The rain started on the Sunday afternoon, just as the conference got underway. A translucent sheet of water soaked the view of the skyscrapers and harbour from mid-afternoon through the night, shining in street lights like a swarm of locusts.
Those of us familiar to the rains of South Florida have seen water fall like this before – for 20 minutes each afternoon in July and August – but almost no one at the international legal conference that had taken me back to Hong Kong was prepared for this preview of its rainy season.
You could do nothing but watch the rain fall, glad to be indoors if you were, coping with being appallingly wet if you were not, and all the while feeling as if you were in a movie about the Vietnam War, minus the Viet Cong.
It rained on and off for the next few days, but the city seemed not to care. At least, as it displays itself to visitors, Hong Kong appears to be built and run for one thing only: Commerce. And it was not about to let record-breaking rains get in the way of the business week.
The infrastructure somehow sent all that water running off somewhere, leaving the streets passable, as if nothing unusual had happened. That made riding in taxi cabs between appointments on Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island theoretically easy to do, but traffic remained a continual problem in a city that, with more than 7 million inhabitants, is one of the world’s largest by population.Thosetaxis, although cheap, come with drivers who, by and large, do not speak English. (As a wise lawyer from Switzerland observed, if they could speak English, they would not be cabbies.) One driver even threw me out after giving up trying to decode where it was I wanted to go. The solution adopted by many of us was to ride the subway (called the MTR) or to take the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour – which it has been doing since the reign of the harbour’s namesake.
On the walls of the spiral staircase above the entrance to the Hong Kong Club, you can still find whimsical portraits of British men of power and influence. Back in the day (from 1848 until the 1970s), membership was restricted to white male Britons. You hear now how, beyond such fortresses of exclusivity, much of Hong Kong during British rule was tawdry and picturesquely run down, its alleys catering to goings-on you would just as soon not know about, or at least not while in the company of spouse and children.
Throughout history, European colonialists have preferred that their dominions not populated by their own nationals be exotic and a trifle rough. Why go so far away, to be in such a strange place, only to find yourself with all the unmanly benefits of home (at least when not at the office, in your own dwelling or at the club)?
Since the Chinese got their harbour back in 1997, Hong Kong has spruced up, built up and grown quite rich. New skyscrapers seem to pile atop each other along the harbour shore of the island, and from the high bridge to the airport, you can see the procession of container ships carrying to American ports all those things that Americans want and that their own inefficient, unionised factories had made for them before losing out and shutting down.
Not surprisingly, each year, Hong Kong sheds more of the remaining rustic dilapidation that Westerners still find alluring. It is the West, after all, that is still a touch romantic about “the mysterious East,” even as East Asia’s practicality and business-first attitude make the West look dreamy and romantic in comparison. Hong Kong is greater proof of that than can be found just about anywhere on the Pacific Rim, which is why seeing it on a business trip is the right way to do it.
That is also about the only logical way to do it, because about all that Hong Kong has to offer the short-term visitor are clean offices, perfect luxury shops and restaurants with Michelin stars. There is a Hong Kong Disneyland, and at night, the island’s office towers and convention centre, having little else to do after hours, put on a sound and light show that spans the harbour.
The city’s highest mountain, Victoria Peak (known as “The Peak”), offers a delightful view of the city. This being Hong Kong, it also houses a shopping mall.
There is also Victoria Park, which offers shaded walkways and sports courts. Just before the rains came, and as on all Sundays, open spaces in the park were filled with many clusters of the Filipino and Indonesian servant women on whom the locals depend to keep their lives tidy. Sunday, universally in town, is the maid’s day off, and they celebrate that communally.
In my legal practice, I work extensively with international luxury brands, and I live in Manhattan, where most of the big ones maintain stores. Even Manhattan could not prepare me for Hong Kong, where nearly every luxury brand has two shops and perhaps more – or for the singular peculiarity of my visit: Every single luxury store into which I took a look was beautiful, inviting and completely empty of humanity except for its well-dressed and obviously bored sales staff.
According to the news, currency fluctuations and a squabble or two between the mainland and Hong Kong sent away mainland tourists and their new wealth. The local population, in turn, appeared to favour modest dress – more H&M than Brunello Cucinelli.
The tradition of Hong Kong as a base for bargains therefore is no longer entirely true, and as anyone conversant with either Amazon or eBay knows, what is sold here on the cheap can easily be shipped just about anywhere. But there still are deals to be had by visitors.
A Nikon camera that costs almost US$3,000 (RM9,553) in the United States (and more in Europe) was going for about US$1,000 (RM3,189) less than that in two stores surveyed. The current flagship Leica, however, went for more than the US street price – until the haggling started.
Some lawyers among us went to Hong Kong tailors, long famous for speed and value, reporting that made-to-measure shirts could be had for US$80 (RM255) in two days’ time. But if you really want to experience traditional Hong Kong commerce, just walk along Nathan Road or nearby streets in Kowloon and endure the long-honoured Hong Kong ritual of shaking off touts who follow along, offering tailored clothes, counterfeit watches or a “massage”. In time, my answer would become, “I have a tailor I, I have a watchmaker, I have a prostitute.” Perhaps sensing that the last of those was not true, the response would be, “What you want?” to which my reply would come: “Nothing from you.”
By pure chance, while my lawyers’ meeting was in town, Art Basel Hong Kong was setting up at the other end of the convention centre. As the 245 art galleries from around the world were setting up their displays of Contemporary and Modern Art, I ran into a former partner of mine from Charlotte, North Carolina.
Perhaps knowing that I am an art critic and from New York, he had one question: “Why is everyone there wearing black?” My answer: “Because it’s considered cool, and if you are spending US$2mil (RM6.37mil) on a picture, no one cares what you are wearing.”
That night, at the VIP vernissage that opened the show, there were artists in black, there were patrons dressed as if for a Park Avenue dinner party, and there were others dressed as if angling for a prize for most original costume in an independent film that failed to find distribution.
Stuck in the middle of it all, rooted to their booths like redwoods to the forest floor, were the gallery people, conservatively and finely dressed, doing their utmost to show grace under pressure as they presented for sale, at great risk to fortune and reputation, what art galleries trading in the new offer everywhere: Desire, devotion and expectation.
A clumsy connoisseur swung her bag into sculpture and broke off a piece. The work – a whimsical slave galley in wood – was quickly repaired from spare parts wisely brought over by the Tokyo gallery that displayed it.
Hong Kong is indeed a world city now, and the moveable feast of the international class of money, power and fame was passing through Art Basel Hong Kong this evening, on its way to its next destination. There can be no better proof that Hong Kong has arrived on the world travel circuit, speaking in its own voice and revealing what pleases it to show as it collects its fair share from all who attend. – McClatchy-Tribune News Service
BY ALAN BEHR