Thursday, November 16, 2006

New Places, New Adventures

This past week my wife and I had the opportunity to visit two schools in the United World College system ( These are outstanding secondary schools that teach the IB curriculum to selected students from all over the world. Each school is a mini-United Nations with an emphasis on international cooperation and understanding. The schools we visited are in Hong Kong and Singapore.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong is an island-city inside one of the finest natural harbors in the world. Just across the harbor on the mainland is the large, equally congested city of Kowloon. Bridges, tunnels, and ferries connect these two metropolitan areas. Britain was awarded Hong Kong at the conclusion of the First Opium War in 1842. Britain wanted Hong Kong in order to secure its maritime supremacy in East Asia and to enhance its commercial interests there. China is a country rich in coal resources, so the China coast was a natural refueling station for the newly emerging coal-fired steamships of that era. In 1860 Kowloon was added to the British colony. Somewhat later, Portugal created a colony at Macao and Germany acquired Tsingtao for the same reasons. As the colony of Hong Kong grew, the British needed more space so in 1898 they signed a 99-year lease for the mainland surrounding the harbor which became known as the “New Territories”. Under British rule, the New Territories were occupied with small fishing villages and local agricultural enterprises serving the large, concentrated urban populations of Hong Kong and Kowloon.
In 1997 the lease on the New Territories expired. At that time Britain decided to return not only the New Territories but also Hong Kong and Kowloon to the government of China. On July 1, 1997, the Union Jack was lowered at Government House for the last time, bringing to an end more than 150 years of British colonial rule.
The government of China has followed a policy of “one country, two systems” in an effort to integrate Hong Kong into greater China over a fifty year time span. The result of this policy is that Hong Kong has continued to prosper and expand as one of the great international free ports of the world. Since 1997 China has made substantial infrastructure investments in Hong Kong in an effort to create a model, international city in China. They have built a futuristic light rail transportation system, a new, large international airport, and a Disneyland entertainment complex. An explicit part of the government’s policy has been to push the population pressure out of Hong Kong and Kowloon into the New Territories.
Key policies to stimulate growth in the New Territories have included an expansion of highways and light rail transportation into the New Territories and the construction of “new cities” at each of the train stops in New Territories. At the same time, the government has set aside large tracts of land as natural reserves that are protected from development.
The school we visited is adjacent to one of these new cities. Perhaps the best way to describe the place is to say it looks like something out of the old cartoon show The Jetsons [see photo]. These new cities are integrated communities that have been constructed in a centrally planned, coordinated fashion that would make any urban planner salivate. A modern, very clean rail station is integrated with a local bus terminal to carry people to outlying areas. Within walking distance of the rail station are some twenty or thirty high-rise apartment buildings, each 30 stories high. A modern super-highway carries high speed traffic under the elevated rail station.
At a nearby rail stop, commercial space is integrated into the rail station. As you depart the train you can take an air conditioned skywalk over the freeway into a three story mall as modern as any you can find in the states. On the other side of the station is another mall. Included in the malls are large, modern supermarkets, food courts, and every specialty store you would find at any modern mall—including, alas a McDonald’s. It is, compared to Beibei, another world.


After the culture-shock of the New Territories, we did not know what to expect at Singapore. It is a former British colony on an island that is strategically located at the mouth of the Malacca Straits--one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. The British gave up control of Singapore in 1965 and it has been a democratic, self-governed city-state ever since.
In the early days, Singapore was administered by the East India Company which brought many Indians to Singapore to run the colony. Many descendents of the early British and Indians are still in Singapore. Today, a majority of the population is ethnic Chinese who have immigrated to this island of promise. Local Malays and a large contingent of Europeans make up the rest of the population. It is the biggest melting pot I have ever seen. As with many large cities, there is a part of Singapore called Chinatown where we ate one evening (a busman’s holiday), and another part called Little India where we also ate (very good).
Singapore among economists is frequently cited as an example of how an enlightened central government can manage an economy to the benefit of its citizens. The city streets are wide and there is no traffic congestion [see photo]. Public transportation is widely available and it works efficiently. But, Singapore is also known for government regulation of individual behavior. There is a substantial fine for spitting, for not flushing the toilet, and even for chewing gum. Street vendors are not allowed. They have been replaced with government sponsored “stall” plazas that are tightly regulated. The city is as clean as I have ever seen in a metropolitan setting, and English is the first language.
We enjoyed our visits to the New Territories and Singapore, but it was nice to get back to the comfort of our own, but temporary, home in Beibei.


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