Why Hong Kong and New York are still worlds apart

Elbert Lee says if New York, the defining symbol of the modern West, exudes dominance and power as a source of culture, Hong Kong is almost the reverse. Evolving into a true world city will require looking beyond the images on Tourism Board booklets

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 December, 2017, 2:04pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 December, 2017, 5:37pm

Cities are evolving. In the future, they will become larger, more populated, and more compact, because of a new wave of urbanisation. In North America, younger generations are choosing to give up suburban living in favour of the environmentally sustainable, culturally rich, and more ­socially oriented way of life they find in cities. As young people move out of the suburbs, their populations drop, leading to the closure of malls and plazas that used to serve as supply outposts. The stress on these suburban supply centres are worsened by ­online shopping platforms such as Amazon.

As cities redesign their suburbs, many look to Hong Kong as a model. A recent article published by the web magazine CityLab says some North American cities are adopting a new developmental strategy, in large part based on the city development blueprints of Hong Kong. The strategy: plan a transport hub, stack malls and business buildings on top, mix them, surround these with residential high rises. Sound familiar?

What North American cities are now waking up to are, for historical reasons, plans naturally embedded in the “market-centric” city designs of Hong Kong.

Just take a look at Central, Mong Kok and Sha Tin, and how transport hubs are connected seamlessly with business and commercial structures. People walk, talk and eat in the streets or as they move up and downhill on escalators, viewing the streets from an interesting personal height.

Note how these different parts of the city attract an endless flow of shopping crowds.

Central to Mid-Levels: The world’s longest outdoor escalator

How Hong Kong can build for a better future

At a talk on urbanisation at Concordia University in Canada, an architect-turned-city planner suggested that great cities are not the ones dissected by many motorways, but walkable ones where pedestrians can drift in the streets for good economic and social reasons. This is another feature of a good city that Hong Kong is endowed with.

We are proud of our city’s infrastructure. A friend who visited New York last year said she was not ­impressed by the “Big Apple”. She said the subways were old, dirty and slow, and there were too many districts in New York. For her, Hong Kong as a city is more advanced. And her evidence is: “Just take a look at our MTR. We are a true ‘world city’.”

A city’s infrastructure is important, but the concept of world cities involves a host of other economic criteria. It may include indices such as environmental sustainability, and social and cultural factors. While Hong Kong scores highly in its overall evaluation as a world city, it falls short in areas such as pollution control, waste management and, lately, also civil liberties. Other modern cities like Sydney and Tokyo fare much better on these points.

In contrast, New York has always topped the list of world cities, in spite of pockets of impoverished districts, social safety issues and an ageing subway system. The reasons are obvious. It excels in economic might and also scores highly on factors such as human capital and financial maturity.

Classifying world cities is mostly an academic exercise that aims to measure overall economic performance so that comparisons can be made for urban planning and investment reasons. However, there are more ways to talk about cities than economic rankings. And it is important we do so.

Less-market-oriented attributes give a city a character, a personality

For residents or visitors, attributes of world cities may be too abstract and restrictive to bear any experiential significance. Very often, certain qualities of a city can only be known through conscious personal and active engagement. In this sense, a city is always more than a colossal distribution machine supplying us with clean shelter, food, and entertainment. And as such, it needs to be first explored and encountered in intimate ways, in order to discover its hidden charms, its untapped potential, its latent dangers, its covert beauty, and perhaps its many unresolved frustrations. It is a combination of these subtle, less-market-oriented attributes that gives a city a character, a personality, that makes a city great.

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A few years back, my weekends were made up of hiking trips along the jagged coastlines of Hong Kong. These trails criss-cross beaches, cliffs and half-abandoned villages. I was fascinated by the hundreds of Tin Hau temples and shrines, big and small, old and new, that I encountered. I lost count.

Tin Hau shrines are one of the many small, geographically scattered yet fascinating facets of Hong Kong. And these facets are best exemplified in the book, Borrowed Spaces: Life Between the Cracks of Modern Hong Kong, by Christopher DeWolf.

Borrowed Spaces celebrates Hong Kong’s essence: its street life

If Hong Kong has a personality at all, this may be it – elusive, short-term; people and shops operating on a multiplicity of purposes and meanings, embedded in the interplay of its histories, the layers of influences by transitory powers and indigenised foreign cultures that have shaped this city: the Ming and Qing dynasties, the early waves of migration from mainland China, 156 years of British administration, the Japanese occupation, the American presence during the Vietnam war, the Cultural Revolution, and now Beijing – the list goes on. There must be 20 or so layers.

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For many of us, New York too has a face – the city’s own unique set of characteristics. Beyond its world city status, it is almost the defining symbol of the modern West. Carried with it is a vision of a civilisation, and whether one agrees with this vision or not, it leads us in how we look at the world and how it should be shaped.

More than that, it is a harbinger of the arts and wider human concerns, as it defines trends in fashion, trade and, indeed, anything exchangeable. It sets the narratives for the rest of the world, through its press, publications and, of course, the media.

New York versus the world

If cities have personalities at all, then for New York, it is its cultural dominance, its imposing influence as a source of culture. Hong Kong is almost New York’s complete ­reverse, characterised by a childlike multicultural and political receptivity, hyper resilience, and a few shape-shifting abilities.

Viewing cities from more personal angles enables us to think of them from refreshing perspectives.

Like other cities, Hong Kong also has to evolve. And evolving may mean having to re-examine and go beyond the present conceptions of a world city, which are perhaps best represented by images on the Tourism Board promotion booklets – harbour-view business centres and shopping arcades, with the ­Ferris wheel. Future generations will ask for more.

Elbert Lee is an adjunct member of the faculty at Upper Iowa University, Hong Kong campus, where he teaches cognition and human development