Visiting weekends

On Sundays in Hong Kong the overhead walkways are covered space. At eight thirty most are taken, demarcated with twine or blankets by the early risers. These women make phone calls or read, occupying space for friends. By noon all spots will be taken and the chatter of friendship will fill these temporary cement salons. This occupation of public space is part of Hong Kong, repeated and and relatable in a way comforting to this San Francisco visitor. In my neighborhood it is streets and sidewalks that are occupied on Sundays, rather than overhead walkways, and the small sales, drinking, and disruption are rather more confrontational in nature than the collection of weekday workers FaceTiming their families. The juxtaposition is strange, and comforting. Like myself, the migrant workers of Hong Kong have only Sunday off, the sole moment of solitary peace in a foreign country. Unlike them, I spend the single day in a solitary fashion, drinking coffee, climbing, and writing in my hotel room. I am lucky to be here in the employ of a US company, to have access to discretionary funds, to have energy to explore. I do not need to carve out a section of stairwell to have private space, nor bring cardboard to pad the ground. And yet I too will FaceTime my family, I too will chat with friends similarly distant, and I too will go back to work in the evening, ready for another week of long days in a country not my own.

In some small way then I appreciate these women’s situation, their choice, however constrained, to live in this country and work hard for money they can share with a family they see only on screen. Watching them set up their places early this morning I appreciate their perseverance, their laughter, and their community. And I appreciate the culture that has employed them so willingly but also that allows them this one day a week of occupancy. The freedom to take over public spaces, in fact to appear in public spaces at all, is not taken for granted, and is not common. The fact that Hong Kong’s walkways are covered on Sundays with evidence of the city’s dependence on migrants is a reminder that public space can be shared and maintained for everyone, regardless of origin.

Finding comfort

I am again in Hong Kong, briefly.

Over the past decade I’ve spent a dozen days like this, give or take. They’re days of freedom on either end of busy work travels. They’re days plucked from the vagaries of jetlag and airline schedules in an attempt to maximize time on the ground.

It’s not a common approach. Many try to minimize time in country, to avoid skipping a child’s soccer game or a Saturday morning breakfast. I have done that too frequently, and now my priorities are different, born of being a person who loves many places, rather than one. Luckily my family understands that I am better company returning from an extra day of quiet thinking than a tight Friday night rush to the airport from a factory in Dongguan. At least usually. Spending Friday evening exploring or at a dinner and then Saturday wandering leaves me with an impression of the world I want to return to, rather than viewing it as a place of work necessity. As always, I try to maintain that curiosity.

In this fashion I’ve spent a weekend in Changsha, doing research, and many weekends in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo, the loci of my global slingshot routes. And yet, despite years of practice, I’m still learning. I’m learning how to find special places, how to be a more adventurous visitor. Being a frequent visitor rather than a tourist should provide different opportunities, and does. Lately I’ve been visiting climbing gyms, small parks, and new neighborhoods. Mostly, as always, I walk long distances and speak little.

After several hours of wandering, after a day of looking down alleys and up stair cases, I find somewhere to get cheap noodles, maybe a local beer, and read some fiction. The novel lets me tune out the city I’ve worked so hard to focus in on. And eventually, calmer and ready for company, I head to the airport for my long commute back to our small apartment, to Mr. Squish and our four am jetlag mornings.

Walking borders

I get out of the taxi on a highway offramp. The driver, from Dongguan, doesn’t want to be on the surface streets of Shenzhen. After a week on the road I don’t mind, and I shoulder my backpack and duffle. I weave through stopped traffic to the curb, following it down to ground level. The border is less than a hundred meters away, a large building that houses Chinese customs connected to a walking bridge across the river to another building that houses Hong Kong customs and the Lok Ma Chau train station.

I’ve walked further to borders.

Carrying gear through traffic on the surface street I pause on the dotted yellow as cars start to move and pass on either side. It’s an action that would cause problems in San Francisco or New York but here, like so much of the world, is simply part of crossing the street. Three cars later there is a gap and I am on the far sidewalk. Five minutes later I’m in line for exit customs. Five minutes after that I look at the river that separates Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Like always it makes me realize how small the differences are between places and how much impact they have on our lives.

Borders are largely artificial. Yes, the river forms a nice demarcating line, like the Rio Grande between Texas and Mexico, but the differences in income, opportunity, language and safety are not caused by the river.

On the train into Hong Kong the air is already slightly better. Pollution does not respect borders, but the sources of it do. Hong Kong’s air has worsened over the last decade due to its proximity to Shenzhen, Dongguan, and the whole Guangzhou region, but it’s still better than those cities. So too is the food, Internet, and transit, not to mention salaries. The effects of man. Housing is more expensive though, so many Hong Kong residents have started living in Shenzhen, commuting across the border to take advantage of the artificial cost disparity.

Walking this border is new to me. I first crossed it on foot less than a year ago, though the lines and shops have grown familiar with frequent repetition. Without an electronic ID card I have to wait in line, unlike my commuter friends. It’s still an amazingly efficient border, on both sides. Hong Kong customs are rightfully considered a model, fast, well-organized, and simple to cross. Being a trading port and an international hub requires good customs, I think.

Less than one year. Surprising to me, as it feels like much longer. Fourteen times at least. First with others, colleagues and factory representatives. Then by myself, often met on one side or the other. And now, in a taxi I found, dropped on the off ramp from the highway.

The borders we cross say a lot about our lives. As a boy from upstate New York, the frequency with which I walk the Hong Kong Shenzhen border serves as a shorthand explanation of my job, checking factories and working on manufacturing problems. It also outlines another, more common border I frequent: that between San Francisco and Hong Kong, delineated by airports and the Pacific. This border, seemingly unremarkable, is of course the slowest to cross, and the most expensive. Impossible on foot, or as a daily commute.

Two years ago my border crossings were very different, the product of another job, another life.

In that life I stepped out of the minivan into the harsh light of a Juarez autumn. I carried less, just my backpack, and walked faster through traffic, uncertain of its comfort with mid-stream pedestrians. Hawkers on the corner offered beads and newspapers. The footbridge, a couple hundred meters ahead, arced up over to the U.S. border beside the bridge for cars, jammed and barely moving. Without me onboard my host could avoid this line, using his express pass to meet me on the other side. By walking four hundred meters I saved us each an hour or more. It was an easy trade.

That border changed my travel strategy, led me to the single backpack packing method I use everywhere now. It also taught me that the strangest feeling a border can bring is that of having to ask to be let back in to one’s own country.

So much easier, less stressful, and faster, to ask for permission to enter Hong Kong.

The walking borders of my life two years ago were all between Mexico and the U.S. Mostly El Paso and Juarez, but also Tijuana and San Diego, after long days on the road. Those trips, a staple of my 2012 existence, have disappeared from my life entirely, replaced by Shenzhen and Zhongshan, by so many evenings in Hong Kong. In some ways it’s a direct exchange. I have traded the hot summer afternoons in Mexico, the air dry, for Hong Kong’s humidity and Dongguan’s pollution. Walking back from where the car traffic became impenetrable, almost a mile from the border in Tijuana, to my rental car on the other side of the US border, heading to San Diego airport, flying back to SFO, all that has been replaced by a car ride to Lok Ma Chau, a walk across that bridge, a train ride to Yau Ma Tei, a train to HKG, a flight to SFO. Longer, but much the same. Travel necessitated by sprawling supply chains that are themselves created by the artificial borders I cross.

What would I have said, at twenty, if told that fifteen years later I’d walk the border between Shenzhen and Hong Kong a dozen times a year? Would I have been more surprised to know that at thirty three I’d spent months in Juarez? I suspect that twenty year old would be surprised by both, and then by neither, because he too was always seeking adventure, seeking to understand new things and to learn new places. He would be surprised at the specifics, at this afternoon’s offramp stroll. The general picture, of a life on the go, crossing borders on foot for money, would seem entirely appropriate. Or perhaps that’s the present talking, aware of all the strange jobs and odd decisions that brought me here. Perhaps that boy of twenty would doubt this future’s existence entirely, knowing little of Mexican factories and less of Chinese customs.

Either way, I’m glad to be back in Hong Kong, one border closer to home.

Capital F future

Sitting in a luxury hotel in Chang’an Zhen, I am thinking about the future.

Not the future as in my personal five year plan, though it may turn out that way. Nor the capital F future of living computers and jet packs, though it may turn out that way too. Instead I am thinking about our future, the shared strangeness that is both hard to see and probably already here, somewhere.

I spend quite a bit of time thinking about this future. Mostly from strange Chinese cities though not usually from luxury hotels. It’s a future that seems to slip into view when I’m walking home alone through the evening heat, past street stalls and electric bikes. I find it under neon offering nothing, the store fronts long closed and falsely alluring in the night. It’s a future that I see often after sitting in an Ajisen and eating cucumbers for a while, after drinking an Asahi by myself while reading Fallows and Paul Hawken, Chipchase and Posnanski.

I think about the heating planet and the bliss of air conditioning in Hong Kong this week. I think of the costs of oil, and my job making plastic. I think of those giving up air travel and look at my location. I think about my favorite writers and how frequently they fly. I think about how frequently I fly and whether I would care about flying, about all of this, if I’d never started.

Would I care about the world this way without having sat in so many Ajisens in so many Chinese manufacturing cities, reading on paper and phones and drinking Japanese beer? Unlikely, I think. Without so many evenings watching the lights come on in Chinese apartment towers, how would I know to value all of us? Without watching the neon blink back and forth and eventually off, watching the parks fill with people enjoying the evening and then empty to silence, how would I have learned the size of cities? Without flying, how would I have met so many people, learned from so many places? Without the energy expenditure that damages it, how would I have ever understood our planet?

I watch two men honk as they scoot past on e-bikes, chatting as they disappear into the gathering dusk. I watch cars at the intersection, red lights hold them stationary, engines running. I wonder what makes so many people want to buy a car, and what would make them stop.

Mostly I think about the difference between making things and growing things, between working and building. After that I think about the difference between being alive, looking at the moon as it rises behind the skyscrapers , and not. It is a difference I only recently started to appreciate.

What will the world will look like when we are gone? Will we have left anything good behind, intentionally or no?

I haven’t yet given up flying. I’m here in Chang’an Zhen. I haven’t yet given up making things, I’m here visiting a factory for work. More importantly, I haven’t yet given up on anything. Walking back from Ajisen I wonder if I will, if the cumulative weight of the capital F future will change my life. I wonder what the next five years will bring, and ten. Whether we’ll all be living different lives, or still wondering. Will Chinese cities still feel like the future in this way on lonely evenings, an amazing combination of factories and urban density, of modern trains and hand-repaired motorcycles, of destroyed air? Or will the world have changed in all directions, become more evenly distributed, for better or worse. On evenings like this I can see both possibilities, a future here and yet often invisible .

Watching the two men on e-bikes fade into the darkness down the street I know one thing: even in the 90 degree F heat and 90% humidity of southern China, I’d rather we all biked than gave up airplanes, and each other.

HKIA

Hong Kong looks gorgeous as the sun rises. In early thanks to good wind and awake thanks to the ability to sleep anywhere, the mountains get my full attention as the light creeps down them. 

People often tell me San Francisco is the most beautiful city they have ever seen. I ask them if they’ve seen Hong Kong. Because, liking one, with it’s bay and bridges, with the tricks of light from the constant clouds, with greenery plentiful and the water to reflect the sun, the other comes easily to mind. The mountains are vertiginous, rising behind the airport, rising from the sea on the smaller islands. The boats are scattered without pattern, across the water at odd distances. The buildigns are tightly packed, and tall, allowing the narrow corridors of air so familiar to Asian cities, so distinctly rare elsewhere. 

Hong Kong is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Three years since my last visit, I wonder why we left.