Most cities are flat; some are built on hills. Old cities are built on top of themselves. New cities are stolen and then jealously guarded and decorated with stolen spoils extracted from a broad hinterland. But Hong Kong is none of these things. Hong Kong expands inside of itself and in its making, unmakes every notion of what a city is. No amount of experience or theory about cities in general would enable clear anticipation for an encounter with Hong Kong, and no amount amount of attention to Hong Kong could render it knowable, for it changes much faster than one can re-encounter it. It’s innards and nethers are a fractal of ever-changing proportions, obviously ordered, but just as obviously in a pattern too complex to grasp. It’s a city of non-euclidean geometries where one is forced to abandon the markers that calibrate and orient the mind., as if ideas like surface, horizon, and shore were suddenly stripped away, and in their absence such reductive abstractions are shown as unnecessary, even as impediment, for rather than reading as foreign or exotic or confusing, this configuration of spacetime is highly intelligible to the human mindscape, and perhaps even intuitive to a mind inoculated and sheltered by awareness of anicca, the inevitability of impermanence. Hong Kong is more designed, more built, and more accommodating of the uncontrollable surge of anicca than any elsewhere, more like an umbrella than a roof, just enough protection, never wasting energy trying to control a storm.
Cities seem to metastasize, and participation in them seems ever more nearly impossible, but Hong Kong goes even further, and in that further place there is a letting go wherein the noise and the crush of bodies suddenly mesh into something viable. They crystalize into a matrix that was not visible or foreseeable at the half or three quarters point. There is no effort at coexistence with inefficient anti-urban forms. If North American cities feel like too much, even at a fraction of HK’s density, it is because they are intensifications of non-urban forms like the parking lot and the suburb rather than expressions of the distinct organism that cities are. North American cities are an intensification of the geography of separate-but-equal, which is never equal and never really separate, where cars and bodies compete for space and leave little room for anything else. The residents feel it as a hellscape, but pressed to propose improvements, they cite more accommodation of cars in more lanes at greater expense, with more enforcement, better engineering, or, failing that, wholesale abandonment of urban forms and flight to the cloistered hinterlands. Tripling or quadrupling density seems suicidal, but Hong Kong shows that more is less, that a city is entirely unlike an intensified suburb or a small town grown large. A city constructs its own logic. It demands a trust that as scale changes, methods must also change, and old methods must be discarded. It’s a letting go in which two contradictory aspects clash and merge in this most concentrated crucible of humanity, small enough to walk across in a day, yet complex enough to be indecipherable by any single gaze. Superficially, the letting go of predatory laissez-faire capital seems to dominate, but just beneath it is the embrace of the feral, the trust that existence tends toward harmony of countervailing forces rather than domination. As in any ecosystem, the predators and and the others dance a web into being, a web that none of them design. The result is a web that resembles an ecosystem perhaps more than any other since humans walked out of the wilderness and invented cities.
I am walking down a passage about six meters wide. It will become a familiar scene, but right now it is my first active gesture toward the city after a day and a half in the no-place of transit. Leaving the hotel was complicated. All the building’s limbs point toward malls and train stations. Finding a door to the street required asking directions, crossing the rear taxi entrance, and descending several escalators. For the second time in my life, I had to ask “how do I get outside?” The first was in a Las Vegas casino. It was an omen. In HK, hallways are the street, and escalators lubricate all movement. Their unceasing conveyor motion suggests both an offering and a mandate, both a merciful respite for the weary, and the enforcement of flow on those who may otherwise indulge in a pause that rippled into delay for the thousands queued behind.
Beneath my soft shoes I can feel little stripes in raised relief pointing down the passage. I can close my eyes and follow them until they switch to a patch of dots warning of a stair or corner. Built into the trail’s warp to guide the blind, they also serve to imply a course, to impose suggestion onto that anarchic being, the pedestrian. A window appears and I see the street below. I’m on a bridge. I descend a staircase and glimpse the sidewalk in a convex mirror.
Very suddenly, I arrive at a curb. I have wandered outdoors into the densest cluster of humans ever assembled: Mong Kok. The streets are narrow and the only vehicles are buses, taxis, and work trucks. Back-to-back fourteen story apartment blocks line the corridor and extend appendages into the skyspace. Overhead, signs fill every space out to the street’s midline and laundry lines and air conditioners hang suspended over the sidewalk all the way up. Bodies spill out of the doorways and subway exits into a cauldron of commerce. The air is humid and tropical and pleasant aromas belie the notorious air pollution.
Capitalism never was one thing. It speaks many tongues. It’s Cantonese dialect is as elegant as it is ruthless. The product is the thing, flowing from production toward desire with as little fuss as possible. Competition is rampant, vendors congregate, buyers get in and get out with minimum affect. Advertising and corporate mid-level managers are unheard-of. This is how commodities flow through cities without friction. It is visible in nearly any city in the world and Mong Kok is its acme. Some North Americans read the abrupt quality of discourse here as cold or rude, but it is quite the opposite. Affective labor is necessarily collaborative, a script with two parties, and people here wouldn’t presume that you want to play along. The crush of bodies is exhausting enough even if nobody demands your attention. Efficiency requires that jobs be done with an economy of gesture. Adding verbal labor to the labor of production and transaction would be wasteful in a system that cannot afford waste. Any semblance of privacy in such a place requires an intentional, orchestrated convergence of averted gazes and greetings left unspoken.
I grasp my daughter’s hand and turn up a side street where the path is effectively a tunnel of orchids and potted citrus trees in a choreographed jungle, like a forest, familiar, but more so. If I lived here, I would want to buy them all and carry them home on the subway only to realize that my whole apartment was smaller than my North American bathroom. Indeed the ubiquity of retail action combined with extreme constraint on personal space implies an equally scaled waste stream, but it has another curious effect too. Value, prestige, usefulness are all spatially compressed within the object. In a city with few personal vehicles, where homes have no public exterior, the body is the site of public display, and displays of wealth are compressed into handfuls: wristwatches and flakes of jade as dear as a luxury car. But the smaller the object, the easier it is to counterfeit, which has a leveling effect, and there is a swagger detectable among all classes.
Fifty meters on, the tunnel of orchids opens onto a path under a railroad berm that is thick with vendors selling caged songbirds and live crickets in plastic bags. There is an old man sitting there. He is stationed. His hair is oiled and slicked back, he has enormous gold sunglasses, and he flashes us the kind of imperturbable grin that is only credible when it includes several gold teeth. His presence would feel equally inevitable if we stood in Las Vegas or La Paz. He’s the kind of man that can magnetize children and animals and effortlessly inflict existential crises onto bourgeois spectators. Tiny passerines squeak and trill in chorus all around us. Nothing can control this city. Nothing needs to. Nobody can domesticate it or halt its metabolism. Its a big gentle beast that could devour us but doesn’t, a benevolent dragon, and we have arrived into its belly.
Hong Kong is a living experiment in the removal of all barriers to concentration. The result is a space distilled to a few essential ingredients: bodies, buildings, a mesh of transit corridors, and displays of information. Bodies occupy almost every meter of the street at almost every hour. Buildings touch upon the sidewalk and each other at an average height of fourteen stories over entire districts, so that each block is effectively a cube or mini-city. Signs fill the space overhanging the street from about 3 meters to 10 meters high. In older neighborhoods they are mostly neon, while newer buildings are so extravagantly lit by LEDs so that discerning night form day is sometimes uncertain. Its a simple enough geometry that maximizes spatial efficiency. A cost compromise between land value and construction costs dictates building height, so that HK has never had the world’s tallest buildings, but it has the largest collection of very tall buildings and certainly the highest density of built indoor space over whole areas. At such a density, the entire ground floor and often the floor above it is continuous small-scale retail of the most extraordinary variety, often clustered by industry, much of which serves other industries. One street has a row of stores selling bales of plastic bags to other storekeepers. Another was a row of restaurant supply houses. Another was mostly taxi mechanics. Many building interiors are quasi-public space so that hallways become streets in themselves, more like enclosed versions of the world’s Chinatowns than like malls. The street-like environment is reinforced by the fact that these passages are often the best walking routes and serve as transit as much as shopping space.
Walking happens on at least three layers, sometimes indistinguishable. Many streets have elevated, continuous skywalks over the road lane, which pass between and through buildings. Outdoor escalators hoist people up the steeper streets, and underground passages ensure that there are often a dozen entrances to one subway stop, spanning half a kilometer or more. These tunnels, which connect to the buildings’ basements, are often the fastest way to cross the neighborhood even when not using the trains. There are few landmarks underground, but I came to fondly anticipate the pair of buskers under Canton road, who would sing Karaoke Cantonese pop songs through PAs attached to their wheelchairs.
Walking through windowless corridors with moving sidewalks, sometimes inclined, sometimes flat, sometimes morphing into escalators, its easy to lose all sense of elevation and become vertically disoriented. The human brain evolved to spatially calibrate in a landscape that includes a coherent surface. It can adapt well to flat indoor space, but enough escalator rides without any outdoor reference point will eradicate any sense of height.
Hong Kong’s visual space is defined by absolute competition for attention. The only constraint on the size and number of signs overhanging the street seems to be the tensile strength of the cables that weave through each other to preserve the signs during typhoon season. The presentation is so complex that it can be difficult to find a well-labeled business even with a map and address in hand. A better strategy is to wander and see what the city offers. Classical economic theory holds that in such a market, an infinite number of well-informed buyers and sellers will negotiate prices and tend toward perfect efficiency, but HK’s spatial constraint demonstrates the absurdity of that model. There is simply too much information to become well-informed, and providence becomes a dominant factor. There is also extreme pressure to be efficient in the display of information, so signs display condensed facts with little hyperbole or persuasion. “Sichuan-style noodle” or “$€£¥ RMB x-change” is enough to match parties to a deal. Display of the product itself is much more effective than display of descriptions of the product.
Bodies swarm into and through every crevice at a pace that implies correlation between efficiency and consistency. A top speed of 5 kph enables continuous flow with no formal organization and a minimum speed of 3kph. A taxi might achieve an average speed of 5kph by combining frantic bursts with unexplainable standstills, along with a collateral damage of frustrations, collisions, pollution, expense, and the necessity of a robust infrastructure of engineering and enforcement, meanwhile occupying a physical space out of proportion with their usefulness. Walking achieves a similar result without any of the side effects. No technocratic campaign or government health authority promoting active lifestyles was necessary to make walking the dominant transportation. It was simply an overwhelming norm that detests idleness, waste, and taking more than one’s share. With bodies so dominant and so efficient, a clarity arises about the absurdity of attempting to design public space around a separate-but-equal ideal for bodies and cars. They cannot coexist. HK refuses to make any public accommodation for private cars and bodies spill into the vacancy. Cars are pariahs everywhere, but North Americans prefer a mutual enabling over the elaboration of scorn toward those whose cumbersome posturing costs everyone else their time, their health, and even a place to stand.
Of course, some bodies cannot walk. But cars are not necessarily a liberatory force for them either, and for every person who is unable to walk, many more cannot drive. With no public expenditure to subsidize cars, there is plenty of money for high accessibility standards, and with most of the population using busses and trains every day, economies of scale translate into extremely convenient and frequent service and low fares. Even though HK’s bus and train fares are about one third of New York fares, the system is one of the very few profitable ones in the world. When a car is the only solution, there are around 18,000 taxis to serve over 7 million people with 1.3 million daily rides. The taxis require no parking space. Private cars are never convenient transportation in the central city, and exist only as a status object for the super-rich.
In cities, as in nature, many forms cannot readily hybridize and coexist. Each kind of organism is only viable within a habitat that serves its needs. The walking body has proven its viability in cities over hundreds of generations, but nowhere has providing every human with a car proven successful, and nowhere do they mix well.
Where one configuration gives way to another, lines rather than gradients are natures norm. There are coastlines and timberlines, ecotones that declare transformation and don’t fizzle. They are usually a site of acute activity. Melded biological communities are associated more with traumatized, ruined wastelands. HK mimics this pattern and reaps its rewards. Where the high-rises end, the jungle begins, threaded with twisting roads plied by double-decker busses exactly the height and shape of the overhanging canopy. Sitting on the upper deck next to the windshield feels like flight. The jungle gives way to little beach villages. These proven ways of life–the city and the village, the bus and the train, the walking path and the elevator–account for most of human existence, and each feels flush with its own integrity. Each delivers a psychic cleanliness that murmurs up like a surprise when arriving from a car culture. A body that has always been ill cannot speculate about what health would feel like. It’s an ineffable sensation, as gentle as it is thrilling. It may also be disorienting, and to some a familiar cage is more desirable than the strange glow of wellness. They may be desperate to capture others. They may strenuously build a story about the inevitability of their little world. They may wrap their cage in darkness and block all lines of sight to avert this one truth: flying through the jungle on a bus to a little beach feels alive, and idling on a suburban highway doesn’t.
There is a moment just after dawn, when jet-lagged foreigners arise to seek breakfast, when the sun dances on the banyans and the sidewalks are yet vacant but for the few workers delivering propane by bicycle. The city has two shifts, work and shopping, and both start and end late. The city shows its raw polished bones in the dawn light, like an old, trained body, damaged, repaired, sinewy with a latent strength that could flatten some young athlete, but wouldn’t bother. These buildings, like these bodies, are a husk, not a display. Their meaning resides in the energy that flows through them, and that energy is gathering now. The subway tries to manage rush hour by halving fares from 7-8 am, but it doesn’t work. The trains are mostly vacant until the moment of necessity, then fully saturated for the next sixteen hours.
In most cities, following a crowd leads toward some temporary congregation, but in HK the crowd is everywhere all the time and moves in every direction, with one exception. Around 8pm, there is a slight tendency of flow toward the waterfront platforms at the tip of the Kowloon peninsula. Across the harbor, a strip of towers is perched on a narrow band seized from the sea. The large swells toss even large vessels and hint at the depth of those waters, which gave HK advantage as it grew. Like so much here, the waters surface only whispers suggestion at what it might conceal. Just as Monk Kok displays the total competition for efficiency in the use of residential space, food preparation, and retail traffic, Central HK displays ruthless competition for prestige, and every evening the shrines to global capital fight a proxy war with light, a perpetual arms race to have the largest, brightest display with the newest technology. The coal plant on the next island over makes the show possible by supplying both the electricity for the lasers and the particulate pollution without which the beams would be invisible. The lights are synchronized, inadvertently operating as a distilled metaphor for capital’s dance, where supply chains are so complex that intricate systems of cooperation are essential, but firms constantly seek to outmaneuver each other for market share without breaking the trance. All along the shore, a soundtrack alternates between an arrogant masculine voice and a delicate feminine one, between militaristic rhythms and saccharine pop music. The tones and emotions are more vivid to me than if spoken in my own language, in which verbal content would supersede the subtler language of feeling.
Down at the tip of the Kowloon peninsula, where the plains and hills of the mainland reach their southern terminus, the remnants of a vast nautical culture are visible, in which ferries and docks are the city’s nodes, slowly, inexorably carrying what needs to be carried. Flows, seen and unseen, traverse the city’s arteries: signals, fluids, commodities, rays, emblems. At their junctions, centers of transformation and exchange arise, sometimes feral, sometimes sculpted and edited into monuments to capital’s stylistic impotence. Where the ferries to HK island dock next to the Guangzhou ferries, a mall complex paces Canton road for a kilometer or more. Finding an entrance is difficult. It seems to funnel the mainland tourists into its corridors straight from the dock while scorning the canyons of Tsim Sha Tsui, whose merchants have perfected the art of wild commerce. Eventually, I find my way in through an underground passage. The malls are often most accessible from the subway platforms. The shops within are indistinguishable repetitions of each other and of the malls anywhere. The Chinese script is the only indication that the European luxury brands have made landfall here far from their place of origin. I walked the corridors with the intention of gathering details to reconstruct here, but such a project fatigues me. The place is devoid of life, like a well-dressed corpse, and I find my gaze wandering to the polished marble surfaces and thinking on the tectonic forces that made the stone, and of the workforce of migrant women who clean the portions of the city where capital presents its gameface.
Along the skywalks on Sunday, the women set up shelters of cardboard mats and umbrellas where they picnic, exchange manicures, and converse in tagalog. There is so little space to let go in this city, to collapse free from gazes. The thin film of an umbrella is the best protection available. The corridors trod by bankers six days a week are, for a moment, the only abandoned space usable by a public yearning to occupy together. They gazed with tremendous sadness as I passed by with my daughter. Are they estranged form their own children, caught up in capital’s conveyor belt, whose collateral damage is sometimes maimed bodies, sometimes bodies enslaved to the point of expiration by fatigue, but more often simple loneliness? Capital’s game may be read as a contest for loneliness, where the victors achieve their own estrangement by recruiting the unwilling into a forced imitation of their aversion to any intimacy. Harbour City is their trophy, a display of wasted, empty space in the city that showed the world just how far concentration can go. It withers me now to think of it and my mind leaps and pounces across Canton road to refuel.
I walk east along Haiphong road and under one of the few expressways that bisect the city. I duck beneath the pillars of its sloping on-ramps into a maze of scents. A little village is churning out good things to eat under the bus-covered slab of road-cum-roof. This is Haiphong Cooked Food Centre and Temporary Market. The entrance is lined with vegetable vendors offering raw noodles, hand-formed tofu, and a few-score varieties of the bitter greens that are dropped into noodle soup to barely wilt just before a bowl arrives into my custody. Next, a row of halal butchers with planks covered in bright plastic and fresh goat heads. Their impeccably British english and the slightly loser cut of their jackets suggest that this is one of HK’s few neighborhoods that is not overwhelmingly Han Chinese. Next comes the cooked food area, a hall of shared red plastic stools and tables with lean-to kitchens set up around the perimeter. For the first time, I encounter a space where english is neither written nor spoken. One of the stalls has plates of raw meat and vegetables arranged on a countertop. I point to one with Chinese broccoli and slices of fermented Chinese sausage and the cook throws it into a hot wok, then brings me a bowl of rice and a plastic pitcher of earthy tea. The plate arrives back hot with a glaze of oyster sauce. The meat is tangy and sweet, dark and translucent, like candied salami, rich with umami. The warm tea seems to activate the food and glow fills my entrails. I feel not just fed, but fertilized, ready to face the streets again.
While Tsim Sha Tsui has a slightly lower residential density than Mong Kok, the sheer congestion of bodies is unsurpassed. Haiphong Road seems to consist of a perpetual reiteration of the same four stores: the jeweler selling jade bracelets and buddha pendants, some for over US$100,000; the camera dealer, each with identical inventory tightly arranged on window shelves; the Chinese apothecary with their herbal preparations and bulk animal parts; and the luxury wristwatch vendor, who strenuously maintains the pretense that a watch is a legitimate tool and not a mere ornament in the age of the mobile phone.
My apartment entrance is a narrow staircase leading up, open to the street with no door. Mohamed is waiting there with his reliable smile. His job is to bring in business to the tailor shop on the second floor, but he also operates as the building’s de facto doorman. With so much visual saturation in signage, many businesses rely on the personal touch of salespeople loitering in front to catch the attention of customers. Mohamed offered me a custom suit of course, which I declined, and he’s also offered a bit of friendship over these few weeks. He’s usually smoking with his coworker Iqbal, and like much of HK’s population he lavishes fond attention on my blond North American daughter.
I walk up the seven floors of dirty stairs to our small flat and make another cup of tea. Pu-erh is the city’s drug of choice. It’s dark but not astringent and enables a steady alertness and tolerance that coffee would subvert. One more flight of stairs and I sit on the building’s roof. Access to such a space is an extreme luxury here. Rumors abound that rooftops are the city’s prime site for informal housing. With no space on the streets, the evicted set up improvised dwellings complete with utilities on the tar-paper roof decks. They are the current heirs to Kowloon Walled City and the ineradicable force toward informal dwelling that expresses itself wherever official forms fail to deliver.
Across the street from my building, I look out over Kowloon Park. I’m just above the canopy and the banyan trees sway in defiance of any fixed spatial referent. Straight down, the heads of the crowd bobble in similar motion. Across the park, past the mosque, a large cubic hotel bears a sign in gentle, friendly typeface: “The Mira.” Mira means to watch, and in one of those rooms not long ago, Edward Snowden handed over his leaked documents to a team of journalists, an event that has already attached itself to HK’s ever-accumulating myth.
Back on the streets, I wander around Tsim Sha Tsui picking up things I need from various merchants behind little doorways: a bag of kimchi from a strip of Korean groceries, flakes of fake jade to give people back home, a pressed wheel of aged tea. There is a cat with an elaborate bauble necklace on a stoop and she relishes a bit of attention. This is how the world does business: a constellation of merchants anticipating basic needs with none of the overhead of corporate headquarters and subsidized parking lots. Another layer exists in secret, behind coded language and a series of gatekeepers, which adds expense. I don’t know where to access illicit products here, and I don’t care, but I’m sure its within 100 meters of here, behind a few backs and a few doors. There is a middle layer too, a grey market where appetites and desires are fulfilled in defiance of juridical desire, but the merchandise is not valuable enough for enforcement to be cost-effective. Here are unlicensed restaurants, hacked mobile phones and counterfeit DVDs, easy enough to find just outside the city’s most prestigious sightlines. In most cities, these products are displayed on tarps or tables along the backstreets and hauled away each night, but HK’s spatial compression has pushed them in and up along with every other component.
Among the millions of storefronts, Chungking Mansions looks remarkably unspecial, just a few stairs in green marble. The entrance width of around four meters does seem to intimate an enormous interior, but nothing suggests its status as Kowloon Walled City’s commercial descendant. The spatial configuration within is something between the logic of the street and the mall. Barkers and hustlers come form every direction, courteous but assertive, anticipating my needs and naming the merchandise they imagine would meet them. It’s a fifteen story concrete block of deregulated architecture and trade. The upper floors are reputed to be the cheapest guest lodging in the city and Western backpackers make up some portion of the traffic. Steel rolls cover little alcoves. Each business may be only three or four meters square. About half are either south asian restaurants or mobile phone dealers. Clearly there is a web of relationships and wholesale trade beneath the public face of proceedings. There is luggage for sale, sex magazines differentiated by ethnicity, every kind of thing that might maintain a traveling body for the sake of carrying on more commerce. HK is famous for deregulation of imports and exports, and Chungking Mansion has become a port for re-export of small goods. One researcher estimated that 20% of the mobile phones in Africa have passed through this one building.
Hong Kong is very nearly a city of pure commerce. With very little agriculture or manufacturing, trade is its lifeblood. It displays the inexorable urge toward exchange in plain view. Wherever desire combines with capital, trade follows, and that trade is a fundamentally denationalizing force. It incentivizes confrontation with an other, so that HK feels cosmopolitan even in the midst of extreme ethnic homogeneity, with about 85% Cantonese-speaking Han Chinese. The umbrella of deregulated finance and diplomatic ambiguity signifies shelter for the global elite. Newly wealthy PRC tourists come to buy the emblems of luxury in retail complexes tailored to meet every whim while concealing the origins and uncannily narrow scope of such whims. Meanwhile , Chungking Mansions and its satellites matchmake desire with commodities in the lower echelons of the market. The transaction itself attains a sanctity, so that when needs are fulfilled, there is nothing to do but to keep transacting, to strain and yearn toward stranger and grosser whims. The body occupies space. It has appetites and organs and a personality, and the city is the body writ large. Scale is arbitrary, and none of it bears any meaning except in aggregate.
A city shows a different face to the resident, the visitor, and the historian or statistician. Each brings a kind of numbness, but also sees in a wavelength that can penetrate certain veils. In combination, these visions can illuminate the interplay between distinctiveness and universality, for every city has a personality, yet living close together poses certain problems for which one solution is too compelling to resist. Every city has busses and motorcycles and five-story concrete apartment buildings. Every city has caffeinated beverages for sale. But every city has its own norms, its own script for public discourse, its own mode of dress that is common there and rare everywhere else. The imperatives of the market have influenced every city, but style, innovated by the residents, in dialogue with migrants, constantly fluctuating, persists in posing a countervailing force, everywhere and always. Like the LED lights that overpower HK’s night, what appears a full spectrum white is actually assembled from components: red, blue, and green. A system as complex as a city, especially this furthest of cities, is too intricate for anyone to grasp. Only intuition can guide the gaze toward certain details and their promise of gradually assembled meaning. A North American can draw on a racist legacy of compartmentalizing HK as exotic, mysterious, or unintelligible, but that would be as lazy as it is cowardly. Paying attention can render familiar even a thing that cannot be understood.
I’m still dazzled. I’m still nauseous. I’m still yearning to get back inside.