In May, the Global Transit Innovations (GTI) program coordinated a study-abroad course that took 16 University of Minnesota students to China. The intensive two-week course focused on high-density urban and regional development and included visits to five cities in the Yangtze and Pearl River Delta regions.
In this guest post, student Joseph Ward offers his reflections on Hong Kong, the final stop on the course’s itinerary. While in the city, students visited City University of Hong Kong, the University of Hong Kong, New Town Plaza, the Central Escalator, Victoria Peak, and the City Gallery.
By Joseph Ward
The first thing I noticed when we crossed into Hong Kong was the age difference from Shenzhen. The people of Hong Kong are aging, and the city—despite its steep hills and many staircases—is determined to treat its aging population with dignity and respect. There are lifts in most places with large elevation changes, and the pedestrian infrastructure is layered in a way that removes topography as a barrier. There is networks of tunnels and skyways that connect to the buildings with lifts and elevated escalators.
The Central Escalator is a creative solution to a topographic problem. In the morning, a covered escalator elevated over the street moves down the hill toward the central business district; in the afternoon and evening, the escalator moves up the hill toward the residential areas. Near the street-level escalator entrances, there are coffee shops, drug stores, bars, and restaurants to service the commuters.
There is also a dynamic array of life at the street level of the city. Many different shops selling antiques, food, flowers, artwork, and crafts—all stuffed into tiny little stalls. There was a key maker with an open-air stall at the entrance to an alleyway; the tools of his trade hung on a wall while he sat on a stool reading the newspaper. A blacksmith shop could be seen next to a storefront selling iron door knockers and jewelry. All these distractions kept my focus on the street, and I all but forgot about the pencil-thin skyscrapers overhead.
Hong Kong has a unique place in China. On one hand, it is very westernized and critical of Chinese control. On the other, there is a desire to connect to its Chinese heritage and a lingering grudge toward colonial rule. It was this colonial rule that created the economy that built the city’s density, and it also has allowed for other forms of expression to be widely accepted. I noticed a wide array of religions within Hong Kong, from Christian churches to mosques to Buddhist temples.
The economic tide is shifting in Hong Kong. The city is grappling with an economic divide that is widening as middle-income factory jobs move north to Shenzhen and the city is left with only the professional class and lower-income, service-level workers. The city is searching for a way to retain its economic vitality in the region, and tourism seems to be where it is trying go.
On the final day in Hong Kong, I needed a break from the city and took a ferry out to Llama Island to go for a hike. On the hike, I climbed to the peak of a small mountain that overlooked the Pacific Ocean. With my back to the Asian continent and a steady stream of cargo ships heading out toward the horizon, I couldn’t help but wonder about the future. Humphrey School Professor Sherry Grey emphasized to me the importance of the Chinese economy and how the success of this nation means success for the globe. And as I watched the constant tide of goods being shipped off to the world, I had a sense of what the Chinese were attempting. They are using all of the techniques available to them, and though the bureaucracy of government can move slowly, the economy moves quickly and is shaping the government’s actions.
You can’t stop such economic transformation, but it would be best to work to guide it. The number of people being lifted out of poverty is staggering, but the damage to the environment is also overwhelming and unsustainable. Standing at a beach on Llama Island and surveying the amount of garbage littering the shore gave me insight into what else is being shipped out to sea besides goods going to market.
All the cities we visited in China have water that is unhealthy to drink, and the government seems more concerned with developing transit infrastructure than potable water. But there may be hope in policy—there is real concern over air quality from local officials throughout China. Once an environmental movement gains traction, water will hopefully be next on the list.