Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Letter from Hong Kong


Hello from Hong Kong. I arrived yesterday to gorgeous weather -- particularly gorgeous, considering the unbearably hot weather I had left behind in Manila -- and in the car over from the airport to my hotel, resisted the impulse to stop over at my favorite shops at IFC and Landmark in Central. Instead I opted to head straight to the hotel to relax and veg for a very brief moment prior to a business dinner.

My hotel in Hong Kong is considered one of the hippest and coolest on the island. I'd stayed here last year and have to agree. Even now, everything is still new, swanky and uber-cool. Last year, it had taken me a full hour to come to grips with how everything technological worked as all the devices were wired, connected and on remote. One button turned a clear glass wall into an opaque wall -- if you've ever been to the Prada dressing room in Omotesando, Tokyo, you'll know what I mean -- and all kinds of other buttons did everything from put mood music on to allow you to work the iPod. At 3 AM one day (or rather one very early morning), I even had to ring concierge to find out how to turn the jacuzzi in my room off. There were no buttons to close the darn thing. It turned out, all I had to do was get out of the tub and the jacuzzi motor would just die down eventually.

So here I am again in this cool hotel of the future. The hotel is teeming with corporate executives from all over the world on conferences and away-days. There are at least two major financial firms doing investment meetings, and a well-known manufacturing company is having a regional meeting. And then there's us, having our annual regional conference. In the elevator, too, I overheard three men carrying coffee cups from their rooms to the ballroom talking about state-of-the-art medical procedures. So I guess there's a doctor's group somewhere here as well.

It's a great conference venue in an overcrowded, noisy and expensive city. You're in Hong Kong but you're also not. It's incredibly convenient for people flying in from all over Asia but you can also actually concentrate instead of thinking about the hustle and bustle outside and about heading down to the shops as soon as it's break time. We used to have our conferences in a swanky hotel in Central and it was nice, but also so distracting to have shops, good food, and good friends just a few steps away.

Anyway, at my current hotel, my old room was not available but the hotel gave me an equally lovely suite with gorgeous seaviews, lots of light and space, and nicely placed modern artwork. I even had a welcome foyer with a modern sculpture in deep red on a pedestal. There are two flat-screen TVs and last night I fell asleep with a DVD I had brought from home still playing -- it was that comfortable.

Driving into Hong Kong Island and onwards to my hotel, I found myself thinking about the same place in another time -- specifically 1989, when I temporarily lived in Hong Kong. The island was on steroids then, and there was so much ambition and aggressiveness, and the combination was both incredibly intoxicating and suffocating to a young person like myself. But it was a wonderful time to be here as it gave me a (little) taste of that hungry spirit that separates winners from everyone else. I hope I've managed to put that taste of Hong Kong's mesmerizing power to good use since then. Only time will tell.

But yesterday, looking out of the car at the skyscraper scenery playing out like a movie in front of me, Hong Kong seemed to me more like an old friend, more mellow and less on adrenalin. It was a comfortable feeling which was very different from the usually jumpy and competitive feeling I usually get the moment I hit Central. Working in Central, to me, is similar to being on a treadmill that never stops; and some of this kinetic energy rubs off on me even when I am just visiting -- perhaps because so many of my friends and acquaintances work here. Maybe the recession had something to do with this, but I find Hong Kong this time around to be a more subdued and less stressful place.

My feelings were confirmed at lunch today. Sitting across my colleague J over a meal, she recounted how at a recent hedge fund conference in Hong Kong, she found the hedge fund managers much more subdued than at the last conference in 2008. Many of them were more practical, realistic and grounded this time around. That's exactly how I feel about Hong Kong today.

This is all for now. My conference is ending soon and then we're all off to celebrate a pretty good first quarter with a team dinner at the China Club, a private club next to the HSBC headquarters designed to look turn-of-the-(last) century and filled with the wonderful private art collection of David Tang. And then I'm skipping out early and quietly to meet some good friends for late-night drinks somewhere in -- where else but -- Central. We're going to the top of the Mandarin Oriental, an old favorite, for great views and drinks. This will certainly start some reminiscing. There was a time when I practically called the MO "home" in Hong Kong. But that's another story. Catch you all later after some great Chinese food and a couple of margaritas.


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