February 01, 2006

Page 20

Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok opened on July 6th, 1998. Scott was passenger number thirty thousand-and-something and has the certificate to prove it. The flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong took some twelve to fourteen hours, and sleeping in coach class was next to impossible. Furthermore, this was Scott's first international overseas trip - he had been overland to Canada a couple of times and to Tijuana twice, but it's hardly the same thing. He had gotten a passport while working at Vixie Enterprises but hadn't used it, so he arrived in Hong Kong clutching his not-quite-new but otherwise virginal documents.

Now, HKIA at CLK (or just CLK, for short) is a big airport. It may not be the biggest in the world, but it's big enough to be extremely confusing to a sleep-deprived newbie making his first international flight. Kevin had briefed Scott that there was a train connecting the airport to the actual city, and they planned that Kevin would meet Scott at the airport, but they both knew that the exigencies of business might disrupt that plan.

So, on arriving at CLK, the normal process is that you stumble off the plane in a stupor (the stupor is a requirement on all flights over more than six time zones or more than 12 hours in duration) and follow the herd through the lower-level hallway. CLK is laid out on two levels, you see - the upper level, with the vaulted ceilings, huge windows and award-winning architecture is for departures. The lower level, with standard-height ceilings and much smaller windows is for arrivals. You trundle along, with your carry-ons until you reach an escalator, and following the crowd, you descend to a platform. The next thing you know, you are on a train, standing-room-only, of course, and you're wondering what happened to immigration and customers, baggage claim, and all of the other niceties and why you are already on the train to the city.

The stupor is very important, you see. It keeps you from realizing, on that crucial first trip, that you can't possibly already be on the train to the city, but it also keeps the panic from escalating very far before the train arrives at the main platform and you step back off. From here, if you've done the least bit of traveling, things begin to make a little more sense. You collect your bag from the enormous carousel and take it over to be inspected, though you more usually get to be waved through. It's then onward to the immigration line. After you pass customs, you loop around a dividing wall and come up to the rope line separating the secure part of the airport from the public section. That's where Kevin was waiting for Scott, and it was one of the happiest sights Scott had seen in quite some time.

Geographically, Hong Kong is divided, like Gaul, into three parts. Originally, the British pried Hong Kong Island from the Chinese. It was on a "lease" for 99 years in perpetuity, meaning that the lease automatically renewed for as long as Britain had bigger guns than China.

Some while afterwards, the British realized that HK Island wasn't very viable. They then extracted two more bits of land from the Chinese - first, the land opposite the island on the mainland, which is Kowloon; and secondly, a grab bag of islands and bits of the mainland that came to be known collectively as the New Territories, or NT. The NT was Britain's final attempt to make HK self-sufficient in terms of things like food and water. By the 1980s, there was a problem. It wasn't so much that the Chinese had much bigger guns than they had 100+ years before, though they did. It wasn't that the British had a case of collective remorse over colonialism, though they may have. It was more a practical matter. It seems that the NT wasn't on an automatically renewing lease, and the Chinese were being stubborn about renewal. They were willing to let the lease on HK Island and Kowloon renew - at least, they said they were - but they weren't about to let Britain renew the lease on the New Territories. Furthermore, Hong Kong as a total entity was already dependent on the Chinese mainland for water and power; without the New Territories, the remaining areas, which contained something like 20% of the land and 85% of the population, would be totally unsupportable.

Ultimately, of course, what happened is that China and Britain negotiated the return of Hong Kong to Chinese control, with HK becoming a "Special Administrative Region" or SAR - "one country, two systems." In practical terms, for an American expatriate in the late 20th century, it meant relatively little. The uniformed Chinese people with machine guns worked for the People's Republic of China instead of Great Britain, but they still had machine guns, and at that point, who paid them made relatively little difference.

The geography of Hong Kong meant somewhat more than the politics. Hong Kong is both a territory - the SAR - and a city, with the city located on the north shore of Hong Kong Island and the south shore of Kowloon peninsula. If you meet someone from Hong Kong, the usual question is, "Hong Kong side or Kowloon side?"

Chek Lap Kok was a small island off of Lantau Island, in the western part of the New Territories. CLK Island was extended with landfill and the airport was built on top of it. A new freeway and rail line was built along Lantau Island to connect the airport to Hong Kong Island. The rail line, the Airport Express, also had a semi-local spur route that branched off to a "New Town" that was built near the airport to house the airport's workers.

What all of this meant is that CLK was very well-connected with Hong Kong proper, despite being out in the sticks. Your travel options included the Airport Express, which was a very nice train, as well as several options via road, such as taxi, private car, or any number of airport buses. Posted by scott at February 1, 2006 02:55 PM