Hong Kong Travel Log

Day One — Travel Day


Hong Kong

I changed planes so many times getting here that I started to lose track of the cities: Austin to Denver to Seattle to Tokyo to Hong Kong. By the end of the day, I felt like I had been beaten. Both of my travel bags seemed to have the mass of collapsed stars. For the 10-hour flight (Seattle to Tokyo), I rode next to an interesting woman named Page, from a small village in Alaska. She is some sort of caseworker for the mentally ill. Apparently, Alaska drives a lot of people mad. I regretted not having time to kill in Tokyo — I would have liked even the chance to gone out to eat or something.

Despite the ever-present airport security, I was not searched once during the trip from Austin to Hong Kong. No one even wanted to inspect my bags. Others around me were taken aside and questioned, scanned with handheld devices. I saw unhappy travelers removing their shoes or trying to stuff their undergarments back down into their luggage. What a drag.

When I finally arrived in Hong Kong, it took forever to get through customs. Afterward, I found the kiosk for the Express Tourist Octopus pass and bought one. I also converted some US cash into HK currency. Aching horribly and feeling exceedingly grimy, I made my way to the train and started the ride to HK Station (the stop that was closest to my hotel). The only time I have ever felt worse after traveling was on the C-130 flight from Florida to Saudi Arabia, sitting in cargo netting the entire way.

Looking outside the train windows, I could see parts of the city all around. There is something about the quality of light in HK that is different…everything takes on an dusky glimmer. It might be the humidity. Many buildings are constructed of both weather-washed concrete and glossy mirrors, a combination of industrial and slick. The city exists on levels — almost everywhere you look, there are curving, multi-decked expressways, elevated walkways or terraced pedestrian paths. At times I felt like the train was under water, moving through canyons of black glass and shimmering signs. Colored lights were everywhere. Huge signs loomed overhead, their radiosity bathing the surrounding surfaces in orange, gold or blue.


Red Taxis

At HK Station, I was picked up by one cab in a fleet of small, red taxis. After another scenic ride, it dropped me at the Renaissance Harbor View hotel, in the Wan Chai district (home of Maggie Chow in DX1). A jazz band was playing in the lobby. Most of the guests were dressed elegantly, some in tuxes even. As a member of the gamer subculture, I did my part to wreck the dress code curve as I passed through to check-in.

My hotel room was small, but cozy…all reddish wood and mirrors. The view was staggering. Monolithic buildings reflected darkly just across a courtyard and huge signs saying PHILIPS and SAMSUNG bathed the room in red. The Samsung sign slowly faded from English to kanji.


Another Hotel

My room was on the 25th floor, but there was nearly as much to see above me as below. In the distance, I could see water. Beyond that, more towers. Beyond that, the black backdrop of the mountain.

I showered and unpacked. Something awoke me around 3AM. Fog had moved in, obscuring everything but the closest buildings. Another hour later and the window to my room was nothing but gray mist, even making an effort to obscure the huge light-signs beyond. An hour after that there were no traces of fog at all — the air was clear.

Day Two

Having slept very little, I woke up with a splitting headache. After showering, I headed downstairs and had breakfast. The restaurants within international hotels are so strange: Two Norwegian guys were arguing with a HK waiter over some totally unrecognizable, bottled sauce when I walked in. I think the bottle (which was baby blue and featured some acronym in large letters) was empty; it seemed super critical to the bulging-eyed Norwegians that a replacement be found instantly.

It’s amazing to me that since food is such a huge part of life and since eating alone is lame, we don’t have some practice like joining another lone diner in such situations. I was faced with a super conservative business culture, so I did my best to appear indifferent and superior. Maybe we should start booking bed and breakfasts for game industry events.


Morning has broken…

I had a few hours to kill, so I set out, walking around in the city, looking for urban elements that reminded me of Deus Ex locations. (Maggie Chow’s apartment, Red Arrow – Luminous Path triad fights, etc. HK was as magnificent by daylight as by night. I walked through a semi-enclosed, outdoor mall that looked just like the one in Steve Power’s DX1 mall map. No Lucky Money, sadly. (Those places were located elsewhere…)

I took lots of photos with disposable cameras, trying to catch anything that seemed interesting: The amazingly jumbled verticality of the surrounding buildings. A woman using a wooden shovel to fill up a wheelbarrow with gray sand. (The sand had been tunneled crudely from beneath an otherwise pristine stretch of sidewalk about a block from the super civilized HK convention center.) White, bloated ‘Star’ cruise ships, industrial flat barges, ferries and old-style Chinese fishing boats all maneuvering through the same misty harbor. A tall tower supporting cameras and what I suspect were acoustic gunfire sensors. (I bet theirs work better than the ones we included in DX1…) Eventually, I headed back to the convention center.


The HK Convention Center

The HK Convention Center itself is a marvel: Organically curved, many-tiered, huge, clean and crowded, it sits on the water and offers an astounding view of the harbor. The harbor is busy *all* the time.

The conference, as it turns out, was small. (So much for pre-speech anxiety.) I listened to Doug Church (from Looking Glass) speak on the myths associated with game AI, then we sat on a panel together about designing games for emerging foreign markets. If you are wondering what the hell, if anything, I know on this subject, you are not alone — so was I. Still, it went well. Doug and I shared time with Robert Westmoreland, the cool redneck biz exec behind Deer Hunter. He claims that he looked at data on how much software Wal-Mart was selling at the time, thought about the average Wal-Mart shopper, thought about what kind of games the average Wal-Mart shopper would want to play (which, with the exception of Bass Fisherman, was at odds with the kinds of games being sold in the store), and then pitched the concept of Deer Hunter. Multiple publishers turned it down, calling it ridiculous in some cases. It cost about $110,000 to make. The franchise has allegedly sold 10 million copies. I bet Robert drives a really nice truck.


Star Ferry

After making small talk with attendees, Doug, Bernie Yee (from Sony Online) and I left the conference and headed out into HK. Our goals included dinner and the night markets. We walked over to the Star Ferry and waited. Eventually, crowded by commuters and other travelers, we crossed the water. The sun was going down, so the light was odd: In the distance, huge colored signs were coming on, the buildings were all still visible and fog was building up in the harbor. The boat deposited us at the Kowloon dock. We stepped off the ferry and onto the Chinese mainland.


HK Bikes

We walked through a plaza where one day a week, thousands of Philippino maids allegedly gather to bask on towels laid out on the concrete. They work for the Chinese, cleaning houses, and are called amah or something. (Doug talks fast, I am easily distracted and we were in the land of stimulus overload, so you can see the problems associated with me remembering the details.) Their routine emergent social event has been written up and photographed a lot, I’m told — the numbers of people who attend this gathering are staggering, apparently so much so that even walking across the wide plaza is difficult when they’re sprawling there once a week. The plaza sat in the shadow of a weirdly leaning structure of immense proportions.

Day Two

We eventually made our way into a restaurant favored by Bernie and ate some really good Chinese food, which tasted very much like the Chinese food in San Francisco and almost nothing like the Texas variety. Bernie, a New Yorker through and through, ordered our food badly in either Mandarin or Cantonese — the waiter was old and impatient and would occasionally burst into English, repeating a phrase like “CHILI GARLIC PRAWN” five or six times in a matter of seconds. To me, it sound like he and Bernie hated one another, but our food came out just fine.

Afterward, headed to the markets, we walked down the very narrow sidewalks under countless neon signs. This was similar to other urban downtown areas, but thicker. Something like eighty percent of the HK population lives in 10% of the space; the land is so precious that everything is jammed together and pushed upward. Despite the crowds and constant activity, walking around there felt about three times safer than Houston, and far, far cleaner than urban cities in Mexico (like Monterey).


Under Construction

Whenever a structure is under construction — even the tallest skyscraper — the workers in HK erect *bamboo* scaffolding around the site. This looks really odd — a very modern building, reaching up toward the clouds, encased in a latticework of bamboo. At the interstices, the bamboo is held together by black plastic bands (which I initially mistook for black electrical tape). Apparently, the bamboo is faster to erect that metallic scaffolding and it fares better during heavy weather. (Hurricanes are a concern.)


Witchboy at Night

When we finally reached the section of town dedicated to the night markets, I took a bunch more photos: This was the genesis, I think, of the classically cyberpunk future as we see it. The cityscape here contained very literal elements of Akira, Blade Runner and Neuromancer. Jam-packed streets set down in the deep, deep pit created by rings of megalithic buildings. The old world and the new world, forcibly thrown together by commerce and need like lovers from different classes. Decaying apartment buildings leaning against translucent, interior-lit corporate office towers. Endless shopping stores, all brightly lit in pink or yellow, intermingled with locked garage-style delivery doors, and ringing the bottom of enormous slate-gray buildings.

All of this was aglow from the thousands of signs hanging above us at numerous angles — neon in every color, but dominated by red and orange. Among this criss-cross of glowing letters and symbols, I instantly picked out a 7-11 sign. The smells of rotten garbage, sweet candy, leather, girlie perfume, exhaust and human sweat all alternated past as we walked down the street. At one point I looked up and saw a park overhead, trees leaning out over concrete walls on the terrace above. HK is like China’s answer to London, Frankfurt or Paris, doubled in effect due to its compressed nature. I saw no stray dogs there and no cats.


Layered Traffic

Seemingly, one could find anything in the night markets: A lighter in the shape of lobster claws, sex toys, the Fellowship of the Rings on DVD (for about $3 US), ultra trendy shoes, leather goods, NFL merchandise, porn, food, jewelry, bad knock-offs of Star Wars action figures. (In other words, looking back over this list, all of life’s greatest treasures.) All of this sat side-by-side in carts, on benches or stretched out over tarps and blankets on the cement, according to nothing more than the pattern of human chaos. For this reason, we eventually dubbed the market area “the physical Internet.”

The ferry ride back across the harbor was one of the most beautiful urban sites I’ve seen: The coastline of the island was now visible, from our Kowloon vantage. The sky was very black and most of the fog was gone. All of the buildings were illuminated. They stretched as far as I could see to the left and as far as I could see to the right. A monstrous wall of black glass and fey colors, they towered like some synthetic stretch of mountains made of living, glowing coral.


Nice and clean

During the ferry ride, Doug, Bernie and I had the kind of insanely jubilant Lord of the Rings discussion that can only come when members of the games-comics-fantasy subculture are hopped up on stimulus, surrounded by verbal members of the same tribe and delirious from exhaustion.

Back in my room, we turned out the lights and watched the Moria scene from my new pirate copy of Fellowship of the Rings before saying goodnight and crashing out, all circuits blown.

Day Three

After breakfast, I met up with Bernie and we rode the train over to the En-tranz office where he and Doug are consulting. Rather than individual cars that are self-contained, this train was one long stretch — I could see all the way to the back of the train, more than a hundred yards, down through numerous individual cars. As a result, looking forward or back, hundreds of commuters were visible. When the train was in motion, I could watch the bends it made. In other words, looking toward the back end of the train as it moves down an incline, the people toward the rear suddenly rise up a few feet… the end of the train disappears out of view above.

I sat around in the office checking email and chatting with Bernie and Doug. We were trying to decide what to do when Doug blew out the power by plugging in a power adapter. (I had borrowed his primary adapter the night before, for my laptop.) Everything went dark. The adapter was badly scorched. Doug’s hand, only minorly so. When game industry nerds are sitting around, half paying attention to their monitors and half attempting to decide what to do, nothing helps expedite the process like a good blackout. Way to go, Doug. We left shortly thereafter.


Video Shop

The three of us had lunch in a noodle shop, then parted ways. Being the power player that he is, Bernie went back to the office to work on a press release regarding the Asian rights to Shadowbane, while the two of us headed to Doug’s apartment to grab his laundry. It was a tiny, tiny apartment, but apparently roomy by HK standards. It was in a tall, ratty building, packed tightly with other tall, ratty buildings. Outside the window, I could see all sorts of crammed, mundane shops on the narrow road below.


Escalators

Since HK is set into a mountain range, leading down to the harbor, the people need a means of pedestrian travel that will take them up and down the mountain. Cars, trains and busses are, of course, everywhere, but the city also features a long, interconnected series of escalators that stretch for miles. Outdoor escalators, worming up the side of the mountain through crowded terraces where shops are squeezed together with an amazing density — it was very odd, but cool. We rode up to “Mid-level,” which is as far as the escalators go, then walked back down. (The escalators run up during the first half of the day, and down during the later hours.)


7-11

Doug and I hit a 7-11 for another disposable camera and some snacks, then we returned to his apartment for a while. Later, we headed back to the convention center on foot, which was quite a long walk. We checked in with the conference, but nothing was going on. We went back to my room to hang out for a while, talking and watching people play tennis on the roof of a building far below, then he took off and I went to bed.


Day Four

After breakfast, it was time to give my speech. Acutely aware that I had been flown to Hong Kong for 6 days, housed at the Renaissance Hotel and treated really nicely in exchange for, literally, 2 hours of work, I really wanted to do a good job. GTEC is a great idea for a conference and the organizers are very cool. While the conference was fairly small (and probably covered too wide a range of development-related topics) this year, upcoming years should be an extremely useful part of developing the nascent HK game development community.

During the conference, I saw people speak on topics related to game design and technology, combating software piracy in Asia, localizing games for the Asian market and others.


Games

At 0930, when my talk was supposed to begin, no one was there. Perhaps this will come as no surprise, but I decided to wait a while before starting. Five minutes later, an older couple came in. There were both wearing black business suits and looked very much like investment execs. Oh, boy, I thought. Ten minutes later, a few more people had arrived, including some people who looked like they could be developers or journalist. So I started.

Within the next fifteen minutes, the room mostly filled up. So ultimately, about 16 people attended the lecture. Of those, there were 4 or 5 people in the room who were really interested in the subject and who asked some very insightful questions (like, “In a game with potentially emergent gameplay, how does the QA process work? How can you test for outcomes that do not occur to you, that you did not plan?”). The lecture was really casual — the struggle was figuring out what to gloss over and what to further detail, based on the needs of the audience.

I’ve heard people say that if you give a talk and can connect with 2 or 3 people in a meaningful way, that makes it worthwhile. Some of the people who gathered after the talk were really excited about emergent gameplay. Some of them even sort of bashed some traditional games as being all about graphics and pre-canned story. So I stood around and chatted with them for another half hour. Then I was officially done with “work” for the duration of the trip.

Wanting to take a break before lunch and more sightseeing, I returned to my room to listen to JJ72 MP3’s and to work on this account on my laptop.

That evening, Doug, Bernie and I were scheduled to meet Harry Miller and a friend for dinner. Beforehand, we headed over to a store called “298” (located at 298 Hennesey Road). This place was filled, floor to ceiling, with pirated software. It was crowded with people, picking over glass shelves lined with every game or piece of business software you can imagine. The store featured multiple stories, even…nothing but racks and racks of software, lit by fluorescent light, and literally hundreds of shoppers streaming through. We finally left, just stunned by the overload.


More escalators

After using the escalators again, we finally met Harry and his friend Holt at Harry’s posh, but tiny, apartment at mid-level. (Holt was the lawyer for GodGames, I think.) By the time we rendezvoused with them, night had fallen. The view from Harry’s apartment was staggering, looking down of the skyscrapers, due to the apartment’s position on the mountainside. We headed up toward The Peak for dinner.

The trip to the top required the use of an allegedly century-old tram track. Before boarding the tram, we rendezvoused with Trevor Chan, a HK programmer/designer who creates micromanagement strategy games. Everyone was amused that the tram travels up the mountain at something like a 45 degree angle. You can stand in the center of the tramcar, as it slowly climbs up the dark face of the mountain, and lean forward at an insane tilt.

While we were playing around and laughing at how we looked leaning forward so far, I happened to look out the window…the tram cleared some shadowy buildings and trees sitting next the tracks and suddenly the ground outside the windows dropped away, revealing a dizzying view of the downtown area, far below. This is hard to put into words — along with the view of downtown HK from the Kowloon side of the harbor, this constituted one of greatest views I’ve ever seen. We were high up, the night was very dark and the buildings glowed like some impossibly large spirit castle, rising up from the slopes below. All of it was seen as the tram’s strange angle. It just seemed mystical. At the top, we ate in a restaurant that looked down on Hong Kong through an endless glass window. As we ate, the fog poured over everything, masking the view.

After dinner, the group split up. Bernie, Doug, Trevor and I headed off for a little street featuring a bunch of clubs and a street party of sorts. We ended up in a basement bar populated almost exclusively by locals, drinking coronas, listening to a weird, but competent 80’s style synth-rock band and playing a HK bar game called Liar’s Dice. Trevor is great fun — he explained the rules of the game, then later showed us some variants. Eventually, Bernie got tired, so he took off. Doug, Trevor and I walked around in the crowds; Trevor grilled us about what it was like to license Unreal, then headed home after a while.

I started to regret that my last night in HK was coming to a close. The place is so vibrant — I could easily see living there for a year or two. After talking for a while, Doug and I said goodnight and headed down opposite sidewalks, him for his apartment, me for a cab. (“See you in Austin.”)

Day Five — Travel Day

I had breakfast with Holt (by accident), then went out for some last minute shopping before packing. I wanted to go to Sougo(?) to hit a place referred to as the Japanese Megastore, but I ran out of time. I had a good time talking to Holt and spent a lot more time at breakfast than I would have otherwise. (Eventually, I would make my airport gate in HK with 11 minutes to spare before “gate closed” time.) So, rushed, I used the hotel shuttle to get back to the airport and skipped the megastore. (Damn. I’ve been looking for this particular pair of shoes…I dragged Doug and Bernie into a dozen shoe stores across HK.)

The shuttle bus wove through downtown through the corroded, peeling buildings away from the convention center, stopping at other hotels. I finally saw someone walking a dog on a leash.

If I had used the train, as I initially wanted to, I would have missed yet another awe-striking view — the HK dockyards. The shuttle bus crossed two bridges and passed near another, and I thought all three were nearly as impressive as Golden Gate. Just as I was wrapping my mind around that, I noticed the dockyards. It seemed to go on for miles: Massive freighters and thousands of colored shipping crates (the ones pulled by eighteen wheeled trucks). Sometimes the crates were stacked 20 high, towering like buildings. Just as I was wondering how the workers stacked them, I saw a fleet of bizarre orange vehicles. They consist of four tall, stilt-like legs of rusted metal. At the top, there is a small cockpit for two drivers. A crane can be dropped from the belly of the cockpit down to grab the crates and life them a hundred feet off the ground. The stilted orange loaders are mobile too — there are wheels at the base of each leg. Jules Verne came to mind as I watched. (Someone later told me that these cranes inspired Lucas to include the AT-AT in Empire Strikes Back.)

Words cannot do justice to this dockyard–Houston is a city of something like four million people and it does a significant amount of business, including a lot of petrochemical industrial shipping stuff. But the dockyard that gives access to HK’s Victoria Harbor just completely dominates anything similar that I’ve ever seen.

It’s really rare to be presented with a view that just defies experience. In HK, this happened three times. The word city is inadequate. The place is unbelievable. Vibrant, chaotic, yet weirdly ordered, vertical beyond belief, ancient, yet ultra modern, and completely jammed with activity around the clock.

I’m really thankful that the GTEC staff invited me to HK. Their conference could eventually be very important. Special thanks to Doug and Bernie, who (like Jason in Montreal) were psyched to show me around.

P.S. The final hours of the trip home were grueling. The in-flight movies were Tomb Raider, Planet of the Apes and Serendipity. (I watched the latter, which was interrupted like 23 times by bad turbulence warnings from the captain.) HK’s airport was a dream of clarity, well designed. Meanwhile, I now hate the airport at San Francisco. As bad as it was, the airport at Phoenix should be bombed from orbit. I could list about a hundred major ‘bugs’ that they should fix. Also, I finally got searched: All my bags taken apart, removal of my shoes, everything short of a strip search.

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