Is Hong Kong really 'Asia's World City'?

Is Hong Kong really 'Asia's World City'?

Hong Kong is regularly ranked one of the top cities in the world, whether it truly deserves to be or not

There are alpha cities and beta cities. There are even gamma-minus cities, according to a regular study by the Globalization and World Cities (GaWC) Research Network.

The organization is one of a number of think tanks set up to determine how the planet’s metropolises rank against one another.

Alpha cities have a few characteristics in common, outlined by urban studies scholars, for whom such a place is defined, basically, as a vital part of the global economy.

Also known as "world cities," they should, for example, house a major stock exchange, provide a variety of international financial services and appear near the top of cost of living lists.

So far, so good for Hong Kong. It's given the second-best ranking of "alpha+" together with rivals Singapore and Shanghai in the latest GaWC report. 

In fact BrandHK, a government program dedicated to, well, the branding of Hong Kong, claims the title of “Asia’s World City” for Hong Kong.

Spokesperson Evani Au-Yeung explains that a review of the program in 2008-9 concluded that the slogan best reflects Hong Kong’s competitive position as “a natural, vital and multicultural gateway not only to and from China but also to the rest of Asia and beyond.”

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At home in the world

But how does our hometown really measure up on the political and cultural fronts?

When celebrity photographer David LaChapelle visited last year, he said it feels like Christmas morning here

Diversity is key. We should be able to see the world condensed in the city’s streets.

A traveler from anywhere should be able to wash ashore and find a corner of Hong Kong in which they don’t feel foreign.

Its public spaces should reflect an evident cultural mix, and a significant impact on daily metropolitan life of a wide variety of people and languages.

World cities often have political clout; they might be the capitals of influential nations. Their strengths might be cultural, as the homes of renowned artistic institutions, important world heritage sites or the headquarters of leading media outlets, for example.

Hong Kong doesn't really have any of these things, but perhaps it’s enough that it feels like it does.

Expatriate friends newly moved to Hong Kong assure me that it's “not, by any means, a difficult place to settle into." They feel, to some degree, a sense of belonging here and it doesn’t take long to achieve.

Tourists are also excited by how cosmopolitan and open the city seems to be. How it isn’t the backwater some admit they'd imagined. How the bars and restaurants remind them of New York, that ultimate global metropolis.

Of course, we have to wonder how often these visitors leave Hong Kong Island and acknowledge that the city we present to the world is usually a narrow slice of the whole.

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That city beat

Hong Kong Asia's World CityHong Kong is Asia's world city, at least according to government branding.

With all of that said, there's something else that I think makes a real city, a world city even -– its energy.

There are a handful of places on earth where the local rhythm is big and palpable from the minute you arrive and Hong Kong is one of them.

When celebrity photographer David LaChapelle visited last year, he said (to paraphrase) that it feels like Christmas morning here.

If there's one thing I've noticed in the four years since moving home, it's that Hong Kong is growing up.

Not just in the tangible things that have made it, officially, an alpha or world city, but also in the feeling that we're living on the axis of a great, complicated success story, one that's unique even within China's chest-beating ascent to global power.

Hong Kong has hundreds of faults. But it's brimming with life and opportunities for those who care to look.

The city has shifted from a place I couldn't wait to leave as an ambitious graduate to one that's yielded everything I've strived for, and many new adventures too.

So maybe that's enough. Maybe, when all the data is counted and all possible rubrics considered, the only thing that really makes or breaks a great city is whether or not it has soul.

All opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Samantha Leese

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Samantha Leese is a Hong Kong based writer and editor, focusing on travel, arts and culture. Her articles have been published internationally by titles such as Condé Nast Traveller, The Spectator, Artforum and Time.

Read more about Samantha Leese