This is a story of three Asian metropolises whose modern hustle and bustle dates back to many generations ago. Money and trade had helped propel these cities into prominence, and they will continue to do so in the years and decades to come. One is nicknamed the Big Lychee, the other is the Little Red Dot, while the biggest is the Big Durian. On the surface, it might be hard to notice the connections among the three. But beyond the glitzy malls and sleek skyscrapers that dominate their skylines, what the people and the governments of the three places think of each other have shaped their faces into what we know today.
On the Pearl River Delta in the southeastern part of China, lies Hong Kong, literally the ‘Fragrant Harbor’, also affectionately called the Big Lychee. Formally ceded by Imperial China to the British in 1842, Hong Kong grew as an important trading port in the Orient. In the 1950s, Hong Kong’s economy started to grow exceptionally fast compared to other countries in the region, thanks to rapid infrastructure development, market-friendly economic policies, and good education. In the decades that followed, three other countries joined the club of fast-growing Asian economies, and together they were dubbed the Four Asian Tigers.
As its economy grew more sophisticated and its population expanded, Hong Kong underwent further developments which not only have dramatically changed its skyline, but also the way its residents work, commute, and live. Due to the limited supply of land in the mountainous territory, the then British colony had undergone multiple land reclamation projects since the mid-19th century. Most notable along the coasts of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, as well as the western island of Lantau, these projects have provided much-needed land on which the city built its iconic skyscrapers, high-rise residential buildings, the now-defunct Kai Tak Airport, Disneyland and a much bigger airport.
Underground, millions of people commute around the main island, across Victoria Harbor, and all the way to the far reaches of the New Territories by the remarkably reliable Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway (MTR). The MTR is so dependable that it boasts a 99.9% punctuality rate, providing a model for other cities around the world on mass transport development and management. However, the city’s top-notch transportation network can be found not only beneath its head-turning skyscrapers and endless concrete jungle. Its container port is the world’s fifth busiest, while Hong Kong International Airport is the eighth busiest in the world with more than 70 million passengers arriving and departing in 2016. Designed by one of the most reputable architects in modern times, Norman Foster, the airy and futuristic design of the airport is suggestive of the city’s ever soaring ambitions to maintain its importance in an increasingly competitive region, especially with China next door.
China seems to become increasingly the focus of the lives of Hong Kongers these days. Under the terms agreed by both the Chinese and the British upon Hong Kong’s handover from the latter to the former in 1997, the territory is allowed to observe a high degree of autonomy not enjoyed by other parts of China. Hong Kong can use its own currency and join international organizations where membership is not limited to sovereign states. In the territory, free speech is guaranteed by the constitution, while its legal system is separate from that of China. But because of this, the Hong Kongers are known to be very vocal toward Beijing. The Chinese government’s increasingly blatant encroachment into Hong Kong’s autonomy only makes resentment among Hong Kongers, especially the youth, grow deeper.
Nevertheless, regardless of the rocky relationship between the special administrative region and Beijing, few would deny the former’s growing dependence on the mainland to sustain its economy, thanks to China’s unprecedented economic growth in the past few decades. Incessant demand from Chinese costumers keeps many shops in Hong Kong in business, and as the Chinese grow richer, demand for anything from jewelry to luxury housing across the border goes even higher.
Money seems to dictate people’s lives in Hong Kong. The territory’s ingenuity and ability to exploit opportunities have transformed it from a fishing village into a financial hub in a little over a century’s time. Contrary to its relatively small population and land area, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange is currently the world’s sixth biggest by market capitalization, a telltale sign of the city’s significance in the global economy. One might be overwhelmed by the constant bombardment of consumerism in the city center – the main reason why many travelers make Hong Kong only a transit point, not a destination. But once you step out of the concrete jungle that defines its urban center, you’ll understand why the city remains among the most livable places on the planet.
Behind endless rows of skyscrapers on the northern coast of Hong Kong Island lies verdant hills that conceal calm and peaceful small towns fronting white sand beaches and turquoise waters. Various hiking trails lead to sweeping vistas of the territory’s outlying islands, ancient rock carvings, and a bird’s eye view of the city center itself. Beautiful parks tucked amid lush forests provide refreshing family-friendly escapes where kids and dogs are free to play. Downtown, Chinese-themed gardens become tranquil sanctuaries for those who are weary with the humdrum of the fast-paced urban life. A little further deep in the New Territories, impossibly white sand beaches stretch as far as the eyes can see. Someone I know thought these beaches were located in eastern Indonesia.
When work becomes too stressful, the locals only need to head to Stanley in the southern part of Hong Kong Island and walk around the beautifully restored Murray House or take part in the annual dragon boat race to work their muscles. On the western coast of Lantau Island lies a small fishing village of Tai O that will transport visitors back in time when Hong Kong was a much less busy place. For those who wish to reconnect with their past, heritage trails in the far sides of the New Territories afford people a glimpse into life when Hong Kong was still part of Imperial China. Also, there are more than a dozen islets scattered around the main island with equally appealing hiking trails. This crowded city of 7.4 million people is in fact surrounded by surprisingly picturesque and tranquil corners to wind down and relax before seizing another day at work.
Perhaps these qualities have inspired the people of a small island nation in Southeast Asia, known for their competitive nature, to improve their lives and make their country even better than Hong Kong. What they don’t have, they will build. What they can’t have, they will do whatever they can to make them have it.