Monday, July 26, 2004

Fortune Teller
Though I've had no shortage of reminders - both from friends and family - that they've recently read that Hong Kong is No. 5 on the most expensive cities in which to live list, it might surprise some to know that today I picked up a shirt, tie, vest, gold tie clip and watch, and a spiffy blue plaid suit jacket for $18 Hong Kong dollars, or $2.30 US.
Well, the ensemble is made of paper. And it probably wouldn't come close to fitting me if I bothered to pull it out of its elegant blue and gold box. It's actually a funeral suit or more specifically an offering, made to be burned and sent to the next world so your deceased beloved arrives in the afterlife as a sharp dressed man.
I picked it up at a temple only three subway stops from my apartment, a visit I owe to my SZ pal James and his obsession with all things temples. He's in the throes of writing a history of Hong Kong temples and had arranged to meet me this morning to scout out the Wong Sai Sin temple.
As temples go, I've seen several since being in Shenzhen and Chengdu and they've all pretty much left me a trifle underwhelmed. In fact, while setting up our excursion I'd carped a bit about seeing "another temple" and James had said that when you're friends with "The Temple Guy" temples is what you get. I'd emailed a reply to the effect of why can't I be friends with "The Breakfast in Bed with Uma Thurman or Lucy Liu Guy"?
According to an extract from his "autobiography" in a temple pamphlet, Wong Sai Sin  aka "The Red Pine Fairy', seemed to specialize in turning rocks into sheep and "refining cinnebar nine times into an immortal drug." At his temple we found a fair amount of people, mostly women of all ages, imploring him with incense and fruit offerings to turn or refine their luck. There were also signs with male cartoon figures showing the recommended incense offering methods - one stick in two hands held in prayer position - not a fist-full of sticks pointing directly from one's crotch or chest.
I got into the spirit of the imploring and offered one stick and several prayerful bows with fond wishes for my father (who is having health problems), my sister (currently pissed off at me) and my son (just to be safe).
After James and I made our pleas and stuck our smoking joss sticks in a long sand filled trough, presumably with the messages flying heavenward on the smoke, we moved to the side to watch others, only to see a temple worker in an orange jumpsuit and rubber gloves begin to methodically pluck the dozens of burning sticks like so many weeds from the sand, plunge them in a tub of water and dump them into a large green garbage bag. Talk about dousing dreams. He was only making room for more but it was a bit like seeing all those prayers short-circuited to be shipped to a landfill. Or seeing an altar boy suddenly snuffing out votive candles as devotees are in mid-prayer. But these worshippers didn't appear to notice, or if they did, didn't appear to mind. They just kept burning and bowing.
The temple is next to a subway station with pushy crones at the entrance hawking overpriced joss sticks and nestled in a pocket surrounded by the Hong Kong skyline, all of which gave one a rather surreal view that included the graceful, curving traditional Chinese temple roof lines set off by sky scrapers, a McDonald's and a garish, modern mega-church that James described aptly as looking like "an IHOP on crack." 
But there was a  bonus - a two-floor fortune teller mall of sorts. A 161 Seer Superstore, though many of them seemed to be taking Monday off. Those that were on duty, mostly elderly and  middle-aged men and women, sat looking bored, some dozing or perhaps contemplating futures where they weren't trapped in small booths adorned with large palm and face charts and photos of them with ecstatic looking clients.
We were the only potential custormers and one old woman who could barely move saw a future in us. "Speak English?" she asked astutely. Amazed at her insight we agreed that we spoke it and she motioned us to follow her up some stairs and down another row of seers til we came to a younger woman who spoke English very quickly, if not exactly fluently.
"Probably her daughter," James said.
She showed us a chart in Chinese with price quotes - everything from $100 Hong Kong to answer "one question" to $3,000 Hong Kong for a "very, very good fortune." I pointed to the $300 HK and asked what I got for that. Turned out it was a palm reading that I bargained down to $200 HK.
In a nutshell I found that I'm in good health until age 73. My ailing father is in great health - but I could have purchased a paper with an inscription in Chinese to put under my pillow to ensure it. My marriage line is "very good" (I'm twice divorced). I'm going to have a "big argument" with a woman next month. James and I would make great business partners and I shouldn't lend anyone - "even good friends" - any money. "Hear that?" I asked James, to whom I'd just loaned some money.
As we left and went through fortune telling row again, another sage - a bespectacled fellow - asked: "Do you want to know your future?"
"No thanks," I replied. "Still trying to deal with my past."

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Mummy don't go
I hadn't even hit the Shenzhen border late Friday morning when I got word that Peter-the-Shenzhen-Fixer's mother had died  As deaths go, it wasn't exactly unexpected. She had had Alzheimer's and was bed-ridden. I had only seen her once, as a maid had wheeled her out of her apartment for some sun one May afternoon. Still, I felt for Peter who has been a good friend, an invaluable helpmate and a reliable source of entertainment during my time, trials and travails in Shenzhen.
I called a mutual friend who had been living with the mother and Peter's daughter to ask how he was doing and found that funeral arrangements were handled just a little differently in China - or at least in Peter's flat.
"He's keeping the body until Saturday," she told me. "He didn't want to pay for the refrigerator." By that, she meant Peter didn't want to pay for cold storage until his mother could be cremated on Saturday morning. I laughed a little. Peter is always looking to save a yuan, though keeping a corpse in an apartment during a 90-some degree day and 80-some degree night seemed to, er, a little extreme.
"I hope he's not skimping on air conditioning," I replied. Further investigation revealed that death can be dirt cheap in China, at least compared to the US. Total cost for transporting Peter's mom to the funeral home and cremating her (minus cold storage) plus the budget urn? About 500 yuan or about $60. Cost of making sick jokes to the mutual friend about spending the night with a dead woman? Priceless.
Another friend, James, put it in perspective for me. "They have to keep it cheap in a third world country like this. Otherwise people would be burying them themselves, throwing them in rivers or the ocean or just burning them themselves."
Later he also gave me a little more insight into Peter. I had contacted Peter myself on Friday to offer condolences and to talk a little and he'd been a little resigned and matter-of-fact and not a little relieved that she was dead. It had occurred to me to offer to pay the cold storage cost as a sort of sympathy gesture, but I kept mum and just let him talk.
James told me he'd spoken to Peter on Saturday morning and that they'd had a deeper heart-to-heart in which Peter had told him he'd spent most of the night and early morning beside his mother's body, occasionally touching it and hoping that somehow she'd come back to life. Then he'd gotten a stomach ache which he thought had been caused by touching the body and eating something. So he'd finally called the funeral home at 5 a.m. to have her taken and cremated,
"That's the 'real Peter' underneath,'" James said. "The Peter who was sitting by her body and wishing she'd come back to life. Of course the urge to save money no matter what - that's him too."

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Sea and Sand
Weary of rain and lacking any firm, moral compass to keep me in Hong Kong last weekend, I returned to Shenzhen for some sun and direction and found a little - as well as massive crowds - at a beach resort called Da Mei Sha. Technically part of Shenzhen, it's east of and well outside the main city and as beaches go, not bad. It certainly beats another beach I visited last October where our tour guide proudly noted a distinguishing shoreside feature across a small inlet - a nuclear power plant.
This featured no glow-in-the-dark,, three-eyed marine life, but it was somewhat marred visually by a feature that is all too typical in some of the other ocean views I've seen in here: bad public art. There seems to be a penchant for 30-foot figures that look like blowups from an 70s-era art-rock album cover, say something by Kansas or Styx, and Da Mei Sha outdid itself in this respect with five enormous colored (green, red, blue, yellow, brown) winged figures that probably represented something like Five Virtues, but to my eyes looked more like Five Good Reasons to Avoid Looking Up.
Nonetheless, the view of the small islands dotting the seascape and watching 70-year-old pot-bellied men in Speedos wrestling with oversized innertubes offered some relief.
The hotel, by the way, was owned by China's best known mattress company: Airland. The perfect tie-in, I thought. I took it further and explained the phrase "hot mattress hotel" to my Chinese companions and was glad to see that some slightly smutty humor is universal.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Hard Rain
Typhoon Komasu paid Hong Kong a visit Friday morning, causing the city to go into a tizzy of sorts when tropical cyclone warning signal "8" was hoisted - meaning that schools and a lot of businesses would close as well as ferry service to outlying islands. I was blissfully unaware of any of this until about 11:30 am when I awoke - startled at the absence of the by-now familiar 8 am-7 pm symphony of jack hammers and pile drivers outside my window. It was overcast, windy and refreshingly cool and discounting the TV announcers who were urging people to stay indoors if they could, I decided to try to get some lunch at what I call "SARS-Ville Mall" - an indoor mall located at the base of  nearby Amoy Gardens - Ground Zero for last year's SARS outbreak..
Things looked wet and a little windy from the 24th floor, but it wasn't until I hit the doors to exit my complex that I realized it wasn't a great idea. The set-up of the Tak Bo Gardens buildings and courtyard created a wind-tunnel of sorts that increased the wind's force to the point that walking three feet with an open umbrella was both an exercise in sheer futility as well as inadvertant slapstick comedy for anyone who was watching.
Suddendly that box of instant noodles and leftover sushi from last night back in the apartment sounded very appetizing.
It wasn't much better three hours later when I began the trek to a shuttle bus to The Standard. Normally a 10-minute walk, it became  more of a 20-minute struggle to stay dry, keep the umbrella from turning inside out and to avoid bumping into fellow foolish pedestrians struggling to navigate blind behind their bumbershoots.
Fortunately, the route to the shuttle stop leads through a mammoth luxury mall that was thinly populated because few businesses had bothered to open. The Ben and Jerry's booth was, though, and a scoop of Chunky Monkey was just the exotic Hong Kong treat I needed for the final sprint. 

Monday, July 12, 2004

Amazing Grace
This weekend I forsook Shenzhen in favor of exploring some areas of Hong Kong outside of the newsroom, my neighborhood bar, sushi-to-go shop and 7-Eleven. At various times and in various - mostly muddled and befuddled - states of mind, I found myself in several different areas, one of which, Jordan, sported the most diverse two blocks of businesses I've seen.
There was the "Happy Home for the Elderly" lodged a floor above the "Scorpion Pub" - where presumably the elderly can go to get stung or even happier. Nearby was the "New LIttle Flying Elephant Portugese Restaurant" which was nudging "Cleaning Cat Service". Many pubs abounded, but religion and culture were not forgotten for those seeking more clear-headed enlightenment. "Millienium Research Institute of Cantonese Opera" was neighbors with both the "Universal Buddhist Merciful Center" and the "Bible Auditorium of Seventh Day Adventists."
On a more secular level on Friday night, I found myself later at a hotel bar listening to a Filipino male-female duo butcher Yellow Submarine, My Way and To All the Girls I've Loved Before while a country music-loving Brit and I extolled the virtues of Kris Kristofferson. Turns out he has a pal who runs an English language AM station in Hong Kong and he thinks I'd be perfect to host an hour or two a week on country music, beginning with Kristofferson. Whether it was the beer talking, I'm not sure but I promised him I'd snag some Kris from a friend or two in the States and give it a shot. And if anyone else reading this has a copy of The Silver Tongued Devil and I, or any other Kristofferson material they want to burn and send me, and if you want to be immortalized on Hong Kong radio shoot me an e-mail at and I'll send you an address.
Things got a little weirder on Saturday night in an area called Wan Chai. It was immortalized in The World of Suzie Wong and while it's reportedly somewhat spiffier now than in 1960 when the movie with Richard Holden and Nancy Kwan was made, let's just say that an unscientific survey indicated that many of Suzie's granddaughters are carrying the red light.
I avoided the obvious clip joints and found a psuedo-Hard Rock cafe decorated with vintage photos and posters of Hendrix, Fabs, Elvis, Sex Pistols, Van Morrison et al where I was chatting with a 55-year-old British insurance executive I'll call B who spends a lot of time on business in Hong Kong about the Red Hot Chili Peppers over beers as we admired Virgin Airlines stewardesses on layover dancing wildly on top of the bar. We were joined at one point by a lovely Thai woman who introduced herself to me as "Grace", though my drinking partner seemed to already know her. Grace introduced herself as an "artist" was extremely friendly, articulate and seemed very taken with my attempts at recalling rudimentary Thai phrases I'd learned while living there for a year as a child.
I got up to take a bathroom break just as Grace's arm had begun grazing my thigh. B followed. Standing at the urinal he said there was something he thought I should know.
"Sure, what?"
"Grace isn't 'Grace'.'"
"Grace is, ah....let's just say that Grace is more a 'George,' " he said softly. "In Thailand they call them 'katoey's' or 'lady-boys.' He - or she - is actually quite well-known in this area. Here's another hint. Did you spot Grace's Adam's apple?"
I paused. "Oh. No."
I paused again. "Yes. I think I'll pass. Thanks for the advice."
We returned to our seats and I began avoiding Grace's grasp and by-now very direct gaze and swallowed my beer quickly.
"Oh, look at the time! The MTR stops running in what? Twenty minutes? Gotta run! Nice to meet you B. And you, too, Grace." Then I fled.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Cult of Personality

Sometimes this blog almost writes itself. And I'd like to thank a former SZ Daily coworker for this unwitting contribution. She sent me an e-mail the other day asking for my help in "polishing" an English translation of what she described as a "very recent (Chinese) MTV song." Due to time constraints (I don't have a lot lately) I was unable to help her, but I've cut and pasted what she sent me here.
It's notable, too, that this came to me at the same time that the Chinese govt. has been wringing its hands over the state of its young people - many of whom have been spending a lot of time online and dying their hair green. The government's response has been a shotgun approach that has varied from pouring money into "Youth Palaces" - a national network of after-school community centers; delaying the release of decadent western flicks like Spider-Man II and the latest Harry Potter until school begins, shutting down thousands of Internet cafes, banning Hong Kong pop diva Faye Wong's song In the Name of Love for using the word "opium" and issuing statements like this from the Culture Ministry regarding Britney Spears' plans for a China tour.
"Relevant departments will carry out strict reviews of Briney Spears' performance clothing" to ensure she doesn't reveal too much. It also presumably includes heavily promoting catchy chart-toppers like the following:

Forever Deng Xiapeng (Deng Xiaoping remembered forever)

Lrics by Tang Yuesheng, Music by Yuan Wenli

There is (was) a Chinese leader

People dearly (affectionately) call (called ) him Xiaoping

He followed Mao Zedong to make (carry out ) revolution

Finished the Long March and again designed a new Long March

Xiaoping is (was) a strong (staunch) person

He became even stronger (stauncher) after several vicissitudes (ups and downs )

He led us to walk to the world

Opened up to the outside world and again built a new Great Wall

Xiaoping is (was) a sincere (honest) person

Magnanimous all his life, he pursued truth

He best understood the people's mind

His smile was the purest and truest when the people were glad (happy)

We are concerned about him, we adore (love) him

The son of the people! Deng Xiaoping!

We are concerned about him, we adore (love) him

The son of China! Deng Xiaoping!

Xiaoping, Xiaoping!

So we call (called) your name!

Monday, July 05, 2004

Hey, baby, it's the Fourth of July...
And how do you celebrate American Independence Day in one of the world's most repressive regimes? Well, you start by scoring some illegal fireworks from a friendly small shopkeeper who lives about a block from the Lucky Number. I went back to SZ for the weekend and had been able to cadge a 4th of July party bbq invite from an American businessman I'll call B who was hosting it for some Chinese coworkers and connections. He'd asked me to bring some fireworks and American beer if I could find it.
Though fireworks are technically illegal in the world cradle of decorative explosives and a place where several thousand pyrotechnic factory workers are blown to bits each year, they were plentiful during the Lunar New Year. I'd noticed the corner shop had also been busy dispensing them in January and figured they must have some unsold stock left.
My instincts were correct. With a Chinese friend translating and me making "kapow! boom-boom!" noises while miming lighting bottle rocket fuses my need was transmitted ably to the shopkeeper's wife who told my friend that they had "many stored under blankets and boxes" in their home. The wife called her mother and asked her to bring a variety. It would be a 10 minute wait so I wandered over to a grocery store to find that the only American beer in stock was Pabst Blue Ribbon at a premium price.
Someone in PBR's marketing department is a genius. While it's a decidedly lowbrow brew in the US (memorialized in an early 1970s country song: Redneck, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer), it did enjoy a flurry of cracker chic briefly in NYC a few years ago among 20somethings and is now being pushed in China and Hong Kong as top o' the line lager.
I winced, bought six cans and returned to the shop and waited under an awning as rain fell for the fireworks crone to appear. She finally showed after about 25 minutes with two sacks stuffed with a variety of bottle rockets and larger artillery. Sifting through it, I found a nice big box of "Red Devil Moon Rockets" and another box stuffed with "Screaming Whistler Flower Bombs" and made my way to B's place.
He lives several lifestyles above my barely-above-subsistance level at the Lucky Number, the most notable features being hot and cold running water from even the kitchen tap and a western toilet and enclosed shower stall. His bedroom also isn't a plexiglass cube set between the living room and kitchen. I had found explosives and PBR, but he had scored real guacamole from Hong Kong, herbal cheese, premium wafer crackers, black bean dip and a variety of salsa and some real tortilla chips. I was humbled and happy.
There was also the Rent-a-BBQ guy. When B had mentioned to one of his guests that he was thinking of hosting a BBQ, the guest had insisted that he handle the cooking arrangements Chinese-style. B agreed and instead of trying to find a hibachi, charocal and charcoal fuel, the result was a 12th "guest" - a young man with two horizontal halves of a large cooking oil can, a sack of charcoal, a wire screen, 40some thin wooden skewers and about 8 bottles of oils and spices. He put it all on the balcony where he sat patiently smoking cigarettes and refusing most offers of beverages and guac until it was time for him to fire it up.
But B and I ran into some cross-cultural confusion when it came to constructing kebobs. The Rent-a-BBQ guy was a bit put-off - though polite - when he saw the ones B and I had made - veggie, meat/chicken chunk, veggie, meat/chicken chunk, veggie, etc. on one stick and asserted his role as Shenzhen Shaolin Grill Master by taking over the construction process and doing it Chinese style: veggies and meat/fowl strictly segregated on separate but equal sticks. He cooked those first and only reluctantly grilled the USA style 'bobs after the others ran out.
As the only Americans present, I'm afraid B and I also didn't meet the Chinese and one Syrian guest's expectations of what a typical 4th of July party should be.
"What do you do? What is traditional?"
"Uh, well, we just throw burgers on a grill, drink beer and either shoot off or watch fireworks. Maybe sing some songs."
They kept looking expectant, as if there might be more. Don't we hang a Brit in effigy? Dress up as Indians and throw tea crates into swimming pools? But songs, that's something they could relate to. Chinese love to sing at parties and are inevitably a little crestfallen when the foreign barbarians can do little but Happy Birthday or Anarchy in the UK.
"SONGS! Oh, yes. Sing us some songs! Sing us your national song!"
With B on guitar and me on four beers we attempted The Star Spangled Banner, but the most applause came when we emoted a Hendrix-inspired squealing a la Jimi's flourish for the "bombs bursting in air" line and when I began waving the tails of my Ralph Loren US flag short-sleeve shirt to give some oomph to "our flag was still there."
The fireworks got a better reaction and I garnered more applause for those and my singed arm hairs than for the Star Spangled Banner.

Friday, July 02, 2004

b>Across the Borderline
Though they are neighbors, the differences between Hong Kong and Shenzhen sometimes seem as diverese as Hooterville and Gotham City. Though in Hong Kong no one spits on sidewalks or spits bones and gristle on tables while dining and children don't urinate on the sidewalks, misconceptions abound on both sides.
I tell Hong Kongers - expats and Chinese alike - that I'm recently arrived from Shenzhen and a frequent response is "Oh, it's dangerous there, isn't it?"
I tell Shenzheners that I've relocated to Hong Kong and again: "Oh, it's dangerous there, be careful!"
The Chinese I've met in Hong Kong also seem to be light years removed from their countrymen across the bay. "They don't think they are Chinese, only Hong Kong" one SZ Chinese friend told me and I'm finding she's not entirely wrong.
While my current reference points are ridiculously superficial, confined as they are to folks I've met after several beers at the Pacific bar, I've been struck by several conversations and encounters.
I was rehashing last night's 500,000 person pro-democracy march with a 30something graphic designer named Steven ho told me he hadn't attended it because he feels "no future, only a dark hole" in Hong Kong. "The night of reunification I was at a big party. Americans, English, Chinese - it was wonderful and I felt like we had a new future. Now, nothing. I feel nothing for Beijing and the mainland."
Our table of four also included a cynical unmarried female kindergarten teacher pounding down Buds. This in itself was a minor shock. Not that some kindergarten teachers in the US don't enjoy a tall cool one or two after work, but she had more in common attitude-wise with Edna Krabappel - the jaded elementary school teacher on The Simpsons - than with any of her mainland counterparts who would've been summarily fired or reassigned to some rice-foresaken Chinese version of Siberia if they had been seen drinking beer and playing dice with three men in a bar, never mind on a school night. No biggie in Hong Kong, though.
Sex seems to be another no biggie. Or at least talking about it. Earlier in the evening, Steven had briefly introduced me to a 19-year-old woman who for reasons I still can't fathom was perfectly content to blurt out to a 51-year-old foreigner she'd known for about eight minutes that she had slept with 5 guys since she was 17.
Even in "dangerous" Shenzhen you'd be hard put to find a hooker that candid.
Or at least that's what friends have told me.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Chimes of Freedom
When your day begins with an early morning phone call from someone telling you that they've had a religious experience but are now considering offing themself, you can only hope it gets a little better- for both of you.
I think my caller could use some serious therapy, but that's another story, and not one for this blog. And I decided my therapy would be a dose Hong Kong's second annual July 1 public demonstration for universal sufferage, democracy and free speech. Not coincidentally, July 1 also marks the anniversary of the British handover of Hong Kong in 1997. Five hundred thousand citizens took the the streets last year to remind Beijing that Deng Xiaopeng had promised "one country, two systems" (as in two political systems)for the motherland and child reunion. The 2003 march was sparked by a Beijing-proposed anti-sedition National Security Bill (commonly referred to as Article 23) and the protest became the largest antigovernment demonstration in Hong Kong's history.
It was also the largest pro-democracy protest in China since Tienamen Square in 1989, but unlike Tienamen Square the July 1 protest was peaceful and Beijing blinked. Article 23 was shelved.
But this year Beijing has tried to turn the screws in other ways, including a further delay of instituting direct elections and with crude and tawdry behind-the-scenes tactics that have - among other muzzles - caused the sudden resignations of three popular pro-democracy radio talk show hosts, one of whom also resigned his legislatative position citing anonymous threats to his family.
I had to start work at 4 pm and the march began at 3 pm, so I decided to see what I could of the opening acts. Not really knowing the city yet and only the subway stop where the hub-bub was supposed to be near, I decided to follow a guy with a large pot belly, shaved head, a gold chain, Rolex, goatee, an LA Dodgers T-shirt w/ Taz and Bugs and clutching a bullhorn when he exited at the stop. No one on the crowded train was carrying placards, though some were loaded down with food and beverage containers indicating that they were in for some sort of long haul. But I thought the bullhorn was a better clue.
Turns out I didn't need him. Emerging from the air conditioned subway tunnel into Hong Kong's 90-some degree heat and 87% humidity, I found blocked-off streets and a seemingly endless throng of people all heading in one direction. My last first-hand experience with any kind of public protest involved tear gas and a riot in Boulder, Colorado in 1970 and this was decidedly different and refreshing.
In very Chinese-harmonious fashion it was orderly, dignified, polite and upbeat. Even the cops seemed, if not thrilled, at least pleasant and several light years removed from their edgy, dark-lensed, white-knuckled Western counterparts.
I dodged several interview requests from local journalists looking for "foreign reaction" and forked over a total of HK$100(US$12.82) for two pro-democracy T-shirts, neither of which I can read though Chinese coworkers later reassured me that they don't say "I went to the pro-democracy march but all I got was this lousy T-shirt" or "I'm a stupid foreigner wearing a T-shirt I can't read." But mostly I just watched, sweated and smiled a lot.
T-shirts, banners and stickers adhered to chests and arms seemed to be the main media, along with bullhorns. Two shirts in particular almost made me misty-eyed. One was a Dylan-inspired, home-spun job with "How many years can some people exist before they're allowed to be free?" carefully printed in black felt-tip marker and another with a simple US flag proclaimed: "America does it better."
Well, not lately, I thought. But the sentiment was nice.

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