Anything Goes

For three decades the author searched fruitlessly for the perfect city. And then he found it

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.

These miracles are the result—as my adolescent instincts said they would be—of "anything goes." Of course, at age fifteen what I meant by "laissez-faire" (or would have meant if I'd known the phrase and how to say it) was sex, an unsupervised reading list, and limitless time for hobbies. Thanks to the British respect for civil liberties, Hong Kong has plenty of the first two. But the most important part of "anything goes" turns out to be economics. The British didn't try to control Hong Kong's economy, because there scarcely appeared to be one. Contrary to the practices of Britain's postwar Labour government at home, no punitive taxes were imposed in Hong Kong, no nationalization of industries was attempted, and vast schemes of social engineering were limited, mostly, to alleviation of the housing shortage and designation of too much of Hong Kong (40 percent) as parkland, thereby ensuring that the housing shortage would persist.

The British government had accidentally sent the right man to Hong Kong. No one at Whitehall seemed to notice that the young colonial officer John Cowperthwaite was without sympathy for Labour Party aims and ideals. Cowperthwaite came to Hong Kong in 1945, charged with stimulating a recovery of the economy. A Far Eastern Economic Review article about him, written some fifty years later, said, "He found it recovering quite nicely without him." Cowperthwaite rose through the bureaucracy, becoming the colony's Financial Secretary in 1961; he held that post for ten years. Owing in large part to his efforts, Hong Kong has virtually no import or export duties, no restrictions on capital flow, no capital-gains tax, no tax on interest, and no sales tax. The personal income tax is a flat 15 percent, and the corporate tax is a flat 16 percent of profits. Hong Kong has produced perhaps the most dramatic expansion of human wealth in history. Cowperthwaite told the Far Eastern Economic Review, "I did very little. All I did was try to prevent some of the things that might undo it."

I do very little in Hong Kong myself. As I mentioned, I walk around. Other than that, I stay at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, where, when you unpack, you'll notice they've already supplied the writing table with cream laid stationery engraved with your name. The Mandarin has, I think, an invisible staff, whose members can make the bed, empty the ashtrays, fluff the towels, press my pants, and shine my shoes without my noticing, even when I haven't left the room all day. Room service is accomplished by thought control. Bacon and eggs and one of the few good cups of coffee in Asia arrive while I'm still debating between scrambled and over easy. The waiter always makes the right choice. Off the Mandarin's lobby is the Cohiba Cigar Divan, where the madding pace of Hong Kong abates for a discussion of the Montecristo No. 3—a reliable smoke despite the feckless nature of Cuban cigar-rolling these days. Or should I be bold and try a Romeo y Julieta Corona Grande? From the Mandarin, I climb Ice House Street and Lower Albert Road to the Foreign Correspondents' Club.

Mr. Liao, behind the bar, knows it's "Bell's and water, plenty ice." One corner of the FCC barroom is informally set aside for the more mature and experienced journalists, "the fossils." Here my old friends from the overseas press trade regale younger members with tales of Vietnam, Korea, and the charge up San Juan Hill. Lunch at the FCC usually flows (apt verb) into dinner. After dinner I amble down through the Lan Kwai Fong bar district to Pedder Street, where I buy gifts for the family at Shanghai Tang (gifts I could have bought at Shanghai Tang on Madison Avenue in New York—but what's an extra twelve time zones when you can save on sales tax?). And so to bed.

I'm happily married, so there's no looking around for a Chinese Natalie Wood. (Peeks through Lan Kwai Fong tavern doorways indicate that they exist.) I own a real car now, customized to the extent of one I BRAKE FOR MOOSE bumper sticker. And I get my science fiction from Goldman Sachs analysts' biotech-stock recommendations. But Hong Kong makes me as happy as I ever aspired to be at fifteen. And my joy is perfected by knowing that somewhere in a two-room apartment in Kowloon there's a short, skinny kid just the age I once was who is convinced that he'd find the leisure to achieve the highest level of Grand Theft Auto III on his PlayStation, and room for a wide-screen TV with a DVD of every kung-fu movie ever made, and a girl who looks exactly like Lucy Liu (and owns a Corvette), if only he could get to the wide-open spaces, the amazingly permissive secondary school, and the infinite potential of the distant, slobby suburb where I grew up.