Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Hong Kong and Beijing

This post has been a long time in the works. I've been keeping my eyes open and noting the differences between Hong Kong and Beijing pretty much since my flight landed two and a half months ago. Hong Kong and Beijing are the two cities in China where I've actually lived, rather than just visiting, so I suppose the comparison is inevitable.

The differences are myriad, the similarities few. The single biggest difference would have to do with the relationship between each city as a physical space and its populace. Simply put, the physical space and layout of Hong Kong all seems to be a response to the needs of its populace; whereas the population of Beijing, by and large, has to base its existence around the physical space of the city.

Hong Kong is incredibly hilly, with steep, narrow, and winding roads. Looking at a map of Hong Kong, one sees a maze of streets, curving, crossing and recrossing one another at acute angles. A map of Beijing, by contrast, shows broad avenues, running north-south and east-west, intersecting at neat right angles almost without fail. Yet in Hong Kong, despite the appearance of chaos, people and goods move fluidly through the city by means of a hodgepodge but effective transportation network - buses, minibuses, trams, ferries, escalators, subway, and light rail. The Octopus, a stored-value, one-tap all-purpose commuter card, works on all of them. It takes me around 45 minutes and can cost as little as US $1 to get across the harbor to Kowloon all the way from my dorm.

Beijing is the opposite - the illusion of order that a map of the city presents evaporates quickly upon arrival. As broad as the streets are, they are regularly congested; it can take close to an hour to cover just over a mile at times. The city has attempted to address congestion by adding ring roads (a series of freeways arranged in concentric circles around the city), but each time a new ring road is completed, the congestion is alleviated just enough that more people decide to buy cars, and traffic quickly returns to its earlier gridlock. Beijing's wretched air quality makes walking a somewhat unattractive prospect, and most people resort to bicycles. However, that raises a new set of concerns - several of my friends had their bicycles stolen, one of them multiple times.

Clearly the two cities have strikingly different histories. Under British rule between 1841 and 1997, Hong Kong was spared the turmoil that characterized much of the past two centuries of Chinese history - the Taiping rebellion, the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the country's subsequent descent into warlordism, the Japanese invasion and the civil war, and the ravages of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. After 1949, when the Communists finally drove the Kuomintang from the Mainland, Beijing was largely closed off to the outside world. Today, a drive through the city gives the impression of Westernization: Starbucks, McDonalds, and KFC; Adidas and Ikea megastores; malls full of Rolex, Bulgari and Lacoste; bars advertising Carlsberg and Budweiser, and clubs playing (almost) current pop music. Scratching the surface, however, is as easy as getting out of the bus and walking down any of the side streets away from the main boulevards. Aside from the major foreign chains, few restaurants offer decent non-Chinese food. You'll see migrant workers from the provinces hawking and spitting left and right; parents holding their pantless children at arm's length, letting them defecate into the road; beggars and lepers sitting silently, hat in hand, staring silently at the ground. Giant piles of rotting fruit can be found just meters from expensive apartment complexes. The air quality is remarkably poor. You eventually get used to it, but initially spending less than a day in the city can leave you feeling as though you've been kicked in the face by a mule. The city is the beating heart of Communist China. Soldiers in Tiananmen square stand at strict attention, and Mao's Mausoleum still draws crowds of Chinese paying their respects. Squat toilets abound, even in fairly Westernized shopping districts. Many Chinese visiting Beijing from the provinces have never seen foreigners before, and will stare wide-eyed with undisguised interest; some will even ask you to pose with them for pictures. You'll be lucky to find anyone who speaks English once you venture beyond the hotels and major tourist destinations.

Hong Kong, by contrast, was a British colony for more than 150 years, and has remained an international finance and shipping hub even after the 1997 handover. As such, even in predominantly Chinese neighborhoods far from Central, Soho, and the Midlevels, foreigners attract little attention from local Chinese. Western restaurant chains are prevalent, but so are independently owned restaurants offering fare every bit as good as what you'd find in a pub in London, a shwarma stand in Amman, or a burger joint in Chicago. Most locals at least understand basic English, and often speak it well enough that basic communication typically poses no problems. I've yet to see anyone spit or go to the bathroom in public, and the city is strikingly clean compared to Beijing. The air quality is quite poor by international standards, but most visitors experience nothing worse than a mild sore throat and runny nose for a few days before they acclimate. One barely encounters reminders of Communist rule in Hong Kong. I've never seen a soldier in Hong Kong, and have seen perhaps two Chinese flags flying since I've been here. By contrast, the flag of Hong Kong - a five-petaled white flower on a red background - is ubiquitous.

Understandably, most visitors prefer Hong Kong to Beijing. As for myself, I'm still not sure. I went to Beijing last weekend to visit a few friends, and am still processing my impressions of the city as it was when I lived there, as it is now, and my overall experience there. That will be the subject of another post.

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