Hong Kong is our era exemplified—historically, ethnically, architecturally, socially, economically, aesthetically and, above all, sensually. It is a place you feel. Founded by Europeans, developed by Asians, governed by Chinese, designed and run by entrepreneurs, architects, economists, and adventurers from the four corners of the world, in its streets and waterways you may sense the turning of the Earth itself.
The classic experience of Hong Kong is, and always has been, a crossing of Victoria Harbour on one of the Star ferries, brave little craft that have been ploughing this short route, back and forth, back and forth, night and day, for a hundred years. Sometimes this feels a timeless experience. The ship sails, regular passengers reverse their wooden seat backs with a familiar clatter to catch the cooler breeze, and there is a ringing of bells and shouting of seamen that might sound as if it came directly from the China seas of antiquity. Look around you, though, and you will discover that really this is a voyage of perpetual change. As always the harbor seems to be jammed with a thousand vessels, but they range from the most ravaged and antique of sampans to container ships so futuristic that they scarcely look like ships at all. The skyline of the harbor is sure to be cluttered with construction cranes, and its buildings are a dizzy ensemble of styles, tastes, and ages—vast, showy skyscrapers, drab old tenement blocks, structures clad in gold or silver, massed slabs of concrete and red brick and steel, the whole orchestrated by the inescapable thumping of steam-hammers and violently expressing the power of materialist progress.
And your fellow-passengers! They are not just the world in themselves, as a shipload of New Yorkers might be: They are living history, on the move. The Chinese, political masters of the city, are not all very masterful. Some are sweet-mannered old ladies and raffish youths. The Europeans and Americans on the Star Ferry, though they adjust their slatted seats with a knowing, worldly air, are often uncomfortably sunburned and self-conscious, as though they have not been here long. The Japanese tourists, already loaded deep with cameras, are deeper still in excited chatter and shopping bags. Few of your fellow passengers, wherever they come from, seem like permanent residents; they are only people passing through, and when an elderly deckhand walks languidly along the rail, preparing to drop the gangplank on arrival, he does it with an innately patronizing air.
It is the rise and fall of empires you are seeing here, the shifting of continents and the tides of power. Beyond the bustling ferry, beyond the teeming harbor, beyond the skyscrapers and the swiveling cranes, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China extends in ceaseless energy into the hills around, along the coast and over the waters of its archipelago. No other city is quite like this. Hong Kong is perpetually on the go, deafeningly energetic, smelling of oil and duck-mess, a city of many cultures poised between the present and the future, but seldom bothering with the past.
There is, though, some element of pathos to the sensations of this astounding metropolis. It feels highly strung and nervous, not altogether sure of itself. It is hyperactive, like the world itself in the early years of the 21st century.
JAN MORRIS is the author of more than 40 books, including Among the Cities, a collection of essays on her treks to every major city in the world.
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