Disegno #21

Connections in the Pearl River Delta

Hong Kong

20 May 2019

The inaugural Zhuhai Design Week launched on 25 October 2018 at the Zhuhai International Convention & Exhibition Centre in Guangdong, south China. Affiliated with Beijing Design Week, the trade show-like event reportedly brought together more than 300 designers, both local and international, to participate in activities hosted under the theme “Innovate Again and Again”. It also featured exhibitions originally organised for Beijing Design Week 2018, including a 40-year retrospective detailing the development of design in China since Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 reforms.

You would be forgiven for not having heard of Zhuhai Design Week. Initially set for a 2019 launch, the likely catalyst for its sudden materialisation was the October 2018 unveiling of the world’s longest sea crossing: the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge. Spanning 55km, this structure directly links Zhuhai to China’s Special Administrative Regions, Macau and Hong Kong, tangibly connecting the Pearl River Delta for the first time. The Y-shaped crossing, which comprises an over-sea bridge, an undersea tunnel, and four artificial islands – all designed to withstand typhoons and earthquakes – has been designed to last for the next 120 years, costing RMB 120bn ($17.3bn).

The Zhuhai port exit.

The current focus is on the potential economic returns of the new bridge. A long-established manufacturing base, the Pearl River Delta was recognised as the planet’s largest urban area by the World Bank in 2015. This urban and economic expansion is often attributed to Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening-up policy instigated in the late 1970s, which saw the establishment of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) calculated to attract foreign investment. Much like Shenzhen, which became the country’s first SEZ largely because of its proximity to Hong Kong, Zhuhai was designated an SEZ as a result of its strategic position facing Macau. Manufacturers relocated and opened up factories throughout the Pearl River Delta soon after, transforming the area into a dynamic economic centre.

A view from the green plaza of West Kowloon station.
The interior of the station.

More recently, the Chinese government has been looking to shift the region’s focus from low-cost manufacturing to technology and innovation (hence Zhuhai Design Week’s theme). Although some of the world’s biggest technology companies, such as Tencent and Huawei, already have a presence in the area, investors and government officials are now seeking to attract young entrepreneurs with the intention of developing a rival to Silicon Valley. One way of achieving this will be through using a series of large-scale infrastructural projects, such as the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, to further integrate 11 cities in Guangdong with Macau and Hong Kong. The result will be a megacity of sorts, otherwise referred to as the Greater Bay Area, projected to generate a GDP of $4.62tn by 2030.

Signage for the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, seen from Zhuhai

A new high-speed railway between Hong Kong and China is also part of these plans. Launched in September 2018, it enables passengers to travel from Hong Kong to cities across China – from Guangzhou to Shanghai and even Beijing – much more efficiently than ever before. Travel time between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, for example, is a mere 15 minutes. It’s a mind-blowing experience that’s augmented by the need to connect to a VPN to circumvent China’s Great Firewall on one side of the journey in contrast to easily being able to navigate using Google Maps on the other.

The casino Lisboa in Macau, the route into the city, and safety barriers erected ahead of the Macau Grand Prix.

Not that Google Maps is immediately useful: pulling into Hong Kong, visitors are welcomed by the new West Kowloon Terminus (WKT), a cavernous building that is as overwhelming as it is impressive. Designed by architect Andrew Bromberg of Aedas, the station extends 25m above ground and 20m below ground, and features a large central void. Despite its size, however, it is surprisingly well lit, with daylight filtering in through numerous windows. The idea, Bromberg explains, was that passengers would be able to see the Hong Kong skyline as they depart from and arrive at the station.

A curve of the Hong Kong-Zhuhau-Macau bridge, wrapping around the coast of Lantau Island, Hong Kong.

Around the building, meanwhile, are 3ha of open space linking the West Kowloon Terminus with two nearby MTR public transit stations. Much of Bromberg’s initial research entailed studying how long it would take passengers to reach these stops. However, these open spaces are as much about connecting people as they are about functioning as effective thoroughfares. “In Hong Kong, urban parks are limited,” he says, “so the civic quality of the green space was one of the things that kind of became sacred.” As we approach the station’s outdoor plaza, Bromberg says that while he personally referred to the space as a “civic plaza” during its development, it is officially known as a
“green plaza”.

A boat ride from Tai O to Tuen Mun, stopping at Sha Lo Wan pier, Hong Kong.

“Green” is, perhaps, a less politically charged term than “civic”. Since opening, WKT has been criticised for implementing what is known as the “co-location arrangement”, an agreement under which around 105,000sqm of the station’s footprint has been (cheaply) leased to Beijing. Subject to Chinese law, this area is where passengers arriving in Hong Kong – after being greeted by Chinese police officers (both human and robotic) and hanging rows of surveillance cameras – are required to clear Chinese immigration. Although the arrangement is said to have been made in the name of efficiency – such that passengers travelling to Hong Kong wouldn’t have to interrupt their journey to pass immigration before reaching their final destination – it speaks to China’s growing political encroachment on Hong Kong.

Golden HZM buses are the authorised public transport vehicles on the endless bridge.

There is no doubt that initiatives like the new high-speed railway or the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge offer many benefits. For locals and visitors, this time-saving infrastructure increases accessibility, providing more opportunities for leisure, tourism, or for seeing family and friends, while businesspeople can now fully exercise the “time is money” mantra. From a government perspective – both Hong Kong and Chinese – these connectivity projects are key to the prosperity of the Greater Bay Area. But to borrow a sentiment expressed by Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s current chief executive, they are also a major boost for Hong Kong’s future integration efforts. A future within which, perhaps, Hong Kong will no longer operate as a Special Administrative Region, but as one of China’s newest SEZs instead.