The city that turned itself into a theme park.

A few hours from Hong Kong, I found myself looking around in the cavernous tranquility of the main deck of the British Airways’ A380, glancing at the faces of my fellow passengers. Many were asleep, relaxed expressions painted blue by the LED lights of the economy cabin; some were awake, looking at their screens. The plane was quiet, the humming of the engines so distant that I could hear people snoring a few rows back.

I thought at them, at their lives and at the reasons that were bringing them to Hong Kong. Surely they all had a motivation for being there, something far deeper and complex than the laconic “Business” or “Tourism” that they’d utter to the immigration officer.

My reasons to visit Hong Kong were hard to explain. Simply put, I wanted to see the city, but that was just my laconic synthetis; below it, a kaleidoscope of images and ideas and sounds crowded my mind. I had Tiziano Terzani’s descriptions, a documentary about Kowloon’s walled city but, more importantly, Blade Runner.

Not many know that, in facts, Ridley Scott borrowed plenty from Hong Kong for his futuristic Los Angeles. More than once he also said that he’d have loved to film in Hong Kong, but couldn’t; this was enough for me to superimpose the scenery from my favourite film to the former British colony.

Additionally, the sociologist in me wanted to see the future of our civilisation: the world, it’s been known, is becoming more and more urbanised, with more and more humans crammed in confined spaces, using fewer resources but with increasing needs. Hong Kong had to deal with this long before Jared Diamond and others started printing best sellers out of these concepts, and I wanted to know how the city coped with them.

The arrival in town was as tame as it could be; the express train was spotless and on time, and the underground icy in perfection. We had a moment of uncertainty (the same old, this platform or that one? and that was enough for a man with a parcel to come to our rescue. Then we emerged on Hennessy road and everything changed.

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The air was hot and sticky with suspended humidity, slowing down us, pathetic sweating figures. We coughed through the clouds of carbon dioxyde exhaled by geriatric vans and a moltitude of mopeds, cars and buses. Adverts were bulging at every corner, shouting the virtues of parfumes, iced tea and clothes. And people! Fast, nimble, seemingly indifferent to the heat the locals were zooming past us on their daily errands, oblivious to that clumsy duo of Westeners who looked like they’ve just arrived on a bus from some Godforsaken hamlet.

We stayed at a hotel that catered mostly for a mainland Chinese clientele, something that became evident when the lobby boy had to struggle to find a colleague who spoke some English to deal with us. The TV in our room only showed Chinese channels transmitting soap operas so preposterous that that they were almost eye-glueing, and gentle reminders here and here advised not to gob out of the windows.

Our hotel, nine stories high, might’ve been a dwarf in a neighbourhood of skyscrapers but had an unlimited view of Happy Valley and of the slopes that limited it, covered in banyan trees and in steel and glass. Looking at that spectacle, or at the shimmering of lights on the waterfront I couldn’t help but feel in the future, lightyears away from London’s brick-and-mortar mock Tudor row of houses. We sat by the waterfront, bowls of noodles and beers in our hands, and savoured the experience. The buildings on the island and on the land were changing colours in synch, as if they were talking to each other. Plane lights zoomed above us and I almost had the impression that they were flying cars, bringing Deckard to the meeting with the Company, in the hunt for replicants.

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Was it the future, then? Probably. Was it a future I wanted to see?

That first night I was ready to say yes but then, as we discovered more of the city, our confidence started to falter. We travelled the SAR far and large and, everywhere we went, we always found enormous, air-conditioned shopping malls, each and everyone selling exactly the same stuff I could find at Westfield in London’s White City. Starbucks. Gucci. Armani. Zara. H&M. Marks & Spencer.

One after one we discovered that a staggering number of the city’s facets had become sanitised, franchised and neatly packaged for the tourists’ benefit. The antique shops, be them in Kowloon or Mid Levels, had the same jade bauble, the same framed picture of a Cathay Pacific 747 landing at Kai-Tak airport, the same signs charging 20 HKD for photographers wishing to take a shot of their shops. Street vendors sold the same heaps of fake Maoist memorabilia, posters or red books, trying to entice the morbose curiosity of those wishing to revive a period where people died of starvation or beatings. The Ten Thousands Buddhas sanctuary, we discovered once we got on top, boasted a souvenir shop that had the same square footage of one of the temples.

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Nowhere showed this  “commodisation” of the city better than the Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau island. The Buddha, a giant bronze statue, had mushroomed into a tiny community on an island where crab hunting is still a worthwile job and where it’s not so unsual to see cows strolling along the roads. The enormous statue landed next to a Zen monastery built in the 1920s, basically cursing it. As it drew more and more tourists, a fake Chinese-style shopping mall popped up on the road towards the statue. Then a cableway had been built (and that, has to be said, is quite a brilliant thing), leading straight into the fake village-turned-mall from another shopping centre both, swarmed with legions of vacationers in organised tours.

The climb to the Buddha turned into a competition of elbowing, shouting, gobbing and selfie-sessions in the most unthinkable places. The same treatment was reserved to the nearby monastery, whose monks must’ve retreated somewhere more Zen away from this all.

We retreated, defeated, on a bus back to town, heads bobbing in unison to the changes of pace and direction given by our murderous driver. I imagined Hong Kong to be different, to be a different world. I never thought that I would’ve found it to be a mixture of Disneyland and a pawn shop. I would’ve never imagined that the Kowloon markets that I fabled so much would turn out to be filled with the same kind of cheap fake Louis Vuitton handbags that can be found on our seaside resorts. I would never have imaged that us tourists would’ve been so damaging to a city, up to the point of watering it down to a suburban factory outlet with skyscrapers.

I never imagined that future could look so bleak.

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