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!

No comments: