Where did the sea go? Asia reimagined

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The skyline of Singapore, where the author says her neighborhood is being completely “dug up, tunneled and reshaped.”
The skyline of Singapore, where the author says her neighborhood is being completely “dug up, tunneled and reshaped.” Photo Credit: Yeoh Siew Hoon
Yeoh Siew Hoon
Yeoh Siew Hoon
As I write this, jackhammers are pummelling the earth around me, land that did not exist as recently as 20 years ago. I live on a reclaimed site in Singapore, and in my youth, while I had dreamt of having a home by the sea, I hadn't actually thought I'd be living on it


Every now and then, when I have flights of fancy, I imagine my feet to be where the ocean bed is, fish nibbling at my toes (it's actually a form of foot massage in Asia), and I am seated within a conch shell typing away on a waterproof MacHydro.

Reality reminds me that the Tanjong Rhu precinct where I live is being completely dug up, tunneled and reshaped to accommodate a new super-duper highway and a train network that will ensure no one has to walk more than 10 minutes to get to any station all over tiny Singapore.

The light at the end of the tunnel, I am reassured by friends, is the rise in real estate value. This is a big deal in Singapore, where every square foot is precious. For now, I have to live amid constant noise and chaos.

I know I am not alone in this predicament of living in a city that's still being built around me. Every city in Asia is being reimagined. The media may be screaming of economic slowdown, but on the streets, everywhere you visit -- from Jakarta, Indonesia, to Manila, Philippines, from Hong Kong to Tokyo -- you see signs of cities on the move and middle-class folks with big aspirations to travel and build better lives.

Victoria Harbor reimagined

Hong Kong, the city I lived in for 11 years, is hardly recognizable. Each time I return, something new has happened or is taking shape.

As I looked down at Victoria Harbor from the Horizon Club Lounge of the Island Shangri-La, I saw a massive construction site. There's a $1.6 billion plan to transform this picturesque and historical waterfront. The project has elicited protests and lots of opinions, but the vision is to transform it into a gathering place as lively as the waterfronts in Sydney, Vancouver and Barcelona.

The day I was there, Marco Polo Hotels announced it would be converting the historical Murray Building, which its parent company, Wharf Holdings, acquired in 2013, into a 336-room Niccolo Hotel, its luxury brand.  

A total of $902 million is expected to be spent on the transformation. They've hired only the best. Foster + Partners, architects whose works include the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank headquarters and the Hong Kong Airport, will design the project, and you can expect the Murray, when it opens in October 2017, to be a standout in a city already known for some of the world's best hotels.

Tokyo readies for Olympics 2020

With the Rio Games now over, all eyes are turning to Tokyo as the next Summer Olympics host, and in September, construction started on the National Stadium. The building is expected to be completed by the end of November 2019. There's very little margin for delay but knowing Japanese efficiency, it will be done on time.

The Games are breathing new life into one of Asia's economic giants, which has lately been thrust into the shadows by the rising economic power of China. And travel and tourism is flying high.

With the lifting of visa restrictions on visitors from Southeast Asia, Japan has seen a boom in inbound arrivals, and emboldened by that success, the government has doubled the target for visitor numbers to 40 million by 2020.

Japan is one of my favorite destinations in Asia. Its hospitality, its modernity, which sits comfortably alongside age-old traditions, its diversity of landscapes, from sandy beaches to snowcapped mountains, makes it an unbeatable place to visit. As more foreigners visit, it has become easier and more accessible to explore. And you know what? Even if you don't speak Japanese, you won't ever get lost. Japanese people are the most helpful folks I know.

Once, a taxi driver, to make sure he had taken me to the right address, escorted me right to the door of the restaurant where I was dining. In New York, you'd be dumped and left to find your own way.

Hong Kong is in the midst of a $1.6 billion plan to transform its waterfront. Photo Credit: Yeoh Siew Hoon

Chinese brands and technology rule

On my social media feed this morning, a friend shared a video from Al-Jazeera about the development in China. Its message was that China only knows one way to build: massive projects, from waterparks to housing estates, and a lot of them have been abandoned because the developers ran out of money. Al-Jazeera reported that these abandoned projects could house 100 million people.

That sounds like a lot, though in the context of 1.4 billion people, perhaps not.

Whether you choose to look at it negatively (through the Western media's eyes) or positively (through Chinese-sanctioned media), there's no denying that the biggest reimagination in the Asia story has come from China.

A friend who used to live in Beijing 12 years ago and returned this year told me the biggest change she's seen is in the perception of brands. When she left, the biggest brands Chinese people talked about were Western names. Today, the biggest brands they talk about are Chinese: Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu are the new household brands.  

Technology the biggest game-changer

Apart from the brick-and-mortar development that Asia is seeing, the biggest game-changer is technology adoption by the more than 4.4 billion people who live there.  

South Korea has the fastest internet speeds in the world, and in the cities it's as free and available everywhere as the air.

Jakarta has moved to 4G cellular data, and that's going to be the biggest game-changer in this mobile-first economy.

China is already mobile. WeChat has shown the way to innovate, creating an entire ecosystem where people chat, buy and pay. Music.ly, the biggest music app for teenagers, was created by two Chinese kids, Alex Zhu and Louis Yang, while they were living in the U.S. Launched in 2014, it enables users to make 15-second videos of themselves lip-syncing and dancing to top hits. In May, the co-founders said they had 70 million registered users.

Singapore is working on its Smart Nation master plan, which will leverage technology to change the way people live, work and play in this city. So even as the physical environment is changing around my home, my digital life is also being reshaped. I can stream Netflix and watch "Stranger Things" at the same time as you readers in the U.S. can watch it. Could it get any stranger?

A future of connectivity, not borders

Australian airline Qantas is one airline that has had to reimagine Asia. Today, the region is the star performer for its low-cost brand, Jetstar, in particular and is largely responsible, one could say, for turning the airline's fortunes around, from a black hole a couple of years ago to its best year ever. In August, it announced a record full-year profit of $1.13 billion for the year ending June 30, up 57% from the previous year and the best results in its 95-year history.

At a recent airline conference before the company's financial results were announced, Alan Joyce, CEO of the Qantas Group, singled out Asia as one major force impacting aviation. Rattling off numbers, he said by 2025, 20 of the world's richest 50 cities will be in Asia. By 2030, 35% of all consumer spending will be from China and India combined. And by 2034, Asia's aviation market will be bigger than Europe and America combined.

The other force he singled out was the digital revolution.  

In his latest book, "Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization" (Penguin Random House, 2016), author Parag Khanna, who has lived in New York and London and two years ago moved from London to Singapore, wrote, "We're accelerating into a future shaped less by countries and more by megacities; less by borders and more by connectivity. It is time to reimagine how life is organized on Earth."

Perhaps it is time, too, for companies to reimagine how their businesses are organized in Asia.

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