High-rise Hong Kong: An Eye-operner for South Africans - Cape Times, Friday 22 April 2012
On arriving in Hong Kong my first thought is, What a perfect setting for a sci-fi flick. High density living sees apartment buildings touch the heavens. Fat fingers of concrete stretch up and disappear into a misty sky.
Driving from Hong Kong International Airport past Discovery Bay to Kowloon, I gasp at the scale of development since my last visit twenty years ago, before Hong Kong was handed back to the People’s Republic of China in 1997. Too many people settling on this small section of land means the only way to meet demands for living space is to go up, up, up. The visual impact of these monolithic slabs housing vast numbers of people helps me to understand the sense behind the one-child per couple policy.
At Nathan Road, the commercial shopping drag of Kowloon, all is a-buzz. Here avant-garde architecture is juxtaposed by street stalls. Swank boutiques sell authentic Rolex, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Cartier and Chanel for exorbitant sums while street vendors flog rip-offs manufactured in sweat shops.
Above the ground-floor stores, tattered washing hangs from frames attached to tiny windows of cramped flats. I’m reminded that life is indeed a paradox. Poverty and wealth exist side by side in Hong Kong, as they do In Cape Town where the dream mansion and township shack epitomise extremes.
No doubt about it, high-rise Hong Kong, this financial hub, is an exciting Metropolis. But as man keeps wheeling and dealing, locked in the illusion that money makes the world go round, he pays little thought to the consequences of his self-indulgence.
The thing that strikes me most is that there is so little green. Trees and birds look to be extinct. Nature has succumbed to a built environment. Passing a shark fin soup restaurant, I spare a thought for our Great White, for all exploited natural resources.
Bangkok, the second stop, is a fascinating mix of skyscrapers, malls, temples, slums. Rivers are polluted by boat-traffic and spills from dishwater to sewerage. A constant stream of cars, scooters and tuk tuk taxis pass a succession of bars, restaurants and shops serving man’s needs. Here too, apartment living is the order of the day and land is increasingly engulfed by man-made structure.
We enjoy a whirlwind tour of holy spots, a serendipitous celebration of Buddha’s enlightenment, a gorging of sweet and sour Thai tastes. In the famed night markets, tourists bargain for similar brand-name fake watches and designer clothes on sale in the Hong Kong alleys, and again I am struck by a sense of paradox. Which includes moral duality around sex. In Thailand kissing is banned on-screen, yet the sex industry is in-your-face.
Since the Vietnam War, when American soldiers enjoyed Thai favours at the fishing village of Pattaya, Thailand has gained notoriety as a sex tourism destination with Pattaya now branded as a paedophile paradise. Prostitution is illegal, although tolerated and partly regulated. According to NGOs up to 300,000 prostitutes work in registered entertainment establishments.
On the island of Phuket, the tourist’s mad quest for self-satisfaction is fuelled as Thais caters to desire. Thais turn a blind eye to the bad behaviour of the ‘Farang’ who flock the street of Patong for strip shows, lap dances, ‘ping-pong’ sex extravaganzas, and katoey lady-men prancing in drag. No wonder Thais works at fleecing the crass foreigner of his cash.
Here too, unfortunate development has burgeoned as exploiters have turned a quick buck with hap-hazard building after the devastating Tsunami of 2004. Little thought, it appears, is devoted to infrastructure or long-term planning to protect the paradise exposed by the movie ‘The Beach’.
Back at Dubai International Airport – the price paid for cheap flights is hours spent in transit – I notice fabulous palm trees in the lobbies, am lulled by lush green. As I realise the trees are plastic, I’m confronted again by this double-standard, this illusion that all is well with the world.
In part it is the sense of space which appeals on my return to Cape Town. And I am struck by the beauty of Cape Town’s spectacular natural assets: parks, forests, gardens and trees, vynbos. The city at the mountain’s foot is a mere innocent in comparison to the monster Hong Kong has morphed into. In Bangkok there is no green to be seen.
While not forgetting the shame of squatter camps, South Africans, if flown en masse to cities as built up as Hong Kong and Bangkok, might well shake off entitled attitudes towards land. A trip to the East is a wake-up call too, as to how we can best protect and conserve our natural heritage as opposed to exploiting and developing for man’s fleeting pleasure.
Tourists are sure pay top dollar to visit South Africa not only for plastic surgery and to see the big five at game farms, but will come to Cape Town to experience a city of rare natural splendour.
Hichens is a journalist, and author of Divine Justice.
Page 5 of 13