IMR: 1999: May: 15 —  Thursday, 2:41 p.m. (HK)
Room 407, Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre, Wanchai, Hong Kong, China

At the moment I'm filling in at our "Working Committee Meeting on Transparency and Corruption," taking pictures for the website and taking notes for the minutes. Right now a committee member is reading the full text of a report he's already submitted on paper.

Corporate governance in Asia and the financial crisis. Heady stuff.

I'm dead on my feet. I have a splitting headache. A small plate of fish and a sweet roll I wolfed down a few minutes ago is the only food I've eaten in 18 hours. I'm on the verge of hallucinating. My feet hurt and the day is barely half over.

I'm still glad I'm here. Though I know I'm going to be feeling the effects of this insanity for weeks.

With all the intriguing sights and sounds of the Narita Airport, I didn't realize 'til I plopped in my exit-row seat on the plane out that I was absolutely exhausted. With the flight clocking in at over four hours, I figured at least I'd be able to grab a nibble-sized nap.

No such luck. I was awake the whole time. Part of it was the constant announcements, of course each delivered in three different languages. And part of it was "A Civil Action," the in-flight movie, which perhaps because of my frazzled state of mind, was actually quite captivating.

No Sam Choy cuisine on this leg, but I was hungry enough to get the food down before I could decide how awful it was. I spent an hour indulging my insuppresible geekhood by scribbling in the entire agenda for the meeting into my trusty Palm Pilot.

As we neared the Hong Kong airport, the movie screens displayed a nifty computer map of our location on a map of Asia. Though I'd be embarassed to admit it to my coworkers, it was the first time I had any sense of where on Earth the "Hong Kong Special Administrative Region" was.

I've experienced smoother landings than the one we got, but we did walk off the plane in one peace, and that's good enough.

The airport, barely five years old, was bright, clean and shiny. Everything was either glass, stainless steel, or stark white. We only walked a short way before finding ourselves on a sleek, silent-running train that hurtled underground to the main building.

Next up was customs, but there were a good thirty counters open, and we were through fairly quickly. Our luggage was already circling on the baggage return, so we grabbed a pair of carts — available free of charge — and loaded up.

We found the table set up just for our meeting delegates, and they were waiting for us. We were led straight outside, and we were quickly loaded into a Mercedez Benz limousine. I got to enjoy that simple but delicious moment of disorientation of getting in a car to find the driver sitting on the right side.

Then we were off. And wow. And I mean wow. I don't think I'll ever forget that relatively short drive to the harbor.

Of course there was the novelty of driving on the left side of the road; blind corners instinctively made me nervous that an oncoming truck would suddenly appear. But after I got over the kilometer-per-hour signs and ubiquitous double-decker buses and started looking out the window, I could barely catch my breath.

The main highway on which we were traveling was three narrow-lanes wide, with turns just a little more ambitious than I'd grown to expect on a high-speed thoroughfare. Often times it was blocked in on both sides by three- or four-story high concrete walls and other more elaborate noise-blocking barriers. And although there was little development in the area, the highway frequently dipped into long underground tunnels for no readily apparent reason.

Eventually we sped through a toll gate & and by 'sped' I mean slipping through a gate barely 24 inches wider than the car without slowing one bit — and onto the huge bridge that connects Lantau Island where the airport sits to Hong Kong proper, capping a penninsula of Mainland China.

The bridge itself was something to behold, drab gray and towering maybe thirty stories high. Thick cables sprayed downward. The whole thing was straight out of a matte painting from the set of Batman.

But it was when we were on the bridge that the distant lights of civilization started coming into view. At first it was like looking out over Pearl City from H-1, the same orange sodium lights spread like a carpet over a rolling, rising landscape. But before we knew it we were surrounded by development on a scale that I couldn't even begin to describe.

Even though I could tell we were still out in the sticks, the buildings all around us — along the highway, creeping up the distant mountain side, sitting atop huge plateaus — made any building in Honolulu look like a shoebox.

Many were massive, mind-numbingly plain, gray monoliths. Buildings that you couldn't fit into your eyeballs were you not a mile away. I swear, it seemed they started at 40 stories and got taller from there, and many stretched a quarter of a mile wide.

Huge huge huge. The scale was simply indescribable for a small-town guy like me.

But the closer we got to the city, the more dramatic, the more jaw-dropping, the architecture became. Ugly but practical squares and corners gave way to swooping curves, bold lines and assymetric angles. Plain concrete lost out to blindingly-lit white, blue glass, and neon trim. The structures surrounding us often neared the stature and extravagance of castles.

Here was a city where designers and developers had enough money to actually build the impossible structures once only the domain of concept drawings and fantasy artists.

Yet, the closer we got to the heart of Wanchai — once the infamous "Red Light District" but now a major commercial and convention hub — the more clear it was that Hong Kong was in flux, deep in the throes of cataclysmic, chaotic change. As dazzling as the shiny new buildings were, one didn't have to look too closely to catch the crumbling shells and abandoned apartment blocks collecting between them like crumbs in the seams of a new sofa.

Walls of glass so tall they seem to bend into the sky. Neon signs standing eighty feet tall. Dark, dirty shells of abandoned markets. Rusting assemblies of air conditioners hanging off soot-blackened apartments like industrial seaweed.

It felt like we were seeing the unholy spawn of the post-apocalyptic Neo Tokyo from "Akira" and the sprawling, glowing cityscape of "Bladerunner."

After disappearing into a tunnel, traveling a mile under Victoria Horbour, we were on Hong Kong Island. The heart of it all. And it was amazing.

Here, there was no room for the old and rotting. Suddenly it was gleaming metal, polished marble and beveled glass as far as the eye could see. Even from the back seat of our car, I knew New York would now forever seem no more impressive than a strip mall. Each block was more exotic than the last, the lights so bright you could look up at the sky and swear it was nine in the morning. The tops of many buildings were lost in the low, moisture-laden clouds, and others bore glaring trademarks like "Canon," "Motorola," "Ford" and "Siemens."

In any other city, such excessive neon advertising would seem tacky, unsightly. Coming from Hawaii, where Coke machines are covered up because of insane outdoor signage laws, the unmistakable trademarks readable from across the harbor made my head spin. Yet, surrounded by equally eye-popping structures, here they only seemed like another colorful part of the city's nonstop, racing electric pulse.

We finally got to the hotel, the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, at about 10 p.m. By this point, we'd been traveling for 12 hours and awake for 22, and the lavish, gold-and-black-marble lobby of the place melted our hearts with the promise of crisp, clean, cool sheets.

Unfortunately, there were two pieces of bad news waiting for us at the front desk.

The first was that we were in fact booked at another hotel up the block, The Rennaisance Harbour View. It wasn't a Motel 6 by any stretch of the imagination — it even had a live quartet playing in the lobby — but it wasn't the Grand Hyatt either. No taxi would take us the 100 or so yards there, so we had to get there via a back street, hauling our luggage through the warm, thick, nauseous stench of the harbor.

The second was that we were wanted at the office immediately, to finish a few tasks that had accumulated in anticipation of our arrival.

Anne, Jennifer and I — after using some unusually colorful language in front of the bewildered concierge — dragged ourselves over to the Convention Center and worked for four hours. We were so exhausted we were numb, and so hungry we weren't hungry any more. We finally, finally met our beds at 2:30 a.m., but only had four hours to get acquainted.

The adventure had definitely begun.

© Ryan Kawailani Ozawa · E-Mail: · Created: 15 May 1999 · Last Modified: 19 May 1999