Over the past year I visited these 3 modern city-states to get a feeling for how it would be to live in these places. I went to Dubai in Mar 2013, Hong Kong in Mar 2014, and Singapore in Jun 2014.
At one end of the scale there is Hong Kong. The streets are lively and colourful, with bazaars, people, traffic. The city is crammed with high-rise buildings and walking among these is otherworldly. The hills on the main island have helped create charming neighbourhoods. Portuguese egg tarts from nearby Macau (which was a Portuguese colony) and English street names from colonial days are nice reminders of the historical connections of this city. There is a Hong Kong identity and people from Hong Kong like to make it clear they are distinct from the Chinese.
On the main island there is a neighbourhood called Soho which has small shops, restaurants, cafes, art galleries. It is frequented by expats but by no means is it exclusive to expats. If I were living in Hong Kong, I could imagine myself sitting at a cafe there and watching the passersby, whilst sipping coffee.
In Dubai I did not find such a neighbourhood. There are two main parts in Dubai. The old part is like a little India with busy streets and atmospheric docks. But new Dubai is the Dubai everyone refers to. This part of the city is so spread-out that it’s virtually impossible to walk from one place to another. You either have to drive or take the metro.
A lot of Dubai life takes place in shopping malls, where some establishments are outrageously luxurious or gaudy with pink and purple chairs. You can though walk around Downtown Dubai (the area where Burj Khalifa, the world’s highest building, is), and Dubai Marina, which has high-rise residential blocks and a neat waterside development with cafes and restaurants. But ultimately it lacks the vibe of the streets of a European city.
Singapore, on the other hand, has street life in Chinatown and Little India. At night particularly the streets around the quays are lively and the food is a delicious mix of Chinese, Thai, Malay. I was surprised there were not many Western expats around — even in the business district and the shopping malls.
There is little visible evidence of integration between the three main people who make up Singapore (Chinese, Malay, Indian). I didn’t see for example a single Chinese-Indian couple. However, I did see Chinese people praying at a Hindu temple. Overall I found it strange that there was no Singaporean identity. Perhaps another 50 years is needed before a Singaporean identity is born.
In Singapore the Marina Bay Sands which is comprised of 3 skyscrapers connected at the top with what looks like a boat is striking and the view of it from the terrace of the hostel I was staying at was fantastic. Colonial buildings add some colour to the city but otherwise the buildings are ordinary, urban design is bland.
In Hong Kong I don’t remember seeing any singularly breathtaking structure. It is rather the high density of the high-rise buildings that is special. That some of them are rundown adds to this. The funicular, which goes up to Victoria Peak and was built by a former railwayman from Scotland in 1888, is a cool relic of colonial times.
Dubai probably has the most individually impressive architecture. There is Burj Khalifa (the world’s highest building), Burj Al-Arab (which looks like the sail of a ship), the Palm Islands, the half-complete World Islands (a set of artificial islands laid out to resemble the continents of the world), to name a few.
In my opinion, the idea that in Singapore there are a lot of rules and that it is super-clean is exaggerated. True, there are probably more rules there than in say Bangkok, but not more than in a Western European city.
In Dubai I didn’t like the way some immigrants from Asia are treated. For example, at the airport I saw two Arab men in traditional clothes who, after finishing their food from McDonald’s, called over to a Filipino waiter and pointing with their fingers ordered him to take away the trays — which, being McDonald’s, they were supposed to do themselves. Even the metro has a Gold Class.
In Hong Kong, though I didn’t have time to visit the surroundings, I heard from other travellers that there are nice hiking trails, which would make living there even more pleasant.
Of the three, I definitely prefer Hong Kong and could see myself living there. I could live in Singapore too and it would be a good base to explore Asia. But at this stage it would be difficult to swap England for Dubai.