Qantas flight 128 leaves at nine o’clock this evening. There are several options for getting to Central Station. You choose one of the small red taxis that circulate the city constantly. At Central, you buy a ticket to the airport and step straight onto the gleaming silver train. As you settle into the plush seats, the Airport Express whispers out of the station, right on time. You will be at the airport in exactly 24 minutes. High-rise apartments, docks, mountains and bays flash past the windows. This train may not be as fast as Shanghai’s magnetic levitation train, which tops 500 kilometres per hour, but it’s pretty quick. The airport is as clean and efficient as the train. Check-in, passport control and security are brief delays. Passengers board and the plane leaves right on time.
Next morning, you land half an hour later than scheduled, due to airport congestion. There’s a further delay on the tarmac as you wait for the arrival of an operator of the boom walkway. Passport control lines are long; the wait for your bags even longer. Then there are the endless, noisy, disordered queues to get through customs. The line for taxis sends you down to the airport railway station instead – and into another queue for tickets. The train, when it arrives, is dirty and battered. The filthy blue vinyl seats are covered in graffiti, the floor with dirt and newspapers. You crawl towards the city through blackened tunnels and past overgrown retaining walls. It’s hot but there’s no air conditioning. The train stops for a long time just outside of Central Station, reason unexplained, before limping its way to the platform.
From Central to Central it’s taken twelve hours. An international trip by definition takes you from one world to another, but the contrast this time comes as a shock. Last night you were in Hong Kong, a crowded peninsular city with no assets other than its harbour and its seven million people; a city that has been invaded, claimed and counter-claimed five times over the past two centuries, which only a couple of generations ago was dominated by vast, stinking refugee camps periodically devastated by mud slides; a city now of gleaming, ostentatious success, booming energy and disciplined precision. This morning you’re in Sydney, a sprawling metropolis of four million; at its mouth a glistening natural harbour; at its back a vast, richly endowed, continent; a continent ruled by the same culture and style of government for the past 200 years, never the subject of hostile claims or invasion; a continent sparsely populated by people who have always been counted among the world’s most wealthy, who have just lived through two of the most prosperous decades in their history.
An inversion of our world has happened without us noticing. Australians have traditionally thought of Asia as poor, backward and unstable. When, or if, they went to Asia, they were used to leaving clean, sunlit streets, the latest technology and infrastructure, ubiquitous safety and prosperity, for an adventure among shabby high-rises, roiling street markets and exotic rural scenes. That Asia still exists. But another Asia has emerged, an Asia that showcases the future in the same way that America used to; an Asia that builds infrastructure with an ease that appears beyond our capacities here in Australia; an Asia through whose streets flows wealth that is eye-popping to Australians who have grown up thinking they lived in the rich, lucky country. This new, disconcerting Asia is advancing quickly, past its original isolated islands of progress in Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. The new Asia is sprouting up in Bangalore, Shanghai, Seoul, Kaohsiung,...
Michael Wesley (Author)
Michael Wesley is the executive director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy. He is a former editor of the Australian Journal of International Affairs and a former international relations professor and director of the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University.