Ask nearly any Hongkonger what they think about their city’s airport and they’ll probably tell you it’s brilliant. Enquire about public transport around the city and you’ll rarely hear any complaints. And while Hong Kong’s taxi drivers can often be a bit brusque (and heavy footed on the accelerator), passengers here rarely complain about being scammed or taken for any sort of ride they didn’t initially agree upon.
Hong Kong is an incredibly safe and civilized place. And no matter what protest may take place in its streets or legislature, the city and its citizens pride themselves on the rule of law. It’s certainly not as organised and sterile as Singapore, but Hong Kong is very much a place that seeks to be defined by order. But is this disciplined approach to living really what cities should be about?
I recently returned from two weeks in Bangkok, where things are of course incredibly different. The Thai capital can sometimes seem to go on despite itself. Governmental instability, battles with extremes of either flooding or drought and pavements that seem to disappear from under your feet as you walk around, Bangkok may have come a long way in terms of order and infrastructure over the last decade or so but there’s still an unpredictability to it that is fascinating.
Street food stalls and informal businesses pop up everywhere. Scooter taxis weave through traffic in a death-defying way to get their passengers across town in what is often the quickest manner. And quiet Japanese whisky bars are tucked between seedy massage parlours. This sense of organised madness is not only what attracts visitors to a city like Bangkok but is also what makes residents find it hard to leave.
Here in Hong Kong it seems that more and more rules are coming into place designed to phase out what can be an exhilarating lack of urban order. The city’s famous hawker stalls, that once populated nearly every corner, are rapidly disappearing. During the mid-1970s, it was estimated that there were 50,000 or so in business legally. Today there are just a few thousand. And with the government not only making it hard to renew these licenses but also actively buying them back, we’re likely to see even less of the city’s popular street-side eating. The bright lights that so defined images of Hong Kong abroad are fading away. The colourful painted and neon signs that used to hang (somewhat precariously) over roads like tree branches to advertise local business are being removed rather than restored. Even the laundry drying from wooden poles sticking out of apartment towers is being removed. During the 1950s and 1960s, these were so prevalent, it was joked that these poles held the region’s unofficial flag.
Cities should be safe and welcoming. But they should also be gritty and real. And while Hong Kong still has moments that are wonderfully rough around the edges, it seems to be on a path that is trying to smooth those all away.
Aisha Speirs is Monocle’s bureau chief in Hong Kong.