Whenever I visit Hong Kong, my hometown, I can't help but compare it with Shanghai where I now live. Of course, I know that the two cities have pursued diametrically different routes of development in the past many decades. But they both share a common aspiration to be the premier financial center of the region.
On the way from the airport to the hotel in Hong Kong last week, I was dismayed to notice how ugly the city has become. My rather negative impression was reinforced as I wandered through various districts of the town in the time I stayed there.
I don't live in a fancy residential district in Shanghai. But the walk to my office in the morning on a fine day along tree-lined streets can be most enjoyable. On weekends, I can choose to take a short taxi ride to the heart of what was formally the French concession and take a leisurely stroll down the streets lined with quaint shops and elegant cafes. Or I can take the bus to a neighboring water-town, sip tea and dream dreams on the balcony of one of those ancient houses by the banks of the canal.
The environment affects the quality of life, which is important to any aspiring international financial center. A higher quality of life can give the city an edge over others in competing for talented people in finance and other supporting services, such as legal and accounting. The Singapore government, for instance, recognized long ago that to attract and retain talent, it needed to keep them cool under the fierce tropical sun. So, it wisely made tree-planting a national policy.
The French colonialists in Shanghai planted thousands of lush London Planes (Platanus x hispanica) along the streets in their enclave in the early 1900s mainly to remind them of home. Many of these trees, together with some of the quaint old colonial buildings, have been thoughtfully preserved by the Shanghai municipal government.
In preparing for the Expo, which opened in May, city officials spared no effort to further beautify the city by, among other things, planting more and more trees.
In the area where I live in Shanghai, an entire row of street-facing dilapidated old houses was bulldozed to make room for flower-beds and manicured shrubs. The pavements were scrubbed and the vegetable vendors, relocated.
Compared to Shanghai, the downtown area of Hong Kong looks downright scrubby. If you want to see some green, you'll have to go to the south side of the main island where the deserted streets are lined by multi-million dollar mansions behind high walls.
There was a time when we could get a break from the high-pressured city life by riding the train to one of the rural towns in the New Territories for a taste of country life. Now, you can ride all the way to Shenzhen without seeing a patch of green field. On plain sight are blocks and blocks of tall residential buildings along both sides of the railway line.
We have a responsible and disciplined government, which believes in keeping itself small. But I don't think taxpayers would mind if the government uses some of their money in making the city greener and more livable. It should be good for the economy too.