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The View From Victoria Peak

POSTCARD FROM HONG KONG

By Matteo F. Segalla

It is impossible not to be overwhelmed by awe at the vision of the harbor from the heights of Victoria Peak, the most notorious and by far most spectacular sight of Asia's most dynamic, ebullient and thriving metropolis. The city's tallest hill, Victoria Peak provides streams of round-the-clock tourists as well as locals in search of solace from the city's frenetic life, with unparalleled views of the land below, the handsome towers and Kai Tak's airport constantly blinking lights. Like a multitude of glimmering diamonds, the lights and shapes reflect on the harbor, creating a visual effect of stunning magnitude.

To a first-time visitor, the harbor promenade on the Kowloon peninsula side can appear as the city's focal and most active point. During the day, the harbor, despite the recent threats of rising pollution, typhoons and the practice of land reclamation, houses the world's busiest container port, with more than 100 ships arriving daily. Then, as the late hours of the afternoon arrive, the Indian fortune tellers, the joggers and California-style bladers, the myriad of couples waiting for dusk to come, all provide picturesque detail to the majestic scenario of the bay and Hong Kong Island's towering skyscrapers and elegant buildings. But the real magic lies elsewhere, in the labyrinth of streets and cavernous meadows where the multifaceted realities of the metropolis reveal their enigmas. From 8 p.m. to shortly after midnight, Temple Street becomes the showcase of one of Hong Kong's sacred shopping venues, with a selection of merchandise that could rival any American mall, or just about. Although the quasi-legendary, Temple Street-made Rolexes and Cartiers have virtually disappeared due to heightened controls, the dozens of stalls sell everything from T-shirts, dumplings, breathing-fresh chicken, leather-goods, perfumes and CD's. Occasionally, the wandering, by-now-confused pedestrian can stumble onto an improvised, rousing performance of traditional Chinese opera, an experience never to be forgotten. At the side of the street, uninterested in the trafficking of shoppers and bargain-hunters, locals and off-duty taxi-drivers pause at an open-air restaurant, where they can taste the array of local flavors in the midst of strong, all-pervading effusions of sauces and the ever-present dumpling steam.

Come dawn, and the densely populated neighborhoods explode with vitality and never-ending energy: today Hong Kong is Asia's international business hub and the world's eighth largest trading economy, as well as China's premier asset. In 1996, the territory's entities channeled about $100 billion into mainland China, about 60 percent of all the capital injected into the country. The economic links with the mainland represent the most significant factor to shape the short-term future of the territory, which has acquired the new status of China's Special Administrative Region in the historic event of the handover on midnight of June 30. Indeed, it was in the aftermath of the embargo on China that the present economic might was being born. In lack of trading opportunities, industrialists from the mainland realized that Hong Kong's only asset was represented by the manufacturing potential of its people. Shortly, as bigger factories opened and a diversified economy began to thrive, the real estate business--which to this day constitutes a third of the total valuation on the Hang Seng Stock Index--became the most profitable economic sector. Decades later, the enactment of the Open Door policy in China determined the rise of Hong Kong as a world-class financial center, attracting more than 300 foreign banks in less than a decade. The rest is the success story we are familiar with.

Not surprisingly, the most obvious and yet complex question is: As Hong Kong is once again part of China, what will its future really be like? After the deep pessimism and loss of confidence the mainland experienced after the Tiananmen Square's crackdown of June 1989, the people's sentiments now are characterized by a vision of energy and optimism, confirmed by opinion polls as well as by the uniquely frenetic dynamism of the recent months, when a $20.1 billion public works program was initiated. As part of this huge planning project, the world's longest suspension bridge, linking the island of Lantau with the peninsula of Kowloon has been opened.

However, as the saying goes, not everything that shines is golden: Hong Kong is now dramatically confronted with what through the years has remained the most visible threat to its global competitiveness: the housing issue. Although growing concern is now associated with issues such as the shortage of caring for the elderly, the low quality of the education system and the potential strain on the budget caused by the imminent immigration waves from China, the housing issue can have the most profound and far-reaching impact on the territory's economy. In 1996, uncontrolled speculatimn drove apartment prices up by more than 30 percent, and affordable housing for middle and low-income families remains in stagnant shortage.

Although the handover will most certainly produce changes and unfold new realities, one thing is easy to predict: the people of Hong Kong, perhaps the territory's most valuable and reliable asset, will not change and won't lose their unique energy, courage and vision for a bright tomorrow. And in the eyes of many, this might be enough to assure Hong Kong's future success. In the city of Lo Wu, at the border with China, the ultramodern train station is packed with masses of Chinese from the territory going to the mainland for a weekend or a short business trip. Their faces, their radiant smiles and spontaneous enthusiasm suggest the conclusion that maybe, for the extraordinary people of Hong Kong, the future has come well before July 1, 1997.

Matteo Segalla '98 is a visiting student living in Lowell House.

While the Handover will certainly unfold new realities, one thing is easy to predict: the people of Hong Kong, the country's most valuable asset, will not change and will not lose their unique energy.

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