Saturday, November 14, 2015

7% Growth

One of the first pieces I ever wrote for this space related to a trip I made to Hong Kong back in 1995. Indeed, it was actually a series of email letters I wrote to family and friends on that trip that formed the basis for that column. Titled "Where First meets Third," it focused on the unique spot the city occupied at the intersection of the developed world and the developing. I wrote about the bamboo scaffolding used to build skyscrapers, and the computer shops that were cheek and jowl with shops featuring live chickens. And I marveled at the frantic energy and vitality of a place that seemed to be inventing itself on the spot.

Twenty years later, as I write this on a plane coming back from my most recent excursion there, I'm struck by how many of the themes I noted 20 years ago are still the same, even if the balance seems to have shifted a bit.

Of course, the biggest change is the fact that the city is no longer owned by the British, having been handed back to the Chinese in 1997. That said, even though it reports to a communist master, it retains its separate and special status as a capitalist outpost. Indeed, it practices, flaunts and displays its economic freedom like few other places in the world. Buildings that were new waterfront property when I was there two decades ago are gone, or pushed inland by the expansion not only of the economy but of the very ground on which it is built. You see it happening before your eyes: as I got off the Star Ferry, I watched a fleet of bulldozers push load after load of dirt into the water with the goal of creating even more land.

As one person said to me, "this is what 7% growth looks like." Sure, there are tenement apartments with laundry fluttering from windows, not to mention the occasional foodstuff. But more and more you see new high rises, some gleaming, some more functional. Hardly a block goes by that doesn't have construction, with some sites taking up hectare after hectare. That adds to traffic which was already legendary: even pedestrians can face a detour of several blocks just to get to the other side of the street.  

The wealth that flows into the city has led to the creation of a huge number of high-end marble, glass and steel shopping malls populated by luxury brand stores. Somebody must be buying, but most look empty, staffed by bored clerks whiling away the time among the Channel bags and Tiffany jewelry and Manolo shoes by tapping endlessly on their smartphones. The old rabbit warren of stores in Kowloon still exists, but among the tailor shops and noodle counters are Starbucks counters and Samsung galleries. And while the Ladies and Temple street markets have become even more infested with knockoff handbags and "copy watches," you can still find the locals shopping at butchers in Wan Chai who display their wares as a bloody meat-wall along the street, or at stalls in Apliu street featuring cheap clothing, interspersed with other specialty sellers, one with old tools, one selling nothing but magnets, another displaying hundreds of old remote controls.

There're lots more of these collisions of old and new. The WiFi is ubiquitous, and the electronic gadgets plentiful and cheap. The MTR, the local subway, still astounds with its gleaming stations and trains with no partitions between cars, creating seemingly endless hallways gliding along. Restaurants flaunting Michelin stars seem everywhere, with prices seeming even more stratospheric because of the nearly 8 to 1 exchange rate.  

But just a few streets away from all that you can find grubby booths with a few rickety tables doling out bowls of soup and piles of prawns for just a few dollars. There are still stalls with live chickens and frogs just waiting to be dinner. And next to a vendor displaying computer cables is an old man selling a collection of old shoes, some pictures, a wooden flute and a wheelchair.  

There was talk of the world taking an Asian pivot, a Chinese 21st century. To be sure, it's pretty early in the game to tell if that characterization will stand the test of time. But Hong Kong isn't waiting. It's still First and Third, but the former is most definitely squeezing the out the latter.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves going to Asia. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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