Time Asia Essay
Hong Kong's Identity Crisis
To redefine itself, the city should look to Monte Carlo, not Disneyland
BY PHILIP BOWRING
Monday, Jul. 18, 2005
Should Hong Kong aspire to be the Monte Carlo of China? The question
may seem absurd. For a start, Hong Kong is a commercial city of
nearly 7 million people; Monte Carlo a town of just 16,000. Yet
is a metaphor for things that Hong Kong should stand for—quality,
wealth, low taxes and a sort of independence. A more obvious comparison
might be London, which, despite Britain's decline, has maintained
its global status thanks to a multinational population and the
determination of its financial markets to see the world as their
Hong Kong must adjust to the fact that it is not the only capitalist
city or financial center in China, is not the biggest port, is no longer
a manufacturing hub or a unique political anomaly in a postimperial
age. Can Hong Kong transform itself again, as it did in the 1950s when
it became more than a China gateway by turning itself into a manufacturing
powerhouse? Or is it destined to become like Rio de Janeiro? Fifty
years ago, the Brazilian city was the priciest place on the planet.
But it lost its bearings when the bureaucracy moved to Brasilia, the
bankers moved to São Paulo, and slums and drugs trumped its
topography and iconic beaches.
Hong Kong must be itself. But what is that self at a time when its
government is making daily appeals to its people to be more patriotic,
to learn the national anthem and to emphasize their membership of One
Country over their enjoyment of the freer of Two Systems? The most
attractive aspect of Hong Kong is precisely that it is so different
from the rest of China. Vive la Différence! Hong Kong should
stop wanting to feel more kinship with the likes of Wuhan and Chongqing.
Its leaders should stop stressing cultural and racial homogeneity and
instead celebrate the roles of Nepalis, Americans, Filipinos, Malaysians,
Nigerians and, yes, British in making Hong Kong what it is.
Will Hong Kong's status be reinforced by Disneyland? Or is the replication
of the Magic Kingdom a desperate exercise in copycat tourism that
ignores Hong Kong's special attributes in favor of a dated American
formula that will bring scant benefit? I know of no such equivalent
in or around Monte Carlo—or, for that matter, in Nice and Cannes,
both of which combine glamour, history, good food, a healthy climate
and the flamboyant luxury of megayachts.
By all means bring a casino
to Hong Kong. But make it Monte Carlo, not Macau, which today has
little more visual appeal than Shenzhen. Hong Kong does not need
millions of low-income tourists playing pennies on the tables or
in the slot machines. It does not need to cover its beautiful islands
with holiday villas for businessmen and bureaucrats from Guangdong
and high-rise hotels à la Benidorm.
Will Hong Kong's proposed multibillion-dollar West Kowloon "cultural
district" make the city an arts center or just create more opportunities
for real estate speculation? Without the sparks that fly from its freedoms,
Hong Kong will never translate its cultural hopes into realities that
justify bold architectural monuments. Will Hong Kong celebrate its
Cantonese roots, foreign influences and its status as home for millions
of Overseas Chinese? Or will it instead buy "culture" franchises—importing
brands like Centre Pompidou and Guggenheim to bolster its cultural
Hong Kong, too, needs to celebrate its uniquely beautiful location—and
put money into maintaining it. It should recognize that quality of
life should be one of its lead attractions in a China where quantity
rules and health is sacrificed to economic growth. Smog and an ever-narrowing
harbor are destroying a natural inheritance that no other major coastal
city in China enjoys. And Hong Kong should take a self-interested lead
in cleaning up the Pearl River Delta. A government investing in Disneyland
could surely spend an equivalent amount on such a cleanup, starting
with factories and power plants owned by Hong Kong's own tycoons.
maintaining the quality of life that its topography and climate should
provide, Hong Kong could gradually lose its richest sector—financial
services. With effort, it could be a city like Sydney, which others
envy for its combination of natural beauty, efficiency, food and architecture.
Sydney is a place where visitors can sail a boat, swim in the harbor,
smell the sea—and still do business.
Will China's movie starlets
want to be filmed against a background of smog? Will the new rich
from China's interior, longing for a breath of fresh sea air, flock
smelly city? An environment that should be one of Hong Kong's attractions
is already driving business to Singapore, Sydney, even Tokyo.
Leave the theme parks to Dongguan and the patriotic history museums
to Beijing. Be yourself, Hong Kong. Celebrate quality, culture, entrepreneurship,
food, efficiency, climate and scenery—and the rich and famous
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