Hong Kong : First Impressions

29 Jul 2010

It was wheels up at 7:00am from Ottawa, connecting through Toronto and then onto a long flight around the world to my final, and hopefully long term, destination: Hong Kong. The flight was superb, but rather than focus on how 15 hours of my life was, I'd rather talk about how I see the next couple years unfolding in a new, and very different, city.

First though, some perspective, I was born and have lived the past 30 years in Ottawa. Ottawa is geographically flat with an area roughly 5300 square kilometers and a population of 1.1 million. It doesn't sit on any major waterways, and thus doesn't have a port. It isn't a flight hub - the airport is small but modern. There are no major roads, save our part of the transcanada highway. The tallest commercial or resendential buildings typically sit in the very low 30 floors. The weather can swing from -40C in the winter to 40C in the summer. People love their space and the city loves its heritage, thus suburbs are growing further and further away from the core. Aside from the insane temperature (truly Ottawa must be on a short list of temperature swings for large cities), and the dependence on federal bureaucracy for survival (Ottawa is Canada's capital), Ottawa is, relatively speaking, an great city.

The first thing you notice when you fly into Hong Kong are the mountains covered with lush vegetation. The ocean is peppered with pyramid-like mountains covered in foliage, as are the shores - regardless of which direction you are looking. The rich shades of green are almost foreign to my eyes, as are the mountains which largely remain undeveloped. The next thing you notice are the size of the ships - they are huge - especially if, like I, you haven't spent much time in a city with a major port.

As you approach, you'll notice groups of identical looking buildings (sometimes as many as 7), which, even from a distance, stand unnaturally tall. In Ottawa we have rows and rows of similar looking houses - in Hong Kong they have blocks of identical high rises. Even the obviously poor buildings look impressive. And all of it seems nestled within an endless mountain range. It almost feel like someone's using a green screen to superimpose a city on a national park.

As soon as you get off the plane, you'll notice something else: humidity and heat. Ottawa folk often complain that while it may get hotter in the US, US heat is dry and thus more comfortable. Compared to Hong Kong, Ottawa heat is dry. Today, an average Hong Kong summer day is easily as muggy as the worst day I've felt in Ottawa. I obviously need thinner clothes and time to adjust. Once you come to grasp with the humidity (and the airport doens't seem particulary well air-conditioned, so it does get better inside), you'll start to smell the ocean in the air - certainly something us mainlanders notice. Its beautiful.

Then comes the drive into the city and you see that the huge ships are nothing compared to the docks. Surely there are bigger docks in the world, but the cargo containers seem to number in the low hundreds of thousands and the cranes in the high hundreds. Its stupidly awesome.

You might also notice that a significant portion of your drive, more than 50% depending on where you are going, is either on a bridge, elevated road, or a tunnel. Your either above water, above the city, or in a mountain. I'm genuinely surprised that I haven't seen a show about Hong Kong's roads on Discovery.

Finally you'll get to your destination. I haven't travelled at all to tell you for sure what you'll find in your area. For me, its narrow roads and steep hills. Narrow sidewalks and food vendors (wet markets) at every step. Construction and lots of it. It isn't just more populated than Ottawa, its also tighter - but it isn't unbearable, you aren't shoulder to shoulder. A lot of buildings are also older and in worse shape than I expected - but with rent the way it is and a massive labour force, these buildings likely serve an important purpose. Also, people are careless for the environment...doorless stores have their A/C on full blast, and there appears to be no residential recycling program.

That's what I noticed anyways. Unfortunately, where I'm living for the next month doesn't provide me with a view of the mountains, or the vegetation, or the ocean - but you can bet that's getting added to the list of must-haves when I start looking for a permanent place.

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