On the road blog – Hong Kong

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Well it’s been a long and successful week working in Hong Kong with a group of Asian Sales people in the healthcare market. Asia is an amazing place and with over 60% of the worlds population living here it is to say the least, busy. The regions growth has been amazing and most of the cities I visit are building sites to the capitalist way of life. But with success and growth there are challenges. Conquering illness and extending life has resulted in an ageing population that will soon outgrow the youth, add to this an increase in none communicable diseases and the growth of cancer, breast cancer which was only a western phenomenon is now one of the fastest growing cancers in Asia, and you have a influx of outside investment into the healthcare market ready to spend their money, but a shortage of doctors to deliver services.

The commercial growth also develops a middle class with spendable income, no more apparent than in Hong Kong which is like a scene from the movie “Blade Runner” with high rise living accommodation and shopping centres dominating the city. Thousands of people cram the streets in cars and on foot, the noise and air pollution is incredible and at this time of year the heat makes it unbearable to stay outside for too long. So when the heat gets too much you have two options, escape into the air-conditioned heaven of a shopping mall or like thousands of ants scurry underground to the cool tunnels that thread the city. Underground is as mad as above ground, thousands of people hurrying along and the vast majority of them Asian tourists all drawn like moths to the bright lights of Hong Kong.

Everywhere you look people are on their mobile phones, all ages, sexes and nationalities. In fact there isn’t one person who is not either talking on a phone, using it for navigation or simply playing a game. I even turn a corner to find an oasis of peace in this subterranean world only to find an old couple, I would estimate in their seventies, sat, faces glued to mobile phones, not talking or interacting and seemingly oblivious to the endless streams of people passing them by. The noise down here is incredible; the sound of feet and conversation bounce of the concrete curved walls, oh yes conversation, because the use of mobile devices here doesn’t stop the conversation. However as an observer of people, I can’t tell if the conversation is between the people walking or the individual and their device, no eye contact is exchanged and as I don’t speak the language I have no idea if the responses are actually to questions from their partner or the device itself.

The amazing thing about Hong Kong though is when you do interrupt their iPhone reverie to ask for directions or help, people are genuinely keen to help, and even if they don’t speak English sign language and raised voices tend to be the universal communication tool. It is a welcoming and isolating city both at the same time.

My trip here is to help sales people profile their customers and for someone who watches people for a living this city is a treasure trove of information, and nowhere is better to place yourself than a hotel bar. The stereotypes of business people on business trips is well known and from my seat in Hari’s bar there are plenty of examples of men wishing to live that stereotype. At first the bar is quiet with families and young children noisily chattering around groups of seats and waitresses dancing between tables, children’s feet and customers with no manners careful not to drop trays of drinks, but then the shift changes. The night shift starts with the ladies of the night drifting in, all slinky black outfits and obvious charms. They check in with the maître d and get a slip of paper, then glide like sharks around the room looking for prey before settling at the single seats around the bar, careful to keep their distance from each other.  Then come the business men, in small groups or singles already primed with booze and looking for a good night. The karaoke starts and the entertainment begins as over the course of the night each business man is separated from the pack and disappears. It’s like watching a heard of zebra being picked off one by one by a pride of female lions. There are obvious rules, etiquette and a hierarchy for the attacks but within short order either the lion has disappeared with her prey or re-seated herself waiting for her next turn at the game.

Then come the larger business groups with men, it seems to be only men in this hotel, who have obviously been out to discuss a business deal, or attend a conference with a business partner. The first group mixed Europeans and Asians, with an obvious supplier customer relationship, corner a large table and proceed to hit the shots. The overall atmosphere between the Europeans and their Asian comrades is interesting to watch as the Europeans become more reserved and uptight with each shot that’s brought out and their Asian colleges become more animated and touchy feely as they sink another shot. One incident included a big burly English man being grabbed by a small wiry Hong Kong local, who proceeded to plant a kiss squarely on his cheek. At first it looks like the Brit is going to explode and hit the guy, but fortunately the business relationship seems too strong to lose so he storms across the bar in what can only be described as an anthropological display of machismo. Shoulders back, arms out, fists clenched, face red and talking to himself. He disappears for maybe ten minutes before he comes back warily to the group and takes a “do not mess with me” stance, feet planted well apart, arms folded across his chest, chin raised and a scowl that would sour milk. Meanwhile his colleagues have de-generated into a childish game of push me push you, with the Europeans standing around looking totally confused.

My attention is then drawn to a new group that has just walked in and seats themselves squarely in the middle of the room so everyone can see them. They sit in order of age, with the circle closing and the youngest sitting next to the oldest. The second in command orders a bottle of whiskey and glasses for everyone and speeches are said and the ritual drinking begins. The order of drinking matches the order of authority and no one drinks until the elder drinks, but then no one stops drinking until the elder does. I can see that by two thirds of the way through the bottle the young man is desperate to leave, and every sip looks like torture but he keeps face and he keeps pace. No doubt his first visit after this session will be to the bathroom to relieve himself of his whiskey session.

By now the European group has disbanded and individuals are trying to work out what had happened during the evening, the ladies shift has changed and a fresh group arrive with the Maître d issuing new chits to the new girls and the dance all starts again.

The pace of life in Hong Kong seems relentless, in the shopping malls and café bars people openly sleep with their heads on their hands. This is an accepted ritual, which to me shows signs that we are pushing our fragile bodies to the limits. The bars and hotels creak with tourists, business people and money is being made into the small hours of the night. Of all of the cities I have visited for me Hong Kong outstrips them all, and it seems its just beginning. Building works to increase office space, shopping space and housing is pushing the boundaries of architecture.  Its impossible for the average worker to buy a house, so apartments are the norm and they are getting taller and taller. The streets are dirty and washing hangs from the thirty ninth floor of a housing block dripping water onto the masses of people who swarm the streets.

I am not sorry to be leaving Hong Kong and my travels take to me to Sydney Australia next, some nine hours and a time zone away, and I am hoping a more chilled relaxed atmosphere. I will keep you posted.

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