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Extreme Opulence under Extreme Poverty

By John Overington

Hong Kong was the first time in my life that I became aware of extreme poverty in an urban area.  I had witnessed poverty to some degree before at home in Washington D.C., but nothing on the scale like I experienced in Hong Kong.  I was young, naïve, and unaware of the millions of people that live in conditions that are so terribly inadequate and unsanitary as those who live in Hong Kong.  The first floor of each building in the center of the commercial distrct of Hong Kong was inevitably a shop that boasted products like Rolex, Sony, and Gucci.  This floor was starkly different than the rest of the building. Beyond the futuristic base stores, the next 15 floors were decrepit apartments with rusted, leaking air conditioners growing out of the windows.  These apartments are small and dark, without many of the basic amenities like bathrooms or running water.  It is amazing to think that men on the first floor sell watches for five thousand dollars each while the family of 6 that live four floors up all sleep in the same bed in the old room of their apartment.  These apartments are over crowded and are surely hot beds for disease and infection.  The walls are crumbling around its inhabitants, but from the displays and products on the first floor, you could never tell.  Even at night, these buildings stand with scarred outsides, their broken windows visible in the omnipresent neon lights that burn night after night.

Mike Davis in his book Planet of Slums explores the huge population of families that live in slums throughout the world.  Global cities are teeming with slum life, much more so than most Americans know.  According to Mike Davis, the number of slum dwellers around the world is over 1 billion, more than one sixth of the world’s population which also has become increasingly urban.  This statistic is staggering to say the least, and it is certainly proven in and around Hong Kong.  Hong Kong opened my and many Semester at Sea student's eyes to the truth about urban populations and urban poverty more generally.  The port of Hong Kong illustrates the sharp contrast in which opulence and poverty operate in global cities across the globe.

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