Sunday, August 25, 2013

Hong Kong

Although Hong Kong is part of the People's Republic of China, it is considered an autonomous territory with special administrative rights compared to mainland China. Those are quite extensive and include all affairs except diplomatic relations and national defense. The second special administrative region is Macau, which lies east of Hong Kong. The principle of "one country, two systems" was established when the former British (Hong Kong) and Portuguese (Macau) colonies were handed back to China in the late 90s.

The 150 years of British influence is noticeable throughout the city: left-hand traffic, British street names, modern infrastructure, English language, etc. However, the city also preserved a lot of charm of a traditional Chinese city. I think it is this mix of cultures from East and West that makes Hong Kong particularly fascinating. In addition, the British influence also supported the rise to one of the world's leading financial centers. Hong Kong is very much characterized by a free market spirit and low taxation; the dream of every "American conservative".

Hong Kong is called the most vertical city in the world. With 2,354 high-rises, it holds the record in terms of number of buildings taller than 100 m (328 ft). New York City is ranked second with 794 buildings. The lack of space and a growing population (currently about 7 million) makes Hong Kong one of the most expensive cities in the world as well. I saw the impact by looking at the bill for my hostel. The place I stayed was the most expensive so far and had by far the least comfort. I found accommodation at Chunking Mansions; a well-known building in Hong Kong for affordable backpacker housing (as well as a notorious center of drugs, petty criminals, scammers and illegal immigrants). Very fascinating. Check some pictures of the place here.

All in all, I really enjoyed Hong Kong and I think it is a great city providing a high quality of life. On the downside, the financial industry clearly dominates the economy and this is the area where the well-paid jobs are. Hong Kong feels almost like a two-tier society where one works either in finance (alternatively is a well-connected real estate developer) or struggles to make ends meet. Like mentioned in a previous post, I believe the growing disparity between rich and poor is one of the biggest problems, and will lead to upheaval and conflicts if there will be no significant change in the near future. Shanghai and Hong Kong are the best examples for income inequality so far.

I also spent two days in Macau. There is a convenient ferry service between Hong Kong and Macau that takes about one hour and departs every 15 minutes. Macau is China's Las Vegas and people flow into the city to enjoy gambling, shopping and eating. Chinese are known for their passion to gamble and Macau has already surpassed Las Vegas in terms of gaming revenue. Whereas Las Vegas "only" makes about $10 billion from its visitors per year, Macau is generating a staggering $38 billion, and is rapidly growing in contrast to the Sin City in America. However, in my opinion Macau lacks the atmosphere of the original. Therefore, it was just a nice-to-see.

My flight from Hong Kong to Hanoi didn't go as smooth as planned. Typhoon "Utor" (level 8 on a scale of 10) hit the Chinese coast and affected all transportation systems. First, I had to stay an additional night in Macau because the ferry service back to Hong Kong had been interrupted. The next day I made it to the airport, but after several delays of the flight, it had been cancelled as well. So, I stayed one more night in Hong Kong before finally taking off to Hanoi the following day. I learned a lesson through this event: stay calm in whatever situation you are and accept it as is. It was fascinating to see how many people completely lost their patience and manners due to the flight cancellation. It felt good not to be part of this negative energy.

For me, one of the best food experiences are the no-frills food places on the street, which offer local cuisine for a cheap price. The owners put plastic chairs and tables on the street and cook right in front of you. I was never disappointed with my dish, and the missing air-conditioner is offset by a cold beer (or two).

I met Peter who actually grew up in the SF Bay Area (San Jose) but moved to Hong Kong a few years ago. We had drinks together that night, and he showed me other good spots in the city to go to.

It is a little bit hard to see on the picture, but on the left side there is an escalator. The central-mid escalator in Hong Kong is the world's longest outdoor covered escalator system (800 m / 2,600 ft long with a vertical climb of 135 m / 443 ft). The total travel time is about twenty minutes. Pretty cool.

On the way up to Victoria Peak, with 552 m (1,811 ft) the highest mountain on Hong Kong island. The summit provides spectacular day and night views of the city.

Hong Kong is comprised of five districts. Hong Kong island and Kowloon are most famous, because of their skyscrapers, office buildings and shopping malls. However, other districts are also interesting particularly for outdoor activities. I did a day hike on Lantau. The landscape is amazing and a big contrast to the vibrant city.

Hong Kong is famous for its ubiquitous neon lights. They give the city a special character unmatched in the world.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Mainland China (Shanghai)

I actually wanted to publish a new blog post earlier, but China's restrictions on the internet alias the Great Firewall made it not possible. Blogger (the service I use for this blog) and other Google applications either don't work at all or only very limited. It is interesting to see how China restricts access to information. For example, the website of the New York Times is blocked as well. This is seen as a reaction of last year's NYT article about then prime minister Wen Jiabao. It tells the story about how his family became wealthy during his time in office and accumulated assets worth about $2.7 billion. Clearly no peanuts.

My destination in mainland China was Shanghai plus two day trips to other cities (Hangzhou and Zhouzhuang). The progress of Shanghai in the last 25 years is astonishing. Check out the following then and now pictures. It's amazing! It is a modern city with first-class infrastructure; the airport, streets, public transportation, buildings etc. are brand-new and state-of-the-art. Europeans and Americans could get envious when comparing this with the deteriorating infrastructure back home. It is part of the basic contract between government and people: rising living standards in exchange for the acceptance of the Communist Party's monopoly of power.

Furthermore, the new wealth of Chinese consumers can be seen everywhere. For instance, they love German luxury cars. It is unbelievable how many Mercedes, BMW, Audi, and Porsche are on Shanghai's streets. Other luxury items from brands such as Prada or Louis Vuitton are also doing very well. And it seems that modesty or understatement is not very popular in China. If you have money, you show it. It's not like in San Francisco where billionaires don't mind to take public transportation (Jack Dorsey) or wear hoodies (Mark Zuckerberg).

However, one shouldn't be dazzled by Shanghai's glitz. The city only shows the surface of a huge country with an increasing wealth gap. For every millionaire in China, there are thousands of people who still live in poverty without proper social security. This income inequality can become a big problem (not only in China, the same is true for the US and Europe). In addition, the issue of the government's suppression of human rights such as freedom of speech is not really felt by a foreigner on vacation (except the limited internet access), but it exists and shouldn't be forgotten.

America's political and economical power in the world is in distress particularly if compared with China. However, being in China clearly showed me another aspect of American power, which is the cultural influence. It is amazing to see how Chinese people adapt to the lifestyle defined by American companies: drinking coffee at Starbucks, eating McDonald's burgers, using mobile devices from Apple, or watching Hollywood movies. I believe that even with increasing Chinese power, the "American way of life" will keep shaping the lifestyle of people worldwide.

Two things that drove me nuts in China. First, car and scooter drivers constantly honk. Although there is a perfectly working signal system, people always use the horn to gain attention. Annoying. But I guess this becomes even worse in South-East Asia. Second, the concept of a waiting line is not well understood. There were always people who went in front of me while I was waiting in line without showing any sense of guilt. Just following the rules don't always work in China, you need to be more assertive.

Pudong is a new district in Shanghai and basically its financial and commercial hub. It is located along the east side of the Huangpu River across from the historic city center. This area used to be little developed agricultural land but has grown rapidly since the 1990s. All of Shanghai's supertall skyscrapers are in Pudong including the Shanghai World Financial Center (492 m/1,614 ft), Oriental Pearl Tower (468 m / 1,535 ft), Jin Mao Tower (421 m / 1,380 ft) and the currently under construction Shanghai Tower (632 m / 2,073 ft).

Shanghai is with approximately 23 million people one of the largest cities in the world. It is funny that when I was younger I thought Frankfurt is a big city. In China everything is on a different scale as compared with Germany. Very fascinating. And all those people have to live somewhere. The obvious solution is to build many residential towers. This solves the problem, but unfortunately makes the city not very pretty in my opinion. 

One of the few bigger temples in Shanghai. It was a nice one but the temples I have seen in China lack somehow the atmosphere of those in Japan. There was also a German tourist group that could be clearly identified by the flag and the German speaking Chinese guide. I joined the group for a little bit, but quickly figured that this is not my way of traveling. I prefer to explore a city on my own and go my pace.

I had a really fun night with a guy from Japan. We met at a Japanese restaurant (of course) and drank a lot of sake and beer. After getting in a good mood, we moved to a hotel bar and switched from beer/sake to cocktails. We got definitely drunk that night. I also hit the stage with the goal to support the singer of the evening. Didn't really work out though. :) Jeez, I had a bad headache the next day. Worth it though.

The day trips to Hangzhou and Zhouzhuang were a welcome change to busy Shanghai and provided also a different perspective of the country. As soon as you leave the city center, the differences between modern and traditional China become obvious. The countryside offers more natural beauty, but is clearly behind the economic powerhouse Shanghai in terms of development and infrastructure. 

I thought that it was hot in Japan but China completely blew my mind. The country experiences one of the hottest summers in decades with temperatures up to 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) plus high humidity. Crazy. I actually can handle heat pretty well, but have to admit that this pushed me to my limits. Also, in Asia people not only use umbrellas when it is raining, but also when the sun is shining.