Saturday, 5 May 2007

Hong Kong is made for walking

Hong Kong city lights from the ferry on slow shutter

This is my third time in Hong Kong. Had not expected to come to Hong Kong again, so soon. Its early in the morning (about 6 am) and I am on the 10th Floor of the NTT International House of the Hong Kong Baptist University at my window table looking out at a gloomy wet sky (with the aircon off and the windows open) with free Internet access via cable. The HKBU is situated in the Kowloon Tong area. Below me on the left is the Military Barracks of the Chinese Army - the soldiers are not allowed to come out and not allowed to mix with the "locals" (aren't they all Chinese too?). One China, Two Systems. In front of me are tall buildings and the hills (obscured by the mist; but now at 8 am clearing up).

And the reason I am here? Conference, of course. As I said, I had not expected to be here. But Nihal Perera, a Sri Lankan now at Ball State U in Muncie, USA came to visit Penang in March as part of his Fullbright Fellowship which he is spending at the HKBU. I became his personal chauffeur and tourist guide so he must have felt obliged to repay me for my kindness. No, seriously, we talked about planning, we pounded the streets of George Town, we talked politics, we discussed international collaborative learning, we challenged our students and we found out that we actually do have a lot in common (after pounding the streets of Hanoi in 2003 in the middle of the night and Mexico City in 2006).

So he invited (pestered) me to come deliver a paper at his conference, with promise of funding. So here I am, courtesy of HKBU (my heartfelt appreciation to the sponsors, especially Tang Wing Shing, co-organiser) talking about Constructivism for planning education. Delivered my presentation yesterday afternoon and managed to keep everybody awake. Got some very positive feedback and a scattering of sceptical looks. Old friendships have been rekindled and new ones struck. There are people who question why we spend so much time (and money) going to conferences. Yes, there are many who just go deliver their paper and disappear for the rest of the conference. For the rest of us, networking and social interaction is a very important reason for being here. We build relationships and bridges to develop our passion and we broaden our perspectives and insights too. There is a lot of social learning, if you choose to be part of it.

Noodles!! It's what makes the world go round. I have hunted for noodles on the streets of Hanoi, in Toronto, Nagoya and PJ even made me Muar noodles for breakfast at Warwick. Everytime I come to Hong Kong, my good friend Chin Hock would be my host. He is a graduate of HBP from my class. He came to Hong Kong a long time ago to study architecture, married a local and is now a successful developer here. One of the things we do is to hunt down local cuisine. And noodles of course is my favourite. The place, somewhere in Kowloon, was packed with young people. It was absolutely delicious. It cost 25 Hong Kong dollars a bowl. One thing about HK - all the food seems to be about 20 - 25 HKD whether is is chicken or duck rice or noodles. And the portions are very generous. Because the popular places are always packed, you have to share table most of the time. See empty chairs? Just sit down - the customers already there will not mind.

People. Oh, Hong Kong people are very nice - and I am not saying this because of the free lunch. They are extremely polite. This is something which Chin Hock has told me several times and in the process gets very irritated about rude Singaporeans (and people in KL). And I totally agree with him - about how polite people are here in HK. We were at a rice/noodle shop in the central city area on the first night. When the shopowner got paid he said "thank you" to the person paying. And then he turned to all of us sitting down and said thank you again. As we were walking out, he bowed slightly and said thank you for the third time as we walked passed him. Isolated case? No. You will see this behaviour even in the nice coffee shops. "thank you", " excuse me", "sorry for bothering you/intruding" - you will hear it all the time (of course you will need to understand a little bit of Cantonese). I first noticed their politeness on a previous trip when we visited one of the bazaar-type tourist areas. Even if you bargain with them and still decide not to buy, they will still say thank you to you. Try that in Singapore (yes, Singapore), Penang, KL or Beijing (and many other places) and they will be cursing you openly in their native tongue as you walk away - or at the very least give you a dirty look. Chin Hock says it's the result of the recession in the late 1990s - it made Hong Kong people more appreciative of what they have.

Traffic. Hong Kong has 7 million people and they are all packed into a very small area in highrise buildings. You would expect the traffic to be crazy. Well you would be wrong. Traffic is very calm and light and generally very well behaved. Sitting in Chin Hock's car - it feels very relaxing. No mad honking or weaving in and out. One reason for the comparatively light traffic on the roads (except for certain streets at certain times) is that owning a car is a very expensive habit. The car itself is not so expensive. The cost of parking is the killer. Standard rates anywhere is 20HKD an hour. A parking bay at your apartment building would cost about 2,000 - 3,000 per month. A full tank of gas costs 600 HKD (Honda Accord) and lasts about 10 days - thats 1,800 HKD a month. So what do they do? They walk! Everybody walks. They love walking (a lady said to me) and the streets are well designed with traffic islands and refuge in the middle of the road (traffic don't stop for you, you wait for the cars to pass then you cross, that's the "rule"). And of course, Hong Kong is famous for an efficient public transport system. I see a lot of the HKBU students carpooling in taxis. Buses are clean, regular and don't give you change - but that's OK because the locals use Octopus, an electronic wallet which comes in the form of the traditional cards and even on the watch. I took the bus from the airport to the University and it cost only 18 HKD while a taxi ride would cost about 270 HKD. But I got lost because I asked a man in front of my seat whether I should get off at the next bus stop and he looked at the map I showed and said no. He told me to get down a couple of bus stops later and pointed me in the direction of where he thought the building should be. As it turns out, his map-reading skills was not so good. So using my spare Cantonese, I got redirected back. A lady guard suggested I took the bus back but I said "no thank you", I trust my feet more. So I walked all the way back - that took me an extra half an hour to get to my destination.

Below is a picture taken at the elevated walkway (escalated-enabled) in the old city area which has generated a whole new layer of business and offices on the upper storeys of an otherwise dying business area.

(postscript : After reading this post, Chin Hock wanted to 'clarify' that he had two rude encounters with traders at the Sim Lim plaza famous for its computer and electronics products. He even complained to the Singapore Tourism Board, but did not get a satisfactory response).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi just read your blog and was so pleased to see NTT House was mentioned. I did a study abroad programme at HKBU in the academic year 2001/2002 and spent nine months at the NTT before the student halls were built. Its now been over five years since I left, and it felt as I was back on Campus! I'm going back in November this year and really looking forward to the hustle and bustle of this wonderful city!