Hong Kong is a “city spectacular,” in all the vainglorious, multifarious meanings, implications, etymologies (and so on) associated with the term – to wit: city, spectacle, spectator, spectacular (adj.), spectacular (noun).
Let me explain.
From the very moment that band of disgruntled traders and merchants landed in Hong Kong island in 1841, in the aftermath of the First Opium War and having been indecorously booted out of Canton by the Qing Emperor, they were blown away by the spectacular (read: breathtaking) landscape of mountain, water and sky; of verdant peaks plunging precipitously into emerald green waters; an epic sort of place.
Today, we too are similarly (still) overcome by mountain, water and sky; but add to that the impossibility of that forest of skyscraping glass, steel and BIG CAPITAL clinging precariously to the steep slopes. It used to be that flying into Hong Kong was akin to partaking in a dangerous and spectacular (read: hair-raising) stunt, wherein one’s aircraft would, in the process of descending into the inconveniently but starkly placed former Kai Tak Airport in Kowloon, have to A) make a very difficult three-point turn in mid-flight; B) negotiate a narrow pathway in-between towering residential blocks, and C) fly so close over some of these blocks as to almost brush the scalp of residents waiting on their rooftop patios to better catch a glimpse of this almost-crash almost-happening.
Sadly, today’s spanking new Chek Lap Kok International Airport, situated on its own reclaimed island, has robbed the visitor-spectator of this quintessential experience of flying into Hong Kong. But no matter, there is more to see for the visitor-spectator.
Hong Kong was formally established as a British colony in 1842, having been ceded to the British in perpetuity as part of the Treaty of Nanking that concluded the Opium War and also saw the establishment of five other treaty ports (Shanghai, Amoy, Canton, Foochow and Ningpo). The colonial city of Hong Kong would be one of the last colonies anywhere to be relinquished by the Imperial Powers, with the formal handover to China taking place in 1997 (Macao would relish the honor of being the absolute final European colony in Asia for another two years).
This colonial history of the city clings on somewhat tenuously, having been largely demolished in the city’s relentless pursuit of commercial development. One regards with some regret, turn of the 19th century postcards and photographs of Hong Kong harbor and the Praya, with their proliferation of Palladian and Neo-Romanesque architectural forms, all of which have today, of course, been replaced with that forest of skyscrapers earlier mentioned.
Notwithstanding relentless development, SOME of its British colonial built heritage still remains – largely buildings that occurred in the margins of the city’s history, but one really can’t be too picky in the absence of more.
This makes for another kind of spectacular (read: grand) landscape – that of the stately, old and British juxtaposed against the startlingly contemporary and…well, also British (the British ruled till 1997, and oversaw the likes of Norman Foster’s iconic HSBC Tower). This Britishness also clings on with a vengeance in the city’s way of life, which is remarkably British with its clubs (gentlemens’, cricket, jockey, sailing…) and its high teas and its almost too-obvious class-ism and associated snootiness.
For the city itself is a spectacle (read: a public show), with its seething hordes of people over-running every single inch of its available space, scuttling through the many tunnels in the sky that link one skyscraper to the next and to the next and to the next such that one may traverse the entire city and yet never once have one’s feet touch the ground; with its stratospheric heights of income inequality, literally mirrored in geography – the obscenely wealthy do designer drugs in their neo-colonial villas up in The Peak, while abject poverty rears its ugly head in Kowloon and the New Territories, and in between, continuously shuttling upwards and downwards on endless escalators but never ever reaching anywhere, are the Middle Classes that occupy the Mid-levels.
There are a few choice spots in which to observe and marvel at this spectacle of the city. The first is of course from the vantage point of the Peak, where ALL of Hong Kong sprawls upwards below one, racing ever upwards, like stalactites or steamholes-built-from-undersea-volcanoes, towards the oft-polluted, rarely blue sky.
The second is on and aboard the afore-mentioned Mid-levels Escalators, one of the quintessential Hong Kong experiences, upon which the visitor-spectator, feeling not unlike a piece of sushi on a conveyor belt, glides upwards or downwards from a nowhere kind of place to a nowhere kind of place (let’s admit it, the Escalator itself – with its variety of Hong Kong types, all spectator-sporting like one is, is far more interesting than where it takes one to or where one boarded it).
Finally, for the truly intrepid, there is the infamous Chungking Mansions – a global high-rise slum, of sorts, with its dizzying and spectacular (read: sensational) array of guesthouses, micro-businesses, black markets and attendant immigrant communities from Africa, India and everywhere else in between, selling everything from saris, African curries, mobile phone paraphernalia to things far more sinister. These days it appears far more innocuous and upmarket on the exterior than before, particularly since it stands in the middle of a new cluster of luxury mall and hotel establishments.
But enter at your own risk.
Chungking Mansions was immortalised by director Wong Kar Wai’s seminal movie (and one of the most important Hong Kong movies of all time), Chungking Express, starring a fey and elfin Faye Wong, at the time quite arguably the most important Hong Kong chanteuse in the world (even if she hailed originally from Bejing). All this is to further reinforce the point of Hong Kong as spectacle and introduce the idea of it also being receptacle for spectacle (read: public displays and performances).
For most of the 20th century, Hong Kong has been the home of the movies; the de facto Hollywood of the East – churning out movies at an alarming rate, all of which feature Hong Kong itself, in all its gritty and glorious splendor, as THE primary character. Hong Kong has also been a centre of the Chinese language recording industry (together with Taipei in Taiwan), manufacturing Cantopop Heavenly Kings, starlets and superstars that have captured the imaginations of a generation of Chinese everywhere, even if they didn’t speak a word of Cantonese.
More recently, the art market in Hong Kong itself has also become somewhat of a spectacle, with spectacular, over-the-top prices and spectacularly over-the-top showcases of the best of artists from China and the World, keen to gather here in Hong Kong to participate in spectacle and, hopefully, also, reap gains from the market.
The city has become today, one of the most instantly recognisable places; a universal backdrop for spectaculars of human drama, comedy, failure and achievement: large-scale, big budget productions – whether film, television, music, art or multi-disciplinary – featuring well-known performers / artists / personalities and with elaborate sets, costumes, materials, conceits, the sole intent of which is to divert, entertain and in so doing, cash in (literally).
The city itself understands and acknowledges its own timeless heritage as eternal spectacle, and in a brilliant stroke of solipsism, has transformed its most historic, commercial and recognizable asset – its skyline! – into one of the world’s most spectacular of night-time spectaculars: an impressive, large scale display of laser, lights, architecture and (bombastic) music, calculated to overwhelm the passing visitor-spectator today, just as the mountains, water and sky did so those disgruntled and displaced traders and merchants a century and a half ago.
It has quite literally, made a spectacle of itself.