Monday, May 03, 2010

Meaning of Human Development – Notes from streets of Hong Kong

This is my fourth time in Hong Kong in the past two and a half years. I now feel that know something about this city. Something more than just a passing tourist’s photo stream or Visa hopeful’s city maps. So after a lot of back and forth, mental dribbling and a heavy downpour on my way from the nearest subway station, I decided to pen down my thoughts.

Hong Kong is like a moving theatre paused forever - everyone is moving around but nobody is going anywhere. It is tall, very busy, sometimes green, most of the times gray, proud of its glass-concrete, very cramped, always rushed, mostly hashed often rehashed, super calculative and much more of these. It is overflowing with business suited; straight haired fast walking women and carefully gelled, well clothed men, with the latest designs in apparel and accessories. They all seem to have come straight out of a style magazine.
Even the traffic police refuses to be ordinary. It is so well equipped that for a man like me who is used to seeing police with a big bamboo cane, these blokes look like astronauts who lost their way back home and ended up in the street.

Hong Kong has it all. It has the glamour, the energy, the stars and subway lines full of people who look like stars but have somehow decided to take the subway with you!

It makes you feel good about being single. It is a city that makes you want to be bachelor. It makes you want more. No, it actually makes you greedy and totally insatiated, for no matter how much money you decide to carry in your wallet – you will almost always feel poor.

Hong Kong is sorry-serious. No one has time for now. No one has time for anyone. No one has time because they have already spent all of it to make the money that can get them the time they really want. Everyone is busy fuelling his tomorrow.

Hong Kong speaks and you listen. Beeps, clicks, alarms, horns, announcements, and other such similar sounds dominate the airwaves, telling you about your mundane life. These are the sounds of the system that no one can see but everyone is blissfully intoxicated with. These are sounds that hold conversations and gentle whispers to ransom.

Stand anywhere in the city and you can’t escape the constant humming of the street. It is the echo of traffic sounds rising along the tall buildings that literally have their heads in the clouds - like a halo of some kind – of success or struggle, you decide.

So many people brush past you but nothing really touches. The touches do not move. The moves are not lasting.

In Hong Kong even the weather cannot touch you. The rain becomes a hassle - at best a topic of discussion about how it spoilt the dress or slowed the traffic or made you remember that you need to carry the umbrella. The raindrops disappear on their way down the glass panes – hoping for someone to notice them.

The bright sun is blocked and bored behind the buildings – with nowhere to go, other than home. The incandescence of the Vichy & Fancl signage never really allows people to look very far. The pursuit of a colon cleaned glowing look is what dominates many a damsel’s weekend agenda.

Hong Kong is the dwarf king of opportunity who gives each of his dwellers a personal shield. A shield of indifference, that makes it easy not to look people in their eye. A shield, that makes it easy to carry an expression that will discourage people from approaching you or smiling at you. And a shield that makes it easy to turn every interaction into a transaction, a transaction that must be completed in the notional quota of time allotted for it, for time is to be earned here not spent. Hong Kong is overflowing with human heat with no traces of warmth.

Not surprisingly - I see the marketing world understanding and profiting from this state of the society. On one side are adverts that talk about making women more attractive in various ways – from cosmetics, to mineral water and push up bras – and help them put their best foot forward (and get ahead in the corporate or guy game). And on the other hand there is the personalization and warmth industry that is trying to draw people’s attention. You see a cell phone exclaiming ‘let the life come to you’ (read enjoy yourself /get a life! With the social media features etc) and we have an airline exclaiming that each of her staff really enjoy what they do - so you can be sure of getting personalized services on board! (Read we are not cold and mechanical!)

Why has Hong Kong come to be like this?

Is it the dogged pursuit of money that makes people pragmatic and cold?

Is it the development or lack of it?

Is it their embrace of the ‘western ways’ of life that makes the city so full of itself with no room for anything else?

Is it the cultural change sponsored by the English?

Is it the ethnic background of the Han majority that originated mainly from Guangzhou & Taishan in Guangdong province in Southern China?

It sure is not the English – they were in India long enough, but India did not become like this. Not even the really big cities like Mumbai.

Then what is it?

It is Darwin?

When you put 70,55,071 people in about 1104 square kilometers, you get a density of over 6000 people for every kilometer. You also get an urban jungle, thin on all kinds of personal resources.

Hong Kong is just this – an urban jungle where everyone is fighting for survival and minding the gap between what they need today and what they can get. The daily struggle for survival takes out the humane from the humans. From there comes the dog eat dog race, the survival of the fittest - the constant challenge to outlast the one next to you. And Hong Kong does outlast almost everyone - with an average life expectancy of 80 years for men and 86 years for women – Hong Kong is ahead of almost the whole world when it comes to survival! But ‘survival’ and ‘living’ were never really the same. I also find the ‘survival of the fittest’ a little awkward because if you look at the development indices – Hong Kong is a developed city, in fact it is among the top Alpha Cities of the world. Developed and yet struggling for survival?! I have not been to another place like this before.

I often used to tell my parents, that Hong Kong is like a bonsai New York. This time I added one more thing to this description. Hong Kong is the Mumbai without the innocence but with the flyovers and other trappings of a developed world. I say this because Mumbai is not very different from Hong Kong in some basic ways. In about 600 square kilometers we have about 13830884 people, which gives us a density of 22,920 people per square kilometer – far higher than Hong Kong’s. But still – Mumbai does not feel the same dog-eat-dog, survival of the ‘coldest’ place or at least not as much. It still has some innocence left in it.


I believe it is the stage of development. The more economically developed a place, the more people believe in the Theory of Evolution. Look the survey chart here - it shows belief in Darwinism across the most developed societies in the world. I am sure if this survey were carried out in Hong Kong, it would also figure in the upper quartile.

Truth always seems to come with a dose of irony. The idea of development is usually linked with notions of peaceful coexistence and equilibrium etc. However it also seems that as societies develop, they tend to become more of where we as a species started from – believers in survival of the fittest.

As the rest of China urbanizes – I would not be surprised to see more Hong Kong’s mushrooming all over the country. Shanghai is leading the charge on this front, as it strives to become ‘a very big & influential Hong Kong’.

Personally I hope more cities continue to be like Beijing or Bombay - as big and warm at heart as they are in size and scale.

May the innocence live longer..