Liveability Is … Round-the-Clock Tofu

Melbourne is consistently rated at the top of liveability surveys year in, year out. When Melbourne was rated number 1 in one such 2011 poll, we wondered, just what does liveability mean? We asked the peripatetic David Nichols to explore that question as he set out to travel the world at the end of last year. This week, we’re kicking off 2012 with our ‘Liveability’ series, beginning today with Hong Kong.

Last year, one of several liveability surveys ranked Melbourne the most liveable city in the world. As well as giggling and preening (as Sydney was somewhere inconsequential on the list, like number 2 or something), Melbournians everywhere greeted the news with shrieks and groans. This was the best life had to offer?

Image of a residential skyscraper in Hong Kong via Wikicommons

Image of a residential skyscraper in Hong Kong via Wikicommons

Liveability surveys score cities on such variables as stability, crime, health, culture, environment, education and infrastructure measures. It strikes me as I trudge through the streets of central Hong Kong that the liveability criteria might perhaps be a little staid. A day walking in Honkers (new boots and blisters rub up against an irrestistible urge to see, feel, smell and experience more of the city) has me wondering whether perhaps we can learn more about the liveability of a city from the way its people treat their pets. Boutique pet shops are ubiquitous and everywhere I turn, dogs and their owners pound the pavement. What about scoring liveability on the availability of tofu? I stumble across a 24-hour café called the Flying Pan - delightfully décored in ad hoc 50s style - where tofu is substituted for eggs in any dish. There’s got to be a good coffee score as well. In HK, order a double espresso and that’s what you get - strong and small.

A visit to the Hong Kong Planning and Infrastructure Exhibition Gallery reveals ‘the government’ (it’s always ‘the government’) has big plans for making the city even more liveable. For one thing, it plans to take care of the environment – no mention of global warming here – with umpteen (that’s the word they used) new railway lines, mountain and underwater tunnels, and some massive roads, all calibrated around the magic number 2030.

As it happened, when I visited there was little in the way of crowds for all this hi-tech propaganda. In fact, the security staff, for want of something better to do, helpfully followed me around, showing me how to interact with the displays. Where was everyone? Out in the humid, sunny street, traveling, walking and shopping. Or protesting. In fact, while I was gawking at Hong Kong’s future, “about 1,000” (the newspaper’s estimate, though it was probably more) people marched through Central “to demand the government… increase transport allowances for workers, speed up construction of public housing and restart the Home Ownership Scheme.” While ‘the government’ crows about its future-proofing of Hong Kong, thousands are demonstrating outside in the heat about the city’s present state.

Housing is extraordinary in Hong Kong. Indeed it’d be hard for many Australians to recognize it as actual housing. Many in the Australian press concluded that it was Melbourne’s low density which accounted for its high liveability scores. Hong Kong – brace yourself - might not score quite so well. Ridiculous (perilous?) skyscraper apartment buildings spring out all over the place like limbs of a cactus in need of pruning, there for no reason other than that more people have to be stored all the time.

There are, no doubt, other options for the privileged few. And there is an upside to living in central Hong Kong. The residents might live in a stacked shipping crate, but at least they can walk to work and the Flying Pan any day they wish. It’s the dogs I feel sorry for.