Monthly Archives: December 2007

The Ecology of Urban Hong Kong

Posted by on December 31, 2007

The car stereo district in Hong Kong

The car stereo district in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is to small businesses as the rainforest is to plants.

I think that analogy not only captures the idea that economic and regulatory conditions in Hong Kong are favorable to business, but it also captures a very real sense of how and where businesses spring up. They pop up like plants wherever conditions will support life.

A Quiz

First let me start with a quiz which was given back in my introductory Microeconomics class: Assume you selling lemonade on a beach. On that beach there is another vendor of lemonade. The lemonade is exactly the same as yours and the same price. The only reason why someone would choose one vendor over another is the distance they have to walk. Also, assume that the people are spread out along the beach evenly and the beach is of finite length. (Think 100m if you want)

The question is, where will both lemonade vendors end up?

The first answer everyone thinks is they will divide the beach up. One would be at the 1/3 point and the other at the 2/3 point. However, you can always steal the market share between you and the other guy by inching towards him, without losing what is on the other side. The correct answer is, they will both end up in the middle.

Nathan street is the main commercial artery in Kowloon

Nathan street is the main commercial artery in Kowloon

If you think about it, it makes perfect sense, and it also explains why you see gas stations on the same corner, car dealerships on the same street, and fast food restaurants lumped together. In larger cities like Hong Kong, you see districts where similar small shops all converge. New York has the fashion district, the financial district, the diamond district, etc. In Hong Kong, I’ve noticed even smaller subdivisions in shops. In my previous post, I mentioned the floor tile district. Literally, there were tons of home improvement stores all clumped around the same street. I’ve seen clumps of car stereo stores, shoe stores, book stores, and certainly on Nathan Street, electronics stores.

I’ve noticed in Hong Kong a serious lack of large stores. Almost every store is a small mom and pop operation. I think this is a function of the regulatory environment in Hong Kong. It is very easy to open up a business in Hong Kong. Probably the easiest in the world. The lower the barrier, the small the size of the businesses that compete. The larger the barrier, the larger the size of the businesses that can compete. With so many businesses competing, it would be very hard to become a huge store. A small player with lower overhead could always come in and take business away from the area you are expanding into to.

The shopping districts are in effect Hong Kong’s answer to the the superstore. Rather than have a Home Depot, you have a block of stores selling home improvement products. Some sell tile. Some sell bathroom fixtures. Some sell paint. Together, they are pretty close to what you find in a Home Depot…minus the lumber.

A River Of People

So in addition to behaving like pack animals, you can also see businesses spring up like plants. Plants need water. Businesses need people. The primary arteries of people are the streets, with smaller tributaries going down alleys. Likewise, there is vertical component to people as well. Most are on the ground, but some can go up via elevators and escalators. The farther up you are, the farther away you are from people. Just like plants in a rainforest.

The home improvement district in Kowloon

The home improvement district in Kowloon

The fact that you find shops on busy streets isn’t really Earth shattering. What is interesting in Hong Kong is how you see shops set up in alleys on the second floor of buildings…but only near the escalators. These second floor malls are basically just permanent kiosks. All of the ones I’ve seen had a lot of empty units, with the only open units being at the very top of the escalator, usually visible from the bottom street level.

Once again, you see growth where you see people. No people, no business. The few businesses you would see are ones which don’t rely on foot traffic. Likewise in the alleys, you would see stands down primary alleys off of major streets, but then in the alleys off of the alleys, you’d see fewer stalls or nothing at all. All a function of human traffic.


Every ecosystem has its parasites. In Hong Kong it is the copy watch and hand bag vendors. They cluster where tourists are and just walk up to people asking them if they want a copy watch. They literally say “boss, want copy watch?”. I guess they got busted selling fake watches, so now they just tell people up front they are copies. I usually couldn’t walk a block without getting approached by several of these guys. Everyone of them I encountered was Indian.

While not parasites per se, you will also get accosted by guys with cutom tailor shops. They will stand outside their shop and target the tourists for custom suits. Unlike the copy watch guys, they run legitimate businesses with storefronts. You can get a custom tailored men’s suit for about US$150, including 2 shirts. Had I needed a suit, I probably would have gotten one. Like the copy watch guys, they were also all Indian.

The last parasitic group are the old Chinese women who hand out fliers for massages. Unlike Saipan, I think most of the massage places are legit. Most offer services like ear candleing and manacures. It is just a very low cost business to open. Nonetheless, they are very annoying deal with. Being a caucasian walking down the street alone, I screemed “tourist” and I was approached by everyone. At least they weren’t as bad as the scam artists I met in Manila.

Hong Kong probably has the most vibrant urban economy in the world, which is really suprising given that it is now technically under the control of the communist government.

Daily Travel Photo – Savai’i, Samoa

Posted by on December 31, 2007

Cape Mulinuu, Samoa

Cape Mulinuu, Samoa

Cape Mulinuu is considered the western most spot on the Earth. For a long time I wondered why this point was the westernmost. There are bits of land which cross the 180 degree longitude line. There are part of Alaska which are farther west which do not cross the International Date Line. I eventually discovered that it is the last place the sun sets each year. Because of the bends in the International Date Line, the parts to the west near the 180 are in a new day and the parts of Alaska which are to the west would be in the dark earlier. I thought it was a fitting photo for New Year’s Eve.

No, Its not Bhutan, Brundi, or Bahrain. It’s BRUNEI

Posted by on December 30, 2007

Still in Brunei. The internet here seems…..slow. Perhaps I got spoiled in East Asia. There are two internet cafes I’ve found, both of which take like a minute to pull up Gmail. I don’t foresee uploading photos until I can get a faster connection.

I’ve also developed diarrhea and a rash on the bottom of both of my legs. Nothing really serious, but not pleasant either. The public toilets here don’t have toilet paper, they have a hose on the left hand side you are supposed to use like a bidet. Not the greatest conditions to learn how to use one, but hey, I’m a survivor.

Yesterday I took a tour of the greater Bandar Seri Begawan area, which took all of two hours. I saw the house where the Sultan was born (small), the house where he lives now (BIG), the royal artifacts, and the two primary mosques in the city.

Brunei is a pretty unique place. I think that is putting it lightly. The closest I’ve seen on my trip so far has been Tonga, which has had a somewhat similar recent history to Brunei.

I’m off to take some photos of the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, which is the thing you always see in every promotional photo of Brunei. It is a short walk from my hotel, so I’ll be going there tonight as well for some night shots. They have scaffolding on the mosque so night photos might be better. (I don’t know why, but I’ve had really bad luck running into buildings being restored.)

My current plan is to take a bus tomorrow to to Miri, Malaysia in Sarawak and take a short flight to the Gunung Mulu National Park then go to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah and visit Kinabalu National Park. From there I’ll probably fly to Jakarta and work my way overland through Java to Bali and Komodo National Park (home of the Komodo Dragons). Then back to Bali for a short flight to East Timor where I’ll stay for a few days before heading to Australia.

I read in the paper that the Malaysia border is really busy on New Year’s, so at worst, I might have to wait one day before going to Sarawak.

I’ve learned a helluva lot about the history of Borneo, why a Sultanate exists here but not in Malaysia, and why Malaysia is split into two parts, rather than two countries. That will all have to come later on big post about Borneo.

I have no idea if I will have internet access in Miri or in the National Park, so if you don’t hear from me in the next few days, it is because I’m out in the bush.

Travelers Love Lists

Posted by on December 29, 2007

The question I’ve been surprised I haven’t gotten more often is “why do you list Hawaii as a country on your list of places?” Hawaii clearly is as much a country as Kansas, so it would seem odd to list it separately as a “country”. Moreover, I have Okinawa listed separately, which is also not a country.

I’m writing this because it is going to get really weird in Indonesia and Malaysia and I don’t think I’ve ever really given a proper explanation behind the list and why it is what it is. Also, travelers seem to love lists. Almost every article in every travel magazine and website is of the format “X ways to do Y”, so I figure going into detail about my list should pique some people’s interest.

How Many?
It all revolves around the question “what is a country?” It is a simple question, but answering it is really complicated. The obvious place to start is the list of member states in the United Nations. There are currently 192 members nations in the UN. I think everyone would agree that if you have a seat in the UN, you are a country. Vatican City has chosen not to become a member of the UN and has observer status. (Switzerland was an observer until 2002). They have diplomatic relations with many governments around the world so are widely considered a country. (technically, the Holy See has diplomatic relations, not Vatican City, but I’ll leave that to another day when I’m in Europe)

Beyond that it gets tricky.

UN for Taiwan Flags - Taipei, Taiwan
Taiwan really wants to be in the UN

Taiwan is the next hard one. Taiwan is recognized by several countries as the true “China” but they are mostly small countries. They used to have a seat in the UN as the Republic of China, had China’s current permanent Security Council seat, and used to be recognized by the US and most countries in the world. It is a de facto independent country, but it is not a recgonized country.

There are actually a bunch of countries with similar diplomatic limbo status to Taiwan: Former Spanish Sahara, Northern Cyprus, Palestine, Transnistria, and several places in the Caucuses.

On top of that, you have non-independent countries. These would be territories of other countries which are geographically and culturally separate from the mothership. Examples would include Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, Cook Islands, French Polynesia, Gibraltar, Falkland Islands, several Caribbean islands, Hong Kong and Macau. Many of these territories have separate Olympic teams.

If you total up all these, you have about 250 “countries”, not all of which are independent or recognized.

Distant Relatives

For a traveler, that list is still far from complete. For example, Easter Island is part of Chile. It is not a separate territory or jurisdiction. Yet, if you have been to Easter Island, have you really been to Chile? In a very technical sense, yes, but in a more realistic sense, no. Historically, culturally, geographically and linguistically, Easter Island is its own thing. The bond with Chile is political.

Likewise, Hawaii and Okinawa are sort of odd balls in their respective countries. Hawaii is isolated from the rest of the US, has a culture and history totally separate from the rest of the US (it used to have a monarchy 100 years ago). Okinawa is similar.

The list I used is the one assembled by the Century Travelers Club. They have basically set up criteria to determine what is and what isn’t a country. According to their list, there are 317 “countries”. Other lists include the countries with top level domain names. For the most part, I think the Century Traveler Club is a good and reasonable one and that is why I use it.

Rarotonga Harbor
The Cook Islands have a compact of Free Association with New Zealand. They do not have a seat in the UN, but do have an Olympic team.

Given its criteria, Indonesia (because it is an archipelago) is actually seven “countries”. For the purposes of my website, I’ll stay consistent with the TCC list on the left, but each of the Indonesian places will all link back to a single “Indonesia” category in the database. I don’t foresee having much to write about in Kalimantan for instance. Ditto with Malaysia which is divided into three seperate places. (Oddly enough, the Philippines, which is also an archipelago, is only one “country”.)

Don’t Stop at 300

Some lists don’t stop at 317, however.

The ham radio community keeps their own list of places. Their list currently includes 338 places , and includes uninhabited rocks in the Atlantic (Peter and Paul Islands), a single building in Rome (Sovereign Military Order of Malta, I’m going to have a blast writing about that someday), and islands off Antarctica (Peter I Island).

Personally, I think uninhabited islands are taking it a bit too far…

But the list building doesn’t end there.

Not all of the lists overlap nicely. One guy, Charles Velay, set out to break the world’s record for being the most traveled person. He created a mega list made up of all the other lists. This list has 673 places and includes all states and provinces in the US, Canada, UK, Russia, Brazil, Australia, India and every Antarctic territory. It also expands into small islands lying off the coast of countries. The list is now determined by members of his website who vote. Charles has been to 629 of the 673 places listed on his site. However you define it, I think he definitely owns the record.

Things Instead of Places

Personally, I think it has been taken to a bit of an extreme when you start including uninhabited rocks which have no historic, cultural, or political value whatsoever. You might as well include every island in the world and every possible political division.

Street Sign Central City - Macau
Sign showing UNESCO World Heritage attractions in Macau

That is why I include the second list right below the countries, the UNESCO Heritage sites. Let’s face it, if you haven’t seen the Statue of Liberty, you haven’t really been to New York. If you haven’t seen the Eiffel Tower, you haven’t been to Paris. There are some things which do not involve putting your foot on soil that really defines traveling. I think that the UNESCO list is a pretty reasonable list of “great places”, at least historic and natural places.

The UNESCO list however doesn’t include things like the Hong Kong skyline, great museums or modern buildings. Howard Hillman has created his own list of World Wonders. He has 1000 things scattered throughout the world. It too is a pretty good list as they go.

Before I left on my trip I purchased a copy of the book 1,000 Places To See Before You Die. It turns out that about a quarter of the places are hotels and an abnormal number of places are the UK. I think the book is garbage. If the author went to even 1/3 of the places in the book, I’d be amazed.

Lists are Fun

I don’t travel to cross stuff off a list, but if you are going to travel, having a list can be fun. Hell, most travel magazines and Travel Channel shows are nothing but top 10 lists.

Anyway, if you wanted to know why Indonesia is listed so many times, but Australia is only listed once, that is why.

First Impressions of Brunei

Posted by on December 29, 2007

I just arrived in Brunei. No internet at my hotel, but there is an internet cafe in the building. The kids here are like the ones I’ve seen everywhere: playing Warcraft, listening to music and reading celebrity gossip.

Here are my first thoughts:

  • The female flight attendants on my flight didn’t wear a normal chadori. They had what I could only describe as a nuns habit. It looked like what Katherine Hepburn wore in The Lion in Winter. It was actually very elegant. They looked very graceful in it.
  • In addition to the normal GPS position of the flight on a map, they also had peridoic directions to Mecca in reference to the direction of the plane. (Anyone out there know if you face Mecca via the great circle route or via a linear projection on a map? This is a serious question. I’m sure this has been given a great deal of thought)
  • Prior to the take off, they said a prayer in, what I can only guess, was Arabic. The English translation, but for the references to Allah and Mohammad, could have been a Catholic prayer. The length of the prayer was about two minutes.
  • Brunei is very clean. Everything looks very developed. It is also dark so I reserve the right to change my mind.
  • Malay is the official language, but there are a lot of signs in Arabic and English. Everyone has spoke English I’ve met so far.
  • I got the feel I was landing in one of the Pacific Islands at the airport. Brunei is a small country and has a very similar vibe.

I’m going to take a bath for the first time in a month. I’m sure I’ll have more tomorrow. No Internet in my room will probably make me more productive.

Last Day in Hong Kong (for real this time)

Posted by on December 28, 2007

Hong Kong, I barely knew ya

Hong Kong, I barely knew ya

I got my tickets and everything is booked. Tomorrow evening I’ll be flying Royal Brunei Airlines to Bandar Darussalam and I’ll finally be out of Hong Kong. I’ve stayed here waaaay longer than I ever anticipated. Granted, I got a lot done and I probably needed to stay put for a few weeks, but I’m getting antsy and it is time to get moving.

I’m currently planning on three days in Brunei, then I’ll be off to Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia and Kinabalu National Park. From there I’ll try to visit Gunung Mulu National Park then hop a flight to Jakarta.

I’m on a bit of a schedule. I need to get some documents sent from the states. I’m going to take my planned vacation from my vacation in Australia, where I’ll sit and wait for stuff to get sent and for my passport to get renewed at the US Embassy.

I’m sort of looking forward to Malaysia and Indonesia because I honestly don’t know what to expect. I’m sort of expecting it to be on a par with the Philippines. (Actually, Malaysian per capita GDP is well above the Philippines and Indonesia is below. I have no idea how East/West Malaysia differ, however).

I’ll experience my first land border crossing of the trip this week and my first trip to a predominately Muslim country. Once again, I have no idea what sort of Internet connection I’ll have. Updates might come in bunches when I can find bandwidth.

I don’t know if I want to climb Mount Kinabalu. I have the clothing and shoes but not the pack. I’m sure I’ll find out more in the coming days.