HK’s Central district is the analogue of NYC’s Wall Street. It is here that multi-billion dollar banking giants like Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) and Standard Chartered Bank stake out their territories. Garden Road and Cotton Tree Drive are mere slivers of pavement wedged between the towering high-rises of Bank of China and Citibank. Between these two buildings lies the oldest Anglican church in the Far East. Even though St. John’s Cathedral has been here since 1849, it’s dwarfed by the neighboring financial skyscrapers and looks strangely out of place. Its stone frame, rose window, lancet arches, and trifoils contrast jarringly with the surrounding urban jungle made of glass and steel.
My workplace is right in the very thick of this jungle on the eighth floor of Exchange Square Two. I came in for my first day of work expecting the firm to occupy the entire floor. I learned quickly enough that they’ve rented a single room. It’s slightly larger than my hotel room. And besides me, only one other person, my boss, works there. And she’ll be gone half the time on either business trips or vacation. But don’t get me wrong. My boss is great. She’s down to Earth, understanding, and receptive to suggestions. At the same time, she’s firm, exacting, and generally just on top of her shit. My internship is of the hit the ground running, no hand holding, lots of latitude type.
I have no idea what the other floors of Exchange Square Two look like (perhaps an adventure for another time), but the eighth floor, besides being auspicious to Chinese people, is managed by The Executive Center, a company that rents out and services offices. The floor is excellently furnished and has dark earthy colors. There are bookshelves with books ranging from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to The Droll Stories of Honoré de Balzac*. A giant silver colored trophy to the Jones Lang LaSalle company for winning the Young Executives Network’s 5-A-side Corporate Football Tournament sits on another shelf. My favorite spaces are the kitchens which have espresso machines. You can make yourself a cup of ristretto, espresso forte, decaffeinato, or coffé forte by inserting a UFO-shaped packet into the machine’s mouth.
During this past week when my boss was in Shanghai and it was just me from Monday until Thursday, one of the few things that kept me dragging my groggy self out of bed every morning and making the long trek to Central was a certain cute receptionist at the front desk. She works with three other Chinese women there. They give warm smiles and say “bye bye” in a light, sing-song manner.
Most of the time my work is rather uneventful. The highlight of my first week was the day I visited HK’s public library after work. They had an English section! They had David Foster Wallac ! My heart melted on the spot. After my intial excitement died down, I noticed the library was very nondescript and relatively small for a city of HK’s size. And then it slowly dawned on me why I had felt a growing sense of unease about HK.
I got this feeling only a couple of days after stepping off the plane and had been trying to put a finger on it ever since. Here I was in Asia’s “world city,” the world’s freest economy for fifteen consecutive years (Ayn Rand would be proud), a cosmopolitan center of business, goods, and cuisine. But something was missing. The conditions of the buildings said it all.
HK has at least a dozen Swarovski stores, Armani shops selling not only clothes but even books and flower arrangements, and a Louis Vuitton-sponsored art exhibition at the HK Museum of Art (raising too many disturbing questions than this post can address). Yet the city’s public libraries remain unspectacular and places of worship languish in disrepair as banks tower over them. A city’s architecture reflects its values, and it’s clear HK values the pursuit of wealth over the cultivation of intellect, culture, and the soul. Here, too many people worship the state-sponsored Church of Capitalism. Materialism has attained a religious significance, and people chase money with fanatical fervor. Banks’ headquarters are enormous citadels signifying and worshipping the strength of the almighty dollar. (Some really do look like houses of worship. The Standard Chartered bank’s interior has dark granite passageways whose main source of light comes from stained glass depicting not biblical figures but commerce and goods.)
As I walked out of the library’s English section and entered a reading area, I noticed a handful of people sitting down, each one of them reading a book. I felt compelled to snap a photo of them.