BY Christopher Rice
April 08 2010 7:50 PM ET
Forgive me if I can only describe Hong Kong in terms of comparison to large American cities, but Hong Kong requires comparisons to so many of those cities that it seems to transcend and overpower all of them at once. The gray coastal skies and green landscape bring the Bay Area to mind, but the mountains seem higher and sharper; they stare down the urban areas with blunt authority. The tides of people packed onto the elevated sidewalks in central Hong Kong move at a pace that would make a lifelong New Yorker pause for breath every few minutes. There are reflections of Chicago's famed glass skyscrapers in the clean lines and orderliness of Hong Kong's waterfront skyline — the Bank of China building even resembles a squatter version of the Sears Tower — but the city is so tightly packed onto a narrow strip of land between Victoria Peak and the harbor that it seems to radiate more energy and determination than the entire length of Manhattan. So while its aesthetic influences appear to be largely Western, they play out on a scale and at a pace that most of the world has come to identify with modern China.
And even though it pains me to make the claim, having come of age in an America now defined by its lack of meaningful investment in infrastructure, it was Hong Kong's overall efficiency that struck me as exotic to my experience, if not precisely Eastern. I have not traveled extensively throughout Asia, so I'm not comfortable using easy dichotomies between East and West. But there was a palpable sense during my stay that despite having been under Chinese control for 11 years Hong Kong had managed to improve upon civic attributes to which Western metropolises used to lay an exclusive claim: cleanliness, order, and economic growth. Indeed, throughout Asia, accomplishments that used to define Western nations are being re-created and expanded under the auspices of governmental systems and religions many Westerners used to regard as enemies of progress. This apparent contradiction seems to lie at the heart of modern Asia, or at least our American perception of it, and in Hong Kong it is on brilliant display. So I insist that my stay there and my affection for the place deserve a bit more respect from my globetrotting peers. There is a great truth about the other side of the world to be experienced in Hong Kong, even if one doesn't reach it by trekking up a rugged trail to a quaint Buddhist temple situated beneath swaying palm fronds.
When I returned home, I abandoned Thailand as the primary setting for my new novel and shifted most of the action to Hong Kong. Hong Kong had become more to me than just a stage set for prime-time intrigue. I had come to see it as a true crossroads of the world, where cultural distinctions such as East and West, capitalist and Marxist, were eroded daily by the baffling influences of globalization.
From a writer's perspective, it was the perfect place to bring together a cross section of characters from all over the world and force them to question the support systems they had relied on for most of their lives. This idea, along with a story line I developed for the book involving financial corruption, turned Hong Kong into the ideal setting for The Moonlit Earth, and I have the often last-minute, accidental nature of travel and my father's puzzling obsessions to thank for these discoveries.
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