Travel October 2002

Anything Goes

For three decades the author searched fruitlessly for the perfect city. And then he found it
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When I was fifteen, I dreamed of living in the big city, as many a young person does if he is artistic and sensitive. By "artistic and sensitive" I mean short, skinny, unkissed, bad at sports, and carrying a C average in high school. What attracted me to the vibrant chaos of urban life was its evident lack of quality control. In the big city, I thought, anything goes. Oh, if I could go too. I wouldn't be so sensitive in London or Paris, where there would be thousands of people who were shorter and skinnier, and had worse pimples in the middle of their foreheads. And New York was a hotbed of the arts. Not that I had any interest in art. I considered myself artistic because it was the 1960s. And in the 1960s it was obvious, even to a fifteen-year-old from suburban Ohio, that art consisted of doing anything you wanted to do. What I wanted to do was read science fiction and build plastic model cars. No doubt a public awaited to applaud my talent for getting through a Ray Bradbury novel during third-period geometry and producing, in one dateless weekend, a candy-apple-red, chopped and channeled deuce coupe with blown Chrysler Hemi, in 1/25 scale. Also, among eight million New Yorkers there was sure to be a fifteen-year-old girl (not to exceed my 5'4") who was fascinated by miniature 1932 Fords and The Martian Chronicles, who looked exactly like Natalie Wood, and who—through some legal loophole perhaps having to do with her father's being a UN diplomat—had a driver's license.

I admit that this is an odd way to begin an essay about Hong Kong. But I believed in the infinite potential of cities. I was convinced that when enough people of various tastes and interests were gathered in one spot (free of, for example, parents and high school), great things must occur. I envisioned miracles of self-fulfillment, pleasure, and surprise.

When I finally got to New York, at the age of twenty-one, the place was a dump. Everybody seemed to be in a bad mood. And someone had shot Andy Warhol, which punctured, as it were, the theory that art consisted of doing anything you wanted. I went to London a few years later. To rephrase Dr. Johnson, when a man is sick of London, he is sick of warm beer, funny pub hours, and being asked (as I was several times) if cowboys really exist. In Paris, in 1982, at the Brasserie Lipp, the waiter was indeed shorter and skinnier than I, and had worse facial acne. He seated me next to the men's room. I ordered steak frites and got hasenpfeffer. No one's French (not even if learned in an Ohio high school) is that bad. Anyway, by then Natalie Wood was dead. (I will say that Beirut in the middle 1980s showed promise as an anything-goes place—except everything was gone, having been blown up.)

I was forty-five years old before I discovered the city of my dreams. In Hong Kong there is agglomeration beyond my fondest imaginings. The Kowloon district claims a population density four times that of New York City. You could hardly fail to find a soul mate here. Probably you're standing on his or her foot and have just received a swift soul-mate elbow in the ribs. Skyscrapers rise in shapes uninhibited by the dull study of geometry. Sir Norman Foster's Hongkong and Shanghai Bank and I. M. Pei's Bank of China are hot-rod architecture, exceeding in kookiness my most extreme model-kit customizations. And the metropolis is set on jagged isles of alien form in outlandish foaming seas. It might as well be on another planet, in a galaxy far away.

When I flew into Hong Kong for the first time, in 1992, my heart leapt. This actually had nothing to do with the city itself. My heart leapt because of the old Kai Tak Airport, with its single short and skinny runway jutting into the downtown harbor. The landing approach was a zigzag between apartment buildings, so close to the windows that you could tell if the slipcovers matched the drapes. But this was as it should have been—an antidote to landings at JFK, Heathrow, and Charles de Gaulle, where you fly to a great cosmopolitan center only to arrive in a distant, slobby suburb.

The great cosmopolitan center that you used to plop down smack in the middle of at Kai Tak has vigorous cultural institutions, a rich and varied night life, magnificent vistas, points of sightseeing interest both historical and modern, and world-famous shopping. Let me share the knowledge I have gleaned from personal experience with these attractions: The food is good. I suggest you try the Chinese.

I have never been to a museum in Hong Kong, or a movie or a play. I've never gone club-hopping. I've never taken the tram to Victoria Peak. The only time I saw the beauties of Lantau Island, I was deeply inebriated on a chartered junk cruise. I saw two Lantau Islands. They both looked nice.

What I do in Hong Kong is walk around in the snappy bustle. Hong Kong's per capita gross domestic product is among the highest in the world, and no statistical abstract is needed to tell you why. Everything in Hong Kong is lickety-split, do it in a jiffy, git up and git, and look sharp. The seven million residents are brisker and more purposeful in their movements than the extras in 1930s movies about New York. Forget the drag-ass, dress-down-Friday Manhattanites of today, who can't even be bothered to jaywalk. In Hong Kong it's the whole toot and scramble. It's all hands and the cook. Gangway! I try to. But I'm often trampled because I'm dawdling in awe.

At the end of World War II the population of Hong Kong was below 600,000. When the Communists conquered mainland China, in 1949, millions fled to this enclave of relative liberty. Suddenly there were more than enough people of various tastes and interests gathered in one very small spot. All too many of them were free of such things as parents and high school—or any other form of education. The territory was little more than a voluntary internment camp, a sinkhole for foreign relief, covered in squatters' shantytowns. In 1951 an American magazine predicted, "It's a fair bet that Hong Kong may become a ghost city or a target for Red attack—or both." Therefore every noodle joint that I see in modern Hong Kong, every fish stall, every drugstore full of snake's blood and powdered dried sea horses, every racketing air-conditioner, barking TV, and clamorous game of mahjong, is a miracle of self-fulfillment, pleasure, and surprise.

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