5 of us up the stairs, out the door, down the street, around the corner, into another building, and up the stairs. There, around the corner on the landing, are two card tables with 20 people clustered around. I push my way into the crowd, and see hundred of discs. I pick up one. It has Windows95, Works95, Office95, etc. I guesstimate $1000  worth of software packed onto one piece of plastic. The price?  Forty dollars Hong Kong, about $6.40 US. And the table is filled with similar products. Yes, I bought some, and yes, it all seems to work.

Certainly, its not right, anymore than exploiting the labor force or building with no concern for the environment. And yes, the rest of the world will eventually force changes. But for the moment, on almost any scale, almost anywhere you look, Asia is riding at full gallop into the 21st century with a take-no-prisoners swagger. If we're going to keep pace, we better get our act together.

- END -

Marc Wollin loves to travel.  He was measured for four suits while walking down the street in Hong Kong, but didn't buy any.  His column appears weekly in the Record Review.

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