Hong Kong Goes King Kong

Economic prosperity fuels a rivalry between Hong Kong and Mainland China
On a busy shopping street in Hong Kong, in the shadow of Armani’s opaque flagship store, within a stone’s throw of Versace, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Ralph Lauren, was this image: a beautiful, expensively dressed young mother placidly holding open a white Bulgari shopping bag for her six-year-old son to vomit into. It was a snapshot that captured a civic mood. A certain malaise has pervaded the city since the sars outbreak, as a result of growing fear of infectious disease, a volatile stock market, and an uncertain political future. When Chinese leaders in Beijing declared that they would decide who was sufficiently patriotic to govern Hong Kong, an Orwellian discourse flowered on the subject of who was more qualified. The word “patriotic” assumed some of the dark energy it possessed during Mao’s rule.

A Hong Kong developer said, “I don’t think we have a sense of being part of our country.” He questioned whether nationalism was possible in Hong Kong, which exists as something between a city, a territory, and an investment website. It is capitalism reduced to its essence, purer than America’s capitalism, purer even than the mythic Horatio Alger brand. Historically, Hong Kong has been seen as apolitical, a place where the citizens merely wanted to be left alone to make money. Nationalism was an abstraction. I had lunch with a woman who said she had difficulty defining her nationality. She used to refer to herself as British, then as a Hong Kong citizen, and now tentatively as Chinese. She has been searching for cultural touchstones, ways to connect to the mainland and her distant heritage. At the same time, the mainland is marching away from its heritage toward Hong Kong’s unfettered capitalism, using the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s exhortation — “To get rich is glorious” — as a slogan.

The place where these two ideas meet is the Shenzhen River, which separates Hong Kong’s New Territories from the city of Shenzhen. Deng thought Shenzhen and Hong Kong would become twin cities and would compensate for each other’s weaknesses. In 1980, Shenzhen was a fishing village, home to 25,000 people, and the tallest building was four storeys. Now it has eight million people, with three million of them classified as transients, largely peasants from the Pearl River Delta. The urbanization of China represents the largest migration in history. Currently 60 percent of the Chinese population — 800 million people — live on small farms and earn a third of what those in cities earn. As farm workers everywhere have done for generations, they are heading for the big city. The United Nations predicts that by 2030, 60 percent of the population will live in cities. (In Canada, the 1931 census was the first to show a majority of the population was urban). As this trend accelerates, the cities will continue to evolve, both culturally and as experiments in urban planning.

But the growth of Shenzhen has the added variable of merging with another city that is historically and temperamentally very different. Shenzhen residents are eager to see the border completely erased, to have access to the capitalist motherlode. But Hong Kong residents fear the invasion of mainland Chinese as the border relaxes; they see Shenzhen as the barbarians at the gate.

Deng’s twin cities are merging into one, a megalopolis that is becoming ground zero for global economic activity, a massive manufacturing centre that contains two of the largest container ports in the world and could have thirty million inhabitants within a decade. What kind of city will this be? At this early stage, Hong Kong and Shenzhen are like the bride and groom in an arranged marriage, with neither one capable of giving the other what it wants. They may be forming a kind of twenty-first-century prototype, a Blade Runner community bound not by culture or politics but by mutual suspicions, simple geography, and brand names.

An architectural tour of Hong Kong features a few of the white colonial buildings that the British have abandoned around the globe, but focuses mostly on the celebrity high-rises that fill the familiar skyline. The world’s first $1-billion (US) building was Norman Foster’s Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation headquarters, its dark exoskeleton occasionally seen in films. It is flanked by I.M. Pei’s elegant Bank of China and Cesar Pelli’s International Finance Centre. There is also Norman Foster’s $20-billion airport and his proposed cultural centre. The city invites ambition and, occasionally, excess; there are proposals for even taller buildings to grace a skyline that is as much about advertising as urban planning.

From Kowloon, it is only a forty-five-minute train ride to Shenzhen, moving through the New Territories, past clusters of identical fifty-five-storey high-rises that look like unnatural crystal formations pushing out of the earth. Sometimes there are thirty of them in a huddle, a continuation of Hong Kong’s aggressive verticality. A thousand metres away is another huddle, forming an archipelago that links the two cities.

Shenzhen was the first of Deng Xiaoping’s Special Economic Zones, designed to bridge the gap between China and the rest of the world. “Special Economic Zones are a window to technology, management, knowledge, and foreign policies,” he said. “[They] will become a foundation for opening to the outside world.” Within China’s socialist economy, Shenzhen was conceived as an economic experiment, one that was initially conducted in isolation, with the border sealed by barbed wire. The rate of growth was much faster than anticipated — the government predicted a population of roughly eight million by 2020 — and now the infrastructure is overtaxed and the police force, designed for 1.4 million citizens, is overwhelmed. It is Shenzhen’s perceived lawlessness, as much as anything, that has made orderly Hong Kong residents nervous.

The average age in Shenzhen is twenty-eight and, like youth itself, the city exists almost solely in the present. People come to boom towns to reinvent themselves, to escape the past. When I went into the Shenzhen Museum, I was the only visitor, and the guard was asleep. The roads are clogged with the new foreign cars of those who have made good, and the odd Beverly Hillbillies van loaded with furniture and hopeful arrivals.

Like so much in Communist China, Shenzhen was launched with a slogan: “Three Paths and One Levelling.” The levelling refers to the original village, and the three paths are the east/west highways that run in parallel across the city. Deng wanted Shenzhen to be an “International Garden City” that would show the world that China could do modernity with √©lan. The socialist planners saw utopian possibilities, but the first two master plans, conceived in 1982 and 1984, were both overrun by the realities of free market development.

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