July 1st, along with its massive protest march in Hong Kong, has come and feels long gone. I’d meant to write something on it, but I kept stumbling and life got in the way, as it has a habit of doing. Ultimately I ended up on a very hastily arranged business trip to London – a trip with very mixed results from a business perspective but also a trip that further enhanced my love affair with London.
(Forgive me if any of this repeats old stuff.)
In the summer of 1972, I’d just completed my first year at college (university to you Brits) and was working an awful summer job – pushing a hot dog cart at the Bronx Botanical Gardens. A school buddy asked if I wanted to join him on a trip to London and my parents gave the okay for me to spend my Bar Mitzvah money on the trip.
We stayed in England for about 3 weeks, starting off in bed and breakfast places that cost only a pound and a half per night – though the beds were so uncomfortable that we ended up sleeping on the floor. Our days were divided between doing all of the standard sight seeing stuff and hitting every record store we possibly could. (I remember buying Roxy Music’s first album and spending weeks staring at the cover wondering what it could possibly sound like.)
Nights were for music – at one point I figured out that we saw more than 70 bands in those three weeks. David Bowie doing Ziggy Stardust at the Rainbow. Yes’s world premiere of Close to the Edge with opening acts that included Mahavishnu Orchestra. Renaissance playing for free in a pub before their first album came out. The Chelmsford Folk Festival, which included The Strawbs, Al Stewart, and Sandy Denny. (Sandy offered us a ride back to London but my idiot friend was too scared to get in her car with her two large dogs.)
We also went to Torquay for a weekend for reasons I can no longer recall – long before Fawlty Towers – where the only thing to do at night was go to a Mungo Jerry concert.
We just about ran out of money long before the end of the trip. We stayed in some park where they’d set up tents with double decker beds, 50 pence per night, one concrete building with lockers and showers, and basically existed on a diet of lentils.
My second trip didn’t happen until 12 years later. My first wife and I were tipped off about the hotel where all the bands stayed. So we’d go see Echo & the Bunnymen in concert and then the next morning we’d be having breakfast with them. This trip was also – believe it or not – the first time I ate Indian food.
In 1990 I started working for Barclays Bank in New York. This is when I first learned about the concept of business travel. I managed to get myself into a position where I spent large chunks of 1992 and early 1993 in London in a service flat in the central City (according to the guest register, the previous occupant of that room was J.G. Ballard). I got to see a lot of great live music (Julian Cope was a standout) and fell in love with a bi-polar poet whom I met at a party one night – my American accent came in handy in a variety of situations.
I knew I wanted to live in London and my boss at Barclays tried to make it happen for me. There were no suitable openings and then she found something in Manchester. I’d never been there but figured with Manchester’s fame as a music center, I’d be okay. The deal fell through at the last minute and I ended up leaving Barclays for the job that would eventually bring me to Hong Kong.
For the past 20 years and across several jobs, I’ve traveled to London often enough to know my way around and feel extremely comfortable there. Of course these are business trips and I’m staying in nice hotels in central locations (this trip I was staying just off Trafalgar Square) and my expenses are all covered so it’s not quite the same experience as actually living there. This last trip I had lunch with my friend Kevin Westenberg, an American who has lived in London for 30 years, and I got to hear about how crazy expensive London can be when you live there.
At any rate, I found myself with a decent amount of free time during this trip to London. I walked at least 5 miles each day, usually on a circuit that included Covent Garden, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, Chinatown and Soho. I got up to Camden Market, got to the music stores on Denmark Street, spent time in Forbidden Planet and Foyles and browsed in some of the few remaining record shops.
And as I walked around, I found myself constantly comparing London to Hong Kong.
Of course there’s the big stuff. The beautiful architecture, monuments and parks everywhere. On the one hand, one might say it’s merely reminders of Britain’s history of empire and imperialism, the spoils of war and conquest. I think it’s more than that. There was an aspiration to greatness, individually and collectively. And to let everyone share in that aspiration, at least by surrounding people with beauty, even if their own lives were drab.
Hong Kong has none of that. There are no world class museums here. There are very few buildings left to reflect the 150 year history. Skyline? Yeah, it’s a bunch of drab office buildings gussied up with neon and lasers that is only impressive because of the water in the foreground and the mountains in the rear.
(Tacky, right? But a step up from the fake Buddhist monks scamming for change all over Hong Kong.)
The cultural diversity of London is staggering when compared to Hong Kong. You see this walking down the streets, you see it in shops, you see it in the selection of restaurants everywhere you go.
And then there’s the commercial aspects of daily life. Everything from banks advertising their credit cards based on competitive interest rates and telephone companies advertising no additional charges for data when roaming globally (HK’s Three is one of those companies; meanwhile for HK Three customers, one could buy a special “deal” for roaming data for HK$198 per day). This is what happens when you have true competition and a level playing field – something Hong Kong does not offer on almost any level.
(Outdoor seating at a pub in central London. This is actually illegal in most of Hong Kong.)
The buses are hybrid buses – the seats are set a decent distance apart (seats in Hong Kong buses mostly offer less leg room than economy class flights) and the windows are not covered with ads. The trains may be old but at least they do not have video screens blasting advertisements at a captive audience.
(Here’s a minor pet peeve – as a photographer who follows dozens of photography blogs, I always see the companies whose equipment I use offering rebates and cash-back offers. These offers are never valid in Hong Kong.)
I think the things that get to me most are the lack of choice and diversity combined with the second rate status of ordinary citizens.
Yes, mass transportation is pretty darned good here – it’s cheap and runs on a predictable schedule and the consumers of the transportation system are for the most part treated as captive targets of loud advertising that isn’t even clever.
Taxes are low. That’s thanks to the revenue the government collects from real estate transactions and also, perhaps more importantly, because Hong Kong doesn’t have to support an army, navy or air force. We get that from China – it’s an army that has already proven once that they will fire upon their own citizens when so ordered to, and the odds are increasing that one day it will be used against Hong Kong citizens for daring to request that they might have a say in how their home is managed and getting fed up with receiving nothing but meaningless sound bites in return.
Oh, new flats measuring all of 200 square feet are going on sale in Tai Po this weekend and expected to sell out. And Monday I’ll go back to the office and have to make my way down the streets in between hordes of mainland shoppers dragging suitcases behind them. And that’s after waiting 20 minutes for the bus standing in the blazing sun or the pouring rain because a simple thing like a decent bus shelter is a joke here.
I live in a town of 250,000 and there is only one supermarket out of dozens here that sells simple things like dijon mustard or Italian salami or bacon not made in China or a crusty baguette. (Said supermarket is a mile from any bus stop and offers all of 8 parking spots.) The only place in this town that has a half-way decent hamburger charges US$20 for it and the pizza is mostly embarrassing. Thai, Japanese and Korean food around here has been localized to an extent that renders it almost unrecognizable. I’m exasperated not by the fact that the only interesting new restaurants open in Sheung Wan or Kennedy Town but by the fact that there seems to be practically no demand for them almost anywhere else.
Look, I get it. If there was a utopia, everyone would move there and then it might not be so utopian after that. I always say that every place has its issues and compromises and if you’re fortunate enough to be able to choose where you live, then you choose the compromises you’re more able to deal with. And for many years, Hong Kong was the place for me.
But right now I feel that today is the best that Hong Kong is ever going to be. And by that I mean that I feel that the quality of life in Hong Kong is devolving to the point where each day is going to be worse than the day before. Each day will bring its share of corruption, greed, humiliation and assaults upon the daily existence of every day people.
There are days that I give serious thought to living almost anywhere else except here. Well, I never consider a return to the U.S. But the list of places that I think I would enjoy living in more than Hong Kong seems to grow almost daily.
It’s a funny thing. The grass is always greener. I’ve got this friend, he’s American, he used to live in Tokyo and travel throughout Asia. Now he lives and travels all over Europe. And half the time he blogs about wanting to get back to Asia and posts Facebook comments about being jealous whenever I mention anything on bars (and women) in Wanchai or Lan Kwai Fong. I’d trade places with him in a heartbeat.
Or maybe I’m just in a bad mood today? I won’t say it’s impossible. I am a moody bastard, you all know that.