I arrived in Hong Kong from Tokyo yesterday. The strongest immediate impression (besides the relief of being literate again) is massive culture shock relative to Japan. In Tokyo, each small bow I made in reply seemed to be met by an even deeper one from my counterpart. I discovered that the Japanese can out-polite me any day of the week.
Contrast this with Hong Kong. After clearing customs I made my way to the airport information counter and asked about the bus into the city. No sooner had the woman behind the desk begun to explain than someone else rushed up and peppered her with another request. People here are in a hurry, and my hurry is not going to inconvenience theirs. I don’t find this off-putting at all– in fact, I love it.
Coming into the city on the bus, I am surprised that the landscape between the clumps of dense towers is wild and lush. The residential clusters poke up impossibly tall in the middle of jungle and hills. Even the schools I see along the way are often 10 stories, and there are typically a cluster of 5 or 6 of these high-rise schools all next to each other catering to different people. Some with Cantonese names I can not read, but next to them is “Martins Girls Secondary School”, “St Margaret’s Elementary and Secondary Girls and Boys School”, “St Andrew’s Boys School”… and on through the flavors. What’s so interesting is that the dense clusters can support so many school choices all right next to each other.
The residential buildings are tall. Tall, tall, tall. There is laundry hanging outside about half the windows of the older buildings. You can tell how old they are by how discolored the paint is from the humidity. The oldest are grey with brown creeping mold patches on the outside. It’s hard to believe that people live in some of them, but occasionally you can catch a glimse into a room lit by a fluorescent bulb that seems whitewashed, or at least cleaner than the outside of the building. I remind myself that concrete lasts a long time.
Outside Kowloon, in the neighborhoods the bus passes though, there is surprisingly little at ground level to reward the pedestrian. Still, there are street trees and green hills all around which are remarkable after the near-total absence of “nature” in Tokyo. As we get closer to Kowloon, the streetscape changes dramatically and in a matter of a half mile goes from wide sidewalks and blank walls to continuous, intensive small footprint retail. The retail level of even the older buildings is fancified to catch the eye. From there on in, retail culture prevails. We’ve arrived.