Sunday, April 23, 2006

My little airport

Ever imagined a future when we get transported by tube, or capsule, or teleport, from home to work to play and back again, a la the Jetsons? I certainly have. When I had to get up for school, I used to dream of one of those robots that dressed me and showered me and fed me breakfast. If that scenario were to come about, Hong Kong would probably be where it starts. One can already move around the Central district of Hong Kong island without touching the ground, without mingling with the bustling commerical traffic and taxis and tinted sedans, thanks to a system of elevated walkways and the world's longest escalator, not to mention the most efficient and punctual and quickest subway in the world. Maybe that future's already started.

There are few symbols of globalization as epic and flashy as Hong Kong, which takes an efficiently-run system of exchange as its goal and organizing ethos, from the culture of shopping to transportation, from the shipping industry to the business-friendly regulations that have for decades made Hong Kong the world's free market city. It's no wonder so many companies set up shop here, and so many foreigners come here. Or rather, pass through on contracts of six months, a year, two years. It's a city that's comfortable, but ultimately hard to get a grasp on for a non Cantonese-speaker, considering that so much of the foreigner population is just arriving too, or on its way out, or busy with 60-hour work weeks.

I think it's telling then that one of the first things you might hear about Hong Kong, as I did, was that its airport is the world's greatest. Smartly designed by Norman Foster, he of that iconic HSBC robot-like building in Hong Kong itself, it pushes the city's cosmopolitanism and ostentation up front while taking typical international airport efficiency to unseen extremes. There is a fast mini-subway system that connects one to a whole series of terminals and escalators that ascend through airy atriums, eventually to the famous Airport Express, the fast train that whisks almost every passer-through from the airport to downtown Hong Kong in twenty minutes. From there more escalators, elevators, and another futuristic subway, the MTR, a system so punctual that when a train is late, headlines are made. Inevitably, more escalators and shiny office buildings. It's all fast, super clean, and almost completely lacking in any sense of fun.

I say "all" because it's kind of hard to tell where the airport ends and the city begins.

In March I noticed a small piece in the newspaper about aerotropoli:

An "similar to the traditional metropolis of a central city and its commuter-heavy suburbs," but "consists of an airport city core and an outlying area of business stretching along transportation corridors."

I think this describes Hong Kong pretty well--and not just because Hong Kong is organized as an Asian "hub," a place to make connecting flights, as much as it is a city. The airport extends into the city and vice-versa. As in an airport, everything feels under control, the crowds are bustling and moving via escalators and horizontal people movers, individuals rush to their next destination, or terminal, or wait in waiting areas, checking their cell phones or watching CNN, until it's time to board. Everything is easy, the drinks are expensive, the brand names are many and mixed together so you have every option, and can't go anywhere without being reminded to buy. Everything (legal) you need is available, everything is clearly marked in English, every piece of information is available. The entire construction is meant to make things comfortable or at least convenient for the traveler (check), to be attractive (check check), to be safe and efficient.

The emphasis on efficiency and security gives way to guardedness and unobtrusivity, obscuring the mechanism by which all of this works (Karl Marx where you at??). So much in an airport is unknown, hidden from view, denied, behind nylon ropes or inconspicuous doors with "Prohibited" on them. Everyone is moving somewhere, or in the logic of the airport, being moved, in keeping with airline rules and security rules and departure times. Despite the cosmopolitan feel of an airport, despite the sophistication, the overriding mode within it is a kind of naivete.

Once, when he worked in an office building, my dad was sitting at his desk late at night, alone, when two men came in wearing repairmen overalls but saying nothing of their business. When he asked them what they wanted, they ignored him, continuing to browse the office. My dad has always said he was nervous, frightened even--until they pulled their guns and asked to see the safe. All of a sudden he knew exactly what was happening. The unknown is one of the scariest things, and at the risk of exaggerating, I find an airport city like Hong Kong scary. No, in one sense it's not scary at all as long as you do what you're supposed to: go about your business and ask few questions. Follow the many rules and move along. Forget about culture, forget politics, just commute, eat, work, drink, sleep.

It's that Disney effect, a sense that something is seriously out of place beneath, generated because of, not in spite of, a facade. It doesn't matter that the facade may cover nothing at all: if you are curious about your surroundings, but living in a landscape that denies knowledge of how things work, that betrays no seams, a certain discomfort is unavoidable.

There is something especially uneasy about sliding around the shiny, Utopian, too-clean surface of Hong Kong, with the knowlege that just beyond the New Territories lies that rough giant of a superpower.

There may be nothing out of place actually, nothing missing, because maybe Hong Kong has already established by silent force, by corporate consensus if not a community culture, the model for our new global cities. This isn't meant to be critical; it's merely an observation. Just as, globalization isn't up for discussion, though how it goes down is. (O but that it's merely an observation--does that say something about late feelings of complacence here?)

There's the line in that Borges story about the library of Babel: "Every hexagon of the library was the world's exact center, its circumference was unmeasurable."

I was thinking that as the world gets smaller, my distance from the edges also seems to grow larger, to the point where those distances now feel infinite. If so many places we go and know about come to look and feel similar--ie, the world getting smaller--the more exotic and far off the other places we haven't been should come to seem. The more similar and digestible and comfortable the places we live in become, the more the other places defy imagination. Hong Kong isn't only a convenient Asian hub or airport, but as part of a globalized chain of cities, packed with ersatz culture and brand names, it's practically an argument for getting on a plane and going somewhere else.

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