The Ecology of Urban Hong Kong

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.

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

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

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.

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 recognized 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 mother ship. 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 sorts of oddballs 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.

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 separate 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.

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

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)

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.

Viva Macau!

Here is the 15 second explanation of Macau:

Macau lies about 40 miles away from Hong Kong and was a former colony of Portugal. It was handed back to China in 1999 and has a status similar to Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region. It has its own currency as well as its own immigration rules and entrance policies. While it has traditionally been overshadowed by Hong Kong, Macau has come into its own lately as the gambling center of Asia.

Macau is a pretty tiny place. Even by Honk Kong standards (which is small) Macau is pretty small.

My time in Macau was all of 13 hours, so beyond this post, I probably wont have too much more to say about it. In that 13 hours, I managed to see a good portion of the territory and most of the significant attractions.

These where my thoughts which I wrote down on my laptop through out my Christmas Day in Macau…

Sunrise over the Sands
Sunrise over the Sands
7:21 a.m.
I’m writing this on the ferry to Macau. The ferry was only a 15 min walk from my hostel. The ferry is looking pretty packed. I think something that Chinese and Americans have in common is that in both places, the casinos will be packed on Christmas.

A common thing for people who are living or working in a country is to do a visa run, where you leave the country briefly just to come back and get your visa renewed. This is probably the easiest visa run in the world. Macau is about 40 miles from Hong Kong and a round trip on the ferry is only HK$315 (US$40). This is probably the shortest trip I’ve had (distance wise) between locations on my trip so far. Time wise it was probably either the flight from Guam to Saipan or the Apia, Samoa to American Samoa flight.

I have yet to cross a border by land on my trip. I’ll be doing that soon however as I go from Brunei to Malaysia.

Inside the MGM Grand
Inside the MGM Grand
11:02 a.m.
I’ve been walking around for about an hour and a half around the big casinos. They are very nice. The MGM is probably the neatest building, architecturally, I’ve ever seen. Everything is very high end. This is called the Vegas of Asia, but right now I’d call it the Atlantic City of Asia. It isn’t quite to Vegas proportions yet. It is Christmas day, but its not very busy. I realize that Christmas isn’t as big of a deal in China, but you’d never see Vegas this dead any day of the year.

Macau is like Hong Kong, but there are definite differences. The Portuguese influence is obvious. The street signs are more continental European than British. The architecture is different and it is more Catholic. That and you see signs in Portuguese everywhere.

I can easily see this place overtaking Vegas in 10-20 years. Chinese love to gamble and as China becomes richer, this place is going to explode. Think Vegas back when the Mirage was first being built (1980s). That is Macau today.

The fact you have to go through a separate immigration when coming from Hong Kong is sort of a pain. Considering how close together they are, and considering they both have a special administrative status from the rest of China, I’d think a merger would make sense. Certainly, carrying a currency for just 500,000 people is probably unnecessary. the Hong Kong and Macau dollars are very close to each other. A HK$37 frappachino in Hong Kong is MOP$36 in Macau.

I’m off to the city center to see the historic parts of town. That is something which Vegas lacks.

Facade of St. Paul's
Facade of St. Paul's
1:08 p.m.

I ducked into a Starbucks to sit down. (This is the first Starbucks I’ve seen without wifi) The street food here is very unique. The two big ones are Portuguese egg tarts (not bad actually. Like a sweet egg pudding) and what I can only describe as pork jerky. It isn’t as dry as regular jerky and much sweeter. They literally pick up sheets with tongs and cut it with scissors.

I’m in the city center which is very European. While there are parts of Hong Kong which seem very British, I don’t think the British left their stamp on Hong Kong as hard as the Portuguese left theirs on Macau.

Asians who feel the compulsion to take their photo in front of every object they see is really becoming annoying. If there is a group of three, they will take seven possible photos in front of every object. (3 solo, 3 pairs, and one group)_I’m serious. I haven’t been anywhere in Asia where I haven’t seen every photo taken involve someone standing in front of something, holding a peace sign. I’ve had people complain that I don’t take enough photos of myself. I’m sure I could if I tried. I have a tripod and I could always have someone else take a photo. But having few photos of me is much better than having nothing but photos of me. I’m far more interested in the places I visit than proving for posterity that I was there.

Macau Tower
Macau Tower
The biggest historical attraction is the ruins of St. Paul’s. It was the nicest church in Macau and burned down (like all wooden buildings eventually do) in 1835. Today, only the facade and the foundation remain. I also saw St. Dominic’s and the fort. Everything is in very close proximity in this area, and viewing a facade really doesn’t take much time. I’m not sure any of the churches in Macau would be that special of they were transported to Europe. What makes them unique is that they are an island of Europe in Asia. It has a similar feel to the Intramuros in Manila.

4:13 p.m.

I’m at the Macau Tower. It is basically the same thing as the CN Tower in Toronto, The Sky Tower in Auckland or the Stratosphere in Vegas. Here, however, they have bungee jumping and you can do a two hour climb to the top of the spire. If I had more time here, the climb would be fun. I’m actually waiting to go see a movie. I’m watching “I Am Legend”. It is the first movie I’ve seen in a theater since I saw Harry Potter in Samoa. You purchase movie tickets here like you buy sports tickets. You pick the exact seat you want for the show. As I type this, I’m overlooking the three bridges that connect Macau to the island of Tipau. The PRC is very close to Macau. It would be a very easy swim to get from there to here. I wonder how they patrolled the border when Mao was in power.

To give you an idea of the size of Macau, I’ve only walked today and I’ve seen most of the pinnesula.

After the movie, I think I’m going to do the skywalk on the top of the Macau tower. You basically get hooked to a rail and you can walk around the top of the tower on the outside. I’ve already proven myself in the bungee department. In addition to the bungee, the skywalk, and the spire crawl, they have a thing called the sky jump. It is like a bungee jump, except you don’t spring back. You just drop and the slow your descent.

Macau has a lot of room for growth
Macau has a lot of room for growth

I didn’t end up doing the Skywalk. It was closed by the time I got up to the top of the Macau Tower. Also, the casinos weren’t nearly as busy as I thought they’d be when I was on my way there.

Macau isn’t Vegas yet. The Vegas hotels which have opened in Macau (Sands, Wynn, MGM and soon Venetian) are all smaller than their Vegas counterparts. However, they all seem much nicer. There is a lot of construction going on and I think it is only a matter of time before Macau will rival Vegas. Macau is much better situated than Vegas to take advantage of the growth of China and the rest of Asia.

I wonder how long Portuguese is going to last as a language in Macau? I doubt if it will be more than a generation. Most people I interacted with spoke English and there is zero incentive to know Portuguese now that they aren’t a part of Portugal. The pressures are to learn Mandarin and English.

My guess is that Macau will be one of the unsung boom cities during the next decade. They will be overshadowed by mainland China, but will have an enormous increase in casinos, hotels and jobs as they attract more Chinese.

If you are in Hong Kong, I’d definitely take a day trip to Macau. I’m sort of embarrassed I waited this long considering how easy it was to get there. You really don’t have to stay overnight unless you want to really want to gamble.

The Big Mo

I just got back from Macau. It has been a really long day and I’m exhausted. I took notes on my laptop throughout the day and will be posting them tomorrow with images.

When you walk around a city by yourself, you get crazy thoughts sometimes. Last night I watched a really crappy pirate DVD of No Country For Old Men (a very good movie btw). The premise of the movie is that a guy finds $2m in the desert.

I realized how great I would be at going on the lam having traveled this much. Not just the distance and time I’ve been gone, but some of the tiny, out of the way places I’ve been. The Bourne Identity stuff about the CIA being able to track you anywhere is a bunch of crap.

Merry Kiritimati

Christmas in Hong Kong
Christmas in Hong Kong
Well, once again I didn’t get to Macau. Christmas day, however, it is going to happen. I know this because I have tickets booked. Today, by the time I got to the ferry terminal (I slept late. my room has no sunlight) the ferries were booked for several hours. I said screw it and just made sure I had tickets for tomorrow.

This marks the first time in my life that I have not been home for Christmas. It was one of those things that were bound to happen eventually, but it is still sort of weird. They have Christmas in Hong Kong, but it isn’t quite the same thing. I’m sure it is even less of a big deal outside of Hong Kong.

I hope everyone back home has a good Christmas. It’s the days like today when traveling alone can be rough.

I’ll be celebrating the birth of Jesus by visiting Portuguese ruins and Asian casinos. I hope to turn around the photos from Macau right away. I don’t want to get too far behind again. Perhaps I’ll have something tomorrow.

* The title of this post is the word “Christmas” in the Gilbert language. It is pronounced “Christmas” just like you would say it normally, they just use “ti” for the letter “s”.

Everytime I try to get out, they just keep pulling me back in

Not only am I still in Hong Kong, but I’m going to be here over Christmas.

Macau is booked solid. At least all the cheap places are. My lack of planning around Christmas is really the proximate problem here.

The place I’m staying in HK I had to check out today and I packed up and went to drop off the key. I had asked them earlier if I could stay a bit longer, but they said they were full. When I checked out and produced my receipts to get my key deposit, he realized I was a good customer, didn’t cause problems, and “suddenly” a room appeared. In fact, my very same room appeared. Cash does that I guess.

So the plan now is on the 24 and 25 I’ll just take day trips into Macau on the jet boat. Macau is a small place so it shouldn’t be too big of a deal. The plan then is to get a flight to Borneo on the 26th. I just need to decide on flying into Kota Kinablau or Brunei. That should be my last big long flight for quite a while.

Yesterday I tried to find the bird market and instead found the kitchen and bath tile market. I think all the bird markets have been shut down due to the bird flu. Strike one.

Then I went to the Todai Seafood Buffet. They had one in Honolulu I frequented so I thought I’d check the one in Hong Kong out. Turns out it is a 90 minute wait if you don’t have a reservation. Strike two.

Then I crossed the harbor to get to the top of Victoria Peak at night to take some night time shots of the skyline. The fog was so thick you couldn’t see a single light on any building. Strike three.

Well, its not the plan I wanted, but at least I have a plan now and an exit strategy from Hong Kong.