Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

November 10, 2004 Looking at cities

When I wander around Hanoi and Hong Kong, I look for the things that are different. The things that stand out to me are perfectly ordinary to those who live here, though. In Hanoi women – never men – carry goods for sale in large baskets suspended from long wooden beams balanced across their shoulders. Vietnamese women are tiny by western standards and the baskets sometimes very heavy, loaded with ten or fifteen kilos of bananas, apples, or oranges on each end. Women carry plastic sheeting gathered for recycling in these baskets. They carry fresh fish in one basket and their cleaning knives and weighing scales in the other. Mostly they carry food, but anything that could be sold by a peddler – a female peddler – could go in the baskets. Male peddlers pile their loads on the backs of bicycles, but most peddlers are women.

In Asia – everywhere I’ve been in Asia – scaffolds are made of bamboo tied together at the joints. No metal tubing, even for buildings of twenty or thirty stories, no metal elbows to hold the poles together. Construction workers wear sneakers, slippers, or flip flops – no construction boots, no helmets. Perhaps their soft shoes make it easier to grip the bamboo poles as they scale the ladderless scaffolding? Or perhaps no one worries much about the feet of the luckless worker on whom something falls. And in the freer economies of Asia there are no intrusive government regulations to require employers to ensure the safety of their workers.

Shops in Hanoi spill onto the street. In the US, the façade is closed, at best a window display gives an idea of what is inside. In Hanoi the goods are stacked out on the street in dazzling profusion, bottles of water and juice, cans of beer and soda, boxes of crackers and cookies, glittering crinkly packages of chips and peanuts and cakes, neat piles of green oranges, tomato-red persimmons, magenta dragon fruits, yellow mangos, tiny orange clementines, and light green custard apples. In New York the goods spill onto the street in the same way, colorful fruit stands or racks of magazines and newspapers or tubs of flowers or occasionally sweaters or t-shirts hanging from a pole.

In Hanoi everyone rides motorbikes. The first time I was there, in 1997, everyone rode bicycles. The streets were crowded with them dancing and darting through the city, clouds of delicate dragonflies flitting and alighting. Seven years later, the bicycles have morphed into motorbikes, the dragonflies into buzzing horseflies swarming loudly at every traffic light. I wanted a motorbike of my own, so I could buzz through the city too, visiting all sorts of corners and quarters that I never got to. I wasn’t afraid of the traffic, but I wasn’t sure I knew how to drive one of these bikes, so I let myself be talked out of renting one for the duration of my stay.

Hong Kong has an escalator from Central up to the mid-levels. They call it the longest escalator in the world, but of course it isn’t – it’s a series of escalators and passages and steep moving sidewalks from street to street, sometimes on the ground, sometimes on raised passageways. The escalator runs down in the morning rush hour and up the rest of the day. A staircase runs next to it, for people to go down when the escalator is heading up – and to climb in the morning, if they have the energy.

But I guess I should explain a bit better. Central is downtown Hong Kong, the business district, where the towering office buildings that make up Hong Kong’s famous skyline are planted. Central is on the bit of flat land nature provided at the bottom of Victoria Peak, and on a lot of landfill that humans added over the years. As the city grew, people began moving up the slopes of the mountain, initially small walk-ups, but now towers of forty or sixty stories, with footprints so small that they couldn’t have more than a few apartments on a floor. As those buildings crept up the mountain they formed the mid-levels. Streets run parallel to the slopes, and a few head straight up at grades that routinely exceed 15%, but the escalator saves residents of the mid-levels from a steep hike up the mountain to get home.

As I sit in a Starbucks halfway up, I’m watching commuters ride up the escalator, reading the newpaper, talking on their mobiles, or staring into space like commuters anywhere in the world. At each street they look up to check for cars, then cross to the next escalator to continue their ride and their reading or their conversation. On the side streets a trendy night life has blossomed to lure the commuters on their way home. Apartments in the mid-levels are pricey, especially if you want a view of the harbor and bedrooms for your children. I’ve seen prices of HK$ 15,000 a month for modest places without a view – HK$ 40,000 or 60,000 for the big lavish ones. At HK$ 7.8 to one US dollar, that’s not cheap. Those folks can certainly afford the wine bars and French restaurants and health clubs they pass on their way home. There are ordinary shops along the escalator too – supermarkets and drug stores and produce markets. Lots of folks are riding up with a bag of groceries – and not just the ubiquitous Filipina maids who clean Hong Kong’s homes and take care of its Chinese children.

The escalator reveals the truly three-dimensional way that space is used in Hong Kong. Streets here are not laid out on the land as they are elsewhere. They take off into space, they soar out on tall pylons, they climb stairs and overpasses. In one place the escalator starts at the street level – the street running parallel to the slope. It goes up to a ledge, a platform perched on pylons. If you’ve reached your destination, you continue walking forward on the ledge to reach the sidewalk on the downhill side of the next street up the hill. If you want to climb further you double back along a pathway on the ledge to the next stretch of escalator. It takes you up to a walkway fifteen feet above the street, an overpass on which you cross the street. On the downhill side of the walkway is the entrance to a small private garden and playground, at the second or third floor of the building on the downhill side of the street. After crossing the overpass you see a staircase to your right. t leads up another fifteen feet, to the lobby entrances to the buildings on the uphill side of the street. Along a path to your left, one escalator goes down to the uphill sidewalk, while another takes you up to the next street. And so it goes. Some streets are as much as ten or twelve stories higher than the previous one, and a string of escalators are needed to get from here to there.

I took the escalator to its end at Conduit Street, one street above Robinson Road where my hotel was. On my map, Conduit was very close to Robinson. But I couldn’t just walk there. I couldn’t even go down a staircase to get to my hotel. I turned left and walked a quarter of a mile along Conduit, stopping at a railing to look at the city spread below me. Finally Conduit Street curved out into space, hanging over the view of the city below. The sidewalk curved out into space on its own set of pylons, unconnected to the street. Road and sidewalk made tight u-turns and curved down to Robinson Road. The last building on Conduit fit into that u-turn, its parking garages and utility rooms reaching down ten stories to Robinson Road across the street from my hotel. Just a short block on my map, but ten stories up in the air from one street to the next.

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Unless otherwise indicated all text and photos on this site ©Joy E. Hecht.