Posted by: Sam Olsen | August 17, 2011

All high rise, no low life

In a dilapidated area of Vancouver lies a building. It is rather nondescript and many of the people walking near it are looking for drugs. Yet in the history of construction it has a special place. For even though it is only 10 floors and 134 foot tall, a small plaque on the front notes that when it was built in 1900 it was “the tallest building in the British Empire” outside of the UK.

Low rise Hong Kong in 1920

In 111 years times have changed, and no where more than Hong Kong. Skyscrapers are everywhere, and used for everything: even Government housing blocks soar into the fresh air above the smog. Hong Kong without high-rise is not possible to imagine. Funnily enough though, the feel beneath the towers is quite different to that of Manhattan, or even London. It all feels much more open here for some reason, even though it quite clearly isn’t. Have the city planners spaced out the roads more, or is it an effect of the light at this latitude? No idea, but not feeling hemmed in does make a positive difference.

The history of skyscrapers in Hong Kong began in 1935 with the completion of the HSBC building, which is regarded as the first high-rise in the city. The building stood 230 ft tall with 13 floors and managed to survive for six decades before being demolished for the construction of the current HSBC ‘coat-hangar’ main building. It appears that sky-scraper construction was limited until the 1970s and particularly the 1980s when 20% of the city’s 100 tallest buildings were built.

High rise Hong Kong today

All this construction has given plenty of people plenty of business opportunities. Last night I was invited for a drink by an old friend who has been central to this building boom. Will – whose company provides all the fittings for new buildings, like sinks, lavatories etc – had invited me to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club for a reminiscing drink. What a place. Serving as a fulcrum  of journalistic intrigue, it was originally founded in China proper  but moved down to HK in 1949. It had many home across the then-colony before ending up just up from central in the Old Dairy Farm Depot. Given the nature of the high-rise boom, this is one of the only colonial buildings left in the area.

The place has a familiar but different feeling. As you enter there is a plaque commemorating those members of the club that have died on active service – but not as soldiers, but as journalists. And the surrounding hubbub of conversation is littered not with the usual China business update, but rather with discussions on articles, gossip, deadlines; it reminded me of an upmarket Fleet St, with a few more Chinese faces thrown in, and without anyone at all resembling low-life types like Piers Morgan. All quite superb, and not a hacked phone in sight.

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