Chaos = Flow (Navigating the Streets of the 852)

The streets are getting crowded up in here.

The fact that I live amidst chaos has been a running commentary of mine since I came to Asia. Of course, I was meaning that I was caught up in a frenzied and wild appearing shit-storm of human activity. (The above photo is not mine, but it is at Exit F of CWB station where arrive to walk to work everyday.) However, it turns out that while my association of chaos was wrong, my assessment of living in it may just have been right. It is the paradox of chaos. And since I love a good paradox, chaos theory is right up my non-scientific alley.

Navigating the streets of Asia’s World City can be daunting. Keep in mind that there are about 8 million people here going from place to place, and only 300,000 +/- private cars. That means we are sharing a lot of space on the sidewalks and in all sorts of forms of public transportation. Often as I make my way through the streets in Hong Kong I look around at the sea of people, which I can inevitably see above (5’10” in Asia was bound to have some benefits) and am simply amazed at the fact that anyone gets anywhere. Of course, other times I really want to punch slow walking people in the back of the head. When my BFF and her family visited here a while back she was blown away by the sheer volume of people on the streets. I have to say I have grown a bit non-plussed about it, except in extreme circumstances – like Mong Kok at rush hour, (also of note: Saigon at Tet or Beijing just being Beijing.) Mong Kok has an estimated population density of 427,680 people per square mile. That is outrageous. [The Kowloon Walled City, of which all that now remains is a very aesthetically pleasing park and a few wall remnants, had an estimated population density of about 5 million per square mile. That is not even comprehensible. I would have loved to have seen it. I used to live next door to the park… not the same.]

BFF was impressed. Most notably she mentioned, upon returning to the US, that Hong Kong had such a great flow, she couldn’t get over it.

What? A flow?

She must have been joking. I live here I know, it is total chaos!

It turns out, if I am understanding chaos correctly (you can check out some basic info on it here), we are both right. There are certain properties that must exist for something to be classified as chaotic. I actually have no idea how to interpret the science of those properties, but I would agree whole-heartedly that there are things that make the Kong chaotic. As a system, the 852 is very sensitive to initial conditions. And since the possibility of getting an infinitely correct assessment of the initial conditions on the streets of Hong Kong may be the nearest thing to impossible I can imagine, the deterministic ability to predict results of the system in action is not possible. [As a side note, I was pretty sure that I understood the fallacy of long term (ie: infinite) predictions based on “known facts,” otherwise known as determinism, the minute someone told me something was a “known fact.” John Calvin had it all wrong and really, known facts are so malleable, aren’t they?]

So, here we are back at chaos. And the fat paradox. Chaotic shit is hypersensitive to initial conditions. Since no initial conditions are ever infinitely precise, predicting the outcome is equally imprecise. Almost. The thing is, reducing the margin of error at the initial conditions stage does not result in equal reductions in the imprecision of the predictions. All causes and effects are not equal. Further, if you introduce a third actor into the system (as anyone who has ever had a close triumvirate of friends can tell you) the tiniest imprecision (misunderstanding?) in the initial conditions will lead to enormously divergent effects.

This shit is dynamic: D-Y-N-A-M-I-C.

And so the paradox? Well, to be fair there are probably several that a more selective mind could pick out. But the one I like is the idea that the unpredicted or uncertain outcomes that we see are not actually random, they are the logical results of initial conditions that we simply did not understand.

So how does this come back to the seemingly chaotic randomness of Hong Kong navigation? Let’s take a look:

A the very least, 8 million people are moving around this city on a daily basis. People seem to pay little or no attention to limits established by signage, traffic lights, sidewalks, directional instructions or, quite frankly, logic as far as I can see. Still, the people who navigate this sea of humanity on a daily basis, myself included,  have found a way to deal with the fact that there can never be any precise measure of the initial conditions, not to mention the fact that those are constantly in flux.  There are some conditions that must be met however, and any derivation from these will lead to obstructions and drama in the flow.

  • First you must accept that you cannot predict the outcome of the flow – you must go with the flow.
  • You cannot make eye contact with incoming elements. This automatically leads to an attempt to predict the outcome, inevitably leading to something resembling an awkward set of dance steps and a total flow obstruction.
  • You must be willing to mix it up (whether this constitutes the chaotic property of topological mixing I do not know, but semantically it seems like t works.) Basically, do not lock yourself into a predetermined path. We gave up this kind of blind adherence a long time ago for good reason.
  • Umbrellas are an initial condition that you will never be able to measure or understand so you should probably just carry one of your own.
  • Accept the density and know there will be contact within your orbit, not only is this out of your control, it is irrelevant.
  • Be like Emerson and understand that “the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” Since you can’t measure or understand the uinitial conditions of others just check yo’ self.
  • Realize that from really, really far away… all this movement is undoubtedly a pattern. And that is bitchin’. Don’t fight it.

My BFF concluded that the thing that made the flow impossible in the States was the purposeful demonstration of politeness – everyone always trying to yield (similar to the dance mentioned above.) People say that Hong Kongers are not polite. I don’t know about that, but they are damn efficient and that is irrefutable. As the summer season sets in and the streets get more and more crowded with people who seem to enjoy visiting a place with (paradoxically) humidity over 100%, it is evident that the introduction of that third element (tourists) to the first two (natives and residents) leads to such divergent results that you just may need to pray for rain in order to clear the streets.

In the end, the thing I like contemplating the most, aside from how to not punch slow walking people in the back of the head, is the question of whether or not the presence of chaos actually produces order… just on a scale beyond or little imaginations.


…that is a paradoxical notion I am holding onto.

About Amanda

I am repatriating expatriate trying to work it all out. Well, to work some of it out anyhow. I am writing here for sanity, focus and general over-sharing.
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5 Responses to Chaos = Flow (Navigating the Streets of the 852)

  1. driss says:

    The way you describe it makes it sound like Manhattan in a straitjacket. Here at least politeness, when performed correctly, can become seamlessly integrated with “the flow”- but the disruptions caused by external elements imposed onto that flow have a rippling effect (which the flow itself ultimately ends up ironing out). Aah, so few private cars! I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    • Amanda says:

      Hmm… did not intend to make the HK sound uptight… Malcolm Gladwell says the 852 has one of the highest thresholds for ambiguity in the world. I am guessing it has something to do with the chaos. It is what it is and fighting it is as silly as trying to predict the outcome. You can always tell a new person because they are like, trying to negotiate those initial conditions you know? Like, it will lead to a predictable outcome. Good luck with that.

      Similar to crossing the streets in Vietnam… you just go, don’t over think it or you will get smacked. By a Vespa. Carrying a family and a week’s worth of groceries.

      • driss says:

        fighting the chaos is “like trying to staple Jell-O to the ceiling” then?

        an amorphous entity composed of many semi-independent parts, a living sea sponge of a city…

        actually sounds cool when you think of it in those terms!

  2. Jill says:

    I LOVE IT! I’m coming for a swim in chaos. But what if I just want to stand still in the middle of the sidewalk and watch for awhile??

  3. Anna says:

    phew. i’m still your bff. i figure you hate me right about now….

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