Time Asia Essay
Hong Kong's Identity Crisis
To redefine itself, the city should look to Monte Carlo, not Disneyland


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 Monte Carlo 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 hinterland.

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 cachet?

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.

Without 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 to a 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 will come.





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