Saturday, April 30, 2005

The Aesthetics of Connection

In our Central walk, the architects we discuss - Sir Norman Foster, Paul Rudolph, Cesar Pelli, I.M. Pei - are pretty much all foreign. Perhaps it makes sense that a cosmopolitan, international city would have so many buildings designed by outsiders. But one could make the argument that the character of the city has thereby been determined from outside, rather than from within.

I largely do not buy that argument, given that the flashy buildings put up by foreign architects have been consonant with the brash, commercial character of the city. But there are design differences between foreign and local architects, and I'd like to highlight the understated, and under-rated, achievements of one local, Rocco Yim.

Rocco Yim made his name in international design competitions, with several award-winning designs for local (youth hostels) and ambitious foreign competitions (honorable mention for a new library in Alexandria). He's since gone onto work busily on commercial and residential projects all over China that try to re-invent new modalities of everyday life for the New China. But in my view the most illustrative project of his design philosophy is the Citibank building on Garden Road, below.

What can we say about this building? Obviously, it stands in the shadow of the aggressive Bank of China building. In Yim's words, the work was "a tacit acknowledgement and respect for the Bank of China Tower." It is almost like a Hong Kong in miniature - an international financial center used by thousands of people every day that don't even work in the building. And it is at the same time connected to (via a common podium) but separated from (via a driveway) the BOC Tower, China's most powerful symbol in the territory.

But let us come back to the "connectedness" of the building. If you ever worked in either Pacific Place or in the Cheung Kong Center, like me, you will appreciate this building's design. For it has built-in overhead walkways on both sides that connect it to either side of Garden Road - one leading into the heart of Central, the other to Hong Kong Park and Pacific Place. As a pedestrian, one would normally have to walk down the busy, polluted and noisy Queensway Road. However, with the Citibank building's generous design, one can glide effortlessly from Admiralty through Hong Kong Park to Central, and if you then proceed down Battery Path you can be at Ice House Street without having crossed a road, and having been surrounded by trees.

But this design is no mere work of convenience. Yim recognized that buildings are not simply monuments in Hong Kong - they must be more. They must help alleviate the crowded pedestrian traffic in Hong Kong, one of the world's busiest cities. He called his design philosophy the "Aesthetics of Connection", and drew its inspiration from the other 89 buildings connected to each other in some way in the Central district alone.

And in some way, too, the mastery of organizing systems, is the genius of the Hong Kong Cantonese. The city's transport network is the envy of the world and second to none; Certainly it has its detractors in that it is too powerful and that Hong Kong's efficiency is gained at the expense of aesthetic, heritage or environmental concerns. However, no sacrifice has been made in the Citibank buildings, whose architect has cleverly welded form with function.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

The Pros and Cons of Touring on Your Mobile

Given that Stefan and I provide audio-guided walking tours on mobile phones, we tend to think of the activity as an inevitable consequence of huge numbers of travelers criss-crossing the globe with their mobile phones, and the fact that a growing number of them are 'cultural' tourists that seek to understand more deeply the places they visit.

But we acknowledge the fact that there will be resistance to our business model, stemming from traditional attitudes and expectations of cultural travel, and towards technologies such as the mobile phone. A good example is an article that featured us in a recent edition of Travel Weekly, discussing the launch of our service in Macau. A travel industry vet (whose company provides live guided tours) said that she preferred live guides because of their interactivity, preferred CDs to mobiles, and thought that roaming would be too expensive.

We have thought of these objections, and would like to offer, not a rebuttal, but rather suggestions on how to make our audio tours a more enjoyable experience:

- Interactivity. Granted, you are listening to recorded audio messages when you use our service. But to overcome this factor we have firstly, a) made all of our content only 2-3 minutes long to avoid fatigue, b) made it possible to hang up and dial in again at any time (which is tough to do with a live guide), and c) created a lot of optional specialized content (taking listeners more in depth narratives of local history, architecture, culture or social anecdotes, as well as where to find interesting shops, good restaurants or nearby bathrooms). Additionally, we have tried to make it a shared experience, so on our walks we make it possible for listeners to leave comments about our walk that we then select and put up for the benefit of future listeners. So we are not live, but we make available a great deal more stories, quotes and information than a live guide could be reasonably expected to have. We think that choosing the options that interest you most will add immensely to your "Walk the Talk" experience.

- Mobile-phobia. We believe that mobile phones are an excellent device with which to experience rich narratives about a city's streets, given that it's easily portable, it's a device you're already familiar with, it's a device you own and can therefore use at any time, and that allows you to blend into the crowd and appear more 'local'. We particularly find the phone a much more discreet device than the clunky CD player that is both heavy and labels you instantly as a tourist. However, we do appreciate that some people don't like holding their phone up to their heads for long periods of time. To optimize your experience, we recommend using headphones, and to take breaks at our suggested hang-up points (e.g. at HSBC to ride up the feng shui escalators, at the Bank of China to survey the view). This is particularly recommended for older phone models, that still get quite hot when used for more than 5 minutes.

- Mobile Bill-itis. We can totally sympathize and understand the fear of an inflammation of your mobile phone bill. For most of us, the charging mechanisms and inter-operator agreements that govern how much you are charged for a roaming call are a black box. However, happily Hong Kong and Macau have some of the cheapest calling minutes in the world, so even the roaming charges for such calls are usually cheaper or about the same as a local call on a mobile in London or New York. If you are concerned about your mobile bill though, and would like to limit your downside bill risk, we recommend you buy a SIM card (the little chip that goes into your mobile phone). They are widely available at convenience stores (7-11, Circle K) and mobile retail shops in both Hong Kong and Macau for between HK$50 to HK$130; additionally, we sell walks in Hong Kong that come packaged with a 2-hour SIM card from CSL for HK$150.

And remember, we've designed this product for global navigators and independent travelers that generally eschew organized tours, so the best comparable for our service may not be tour guides but guide books. And here we've designed our product to be complementary to guidebooks - instead of offering a directory service, we offer a 'narrative experience' of a city, placing visual cues in historic and architectural context. This is the one thing guidebooks cannot really do - because you're either reading, or looking at the city around you - it's very hard to do both at the same time.

We'd love to hear your comments on our walks, whether you've tried them or not!

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Macau: An Improbable City

I am soon off to the China-Hong Kong ferry terminal to catch the next boat to Macau, so I must be brief. But yesterday as I edited our Chinese soundfiles for our soon-to-be-launched Mandarin product for Macau, I pondered the appropriateness of Macau making most of its livelihood from gambling.

Of course, it has not been a new thing, gambling in Macau. After Hong Kong Governor MacDonnell's controversial experiment in legalized gambling in Hong Kong in the 1860s was ended (due to its success, making up 20% of annual government revenues), the Macau government happily took on the business as a way to make money. And money was desperately needed - after the opium merchants had relocated themselves from Macau to Hong Kong, the city had become a backwater - and typhoons and attacks by Qing dynasty troops had done nothing to improve conditions.

But the very fact that a Portuguese Macau survived in the face of that Qing attack is a miracle, and if the tape of history were to be replayed again (kudos to Stephen Jay Gould, the late great naturalist for that turn of phrase), it is incredibly against the odds that Macau would have survived the attack. But, despite the city's apparent record of historic failures and missed opportunity, the gods of luck and chance have always favored the city. For what else could explain how Colonel Mesquita, in 1849, was able to take the city's only howitzer, and with one shot (after which the howitzer malfunctioned) he was able to wipe out the senior leadership of the Qing forces massing in a nearby fort? His subsequent foolhardy charge with only a score of men against a far greater force was then successful because of the confusion sown by that miraculous shot.

What is even more improbable is that this was not even the first time Macau had enjoyed a turn of outrageous fortune in armed conflict. Over two centuries earlier, on a sultry June day in 1622, a large invading Dutch fleet sailed into Macau roads, and began bombarding it from all sides. Apparently the 900 Dutchmen were aware of the fact that most of the Portuguese of the city were abroad, and that the city had but 150 ill-organized defenders. After a day of unceasing cannonades, they landed their main party at Cacilhas beach, near where the ferry terminal is today. What they had not counted on was the ferocity of some unorthodox defenders, including some of Macau's African slaves. Apparently an African woman dressed as a man, killed two Dutchmen with her prong!

Still, none of that heroism and bravery would have stemmed the tide, had an urbane, Jesuit man of letters, Father Jeronimo Rho, not stood on the northeastern parapets of the Monte fort, surveying the tide of battle near Guia Hill. Apprised of the situation, and proficient in gunnery, he, the only defender atop the Monte Fort, loaded a cannon and fired it at the main body of Dutchmen. On his first shot, he hit the Dutch gunpowder magazine, which killed many of the attack's leaders and scattered many others. Upon this cue, the citizens of Macau burst from their houses, sensing a turn in the tide. In desperate, bloody, hand-to-hand fighting, the 900 Dutchmen were dispatched or repelled.

So consider, if you will, that Macau has benefited from not one, but two incredible strokes of luckthat would otherwise have meant a completely different course in history for the city. Firstly, it puts today's Macau and its reliance on chance, luck and gambling into perspective, a city that has defied the odds by its very existence. And also, it explains that underlying assumption of all gamblers that play against the house when the odds are weighted towards the house - that there is a God - for I, for one, have never met an atheist gambler! For you must logically believe in some higher power that will grant you 'luck', 'luck' that will overcome the odds against you, when you play a game of chance.

Is it perhaps now clearer, then, that casinos, churches and temples not just co-exist, but are complementary to each other?

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The Crowds of Hong Kong: A Literary Explanation

"Ow! MY FOOT!"

"That four-foot woman just charged under my armpit to get ahead on the escalator!"

"That slow guy keeps swerving left and right to keep me from getting ahead of him!"

The list of complaints from newcomers and visitors about the rules of pedestrian traffic in Hong Kong can go on and on. For locals, navigating one's way down a crowded street is a skill one takes for granted. For an out-of-towner trying to get down Queen's Road or Nathan Road at lunchtime, though, they feel like they're facing a wave from The Perfect Storm. As my ABC friend Howard used to say when we were going to meet up for lunch in Central, "let's meet at 12:15 instead of 12:30 to avoid the wall o' Cantos."

We thought we'd show a few typical examples of Hong Kong's crowded streets, and the choices pedestrians must make every few milliseconds to a) move forward and b) not bump into people (too hard):

Or much worse, on Nathan Road:

The locals seem to navigate the crush effortlessly, as the attractive lady on the phone in the center of the last picture demonstrates. More to the point, some people seem to actually enjoy it or are at least so indifferent to it that they can be happy in the crowd's grip, as the smiling ladies indicate (or is it their shy reaction to being photographed by Stefan?)

But the point I must come back to is that objective b of the Hong Kong pedestrian is to avoid 'too much' physical contact on the crowded street. But it is almost acceptable to brush by people with 'just' an elbow nudge or a diamond ring scrape. These incidents turn mild people unused to such contact in their own country into fearsome, aggro, wild-eyed striders out for revenge.

What is it that causes this behavior? We discuss this in our Central walk as we prepare guests for rejoining the crowds as Battery Path merges with Queen's Road. The best answer we've found is from Han Suyin's celebrated novel about life and love in Hong Kong, A Many Splendoured Thing:

"As beings from different planets, invisible to each other, unconscious and indifferent, these people move, walk side by side, jostle each other, sidle to avoid contact. Their glances skid over each other and rest nowhere. Absorbed in their preoccupation, aware only of their own perils and opportunities, riveted to their individual search for safety and survival, each is filled with the illusion of entireness, moves in his world and denies the others, for to acknowledge others would breach his own tenacity in the struggle for existence."

I can find no better words to express the phenomenon. All I know is that with some time in the weights room, the average Hong Kong boy's skill in darting through crowds would make him a fine American football running back...

One more look at Nathan Road. Note the guy all the way on the left doing 'it' with his eyes closed...Until next time!

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Democracy in Hong Kong

In our Central walk, one of the issues we discuss is power in Hong Kong: who governs, and for whom do they govern? I must attribute that neat turn of phrase to noted political scientist Robert Dahl. We bring this point up in our Central walk at the Legislative Council as we ponder the equity of a mongrel legislative branch - half democracy, half plutocracy. We also take a look at last Governor Chris Patten's legacy in today's Hong Kong. We also talk about Ng Choy, Hong Kong's first Chinese legislative councillor, who was appointed by a controversial liberal Governor, Pope-Hennessy (he was said to be soft on the Chinese). Ng Choy was later run out of town by the stuffy colonial society of the time, despite having been a qualified lawyer that had been called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn. Incidentally, he became an important Chinese official under the name Wu Ting-Fang, and he later wrote an excellent, fascinating book you can find on the web in 1914 called America Through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat, which he wrote as China's Ambassador to the United States. It contains many amusing and sometimes trenchant observations about America ("people here float a company without a drop of water!") but you also get the sense he feels America to be a more just society than Britain, largely because of his personal experience in Hong Kong. Hong Kong's legislature is more representative today, but not too much!

In this context, I'd like to share with you a letter I wrote to the Secretariat of the Constitutional Development Task Force, which is working on the best methods of selecting the Chief Executive in 2007 and the Legislative Council in 2008. Please excuse my pompous self-introduction, but sometimes with government you need to shake people up a bit to get a response!

To the Secretariat of the Constitutional Development Task Force:

My name is David Wong, a long-time resident of Hong Kong. I also hold a degree in Political Science from Yale University, where I graduated with distinction in my major in 1995. I won a senior essay prize for having written the best senior essay in comparative politics, which was, incidentally, entitled: "On Dangerous Ground: Bureaucratic Deviance in Hong Kong after 1997." After I did graduate work in the same subject at Stanford, I worked in two investment banks in their equities department prior to starting a business two years ago called Mobile Adventures, which is dedicated to bringing Hong Kong's rich, unique heritage to visitors and residents using wireless technology.

I highlight my academic background because, in comparative politics, one of the main areas of study is what brings about democracy: where does the demand for it come from? By far, the most convincing theorists (Dahl, Diamond) of the last fifty years have been followers of the so-called "modernization" school. Their hypothesis, proven by economic statistics, show an incredibly high correlation between economic development and political liberalization, or democracy. In other words, the higher the economic level of development achieved, the more likely the state is to be a democracy. Furthermore, statistics have shown that the greater the level of economic development, the greater the level of expressed need by citizens for democracy.

Now quite often democratic transitions can be difficult, and they do not always take hold. But again, there is a very high correlation between success and national income. In fact, well-known political science writer and Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria noted that once a country's GDP exceeds a certain level, (usually between US$7,500-US$10,000 per capita), it is virtually certain that democracy will take hold and succeed. It makes intuitive sense, after all, that the wealthier a country, the more complex the decision-making process of government becomes, and the more the needs of various stakeholders and constituents of a society must be expressed through democratic means. The only exception to the per capita GDP rule are countries that are dependent on natural resources for their income (i.e. oil producing states). So open pluralistic societies like Hong Kong that have no natural resources are not party to this exception.

A last corollary of modernization theory I will share with you is that if the needs for democracy are not met in complex economies with a large middle class, the legitimacy of a given government will be limited, and any government will find such conditions an increasingly difficult environment in which to function.

The case of Hong Kong is why I felt compelled to write you this letter. A great deal has been said about whether Hong Kong is 'ready' or not for democracy and direct elections of the legislature and Chief Executive. But by any measure of GDP, Hong Kong is the most developed territory in the world that is not governed as a direct democracy. Its citizens are clearly cosmopolitan people, exposed to ideas from all over the world, and are responsible for making a huge number of complex decisions on a daily basis. Past elections have been well attended, and have all gone off extremely peacefully. Hong Kong's citizens, from a civic perspective are some of the most urbane and mature people on the planet. The trouble clearly is this - its democratic development is not being determined by its own potential (read GDP) but rather by the needs and the level of development of its motherland, China, which has some ways to go before being considered 'economically' ready for democracy.

I submit to you then, that the debate should not be about whether Hong Kong is ready for democracy - it most certainly is - but rather how its clear need for democracy can be managed and pushed forward without upsetting issues of legitimacy on the mainland. I think the people of Hong Kong would be far better served if you take that concept as the starting point for any review of constitutional development. It would also be much better if Hong Kong's citizens were treated like responsible adults that were capable of exercising good judgment at the ballot box, instead of being spoken down to like irresponsible children. The government must engage and include citizens on this basis and make the society cognizant that this is the challenge facing democratic development in Hong Kong, and must also be seen to be more active in forcing change. Do not forget, if people do not get what they want in a society as complex and as economically developed in Hong Kong, the legitimacy failure and subsequent policy gridlock experienced by the Tung Chee-Hwa administration could just as quickly return under Donald Tsang. Democracy may not be a panacea for all ills, but it may be the only way to govern a polity like Hong Kong.


David Wong

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Hong Kong Attitudes to Preservation

What do these buildings - The Central Post Office, the Hong Kong Club, the old Murray Barracks - all have in common? All of them were destroyed and or dismantled just a quarter century ago, to make way for Worldwide House, the new Hong Kong Club building and the Bank of China tower. All of these handsome old buildings were not only attractive reminders of Hong Kong's colonial past, but were also institutional cornerstones of the Hong Kong colonial enterprise. As has been so often asked: why has Hong Kong had such a lackluster commitment to preservation? Why do people not care?

To be fair, all of these buildings were demolished under orders from the colonial government. But in truth, they undertook their actions in a climate, in a city where preservation has never been a key concern for most people. As we point out in our walk through Central, the district has experienced so many cycles of destruction and construction that many of the buildings - the Prince's Building, Alexandra House, HSBC - are the third incarnations of the same name.

There are a number of reasons for this. One we have already cited - Hong Kong's lack of any sense of history - that people have no sense of civic citizenship that is married to a historic narrative, or 'founding myth.' If you don't know much about your own city's history, it's natural you would not care as much about old buildings, because to you they are contextually empty and with much less significance.

But not without significance entirely - because they are obvious reminders of the colonial past. This brings up a question we ask in our Tsim Sha Tsui walk - why do Europeans choose to preserve Roman ruins? It's not only because they are a symbol of that old civilization's ancient glories - it is just as much if not more, because they see themselves as proud descendants of that civilization, very much part of their cultural inheritance.

Which then begs the question - why would Hong Kong Chinese want to remember their former colonial masters? The British colonials, certainly after the debacle of World War II, did not feel comfortable immortalizing themselves in statue, knowing that would never vest them with greater authority in the eyes of the local population. They deliberately chose, in their history curriculum decisions, to get the city to forget the city's past. And for their part, the Chinese, inured to a distant British authority, did not complain, particularly since most of the Chinese population has arrived here after WWII anyway and had no memory of what came before. In fact, by the 1970s, the word 'colony' was expunged from the governing jargon, replaced by the more neutral word 'territory'. While one might argue that the Chinese would want to remember their colonial masters because of the amazing transformation Hong Kong has undergone, that transformation was always a collaborative effort, and the British quite rightly did not feel sufficiently confident to take credit with monuments to themselves.

But there is now a new, simple answer to why the Chinese would want to remember their colonial past - it makes money! In the 1960s and 1970s, Hong Kong sold itself as an exotic destination where Westerners could come and see how the Chinese really lived, in their traditional villages in the New Territories. So for years, and even today in the tourism industry, 'heritage' tourism means 'traditional Chinese' tourism. But now, that rings false as most of those villages are now surrounded by high-rise estates. And the most important new development - that almost 70% of travelers to Hong Kong are from mainland China or Taiwan. Why would they want to see a crappy, overdeveloped village in the New Territories? The Westerners can just go to China to see what a real rice paddy looks like.

What they want to see is not how Chinese Hong Kong is, but rather how different it is - how it is different from other Chinese cities because of its British colonial experience. That's why we truly believe that there is a demand for our stories about Hong Kong's colonial past not only from English-speaking westerners, but from the Chinese travelers, who want to see something different. In 5 years, when the shopping in Beijing and Shanghai is as good or better as that in Hong Kong, why would mainlanders, especially from the north, want to come here? It's the colonial past, of course. HKTB reports indicate that northern Chinese in particular want more of it.

Vive la difference!

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

National Myths and their Consequences

This week's violent demonstrations all over China against Japan's wartime atrocities and its refusal to admit to them in textbooks, in the face of a potential Japanese Security Council seat, vividly illustrate the power of history. For well over two centuries, nationalism and historic mythologies have been entwined into sweeping, emotionally charged national narratives that become a major, if not the animating force, for citizens. Indeed, it is a heady, potent cocktail, and it must be, for nationalism was conceived by rulers to inspire patriotic fervor so great that men would die for the cause. It forges an esprit de corps that not only encourages great deeds, but also the moral basis for mundane actions such as paying taxes. (Americans - you have 2 days left!)

The problem of course, is that there's always more than one team. Any nationalism, almost by definition, requires there to be an opponent, and any 'Auld Enemy' is usually flagged for special notice in national textbooks. The scar wartime Japan left on its neighbors ran deep indeed - and the fact that Japan avoided sustained, frank dialogue domestically about its WWII role (unlike Germany) due to Cold War realities made it a festering wound. As much as the British are derided for their role in the Opium War and the era of unequal treaties for China, the Japanese historic experience was far worse.

To be fair, Japan has for decades been one of the most generous donor countries as a percentage of GDP, particularly to other Asian nations. But their avoidance of their past has come back to haunt them now, especially as China increasingly looks to be assuming the mantel of leadership in East Asia and beyond. For this clash of history is a clash of national narratives, imposed by their changing relative strengths. With only the eldest Japanese having some context of the past, the rest of the Japanese are left unable to comprehend the depth of current resentment and hatred that is so much part and parcel of Chinese nationalism.

For it is a nationalism that is stronger than almost any other. Today's ruling Chinese Communist party holds power and legitimacy not through orthodoxy but a mixture of nationalist populism and economic performance. Think, for a moment, how strong the bonds of nationalism must be to bind 1.2 billion people together!

Which makes the city of Hong Kong so interesting, because it's one of the only places in the world that has no national mythology that binds it together. The Hong Kong Chinese buy to some extent into the nationalism implied by 'Chineseness' - especially when it comes to Japan, given Hong Kong's own suffering during the War. Its people are just 1 or 2 generations removed from China for the most part. But these myths are not Hong Kong specific, and anyway most locals still identify themselves as 'Hong Kong Chinese' rather than just 'Chinese'. Is there a Hong Kong specific historic narrative? We would say 'no.' It is a city without triumphal monuments, national idols, or political architecture. As we say in our Tsim Sha Tsui walk, it seems at first glance a city without heroes - a colony liberated from colonialism by treaty and exchange rate mechanisms, not drama and revolution. A city up until recently whose own history was ignored in schools (no doubt due to the ignominy of its birth in the Opium Wars).

Is that a good thing, as CUHK anthropologist Gordon Mathews suggests, to be free from the 'narrative of the state' and governed only by the 'narrative of the market'? One might argue yes, that people acting in their self interest over fuzzy patriotic notions generally make better decisions, and the absence of nationalism is filled by a 'cosmopolitanism'. But is this state sustainable now that it has become a part of China and its incredibly strong national narrative? We think in order to maintain its unique strengths imbued by its colonial experience, Hong Kong's interest may be in developing a much greater appreciation for its own history as a way of inculcating a greater sense of 'civic spirit'. A spirit that might, say, make local tycoons pause before deserting Hong Kong for Shanghai should opportunity beckon!

Once again we've made a post far too long. We welcome your comments!

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Walk the Talk Macau in TIME Magazine

I just wanted to take this opportunity to mention that our new Walk the Talk audio guide for Macau was just featured in the April 18th Asian edition of TIME magazine. As the article mentions, all you need is our map (click thru to The Heart of Old Macau) and your mobile phone - the service is free of charge except for airtime - just switch your service onto the CTM network. Our map has all the instructions you'll need to switch networks, and also for the dial-in number.

Like our other walks, we have a suggested route, from the Leal Senado Square up to the Monte Fort, via the Ruins of St. Paul's College (which includes the famous facade of the Mater Dei church). Our walk takes a look at the rich, colorful history and identity of a city that was never quite a colony, never quite a leasehold. We share the stories of the one-eyed poet Luis de Camoens, considered the national Bard of Portugal for his masterpiece epic poem, Os Lusiadas; how as a heartbroken youth he enlisted for crusades and battle; how he survived both wealth and ruin and two shipwrecks, which left him swimming for shore with his epic held aloft above his head; and how he died penniless in Lisbon after his protector, the last Portuguese King Sebastian was killed on the plains of Alcacer-Quibir; and how he is now buried next to his illustrious forebear Vasco da Gama, in Lisbon's Monasterio San Jeronimo.

You'll also hear stories of learned Jesuits like Belchior, Ricci, and Verbiest, impressing Chinese lierati audiences with amazing feats of memorization, astronomy and mathematics; the struggle between Jesuits and Dominicans for the right to convert China to Christ; the sharp rise and equally precipitous fall of the trade with Japan; and the cosmopolitan city of many races and languages that 17th century Macau became. Many of the monuments and institutions you'll see on the walk had their beginnings in this period, the last flower of the Portuguese empire.

But our walk is not merely musings about a vanished world (rich Macau may be in its physical legacy); we talk about how the Chinese and Portuguese came to co-exist with each other, through good times and bad, for 450 years. We discuss how the street names in Portuguese and Chinese are often totally different, showing the two different Macaus that existed for five centuries. This is particularly clear today in the churches and Confucian temples that stand side by side.

Lastly we talk about how the Portuguese and Chinese authorities had their differences over the years about who Macau really belonged to. Was it a colony, as the Portuguese sometimes maintained, or was it just a temporary leasehold provided by China the landlord, as was the case in other eras? But of course we talk about how the races came together to help each other in times of trouble, whether threatened by outside invasion from the Dutch, or by poverty within, when every race could be succored by the Santa Casa de Misericordia.

Our walk takes you to the heart of the old city, and provides you with the fascinating links between past and present. It is now available in hotels around Macau, and will soon be available at all CTM outlets in the territory, including the one near the Senado Square. For more information, please visit our website

Communists and Nationalists at the BOC

Hong Kong's eye-catching new IFC Tower II may be the Tower of Mordor with razor-sharp prongs topping the gargantuan structure, but for me the most dramatic building in Central still remains the 78-storey Bank of China (BOC) tower. It is truly fitting in more ways than one, that the last great modernist architect, I.M. Pei was selected to design the building. For one, the BOC officials wanted their new building to make a statement, heralding China's increasing influence in what, in the 1980s, was still a British colony. They could arguably not have picked a better architect than I.M. Pei, a consummate master of combining steel and glass into visually stunning geometric shapes. Pei visualized the building as a bamboo grove, and apparently got his inspiration by tying a small bundle of sticks together and sliding a few of them upwards.

And of course, another reason to choose him was that he was Chinese, having been born in Southern China to a wealthy Shanghai banking family. The 1949 Revolution happened while he was studying at Harvard, so he had not been able to return home. But then, his was not just any banking family - his father had actually been the senior manager of the Bank in Shanghai and had been chased out by the Communists in 1949! So it was fitting indeed that when the Communist BOC officials selected Pei, they actually flew to New York to visit Pei's 89-year old father to ask his permission to get his son to design their building. It may have been meant by China as a message to Hong Kong's capitalists that all was forgiven.

On Pei's first visit to China, he was asked to design a modern hotel for them that would be sited on the Forbidden City, after they'd leveled it! Fortunately, that did not happen after he strenuously declined. But although Pei gave them what they wanted in Hong Kong, an imposing building, as it was completed in 1989 in the wake of Tiananmen, it took on a more ominous countenance than he had intended. It today remains a forceful presence on Hong Kong's skyline (especially with its terrible feng shui!). But more on that story another time...
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Sunday, April 10, 2005

The American Connection to Minden Row

In Our Tsim Sha Tsui audio-guided walk, we take people to Signal Hill, an oft-ignored area of the district that has a hilly park with nice views of the surrounding area, and that has a lighthouse of sorts that used to signal the onset of oncoming storms and typhoons.

Then we take visitors down a fascinating back alley to Chungking Mansions (we have an alternative route for the faint-hearted).

But the lane that contains these visual delights is called Minden Row, accessed from TST's Middle Road by a small stairway running along left side of the Blue Mariners' Club. The Mariners' Club has been here since 1966, but there actually has been a Home for Sailors of some sort in Hong Kong since 1863, thanks to the generous donations of then opium-trading firm Jardine Matheson. The Mariners' Club was once a very busy place, as even into the 1970s ships would dock for days or even weeks as cargo was loaded or unloaded. But in Hong Kong, a city of relentless efficiency, this time has been compressed to mere hours, and there is less and less a need for this institution. Nevertheless, the presence of large numbers of seamen for four decades may explain this sign, just 10 yards away down Minden Row from the Club:

The once-louche New Oriental Palace Nightclub seems to have gone out of business, mirroring the smaller numbers of seamen visiting Hong Kong. But if we explore the stores behind Minden Row, we'll find the naval theme runs much deeper.

What's in a name? Where did the name Minden come from? Well, history will tell us that in 1759, during the Seven Years' War, a terrific battle was fought between the French on one side, and the British and Prussians on the other, in the Hanoverian town of Minden. It resulted in a stunning victory for the Prussian and British forces. But what does that have to do with Hong Kong?

That battle, one of the high points of Anglo-Germanic amity, led the Royal Navy to name a new ship commemorating the battle, the HMS Minden; this was particularly apropos given that the British and Prussians were once again fighting the French during the Napoleonic period. The ship was commissioned in 1801 and completed at the Bombay dockyards in 1810; it had the distinction of being the first RN ship built outside of Britain. After seeing action in Java, America, and Algiers, it was used in Australia. After it was no longer seaworthy, it came to Hong Kong in 1842, a year after its founding, and served as a hospital ship; this was an important function given the malaria that plagued the early years of the colony. In unsentimental Hong Kong, after serving as a floating hospital for 19 years (sounds like Jumbo anyone?) the HMS Minden was chopped up for firewood in 1861. However, enough goodwill remained for the ship that this new piece of territory in Tsim Sha Tsui, which had been seized from China as part of the reparations for the Second Opium War, was named after the old HMS Minden.

And what is the American connection I refer to in the title? Well! In 1812, an American lawyer named Francis Scott Key was acting as an American negotiator, and was on board the HMS Minden whilst it was actually bombarding an American position, Fort McHenry. The furious assault of the Minden and several other Royal Navy ships lasted all night, but Key was gratified to see the American Stars and Stripes still atop the fort in the morning. He was so moved that he penned an Ode, "The Star Spangled Banner", which later became the American National anthem. It was, ironically, set to the tune of an old English drinking song, "Anacreon in Heaven".

Yet another example of how beneath the streets of Hong Kong lie fascinating tales that cross so many historic narratives with which we are familiar. You can hear many, many more stories of pirates, opium traders, colonial administrators and more in our walk for Tsim Sha Tsui or Central, available at Bookazine, Dymocks, Hong Kong Book Centre, Kelly & Walsh and Swindon's bookstores, as well as the Visitor Centres of the Hong Kong Tourism Board. Our walks without SIM cards (for locals or roamers) cost HK$88 and the walks with 2-hour SIMs from local operator CSL cost HK$150. For more information, visit our website at

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

A Sense of History

Hi everyone, this is Dave, a long-time resident of Hong Kong and co-founder of Walk the Talk. Our service provides audio-guided historic walking tours like those in museums, except that we've made them entertaining and fun, taken them onto the streets and onto your mobile phone. That's right, all you need is our map and a phone, and you can dial up our narratives for spots around Hong Kong (and Macau's) most interesting districts. For more info on Walk the Talk, how it works or where you can get it, please visit our website at

Why did Stefan and I decide to jack in our jobs in investment banking to start this company and become wireless heritage tour guides? Obviously, we both realized with the huge increase in mobile usage, in people using phones while they travel and for purposes other than voice, it was an attractive opportunity - especially given Hong Kong's 21 million visitors in 2004. As for personal reasons, well, I'll let Stefan speak for himself, but definitely for me it was returning to one of my life's passions - a love of history, of discovering the magic symmetry of the links between past and present. When I travel, I like to see and imagine cities in not three but in four dimensions - including that of time. I want to know what lies beneath the city's streets. I see a street sign, and I think to myself, "I wonder why this little alley is called Duddell Street. Who was this Duddell, I wonder if he was a scoundrel?" (he most certainly was!)

Also, it was realizing that Hong Kong, my home for eighteen years, had so many fascinating and exciting stories about its past just under its surface that were not being told. Sold to tourists since its earliest colonial beginnings as 'The Emporium of the East', a haven for shopping, entertainment and for living in the present, Hong Kong has never really felt the need to tell people much about its past. Perhaps it was less not feeling a need, and more wanting to cover up its past, for Hong Kong after all has a dirty secret - it was a city founded on the back of the Opium War and the suffering of thousands of addicts. Its meteoric rise, bolstered by thousands of talented immigrants (and economic refugees) across six generations, could not have happened without the weakness and anarchy of late Qing and Republican China. Is Hong Kong, indeed, not something like an illegitimate child of forced relations between Britain and China?

Of course the analogy is not only disquieting but appears unseemly given the great success of the former colony from its dubious, insalubrious and rocky beginnings. With little more than human will (British, Chinese and others), Hong Kong has been transformed over the course of just two human lifetimes from a barren, malaria-infested pirate den to a dazzling, cosmopolitan city.

That is why to me, one person more than any other was the living embodiment of the city - Sir Robert Ho-Tung. The illegitimate product in 1860 of a union between a Belgian father and a low-born Tanka Chinese, he excelled at the English-speaking 'Central School', and became the youngest comprador of the great hong of Jardine Matheson at just eighteen. His incredible business savvy had made both the firm and himself so wealthy that he was able to retire at age forty on the grounds of ill health. Wholly unjustified, it seems, as he lived into his ninetes, through some of the most dramatic (and traumatic) events of the city's past. That an illegitimate, low-born Eurasian was able to succeed and be accepted by both the European and Chinese communities (and get a Knighthood from the King to boot) seems to me the quintessential story of Hong Kong. Faith in Horatio Alger runs deep in Hong Kong's veins. It has to!

Well, that's probably more than enough for my first blog post, but I assure you that you can hear a great deal more about these stories and others on our walks and even on our websites (I mentioned the Walk the Talk website; there's also our corporate one for our company, Mobile Adventures). Tsoi geen!