The way people get around says a lot about a city’s values. Is there anything as unvalued as being a pedestrian in Hong Kong? There is a seemingly infinite number of ways to get around: taxi (red in the urban areas, blue on Lantau and green in the New Territories), by chauffeured limousine, by nostalgic “ding ding” tram, by air-conditioned MTR, by minibus or double-decker bus, not to mention the flotilla of ferries – and of course the helicopters that pose pretentiously on the roof of the Peninsula Hotel. No Hongkonger is left wanting for choice. Who would choose to walk, to stroll, in such a hilly city, where the climate is so hot, humid, sweaty – who would be so audacious as to prefer to get around this way? Some roads were even conceived without sidewalks. Who wants to amble down Tregunter Path by foot?
Yet Hong Kong has not entirely forgotten the dreamer who believes in the ability of her feet to get from point A to B. There is a fascinating network of footbridges that crisscross the city, offering novel views to tourists and residents alike – a strange parallel life that exists above the road network. In 2008, the government counted 693 footbridges, of which the majority (415) were located in the New Territories. Hong Kong Island alone has 164, on top of which there are many privately-owned footbridges.
Starting in the 1960s, this complex system developed bit by bit in response to a growing amount of road traffic, allowing it to remain free-flowing while guaranteeing the safety of pedestrians. It has become a sophisticated patchwork of private and public infrastructure used daily by hurried figures. I need only mention the emblematic Central-Mid Levels escalator – or travelator, more precisely, since it includes 20 escalators and three inclined moving sidewalks that have linked Central and the residential Mid-Levels since 2003. It’s worth a column of its own.
I’d rather talk about those footbridges made of stone, metal, glass or concrete, the ones we take without much thought, or perhaps reluctantly, complaining about having to climb a staircase to reach them, or complaining because they seem poorly located, without realising that they harbour an infinity variety and creativity in the way they define the unique visage of Hong Kong. There are luxurious footbridges that link together the shopping malls of Central, or Pacific Place to Admiralty MTR. They are air-conditioned, clean, accessible by escalator, decorated for Christmas. They’re the Rolls-Royce of footbridges.
Take away their glass walls and you get another species, the covered footbridge, which protects you from the rain and sun above your head but not the guests of wind and heavy rain that are customary in Hong Kong. They allow office workers to head out for lunch without crossing paths with cars, while retaining a sense of the day’s humidity, heat and wind.
Even riskier, the uncovered footbridge is not well loved because it is open to all the elements, but it is not entirely without charm or creativity: if you want to remind yourself of all the cities that have hosted the Olympics, take a walk down Irving Street in Causeway Bay and choose which Olympic-coloured staircase to take.
From an aesthetic point of view, some footbridges evoke the kind of futuristic society we dreamed about in the last century. Passing from Chater House to IFC alongside the General Post Office takes you into the corridor of a spaceship from Star Trek, where people walked determinedly in tailored costumes.
In the New Territories, footbridges generally lead to an MTR station such as the one in Hang Hau, connecting apartment buildings, shopping malls and offices on a secondary level. It is possible to go to work, have lunch, buy groceries and come back in the evening without having walked on a single sidewalk. Cinephiles might recognise this as Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis come to life. Some justifiably deplore the way the city’s ground level has been abandoned, along with the streetlife that only the oldest neighbourhoods seem to have retained.
These footbridges might seem banal, but some depart on flights of fancy, like the amusing train-themed footbridge on Wai Yip Street in Kowloon Bay, or the circular footbridge that overlooks Yee Wo Street in Causeway Bay, which could drive an indecisive person mad.
Some footbridges even inspire artists, who transform them into outdoor galleries, like the Wan Chai Tai Fat Hau footbridge, whose columns contain 50 scenes of Wan Chai made by combining the digital images of 30,000 citizens. In 2012, French artist JR pasted black-and-white portraits on the roof of a footbridge on Connaught Road.
Footbridges take on an air of mystery after dark, reflecting the image of a city where those who do not press on are bothersome, going against the flow, preventing others from progressing. During the week, only a few tourists and amateur photographers take the chance of stopping to admire a unique view over the street below. They are joined by the musicians, beggars (often crippled) and iPhone hawkers who throng the path between IFC and the ferry piers. On the weekend, though, in a very Hong Kong kind of irony, these passageways are transformed into rest areas for domestic helpers. Walk, rest and resume: that’s life in Hong Kong.
Translated from the French by Christopher DeWolf.