Hong Kong is crazy.
It started, the way so many journeys today do, at the airport. Before you even reach immigration, you have to pass the duty-free gauntlet. But no longer are the stores stocked with kitschy Chinese souvenirs, dried yak meat and blue-and-white china vases and traditionally dressed dolls. In Hong Kong what’s advertised is the tax-free Australian shiraz, and the price is listed in Euros.
Next you go through a sensor that measures your temperature to check for SARS. The TV you walk by shows your silhouette drawn in body heat, like a colored X-ray, and when you wave at it your hand is pixilated and slow, like a red-and-orange robot’s. The escalator talks to you in gently inflected British English and Mandarin, and so does the shuttle train between terminals, which goes faster than any other shuttle train I’ve ever been on, and the taxis. And, of course, the first business you come upon is Starbucks.
This is some brilliant urban planning, as if the city’s engineers had studied the world’s other great metropolises, figured out their mistakes, and then designed Hong Kong. The train station, for example.
Did you ever read about Michel Foucault’s Panopticon? No one could see the guardian inside the center tower, although he could survey everyone else. Hong Kong, however, has evolved past the need for hidden surveillance, and the cameras don’t even try to hide. The overseers sit in a beautiful glass office in the center of the train platform, watching patiently, patently out at the passengers waiting for their train. There are pay-per-minute leather massage chairs on the platform because let’s face it, if you’re here, you’re stressed.
The train swooshes in silently and powerfully, like a big tame lynx. Inside the same architectural logic prevails: pleasant, clean, inconspicuous. There’s a little TV on the back of the seat ahead, showing nine channels, all either maps or the Dow or the news or ads for the Emerson quartet, a Brazilian film festival, the Budapest orchestra, and an experimental theater group called the Zuni Icosahedron. (Are we still in China?)
Turn it off and the black glass becomes a mirror ten inches from your face. (No wonder people keep it on.) At night the windows become mirrors too, and reflected in them is a wagon full of docile bodies staring at the screens in front of them. The train whips in and out of tunnels so fast that your ears rebel against you and pop, as if to say “Slow down!”
On the ceiling the train’s journey between the airport and Kowloon is represented fluorescent blue real-time on a track-lit chart. In the otherwise tranquil wagon, blinking blue Kowloon’s the only thing that’s moving: the destination is paramount.
Off the train at Kowloon, luggage carts, all labeled with individual numbers, line up perfectly side by side, ready to serve. Like classy cattle we herd into the taxi wing, where we further subdivide into six groups that collect behind their own sliding glass doors until Hong Kong taxis, Toyotas designed to look a little like Rolls-Royces, pull up. With a pneumatic puff, the doors slide open, the air conditioning ends, and a bomb of humidity blasts in your face. Welcome to Hong Kong.
The taxi, of course, is an icebox, although one you can be fined 1500 HK$ (approx U$160) for spitting out of. And the famous Hong Kong skyline, spirals of neon and glittery steel under light white low clouds that reflect the city’s lights back down on it, comes into view.
As we pull up into the hotel there are security men in suits wearing earpieces. This is the Holiday Inn, by the way. Sitting down in the high-ceilinged hotel lobby I notice a window that looks into the second floor’s disco-bar, which juts into the lobby right above the entrance. The air conditioning’s under repair, so workers have climbed up into the ceiling space and are doing some drilling. It’s one a.m. in Hong Kong and the lobby of the Holiday Inn is bumping with people: checking in on the first floor, drinking and dancing on the second, and drilling in the crawl space in between.
I’ve been told that some of the office buildings double as nightclubs once the sun disappears. You go up in an elevator, a friend of mine told me, and you hear thump-thump-THUMP coming louder until the doors swish open and you’re on the dance floor.
Little island. Lots going on.