Wednesday, 23 April 2008

HK Streetlife

Hong Kong. It feels like the monoogue at the start of Apocalypse Now where Captain Willard talks about Saigon and the dread of being in the jungle only being equalled but the dread of not being there. Last time I was here, the red letterboxes had Royal crests and Governor Chris Patten was talking up democratic reforms with his Legislative Council (LegCo). Now as a Special Administrative Zone with China, both are gone, interestingly, to no obvious ill-effect.

There's new parking meters (nice digital ones where you select the left or right parking bay so you only need half the number of meters). The airport staff have a mainland-like surly authority and the roads and pavements have the same ruts and ridges. Hong Kong puts function over form; there's little aspiration to beauty except for the space 1" from the ground to about 12' up. The shops go for light and neon to hawk their wares, but above is a tangle of old business signs, window air con units, balconies converted to granny flats and tatty facades. The Star Ferry hasn't changed so much as a rivet and is still a fun ride for HK$2.2 (44p) although you can now use an RFID touch card called Octopus that has been retrofitted into the old mechanical turnstiles.

There are the Indian guys standing on street corners and outside shops offering tailored suits and shirts - for around £70 you can get a suit, trousers, couple of shirts. To my surprise, there was even a guy offering cheap Rolex knockoffs at pretty much the same corner of Nathan Granville that I remember from pre-unification. It's the same technique that the drug dealers in the Casablanca medina use, a half-whispered "watches", "Rolex" just as you pass leaving you unsure if you really heard anything at all. Total deniability. Counterfeit watches and software were readily available in the mid nineties but the authorities had even then pushed the merchandise out of sight leaving just a salesman on a street corner or a shop with pictures.

The electronic shops are still here. You can get a unlocked (jail broken) iPhone for HK$3150 (£210), an Apple iPod Touch 32GB for HK$4000 (£260) and an Apple iMac 24" 2.4GHz HK$14,500 (£967). That's pre-haggling prices but still pretty much parity with Singapore.

If Hong Kong was a person, it would be Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses. A bit wide, always on the lookout for a deal, desparate to be rich and famous, but with a heart of gold. Singapore is more like an estate agent. Still trying to cut a deal but with class and respectability in mind. I can see why people like Hong Kong and describe Singapore as uptight. For sure, if you want to slum it for a bit, HK is the place to go but I'd be loath to leave SIngapore's excellent administration and security behind.

HK is almost all Chinese, whereas Singapore is over 20% Indian and Malay. This makes Singapore natively far more cosmopolitan. HK is Cantonese, Singapore is Mandarin and Hokkien and there's cultural differences galore. There are a few non-Chinese HKers; Indians came and stayed years ago and I remember meeting one working on the Star Ferry years ago speaking fluent Cantonese to a passenger, which is as remarkable a juxtaposition as hearing a dog miow.