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Blog // Travel
March 3, 2009

Random Bits Of Hong Kong News

There are a few signs of economic recession around Hong Kong. Stores are closing, sale signs have stayed up in many place long past their normal season. Restaurants and food outlets are making lots of offers (two for ones, free glasses of wine, lunch packages, etc.). The general consumer mood seems to be cautious and […]

There are a few signs of economic recession around Hong Kong. Stores are closing, sale signs have stayed up in many place long past their normal season. Restaurants and food outlets are making lots of offers (two for ones, free glasses of wine, lunch packages, etc.). The general consumer mood seems to be cautious and concerned.

In Saturday’s FT Tyler Brûlé noted that luxury brands are looking to Hong Kong to prop up sales. That’s an interesting comment since what I am seeing, walking around, is very thin stock levels. Take the major department stores like Lane Crawford, where floor-space is being given over more and more to, well, floor space. There’s clearly fewer clothes out and fewer displays for those clothes.

A starker story is unfolding out at Hong Kong airport’s Terminal Two, where stores are closing and sales are way, way down. Perhaps T2 is a bit of a marketing disaster (seems totally off the radar for most HK residents), but perhaps the story is fewer tourists or at least tourists emptying their wallets less at the airport?

Construction and development is always in the news here; this is, after all, the city where even libraries and arts venues look like shopping malls. One big story is the ruckus over the waterfront development/disaster. Not content with a wall a high-rise building in the downtown, there are plans for two more buildings in front of the nearly iconic IFC2 and IFC mall.

I say nearly iconic because few building get the chance to become iconic here before they are built out. Personally, I like the IFC towers because they have a rare quality for a Hong Kong high-rise – they are aesthetically pleasant at ground level. So many buildings here are downright inhospitable from a pedestrian viewpoint. More development in front of IFC would, of course, kill this perspective and also rob the potential to widen and beautify the shorefront. Every tourist and visitor to Hong Kong marvels (quite rightly) at the blend of working harbour, modern high-rise and dramatic mountains that (on a clear day) makes up the city’s panorama.

The tragedy is that the experience at street level and on the water’s edge is so dire. Tatty shops, little if any shade, trees or grass, no entertainment and almost no where to sit (and why oh why do the few seats offered mostly face away from the water?).

It’s a challenging issue for Hong Kong – a city which for all it’s good qualities is shockingly unfriendly to pedestrians (in urban areas). Consider the trend in many cities right now to follow Copenhagen’s lead and increase the pleasure of walking. Even New York has taken the hint, with Mayor Bloomberg employing Danish architect Jan Gehl to improve the pedestrian experience. NYC has realised that people come to see the buildings and experience the street life, not look at cars and sit in traffic jams.

Which raises the question why do people come to Hong Kong? Monocle Weekly (yes, that crew again!) asked the question two weeks ago, what does Brand Hong Kong stand for? It’s a good question and I’m seeing increasing signs that a lot of people here want it to stand for more than just Finance, Shipping and Retail. It seems that each month brings a new, or expanded arts festival and there is a lot of interest in fostering design – from conferences, to Pecha Kucha nights to the newly minted deal for SCAD to open a campus here (in a redeemed historic building).

But, preservation is still a mixed bag. The furore over Jackie Chan’s collection of preserved historic buildings is a case in point. The actor wanted the local government to provide a suitable block of land for a small museum and the deal seemed locked in extended bureaucracy. However, the Singapore government seemed to manage a suitable deal in about a week (complete with marketing plans).

Meanwhile the historically significant Union Church has had a major setback in their plans to develop a 24 story high-rise on their site. I don’t doubt their need to modernise facilities. However, it seems their goal was to also use revenue from the new building to fund ministry. Personally, i have qualms about that sort of thing – churches seldom make good landlords and priorities can easily shift from mission to maintenance.

Moreover, I can’t see how the road outside the church could sustain a dramatic increase in traffic – though from other recent cases it seems developers can override such qualms pretty easily. Sadly, the car wins over the shoe in this town.

Which is a small metaphor for my big fear for Hong Kong. Every great city has a great street life and encourages walking. The city might look big from the outside, but the urban experience is experience in the small locations, at street level and on foot. This is true in every city and across every culture. Sometimes cities lose sight of that, but when they do they regain their greatness by bringing it back into focus (NYC, Melbourne, Copenhagen, etc.). Until Hong Kong does the same it will be holding itself back, creatively and culturally and in the end, economically.

Responses
Chester 14 years ago

Walking is good for health and steet life. But then, given the government’s failure to make our steets more pleasant & more liveable, is it any wonder why people here aren’t too thrill to be walking outside? Instead of paving every square inch of space with concrete, maybe the government should have some greenery space. By greenery I don’t mean having an urban park that has a tiny single tree surrounded by barb wires and concrete as we see in Hong Kong, but actually some grass anf flowers as well? People in Hong Kong lead stressful lives, the least the government can do is make the surroundings more liveable.

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