"If that ship can still fly, we need it." Roland to Morpheus in The Matrix: Revolutions
Hong Kong reminds me so much of the final installment in the Matrix trilogy. It functions like a well-oiled machine in an apocalyptic landscape.
Steeped in history and the relics of ancient civilisations, it lays nestled in a cluster of peninsulas with a central harbour that is eerily reminiscent of the Auckland isthmus.
Other than the widespread accessibility of English language in the city, (a huge boon for monolingual tourists like myself) the similarities end there.
As a first-time visitor, I found many of the tales of Asia I'd heard back home were true. Yes, they are in fact spellbound by blonde hair and blue eyes, snapping away with cellphone cameras the second they laid eyes upon it. Yes, the apartments are tiny and stacked in clusters of identical buildings. Yes, Chinese New Year is a Really Big Deal - ostentatious, omnipresent and outright fun! But at no time had anyone in New Zealand ever accurately explained to me how metropolitan major Asian cities like Hong Kong really are. It's something that has to be seen to be believed.
Most Kiwis see Auckland as the 'Big Smoke' but Hong Kong makes it look like a semi-rural township. Supporting untold millions of people within a similar land area requires a level of civic planning and execution that us Kiwis haven't a hope of matching. The city runs with a clockwork efficiency that is anathema to our culture. Yet it is also extremely cosmopolitan; providing a home to many races and cultures.
Very much a city of immigrants, be they from neighbouring mainland China or any of the dozens of other countries whose citizens find their way to Hong Kong, there is an ethnic diversity and a religious tolerance that I never could have guessed at prior to visiting myself. Multiple cultures exist simultaneously and co-habitate peacefully.
The horror stories of Chinese persecution of minorities and human rights abuses were nowhere in evidence. This may be due to Hong Kong's semi-recent history; only returning to Chinese hands as recently as 1997, the city's residents are very heavily influenced by the West, still considering themselves to be somewhat independent of or differentiated from the mainland.
Huge shopping malls of colossal structure house elaborate displays featuring happy and well coiffured European models marketing designer outlets, cars, and other Western consumer merchandise.
The standard of presentation is exquisite, there is Oriental art everywhere. Translucent hanging displays and sculpture. Running water and everything impeccably placed, with respect for Feng Shui.
The food is another dramatic point of difference. Beef is sparse, lamb is non-existent, and by-and-large everything is chicken and pork, pork and more pork. Surprisingly I found both Beehive ham and kumara in the supermarket, an unexpected treat.
Likely due to the large number of Chinese Buddhists, there is a significant selection of vegetarian restaurants, some of these quite famous and with delicacies capable of converting even the most ardent meat-eater.
The public transport systems also put Auckland to shame. When you have a population density like that of Hong Kong, with millions of people to move around daily, inadequate transport is simply not an option. Thus transport options are plentiful, efficient, punctual and cheap. There is plenty of hustle and bustle as the great swathes of humanity disembark from their subway trains, bearing down upon the public pavements and the shopping malls; easily 40% of them in surgical masks, a tide of purpose moving like a human tsunami in which no man, woman or child can remain still in its path.
Yet the sound of a single cough can scatter them - and that simple cough can invite murderous, horrified looks from all surrounding you, for in a place of such high population density, a flu strain can be a weapon of mass destruction.
Private vehicles are associated with the rich, and are often popular European imports. Billboards peddling luxury cars abound. Despite it very much having its own heritage and idiosyncrasies, the perceived glamour of Western societies seems coveted, and money is king.
Hong Kong Disneyland is like another world. A luxury hotel on a scale unimaginable to Kiwis, alongside a theme park the magnitude of which is not and may never be found upon our shores. Having visited the original Disneyland in years prior, I can confidently report the grandeur and commercialism in all ways exceeds the original. Even the food is art - the splotch of ketchup on the plate shaped like Mickey Mouse. The pancakes shaped like Minnie Mouse. The fresh fruit cut in the shape of Disney characters.
The famous fountain at the entrance - Mickey on a surfboard, elevated in the air by high pressure water spouting from a particularly cute Disney whale, surrounded by a half dozen or more smaller character statues, stunningly polished and clean in stark contrast to the swirling clouds of air pollution above it.
In Disneyland you are surrounded by colour, sound and lights but the sky above is opaque and foreboding. The sun forever blotted out.
The prevalence of TrapWire-style "bubble" cams the only reminder of the presence of centralised surveillance systems akin to those in the captive countries of the Five Eyes.
Venturing out on a day trip to the Tian Tan Buddha, we discovered a side of Hong Kong that is the antithesis of the commercialism of Disney. Riding the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car(what we would know in New Zealand as a gondola ride, akin to the Skyline Skyrides at Rotorua) for 5.7 kilometres over the harbour, and up and down rolling hills, we arrived at the peaceful sanctuary of the monastery, seated at the foot of the giant 34 metre tall (atop a three-story monument accessed by climbing 268 steps) Sakyamuni Buddha statue constructed between 1990 and 1993.
Walking beneath intricate prayer gates and drinking in the beautiful architecture of the monastery itself was bliss. The vegetarian restaurant onsite provided by far the best meal of our entire world trip to date. Juicy, organic vegetables including the best Bok Choi I've ever tasted in my life, were wrapped and molded into delicate packages, in dishes I'd never seen let alone experienced before. I would happily eat there on a daily basis if the cuisine was more accessible!
The dazzle of the deities alongside the fortune readings, the abundant offerings of fruit and other foods and the ever-present smell of the incense was enchanting. We were steeped in a beautiful foreign culture that was completely open and welcoming to all foreigners and newcomers and within minutes we felt very much at home.
Back in Wan Chai and Central District, we got our first glimpse of Bruce Lee's Hong Kong. Narrow streets with towering buildings on each side, bamboo scaffolding framing construction sites or renovations, the controlled chaos of big city life on all sides.
Despite the ever-present grey of concrete towers Hong Kong does have very attractive green spaces in the central city. Religious buildings of all descriptions are ever-present and children's playgrounds are easy to find. Down on the waterfront we enjoyed the European carnival and there are ferry terminals as far as the eye can see. We traveled to Lamma Island - a mecca of seafood restaurants, temples and beaches less than an hour from the mainland.
On entry and exit from the harbour the impossibly tall and imposing International Commerce Centre in Kowloon, the largest building in Hong Kong, stood in our view perhaps only a kilometre or two away, but was obscured by the dirty clouds of air pollution.
The result was profound. Here is the ultimate symbol of money and wealth; yet you can barely see it. Even the banks, architecturally ostentatious and powerful, cannot dissipate the damage we have done to this planet.
The vista was apocalyptic. The polluted wasteland of the "machine world" in the Matrix movies instantly sprung to mind. All I could think was - who can write the cheque that can fix this? Who in this world is rich enough to pay to reverse this damage? And if the answer is no one - then what value does money really have?
The experience made plain that some things are of limitless value. Some things once lost may not be regained, by any means. No amount of regret will regenerate the beauty that is gone. No desire to see will part the clouds. No memory of the view will allow others to share it.
And is China to blame for this? China, who the West paints such terrible pictures of, at its own convenience, while simultaneously taking every cent it can squeeze out of it?
I for one, remember enough of high school history classes to innately sense the root causes of this kind of environmental damage. The industrial revolution was not Chinese. The global thirst for coal did not begin in China. The systems which have been used to pollute and control were introduced to the so-called Second and Third worlds, by the so-called First. They have imitated our environmental crimes; adopted our earth shattering technologies, been empowered by our groundbreaking ignorance and lack of foresight.
Now we blame them for it in an attempt to distance ourselves from our own responsibility. "But China pollutes more than we do" we are told, as if that exonerates us from obligation to work to right our own wrongs. As if as one globe we will not all feel the effects of ozone depletion, or global warming, of Fukushima.
Having only relatively recently regained the Hong Kong territory, China can hardly be liable for the entirety of its problems. Yet still they must be addressed. In mainland China, catwalk models were forced to wear surgical masksdue to the asphyxiating levels of pollution in the air. So now even the monied world of fashion cannot hide from the realities of our human environmental conditions. While presently some may think they can relocate away from such problems, if resolutions are not prioritised and acted upon, the day will surely come where we can run or hide no longer. Every generation who refuses to withdraw their heads from the sand only dooms its children and grandchildren to growing up in ever-worsening circumstance.
There are solutions available and it is possible we can mitigate if not reverse much of the damage. But we must have the courage to do so, before our own vanity and proclivity for the superficial becomes our final undoing.
Would I recommend people visit Hong Kong? Absolutely. It is a very clear object lesson on why all peoples of Earth must work together to reverse the historical damage we have done to ourselves, and seek a better, cleaner future, and it is evidence of how many different cultures and religions can co-exist peacefully.
For China is not just for the Chinese, as many in New Zealand have been led to believe. It is in fact a melting pot of cultural heritage and sustains this very well.
As for the smog? Well as in the closing act of The Matrix: Revolutions, all I can say is:
"Neo - if you're gonna do something, you better do it quick."
Since joining the Occupy Auckland media team in 2011, Suzie Dawson has been a driving force behind many social justice and political movement media campaigns and events, including #GCSB, #NZ4Gaza and #TPPANoWay. Her work has been shared internationally including by RT.com, Wikileaks and Business Insider. She is currently traveling the world and writing about her experiences.