It is 6.45. In bright sunshine I step out of my Mid Levels hotel and run down the hill towards Victoria Harbour. My route – a sequence of pavements, staircases, underpasses and pedestrian bridges – leads me to the gates of the city zoo. I run under its dark green canopy, towards the source of a beautiful, booming song. I peer into the tall black cages, among their rockery and ferns and pieces of tree, searching for the culprit. It must be a ground bird, or some rare parrot. Close too, the sound has a muscular quality – might it be a hyax?
It is a buff cheeked gibbon; or rather a pair of gibbons. A sign placed next to a pool full of orange carp tells me these gibbons sing in male / female duets. They occupy two adjacent cages, and below the roof of one a male perches and sings. I cannot see the female. More gibbons, young and old, lope their way around their cages, swinging from hand to hand using lengths of hanging rope and loops of steel. I watch them for a while and they watch back. The chorister silences as he bares his teeth. I run on.
A tunnel takes me into the botanic gardens. The sun rises behind the silver towers of Central and in a clearing pricks the slow-motion silhouettes of men and women practising tai chi. One woman brandishes a plastic sword; men and women stutter around a circular track, kneading the air with their hands and grimacing their facial muscles. If I was an old man it would not be too bad to start the day in this place.
The gardens slope down the hillside and shortly I pass through another set of gates and I am back in the city. Upper Albert Road falls down towards Queensway and I am at sea level. Less than 1,000 metres from the water’s edge I enter a forest of skyscrapers, each one a hive of office workers and lobbies and lift shafts and quiet board rooms. I see my reflection in the high glass walls of one after another. Between them spread aprons of smooth black stone, parking lots, the white rush of re-cycled water cascades, pedestrian staircases in moulded concrete. This maze of free passage, elaborated with miniatures of mountain and glade, is the urban jungle’s equivalent of what the poets Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley call ‘edgelands‘: neglected and addictive patches of spare landscape. I pass the old Supreme Court and a five second burst of green grass, duck down into the underpass under Connaught Road Road and out onto a building site along the waterfront and up more stairs to a covered walkway streaming with commuters. A Star ferry had just docked at Pier 8. I am nearly there. At the water’s edge the smell is muggy and dirty; the South China Sea slaps against the harbour side. Hungry, I turn and head back up the hill.
Is Hong Kong a vision of the future? I am sure this question has been asked before. It is urban, it is Asian. For most of the 7 billion people alive today, this will be their experience of the 21st century.
Despite the city’s dramatic seaside location Hong Kong is mostly seen and experienced from the inside.
Our day of meetings begins. We cross the city in Hong Kong’s red cabs, whose doors open automatically on arrival. Grand gestures to aid speed. We queue for lifts to take us underground so that we might catch the MTR under the harbour to Kowloon. As I sink below the marble and the steel I begin to feel claustrophobic; I have a fleeting sense of what a bullock must feel as he enters the abattoir. We hurry across floor after floor of malls; the white marble floors clipping the footfall of office workers on relief expeditions for sunshine and Starbucks, or browsing the Apple store, Brooks Brothers, Nokia, Zara, Valentino, delis, cinemas, drug stores … In the marble lobbies of the great towers the polished doors of the elevators open to marble interiors. High in these towers we are ushered into pale-coloured rooms named after varieties of fish or rivers or places on Hong Kong island. Each room owns a round table, a piece of art and a vast window bright blue with the sky, the bay, the hills seen through the haze.
At 7.00 our last meeting ends. Our client must leave for a dinner elsewhere; an escalator carries her away. We are left stranded in a basement café , the air down here is refrigerated. I walk out into the warm night, grateful to see the sky, and start to climb towards my hotel. On Upper Albert Road I stop to watch a Maserati and a BMW race one another out of sight. The steep pavement leads me to to a flight of steps and the gates of the botanic gardens. Its dark paths are magically deserted. On the tai chi plateau I stand briefly in the quiet, thinking about the day; in the night sky there is a whisp of a moon. And then I cross the clearing and walk through the pedestrian tunnel that links the gardens with the zoo. The cages are quiet. The animals must be asleep.