Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Big "G" in "HK"

Some people are diametrically opposed to it, others say it will usher in a new era of prosperity. I'm not talking about the Tampa Bay Devil Rays recent acquisition of former teammates Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez, I'm talking about the "big G:" Globalization. A city defined by this phenomenon, my recent trip to Hong Kong (abbreviated as "HK") was an enlightening time for not only my intellect, but my  belly as well.  I enjoyed delicious food and drink and fantastic company, all in the backdrop of one of the premier cities in the world.
A far cry from the charming and culturally rich India, Hong Kong is a city struggling over its identity, torn between its Chinese roots and its recent financial success in the global market.  We flew into this metropolis of 7 million at 7am on January 8th and were graciously welcomed by Rahul's college friend Sanam. Groggy from our red eye flight, she generously hosted us at her beautiful apartment for the next week, putting up with our antics and jokes the whole time. Thanks so much Sanam, you're great!!!
After dropping our bags , we rushed off to Rahul's uncle's house. A tailor by trade, Rahul's uncle fitted us both for matching gray suits.  The suit business is a big business here in Hong Kong, a city that has a record setting 8000 skyscrapers. That means lots of office space, and lots of businessmen who need suits. After our fittings, we went home, took a nap, and headed out for a night out on the town. Sadly, my suit wouldn't be ready until the end of the trip, so I couldn't sport it that night.
To put things in perspective, I spent more money that night than I did during the past 6 days in Mumbai. Granted, room and board were covered by Rahul's relatives in India, but Hong Kong is by no means a cheap place.
Sanam, her friend Vrishant, and yours truly

My first impressions of Hong Kong was sheer awe at the economic prowess of the city. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of South Korea's rapid modernization. High Rise apartment buildings and corporate skyscrapers stretched for as far as the eye could see. People movers of all sorts were efficiently functioning at full capacity. Prada, gucci, and coach were in vogue for women. Suits and briefcases for men. The sidewalks were so clean you could eat off of them. And things were really expensive! (comparative to India, of course..)

To put things into perspective: A view of Hong Kong's skyline, circa 1986

A view of Hong Kong's skyline, circa 2009
Yet the region also boasts a vibrant array of cultural and historical sites.  The next day, we headed to the "Las Vegas of Asia," Macau. The island also happens to be a former Portuguese colony, and in between the multi million dollar casinos are traces of its colonial history.

Macau, an island of contrast: In the background, the Grand Lisboa Hotel juxtaposed against a less than flattering relic from its past

A perfect representation of Macau's storied history: signs appear in Mandarin, Portugese, and English respectively

The Ruins of St. Pauls , a 17th century Portuguese Cathedral

The rest of the week was highlighted by visits with Rahul's relatives, shopping, and relaxing. The heartbeat of the city, however, intrigued me. As we strolled through Tsim Tsa Tsui (known locally as "TST"), I couldn't help but gawk at the exorbitant amount of wealth around me, and ponder the big "G," Globalization.   Sanam, our host, was able to contextualize my presumptions: She works at the Duty Free Shops Gallery, a high end luxury merchandise store  and recounted stories of Chinese businessmen who come in with suitcases of cold, hard, cash and nonchalantly drop 10-15 thousand USD on luxury items.  Apparently, these are routine transactions and many luxury shops in Hong Kong now encourage their employees to not only speak Cantonese, the native language of Hong Kong, but Mandarin, the official language of China in order to increase patronage from the mainland.
That "G" word, Globalization, was constantly ringing throughout my head as I strolled through Hong Kong. These absurdly wealthy Chinese businessmen, many of whom own factories right over the border, are making tons of money off of exporting their goods.  The Nike dunks, Swisher vacuums, Johnson and Johnson baby soap, LED lights,  Ford car radiators,  Dell computer monitors, Nokia cell phones, and Hansboro toys that millions of Americans consume every year are produced right over the border in Shenzhen, trucked to the port of Hong Kong, and shipped across the Pacific to the Port of LA.
I couldn't help but think, "This is Globalization in action!!" Hong Kong epitomizes this trend-almost 15% of the workforce are importer/exporters, responsible for greasing the wheels of our global economy.  After visiting Hong Kong,  Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington a few weeks ago made a lot more sense to me:  I saw first-hand why American corporations pushed President Obama to negotiate a more beneficial free trade policy with China. Any trans-national company, from Goldman Sachs to McDonalds, has a corporate office in Hong Kong. Thousands of American expats live, work, and raise their families there, directly benefiting from the immense economic stimulation provided by its ties with not only China, but other Asian countries as well.
But I digress...
In between over intellectualizing America's place in an increasingly competitive global market, I did manage to see a few sites.

I went to my first horse race! While I didn't bet or win for that matter, the scene was really engaging: the race course was flanked by high rise apartment buildings on all sides, creating a sophisticated, urban feel.

I also visited Lan Tau island, home of the Tian Tan Buddha. Built in the early 1990s, the Buddha not only serves as a religious pilgrimage site for Buddhists, but one of the most popular tourist destinations in Hong Kong:
In contrast with the rest of the city, the Tian Tau Buddha provides a peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong Island
Although the Buddha itself was interesting, the highlight of the day was meeting Torsten Neimenen, an American college student studying abroad in Shanghai. He was visiting his family in Hong Kong who moved from Wisconsin a few years ago. Contrary to my initial assumption, his parents were neither Meryl Lynch Hedgefund managers nor commercial distributors, but rather,  Lutheran missionaries. After being invited back to his home, his family then proceeded to invite me out to dinner. Over the course of the evening, they recounted tales of raising their children in the Central African Republic, Lutheran theology,  the Greenbay Packers, and life in Hong Kong. It was a fantastic evening filled with great conversation and warm sincerity. If you're reading this, a big thanks to the Neimenen family for your wonderful hospitality!
As a city, Hong Kong perplexed me. I couldn't quite figure out if it was a Chinese city, or a city with a large Chinese population. Technically, its not part of mainland China, rather "overseen" by the Chinese government. Cantonese was as common as English, yet the city is structured to accommodate and compliment international business. Every bar runs a competitive happy hour to lure the tired Investment Banker after his 12 hour workday, the airport has an efficient, specifically designed  subway service to bring travelers to and fro, and high end hotels jockey to host the next corporate convention.
Although the surge of modernization has long since grappled Hong Kong, every now and then,the city anachronistically resists the waves of progress. Pictured is an alleyway behind a Gucci Store.

All in all, Hong Kong was a grand time. Like India, I would recommend the city to anybody who finds themselves in Asia. Numerous airlines route their flights through Hong Kong (since most airline companies have corporate offices there) and the city boasts an impressive nightlife, great public transit, and dynamic cityscape. Yet, like all  things, my time in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (the official name of the city, btw) came to an end. Eventually, it was time for me to go back to South Korea, officially ending my 22 day jaunt around Asia. Leaving one metropolis for another, I flew into Incheon International Airport and was immediately greeted by this:

Thats Fahrenheit, not Celsius. 

Winter is here, and its here to stay (well, at least until March). Time to see if my trusty "The RedFace©" jacket can handle the South Korean winter.
Until next time...


Richard and Patricia said...

Great description and insight, Josh. You are really soaking up a great experience. I was in HK in 1966. It was extremely commercial and cosmopolitan then too. That was before China took over. Did you take the tram to the top of the hill overlooking the entire city? That was a high point (literally) for me. That and seeing the juxtaposition in the harbor of modern freighters and classic junks.

Best regards,
"Mr. Avery"

Fashion Flash said...
This comment has been removed by the author.