My first morning in Hong Kong, I found myself groggily blow-drying my underwear and socks in a humid room two hundred feet above the sweltering streets below. The culprit was not a surprise water-balloon attack on the Emirates baggage compartment where my suitcase had spent much of the past day, but rather the heavy air of Hong Kong.
Allow me to explain. As soon as my friends Jon Bruner and Hana Alberts ushered me into Hana’s apartment the night before, I washed my dirty clothes and hung them up to dry. But in the morning, I discovered that all of my clothes were just as damp as when I’d left them. Apparently the only option in Hong Kong is to essentially hot-box your bathroom all day with a de-humidifyer, which I eventually did, drawing an entire gallon of water from my clothes.
If you haven’t been to Hong Kong, imagine New York-style density dropped onto the hilly landscape of San Francisco, mixed with colonial British and mainland Chinese influences. In between the modern skyscrapers and the bulging hills, skinny 1960s-era apartment buildings rise like sun-hungry weeds toward the sky. The city’s pedestrian areas are connected by sidewalks, outdoor escalators, subterranean shopping malls and multiple levels of soaring skyways. Highlights of my first two days included dry clothes, a repaired air conditioner, the freshest sushi I’ve ever had (don’t worry, it wasn’t twitching) and “beer towers” at an English pub while watching the World Cup—all extremely enjoyable, but not much of a departure from what I’m used to in New York.
Day three, however, brought what one might call a visit to the future, or at least a visit to The Real China: Guangzhou, the nation’s third-largest city. The two-hour train ride started in Kowloon, to the north of central Hong Kong, and continued across the mainland border into Shenzhen, which went from being a sleepy fishing village to a city of nearly 10 million people in less than three decades since becoming China’s first Special Economic Zone. A sizable chunk of the residents live in 60-story residential tower clusters—imagine New York’s Coop City on HGH.
After chugging through a brief interlude of misty jungle, I began to see the beginnings of Guangzhou, an even larger city. It started with the ramshackle two-and-three story factories belching smoke that burned a jaundiced yellow, something out of the middle pages of The Lorax. Soon these gave way to larger factories and mountainous coal-fired power plants spewing thick clouds of bitumen.
As soon as we stepped out of the train in Guangzhou, the pollution was palpable. It coated the throat and made the eyes water; even in a taxi on the highway, it was nearly unbearable. With the generous help of an American living there and a number of his Chinese associates, we toured the city, starting in a temporary mall—one of six built to satisfy demand while larger ones were built—and continued on to an old neighborhood being torn down to make room for more bland towers, pictured above. The area was still populated by the aging residents who’d lived there for decades even in the midst of its destruction (China’s urban planners, it seems, are among Robert Moses’ posthumous apologists). One toothless resident asked me to take a picture of his home, but not of him. “I’m not handsome!” he insisted. More on Guangzhou, hopefully, in an upcoming article.
My time in Hong Kong also included a 45-minute ferry jaunt to Macau, the former Portuguese enclave now controlled by China. These days, Macau serves as the mainland’s Las Vegas; in fact, it surpassed Vegas in gambling revenues three years ago. The backstreets are quiet and narrow, more European than Asian, with scads of scooters parked beneath windows full of hanging laundry. The main boulevards, however, are backed with mainlanders lugging bags of western luxury goods from the shops back to the casinos, where they almost exclusively play games of chance. Baccarat, a game that I don’t really understand except that the odds of winning are totally random, is by far the most popular; even Blackjack is played with all cards dealt face-up.
The highlight of my day in Macau was dinner at a tiny Portuguese restaurant where Hana, Jon and I devoured delicacies including the most tender octopus I’ve ever eaten (okay, not much of a sample size, but still) and a delicious platter of prawns, which we had to decapitate in order to consume (a bit unsettling, but totally worth it). A few failed games of Blackjack later, we headed back to Hong Kong.
I spent my last day in Asia writing my travel blogs, lunching at the stylish China Club, and, like a good journalist, drinking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club.
Next stop: New York!