Visit Hong Kong and you’re likely to spend quite a substantial amount of time weaving through crowds as you make your way from dim sum spot to shop, or one meeting to the next. It’s not a particularly unusual phenomenon in a big city. But, what sets Hong Kong apart is that your feet may never touch the ground.
It’s perhaps no surprise that a city with the world’s largest collection of skyscrapers has quite a vertical approach to organising movement. Hong Kong is, as one recent book argues, a city without ground. From front door to office, your commute is likely to navigate tunnels, skywalks, shopping-mall corridors, escalators and lifts takeing you from indoor spaces to outdoor ones, public to private, and ground level to storeys high, seemingly without much effort or intention on your part. As tall buildings meet topography, you’re never too sure where you stand unless you’re at the top.
The labyrinth of this network seems almost chaotic. Yet there is an astonishing efficiency and determination with which people speed their way through the maze. This near-unmappable circuit soon becomes second nature for the Hong Konger. And, strangely it’s within this infrastructure that you’ll find much of the city’s public space. Open spaces in malls are your primary meeting points and wider walkways leading to the next tower are a perfect place to picnic. And with the punishing humidity, you may be very glad to ditch the roadside and take yourself up a level to enjoy the frigid existence provided by Hong Kong’s air-con addiction
It’s the kind of futurist image of a city predicted in Fritz Lang’s pioneering sci-fi film Metropolis, and what is said to have inspired Ridley Scott’s cityscapes in Blade Runner. Of course, Hong Kong is a slightly less dystopian version of both.
But experience Hong Kong through these elevated or buried pathways, record-breaking outdoor escalators or endless shopping malls and you’re missing the true vibrancy of the city. There are certain things that can only happen on streets – the physically open and socially informal places in a city.
The streets of Hong Kong are one of its most undervalued assets – something shown by the fact there are essentially no places to sit there, no assigned places to stop and watch the world go by. Still, it’s on the streets that the city lives on a much more digestible scale. The shop fronts are smaller, shopkeepers stand at the door chatting with patrons, you see deliveries made, the waste being taken out, you see the well-heeled and the homeless.
You may have to suffer the heat and humidity to enjoy them but missing the streets of Hong Kong means missing its character.
David Michon is managing editor for Monocle.