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Hong Kong Tries On the Green

Unnatural wonders aren't the whole story on this high-tech, high-rise island

November 05, 2000|TARAS GRESCOE | Taras Grescoe is a Montreal-based writer whose first book, "Sacre Blues: An Unsentimental Journey Through Quebec," has just been published by Toronto's McClelland & Stewart

HONG KONG — Every traveler builds imaginary cities. The Hong Kong of my dreams, constructed with the help of the films of Wong Kar-wai, John Woo and Jackie Chan, was a fantastic thicket of vertical concrete and intense street life.

I pictured it as a Blade Runner-like dystopia with Buck Rogers-style incline railways, moving walkways and trams--a skyscraper-spiked coastal rock hurtling from 19th century British colonialism toward millennial Chinese Communism.

It was gratifying, then, when I visited Hong Kong last October, to see that it wasn't all that different from my imaginings, though reality forced me to temper my mental picture with surprising splashes of green.

This densely populated city, with its striking clash of worldliness and wilderness, does seem addicted to futuristic transport. Its subway system is extensive and swift; a new bullet train links Hong Kong Island to Chek Lap Kok airport in just 23 minutes; minibuses dash office-tower denizens back to their hillside homes.

There's even a system of outdoor escalators and raised walks that takes commuters from near sea level a half-mile up Victoria Peak to high-rise apartments with names like "Wealthy Heights."

From the escalator's upper tiers, it's easy to get an overview of the city's geography. Skyscrapers crowd toward the waterfront of Central, the main commercial district on the north side of Hong Kong Island. Brand names emblazoned across the glass fronts there are a reminder that until 1997 this was an enclave of British free enterprise off the shores of Communist China.

Across choppy Victoria Harbor is the Kowloon Peninsula, on the Chinese mainland, also densely developed. Beyond Kowloon are the New Territories, the semirural buffer zone between mainland China and what the Chinese describe as the "Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong."

Although Hong Kong Island was described by one of its British governors as a "barren rock," the towers of this high-tech human ant farm are surrounded by a countryside of verdant, bird-filled hills. And Hong Kong has been using this lush backdrop to promote itself as a green, environmentally friendly place.

Local officials like to emphasize that 40% of Hong Kong's total area has been set aside for conservation, with 23 country parks and 14 special areas for wildlife and marine protection. There are 120 species of orchids growing here, 225 of butterflies and 445 of birds.

But Hong Kong as ecological haven? I eventually would come to appreciate the city's split personality, but my first reaction to this eco-tourism campaign was a snort of disbelief.

This is, after all, a city where smog and blistering heat killed three hikers in just one September day. It's a place where, no matter what the weather, the omnipresent air-conditioning seems set at a chilly 67 degrees--the perfect temperature, old Brits like to note, for tweed.

Then, too, there are constant reminders that in China, man sits atop the food chain.

In the streets of Kowloon, vendors sell swigs from bowls filled with a tonic decocted from boiled turtles. At Shia Wong Hip restaurant on Apliu Street, you can eat snake soup and sip cobra gallbladder wine while surrounded by cages of soon-to-be-slaughtered venomous serpents.

While pondering the tourist pitch for this place as ecological paradise, I paid an early evening visit to Kowloon Park, the central green space of the hotel and shopping district across the harbor from downtown Hong Kong.

Despite the bucolic promise of its name, the park, I soon realized, is made up almost entirely of concrete. It boasts a swimming pool, an aviary, a sculpture garden, a totem pole, an air-conditioned games hall and a McDonald's. But it is conspicuously lacking in greenery.

Yet when I hiked on the Dragon's Back Trail, a ridge-top path on the central spine of Hong Kong Island, I was momentarily fooled into thinking I was in a tropical paradise. The skies were blue, the hillsides were full of squat rose myrtle bushes and bamboo and a strong breeze lofted hang gliders high above.

Hong Kong lies just south of the Tropic of Cancer, and on this October day, the island's sparsely populated eastern shore looked as idyllic as any coastal resort I've visited in the Mediterranean. With its white-walled one-story houses, Shek O, a town visible 500 yards below, could pass for a Greek fishing village.

The illusion of tropical splendor was almost complete--until I glanced over my shoulder. There I saw a thicket of skyscrapers sprouting between a nick in the green ridges behind me, and I recalled that millions of Hong Kong residents live in public housing blocks where, officials say, the average family unit measures a meager 500 square feet.

Meanwhile, the trail before me had descended to Shek O, where I enjoyed a cheap but tasty meal of shrimp curry at Chinese and Thailand Seafood Restaurant.

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