Web Exclusives: Inky Dinky Do
a PAW web exclusive column by Ed Finn ’02 edfinn@alumni.princeton.edu

August 15, 2002

Hong Kong called
And it's a cell-phone world with a Princeton connection

By Ed Finn ’02

Aside from the ubiquitous cell phone, Hong Kong is a world that often seems impossibly distant from Old Nassau.

When I first arrived to take up my new Princeton-in-Asia internship, the thing that struck me most about this place was the frenzied compression of people and infrastructure onto one tiny island. There is something reassuring about Princeton’s steady rhythm of open spaces and buildings very distant from the compacted, extruded volumes of Hong Kong. The physical immensity of it all is compounded by a feeling of total mechanization: a flawless subway system, millions of escalators, and all-conquering air conditioning sometimes make me feel like an electron traveling through some vast computer circuit. It took me all of four claustrophobic days before I joined a gym, and two silenced weeks before I started learning Cantonese.

The residents of Hong Kong are often characterized by mainland Chinese as brassy businessmen, a loud and jovial bunch who will eat anything at all and swindle you with a smile.

Hong Kong is certainly all about commerce, but I’ve found the locals to be more polite than pushy, and what could be a lifeless international banking city comes alive with indigenous energy. Streets are always packed with people, and it seems like everyone is willing to give you a break if you smile, even if you forget to ask about the discount.

There’s a freewheeling hospitality that reminds of some of my best Princeton moments. I thought I would miss those serendipitous conversations with total strangers, but they’re a part of life here too, constantly opening up new avenues to explore.

I’ve been shown the sights, wined and dined, even invited to an island pool party by almost total strangers. It’s been three weeks and I feel like I’ve been here for a year.

Of course, part of that is the wearing effect of Hong Kong’s tropical climate (now entering the violent monsoon phase), but mostly it’s the way I’ve become engaged in a new reality.

In many ways, Hong Kong is a city of fellow-travelers, people who view this as a temporary stage on their way up in the world. The city is full of people trying to get into China and make money, or to get out of China for the same reason. It’s a nexus for airlines and wandering souls, one flight away from most of Southeast Asia, a capital of happenstance.

Then maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that there are so many Princeton connections around here. It seems like every week I find out about another alum passing through the region, and I’m sure there are thousands more hiding in the woodwork.

I’ve come to realize that any world city will attract its share of the great Tiger Diaspora, in offices, on sports fields, and of course, at bars. And somewhere in the back of my mind I always expect life to turn out like it did for Richard Halliburton ’23, who hitched a ride to Europe on a tramp steamer and wandered the world on the wings of his own eloquent insanity. The manic pace of coincidence in his writing is familiar in the hectic comings and goings of this tiny Asian metropolis, and I keep expecting another madcap alum to pop up around the next corner.

Everyone here senses Hong Kong’s transitory nature; we are denizens of a maze of escalators and elevators designed to shuttle and shuffle you onwards without pause. But that constant movement also means perennial new arrivals, new friends, new adventures.

For the recently graduated, this is a time for exploration, for taking a few spins on the merry-go-round globe before settling down somewhere. That’s what I’m after, anyway, and Hong Kong is a good place to do it. I look forward to sharing my adventures with you.

Write to Ed Finn ’02 at edfinn@alumni.princeton.edu