Thursday, September 30, 2004

Editor's note:
Faithful readers will recognize the following Standard piece (to run this weekend) as something I've once again largely recycyled (and partially reworked) from the blog, but if you hang on far enough you'll see some semi-fresh material.

In the pithy vernacular of the American south circa 1928, I am a life-long ``yellow-dog Democrat'', meaning I'd vote for a yellow dog if it ran on the Democratic ticket, rather than for any Republican alternative.
And it was with that spirit in mind that I went to the United States Consulate last month to get an absentee ballot request for the upcoming presidential election.
It's the most work I've put into the democratic process since running for Class Clown in my graduating year of high school.(I lost to a guy who went on to shill used cars, so perhaps there is some cosmic justice).
Outside the consulate, democracy was already in action as a group of mostly elderly and sliding-quickly-into-that-demographic Fa Lung Gong followers were holding what appeared to be a silent vigil. They were dressed in identical bright yellow T-ahirts printed with messages in Chinese and English that basically told Beijing to eat dirt. While banned and at risk of torture, death and imprisonment on the mainland, they are free to plead their case in Hong Kong. Why, exactly, they were standing outside the American Consulate to do so wasn't quite clear ... maybe they just felt safer there.
I picked my way through the solemn FLG and after surrendering my cellphone and cigarette lighter to one security guard and passing the wand test from another, I went up to a waiting room on the next floor, went up a flight to a waiting room and took a number.It wasn't crowded -- more like a doctor's waiting room with obscure
outdated periodicals. I thumbed through a tattered copy of something called In Vivo(``A monthly newsletter covering the latest advances and news at Columbia University Medical Center'')while waiting and was heartened to see that many of my fellow Americans were also there for absentee ballot requests.
Perhaps with democracy's fragile status in Hong Kong, or maybe because of some pro or con ripple effect from the just-finished Republican convention in New York, we were eager to exercise our right to get an absentee ballot, providing we weren't convicted felons or ``adjudicated mentally incompetent''.
After about an hour and fifteen minutes I had a ballot request form to send to the Boulder (Colorado) County Clerk and Recorder. As we left the building, several of us were comparing notes and while four out of five shared a general loathing for President George W Bush, one of whom also took the opportunity to mock California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's convention speech, another fellow from Sacramento,
California stood up for both.
``Well, at least you care enough to vote. I guess we can just agree to disagree about for whom,'' I said diplomatically.
He smiled pleasantly and nodded.
Then I sucker-punched him in the solar plexus. As he collapsed, stunned and wheezing, a guy from Alaska and another one from Wisconsin kicked him in front of a speeding double-decker bus. Another, from North Carolina, picked up his ballot request and tore it to pieces, laughing and screaming ``Exercise this right, you wretched Republican weasel!'' as we cackled, whooped and watched his body flip-flop like a broken doll under the skidding wheels of the bus.
Except for the details regarding picking up an absentee ballot request, the concluding shocking confession is, of course, fictional and admittedly a tad mean-spirited.
But I blame the Republicans for inspiring it. When you've got the GOP vice-president of the United States using a barnyard epithet to urge a Democrat senator to perform an anatomically impossible sexual act -- as Dick Cheney did to Vermont's Patrick Leahy -- it's clear that the standard for reasonable, civil political debate in the US has been lowered a notch or two.
A few critics and many outraged Republican defenders have also accused documentary film-maker Michael Moore with such an offense in his scorchingly subjective work,
Fahrenheit 9/11, which will be released in Hong Kong on October 14.
I have mixed feelings about Moore, whose political leanings I share, but I also suspect he has let success go to his stubble-ridden jowls. I once saw him berate a hapless stagehand for some minor backstage miscue prior to an appearance in Colorado, and though I've since viewed his ``champion of the underdog'' persona with some cynicism, I was eager to see Fahrenheit 9/11, if only to reaffirm my feelings about Bush and his cronies.
Of course, the movie has already been playing in pirated form on DVD players here and on the mainland since moments after its US debut when somebody snuck a camcorder into a movie theatre, filmed it as it was projected on the screen, digitized it and sent it via the Internet to China. Once there it was processed on substandard equipment, packaged with a Dada-esque, nonsensical box cover and eventually sold to me for 6 yuan (HK$5.65) by an elderly woman who also offered throw in a battered copy of Thelma and Louise for an additional 4 yuan, the title of which, according to a Chinese friend, had been translated into Chinese as ``The Crazy Flower at the End of the Road''.
I first saw the pirated version in a Shenzhen flat with the Chinese pal, who also happens to be an unenthusiastic and occasional dues-paying member of the Communist Party. His reaction was interesting, if somewhat predictable, and along the lines of ``Such a film could never be made here!'' and ``We already know Bush is a bad president. Why is this new to Americans?''
The sequences that grabbed him most were the sounds of grief and fury as Iraqi civilians mourned their dead and the now-famous scene of Bush blandly foregoing immediate action as he received updates about the falling towers while reading a book called My Pet Goat to a group of Florida schoolchildren.
``How can he just sit there?'' my friend asked. How indeed.
The pirated version, because it was filmed in a theatre, also unintentionally included a ``bonus'' -- the sounds of the US audience laughing and occasionally gasping in horror. Seeing it with my party member buddy, I spent more time explaining nuances like Moore's satiric flourishes with the vintage American TV shows Bonanza and Dragnet, and giving him a 90-second tutorial on Halliburton, than I did empathising with the digital audience.
As the only American who later watched a preview in a Tsim Sha Tsui theatre, there was more time to contemplate what my Hong Kong brethren in journalism might be thinking, as well as feeling more self-conscious about my country's image.
Despite any political differences with the current regime, one yearns to be proud of one's home when abroad. That's hard to do when your more or less un-elected leader is projected larger than life on a 20-foot Asian multiplex cinema screen smirking like a chimp and urging insurgent Iraqis to ``bring it on'' as the body count climbs and mothers from both countries keen and wail.
The best I can do is vote. I just received a postcard saying I should receive my ballot on October 5. Fahrenheit 9/11 didn't confirm what my decision will be. It only strengthened my resolve to mail the ballot back the same I day receive it via special delivery and hope I'm not alone.

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