From the ground, it’s a test of neck and spinal flexibility to look up at the top of the International Commerce Center, known as the ICC. From the top, what happens on the ground is irrelevant. The sweeping panorama looks out to the sky, Hong Kong’s forested mountain peaks and the rooftops of all the other skyscrapers, and reduces the city’s bustle to a few boats gliding on the harbour and dots of cars on the motorway. Inside, sealed windows protect this tranquility from outside pollution, air, noise and the famous humidity. Without these stimuli to my senses, the view hangs more like a landscape painting than a depiction of my surroundings, of which my main concern was the air conditioning – whether I needed a sweater against the cold, fruity-floral scented air pumped through the ICC and its adjoining complex. Amusingly, each part of the complex had a unique scent. By that alone, I could tell you if we were in the hotel, residences, mid-tower offices, spa, lobby or the luxurious shopping center. In one of the most densely populated cities in the world, where people joke that it is so convenient inside their apartments they can stir the cooking pot in the kitchen while sitting on the toilet, it’s a testament to its status that space was created for this complex by land reclamation.
The sharp and chic circulate busily between this complex and Hong Kong’s commercial district, via a network of lifts, skywalks and metro stations, and they could spend days without ever setting their snakeskin-clad points on terra firma. They are international, speak on average three languages, and are here to get work done. On their minds, is the day’s hectic schedule of meetings and handshakes. On their phones, are over a hundred unanswered messages. At the 50th floor lounge of the residence, walled on one side by a staggering view from its floor-to-ceiling windows, they’re focused on BBC World News on the flatscreen TV. Anyway, the smog often draws a thick curtain over the view.
A woman in a nice, pale blue suit cut in front of me while in line at a street level tea shop. Before I could stereotype her, she quickly turned to me and said, “Excuse me, I’m not trying to cut in front of you, I just wanted to duck under the awning.” It wasn’t raining. “If they’re washing windows up there, this new suit will be finished.” She explained as if from experience. I looked up at the layers of balconies above; she had a point. When so much is packed into every cubic measure of space, your neighbour’s business is your business.
Photo composition needs new considerations. There are suddenly multiple layers between the immediate foreground and the furthest point of the background. A typical street photo begins with a corner of someone’s head or shoulder at the edge of your frame, partially obstructing the storefront that you wanted to capture. The store’s awning juts out obtrusively and bewilders an auto-focus camera. In front of that, a wide street sign; next to it, a traffic light, and in the gap between are passing taxis and double-decker busses. Further to the back, an infinite clutter of high rises fills every empty space, leaving, if any, a sliver of sky. I found that the wisest point of focus was whatever was happening directly in front of me.
“Miss, be careful!” I saw a large cardboard box coming towards me, wrapped by two skinny arms and a grey-haired, tilted head poking out from behind. “Gently!” He shouted back towards a parked van on the street with its hazard lights flashing, “They’re breakable”. “Of course, sir,” answered another man’s voice from behind a second cardboard box coming in my direction. Step back, and I would protrude heel first into traffic; step to the side, my elbow would dip into a bowl of dessert tofu at a diner, so I ducked into the man’s small shop of light fixtures. “New stock,” the grey-haired man told me, while opening the box he had just brought in, “they’re brighter and last longer”, he promised. He wasted not a moment, deftly organizing whatever he touched while telling me about his business. “Everyone buys lights from me; all the shops on this street are my customers.” By now he’d already taken out the contents of a third box and was flattening the cardboard. “Business must be very good.” I complimented. He explains humbly that he’s fortunate to have this business and glad to be working. “If you have two arms and two legs, you will survive in Hong Kong.” he says, and added logically, “Everyone works late, everyone is out late, so everyone needs lights, including me.” Indeed, as the brightly lit Hong Kong night attests, there is work at all hours of the day.
On the bus, I overheard a woman speaking sharply on her phone. “That’s why you should sign the bank draft now. So I’ll come by at eleven tonight after my business dinner?” Work happens anywhere, anytime, wherever opportunity arises. She continued, “then I’ll give it to them first thing tomorrow morning. Once it’s cashed, they won’t be able to……”, and then she lowered her voice. Business acumen seems instinctive to everyone here. Even a successful principal ballerina of the Hong Kong Ballet asserts that after her dance career is finished, she will go into business. Her fellow dancers know her well and tease that she will certainly be the manager who tells everyone what do to.
At six-thirty in the evening, office workers at a corporate headquarters, one of the many that anchor Hong Kong’s economy, showed no sign of winding down. Colleagues spoke to one other tiredly about their busy workday and their meetings still to come at seven, eight and later in the evening; there was certainly no idle chit-chat about the weather. I remarked to one of the white-collared recruits that people in Hong Kong worked a lot. He replied, “People here take pride in their work”.
I left the busy office and walked towards the harbour. Life in the high rises is its own world of spacious corridors, cool air conditioning and rare tranquility; it weighs heavily on life below, where the streets are cramped and the pace is hard and hectic. At street level, my frame of vision captures only my immediate surroundings; smog clouds over the scene much of the time anyway. But at night, when the smog recedes to Hong Kong’s lights, all facets of life in the city are illuminated; the luxury hotel glows as brightly as the seedy massage parlour. From the high rises or from street level, at night, the view is clearer than ever.