Monday, April 28, 2014

Alone on the South China Sea

I arrived at Chungking Mansions on a cold, rainy April day, and anyone who's lived or traveled for an extensive period in Asia knows the drill. At every corner stands a skinny Bengali tout in a loud shirt, trying to grab your attention, get you to come to a guesthouse, tailor, moneychanger, or fly-by-night travel agency. The wider the smile, the greater the deception.

            -Hey mister, you looking for something?

I do my best to avoid eye contact, and get into my cramped room as quickly as I can. I drop my bags and try to explore the city. With a limited budget and knowing no one, I walked and walked, until my calves ached, until I just wanted to sit down and watch the boats cross the harbor.

On the one side, it is a city of stone steps tumbling down steep hillsides, narrow and vertiginous streets cutting between tiny restaurants and Chinese herbalist shops where calico cats bask in sunbeams atop pallets of dried cuttlefish and chrysanthemum petals, of mid-century apartment blocks in white brick and sea-green tile with old British colonial street signs in an elegant modernist font, of storybook trams and ferries and schoolchildren with bright red umbrellas, of the warm smells of Taoist temple incense in chilly weather and goose fat pressed into fresh-cooked rice-- a Wes Anderson movie waiting to be made.

On the other, Hong Kong is a banking capital as bland as any other the world over. Its CBD is a tangle of escalators connecting countless antiseptic, high-security structures, with the same piano music, the same black-and-white photos, men with Breitling watches on well-muscled arms and women with Hermès bags dangling from their avian shoulders. I walked through the nightlife sections, and can't find a bar that didn't pulse with vaguely "European" dance music, that wasn't filled with aspiring financial criminals and the braying voices of posh London and Lower Manhattan.

These two Hong Kongs exist parallel to each other, sometimes on the street, often kissing, their eyes closed to each other.

Yet they are bound together by their sheer density, the density of a narrow city wedged between the mountains and the sea. I walked up Nathan Road at night, past rows of old textile factories and towers filled with shoebox apartments, amid an infinite entanglement of glowing Chinese characters.

And on a fine sunny afternoon I took the subway to the north, to where the world's densest human habitation once rose up, a towering slum that is now a park filled with odd chunks of concrete and low-lying tumuli.

I ended my trip atop Victoria Peak, the lush, misty mountain that looms over Central Hong Kong, to see the whole thing at once.

Staring outwards, surrounded by cheery groups of tourists-- Singaporean families, Thai honeymooners, Malaysian retirees. Alone, in my shabby clothes and worn-out sneakers, stubble-faced, without a camera and politely refusing the audio tour, it was impossible not to feel out of place and vaguely suspect.

But what is travel if not dislocation. And this is something people don't talk about very often. And something that becomes all the more salient when you're in a place like Hong Kong, a city with a government predicated on a contradiction, a city that is either self-loathingly Asian or pretentiously Western, either a bastion of democracy in a totalitarian state or the same state's poodle. It is in a place like this, in a situation like this, that the entire world seems to be centered within the field of view of a telescope.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Megalopolis

When I was maybe 10 or 11, I went with my family at night up into the mountains above Santa Fe. Old enough to watch horror movies, I knew this couldn't end well. The broken, wooden National Forest Service sign was warning enough. Beyond here were murderous hitchhikers, desert death cults, Indian burial grounds.

Yet what I saw when my mother finally parked the car, high up on a mountain road, chilled me far more than anything I'd seen in a theater. Above me extended a vast expanse almost milky with stars, more than I'd ever seen, framed on all sides by icy mountains and 80 foot tall, silhouette-black pines.

Stunning, yes, but I knew I was standing at the gateway to something incomprehensibly vast and formless, so much bigger, so much emptier than anything else I'd seen in my young life. And like a chasm, t threatened to swallow me into its infinity.

I ran back into the car, into the comfortable domesticity of upholstery and blinking LEDs and familiar electronic pings and cookie crumbs.

It wasn't until I was 18, in a college classroom, that I learned that there was a term for this, the sublime, a coinage of Edmund Burke, who contrasted it to the beautiful, in much the same way it would later be contrasted with the beautiful by countless conservative thumb-twiddlers who shared Burke's enthusiasm for establishment Protestantism and the free market.

As I've grown older, I've learned to appreciate that which dwarfs me, and, 200 years on, discovered that the sublime and the beautiful are not mutually exclusive. If anything, I find that the irrational and the overwhelming interest me far more than anything that suggests a divine order to the universe.

And yet that sense of massiveness and terror of the void comes at me to this day, at times when I don't expect it. I see it when I'm walking through desolate parking lots surrounded by 40-story towers at midnight, when coming out of my office on a rainy early evening into a dimly lit alleyway, high walls around me on all sides.

Or, most profoundly, when I land in one of the great Asian megacities by night. You are surrounded by half-darkness, and then suddenly it looms before you. Lights blink in icy blue marking the runways, with the cityspace cut up by massive highways illuminated with yellow sodium-vapor lamps, dotted with cranes marking the ever-expanding skyline.

But somehow they remain obscure. How many Americans have heard of Dongguan, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Wuhan in China, or Bekasi or Medan in Indonesia?

I take a commuter train out of Bangkok into the suburbs, where the contradictions between the old Asia and the new are at their sharpest.

The megacity is without profile or shape, without boundary save arbitrary political edges, primarily erected in the past 30 years or so as part of the mass influx of rural populations. They are places of constantly pouring concrete, of dusty lots and rickety scaffoldings, farmers' fields interspersed with eight-story buildings.

The handful of fugitive slums in Bangkok line canals and railway tracks out on these peripheries, and are built of sheet metal and often old billboards, including-- with no apparent irony-- those with the smiling faces of political candidates and cheery slogans about developing the nation.

Across a cinder-block wall, a few inches and several magnitudes of income away, a new gated community rises up, with fountains and avenues of royal palms. The identical houses are built in white concrete with wedding-cake baroque ornamentation and massive reflective glass windows, the architectural answer to a Bach cantata played as elevator music.

In the old center, the city groans under its weight. Old shophouses with wooden windows abut crystalline shopping centers along traffic-clogged streets below elevated metro lines. Everything is atop everything else. I sit down at a cafe slotted into the megacity's core. The exposed pipes and butcher block are intended to mirror a loft space, an attempt at a cozy spot in Brooklyn or London on a cold winter morning rendered in a shopping zone in the sweltering tropics, one simulation in an infinite sequence.

It's hard not to read the megacity as a harbinger of doom of some sort, whether spiritual or environmental or social. It's no accident that in previous eras, Friedrich Engels visited Victorian Manchester and saw in it the breeding grounds for the communist revolution he saw erupting from the inherent contradictions of an industrial society. Émile Zola documented the overgrown Paris of the corrupt Second Empire and personified it as a contemptuous courtesan named Nana-- a name later given to a spermy neighborhood in central Bangkok-- who meets her end as "a shovelful of putrid flesh." And these days, countless journalists and scientists look at smog-choked Beijing and parched Cairo and see nothing but incipient catastrophe.

One's imagination takes flight at the elaborate corpses our current cities will leave. It's remarkably easy to see the collapse of the metropolis in the mind's eye. One imagines Dhaka washed into the rising Bay of Bengal, massive housing developments uninhabited and rusting in South China, the glass and steel skeleton of Abu Dhabi underneath shifting dunes.

The reality of it will probably be far less interesting. Given the cheapness of contemporary building materials, the ruins of megacities will probably form a mass of glass and concrete, rust stains and seeping oil. And somehow it seems fitting that the largest habitations the world ever knew, erected so fast, will dissipate equally fast. The modern city becomes entropy itself.