Thursday, December 23, 2004

Out of Time
I often feel like I'm living in the past and future simultaneously in Hong Kong. There's an occasionally uneasy sense of disconnect caused by my modernistic, sterile physical address with its 17th century-sounding British "Telford Gardens" moniker -- a site lacking no creature comforts, and virtually all within a 5-minute walk if the elevators are fast -- and the city's almost 19th century robber baron attitude when it comes to issues someone from the US takes for granted like a 40-hour work week, minimum wages, smoke-free facilities and social welfare.
Those issues are hot in Hong Kong because they are just now beginning to be debated. The powers that be are mostly opposed and it only makes me think of Bob Dylan's line about ''waiting to find out what price you have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice'' when I edit a story quoting the city's top financial czar carping about the Hong Kong equivalent of "welfare queens" and proclaiming with a completely straight face that the minimum wage law and a 40-hour work week is a major reason for the US economy's current slide.
When not working my contractually obligated 45 hour week for a negogiated monthly wage, I live in a self-contained apartment complex/shopping mall that, in addition to a subway stop, includes the usual suspects shilling jewelery, clothing, electronics, Ben and Jerry's, furniture, etc. It also holds a movie multi-plex with first-run western, Chinese and Hong Kong flicks, two supermarkets, a Circle K, two 7-Elevens, real estate companies, dry cleaner/laundry, a full gym with pool, a university branch, more than a dozen restaurants ranging from McDonald's and KFC to high-end Chinese, three banks, a post office, a health clinic specializing in western and Chinese medicines and a book and stationary store.
Paying for services also has a futuristic tinge, if you like. The property -- like the old US railway towns -- is owned by the subway company from which you can buy an "octupus card" for HK$150. The company keeps $50 -- refundable if you ever turn one back in, minus the interest they've collected in the meantime -- and you've got HK$100 plus whatever amount you want to add to it on convienent ATM-like machines to spend on subway fares, food, drinks, clothing -- almost everything sold within the confines. Its multi-use aspect gave the card the octopus nickname.
The saving aesthetic natural grace is an artificial pond with sinuous, glittering carp and about 30 turtles of all sizes that often pile atop each other on strategically placed river rocks -- stretching their wrinkled necks to catch the sun while a few feet away elderly Chinese men and women are sitting on the pond's polished rock wall doing much the same.
It's captivating, almost literally so. If one were so inclined they could literally spend a near-lifetime within the Telford Gardens confines without venturing forth and I confess I've spent more than a few long days lulled into that trap.
It's only the constant ebb and flow of shoppers, students, children, grandparents, and gawkers that keeps me aware of a world beyond it. And there are the daily trash pickers -- raggedly dressed, emaciated and leather skinned for someone supposedly draining the city dry with welfare payments -- who carefully sift through the three-foot circular rubbish bins/ash trays looking for salvage, food scraps and a few usable butts. It's a whirling, buzzing, pulsating mass that seemingly never stops. Unless you're living alone, one is never alone in Hong Kong outside of your living quarters. The crush and noise can be overwheliming at times.
But after the shops have closed, the mall's doors remain open and only scattered skeleton night crews slowly polish floors, windows and stair and escalator rails. After my shift ends, sometimes as late as 1 or 1:30 am, I find myself wandering throughout it imagining I'm the only person left after the rest of Hong Kong has been whisked to another planet. It's a liberating feeling for a moment. I stop in front of Marks and Spencer, fling out my arms and whirl around for a couple turns, seemingly alone and unfettered though I'm sure there's a sleepy security guard perking up briefly in front of a video monitor as I do.
I think of seeing if I could spend the night there rather than going back to my apartment -- holing up snug in the open ice cream and pastry shop area, perhaps behind the counter and under the shelf. Or maybe slipping under the partially raised security gate at Ikea to hibernate in the bedroom displays.
But my son is arriving in three days and I have vowed to get out and about and show him some of Hong Kong that neither of us has seen. Forget past and future, I'll concentrate on our present. But if he wants to just catch a movie or suddenly craves buying a Big Mac with an octopus card, I know just the place.
In the meantime, Merry Christmas all, and happiest of New Years.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Yankee Doodle Dandy
The following brief memo has caused no small amount of unrest on the copy desk at The Standard this afternoon.
It reads: "Hi all, We are switching to American English from Jan 1. This doesn't just mean we switch from s to z. It means we also use present-tense verbs. Sorry. Cheers (Name omitted)."
Apologies weren't needed as far as I was concerned. As the lone American on the copy desk struggling daily to remember to spell "cheque," "colour," "analyse," etc., turning "line-up" into "queue," "fired" into "sacked" and bemoaning the weird British stickler for keeping the past tense throughout a story even if it refers to an ongoing subject or event, I was frigging elated. My colleagues, however, were less enthusiastic.
As I did a little victory dance while pumping my fists and chanting "No more 'u's'! No more 'u's'! Check it out! Check it out! And I don't mean q.u.e!" one Brit was in the American managing editor's office saying that if it weren't for his financial responsibilities he'd quit on the spot. Another groused darkly about George W. Bush somehow being behind this travesity.
"So does this mean I can stop putting the quote marks inside the period when it's a partial quote?" I asked brightly.
"Why not?" snapped an churlish Aussie. "You already rule the world!"
Others are more saguine about the impending style change. One found Ray Charles' version of America the Beautiful on MP3 and began cranking it as loud as he could. "This will be manditory listening twice daily from this day forth," he proclaimed in his best British public (that's 'private' to us Yanks) school accent.
"Hey," I said to a New Zealander who is something of an American fan. "I guess we can use 'nixed' in a headline now!"
"I can't wait," he said. "That's what I love about American English. It's got street cred. I want to use 'down with that,' too. Like: 'China not down with Taiwan independence' or 'hip to.' 'Bejing not hip to Hong Kong bling.'''
Word, dawg. Word.
PS After more than a year I finally figured out how to add comments to this blog. I'd appreciate any you may have if you feel moved to make them.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Sea Cruise
So there I was with an equally inebriated English co-worker in back of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club (the only institution that still has 'Royal' in its title, post-handover) at about midnight last Friday trying to figure out which boat to steal. They all looked good and at the time it seemed like the thing to do - one of those half-baked ideas that becomes fully baked after multiple trips to the open bar during the office Christmas party.
"Are they stocked?" I asked. "Food and beverages?"
He claimed to know how to navigate ("And I know the difference between port and stern," I replied confidently) and the rough plan was to cast away for no place in particular, grazing on whatever we found in the galley until we ran into a friendly port or were apprehended by the Chinese navy.
"Caviar and champagne. We'll gorge on that. At least the last one I was on had that. I reckon the book and movie and TV deals will make it worthwhile if we're arrested," he said.
"It's not a serious crime. Believe me, the public eats up a prank like this," I said, closing one eye while scanning the harbor in order to make the double vision boats turn into singles. Then we realized that we had no way out to the crafts which lay bobbing about 100 feet from the shore line. Beyond the yachts lay Hong Kong's glowing cityscape, a winking, multi-hued tableau of lights and skyscrapers that looked even more impressive if I opened both eyes.
We picked our way carefully through the beach muck searching for a dinghy, raft, san pan or row boat - any suitable craft. How we would haul ourselves aboard whatever yacht we decided to pinch hadn't been decided either, but that detail could wait.
"There!" he said, pointing to a metallic looking object shoved under a large piece of plywood.
"It's a wash tub," I said upon closer examination. "Not big enough. And no oars."
We decided to shelve the heist until later and returned to the club where the newspaper's editors were beginning to hoist glasses toasting a "great year" for "Hong Kong's finest newspaper!" The alcohol fueled accolades continued until they seemed like the same buzzing, blahblahblah speech. Struck suddenly by gin wisdom and inspiration, I interrupted to proclaim loudly: "I am Spartacus!"
I am happy to report that it brought the proverbial house down.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Hungry Like the Wolf
Who's afraid of the Big Gray Wolf?
Well, the owner of the aforementioned Shenzhen eatery hopes the Japanese are – or more specifically, ''military-minded Japanese''. The Big Gray Wolf is perhaps Shenzhen's most exclusive – or exclusionary – dining establishment. It's not about dress codes or your financial status, though. It's about history, war, long memories, prejudice and national identity.
Since 2002 The Big Gray Wolf owner, Feng Qiyoung, 51, has had his own version of the infamous (and historically disputed) "No dogs or Chinese allowed'' sign that was alleged to have graced the entrance of Shanghai's Huangpu Park in the early 20th century.
Outside The Big Gray Wolf and its new sister establishment The Chieftan, are Chinese language signs proclaiming "No military minded Japanese allowed'' flanked by smaller notices condemning Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to the ''evil ghost temple'' (Yasukuni Shine, containing the remains of a number of war criminals) and promising that no Japanese merchandise or food products desecrate the premises.
I'd first heard of the Wolf last year from a young Chinese musician friend in Shenzhen who was a frequent diner and who also had an underground band of sorts. He had hit me up for Western rock 'n' roll and advice. ''I love the music of rock and roll,'' he'd told me. ''The music of rock 'n' roll is a kind of weapon. It helps me to fight against the fate of life, the corruption of tge political and the hurt of my heart so that I can grasp the truth, the freedom, and the courage and the strength."
Wow, I'd thought at the time. A budding Chinese Dylan, Johnny Rotten, Springsteen and Billy Bragg all rolled into one. So, what kind of songs do you want to write? I'd asked. He'd paused a minute and then smiled: ''I want to write about the motherland's right to claim the Daiyou Islands!''
A song about the ongoing kerfuffle over a couple of tiny, uninhabited islands between Japan and China isn't exactly the next Anarchy in the UK or Masters of War, but his obsession said a lot about his love for The Big Gray Wolf and the socially-politically acceptable outlets for aggression in China. And due to its horrorific actions in Nanjing in 1937 and the attendant devastating occupation of China's eastern coast, Japan is one of the few Beijing-approved targets for domestic discontent. Unhappy about losing a soccer match to the Japanese? Go ahead and riot within reason and the cops will look the other way. Want to organise a quick camping trip to Daiyou to raise the flag? No problem. Just don't start looking to kick out the jams about any discontent or contradictions within your borders, unless it involves condemning ''separatists'' or ''public intellectuals''.
Inside The Big Gray Wolf – a faux cavern of sorts decorated with nature photos which Feng said he named in tribute to wolves as a symbol of primeval purity – the atmosphere is slightly less strident; though the entryway contains a healthy selection of anti-Japanese press clippings courtesy of the usual mainland media troglodytes such as Xinhua, Liberation Daily, China Daily and People's Daily.
Each table contains a Great Wolf notebook for diner's comments. With the help of a translator, I found that most of those who'd dined at our table were simply happy with the food (''I am the goat, you are the grass. I come here and you disappear'' was one lilting tribute) but a few others were there because of who wasn't. ''No Japanese allowed, but Chinese customers are welcome with pigs and dogs!'' wrote ''A Communist Party member''.
"I am ashamed that I am Japanese,'' scrawled another anonymous customer, whom my translator surmised was probably a Chinese in disguise.
Though he opened the Wolf in 1999 after retiring from the People's Liberaton Army as a propaganda artist, Feng said it was only after Koizumi's second visit to the ''evil ghost temple'' in April 2002 that he decided to take a public stand. It was a popular move, he said, but it did cost him some customers.
''Before the signs we had Japanese customers,'' he said through a translator. ''They don't come anymore. We have others, more Chinese and foreigners who have replaced them. Japanese are welcome to eat here, it's just 'military minded' Japanese who are not.''
How would he make the distinction? ''They don't admit their history,'' he said, referring to Japan's relucatance to publicly confront the rape of Nanjing and its glossing over of World War II in some school textbooks. "If they admit what they have done, maybe we will change.''
Feng said his anomosity stems not from personal experience but from national duty.
"As I Chinese, I do not have to have personal experience with history,'' he replied when I asked if he'd had relatives brutalised or killed by Japanese troops. "I think all Chinese should have the same kind of feeling toward the Japanese.''
I didn't bother to bring up some inconvienent facts, such as that an apology of sorts for Nanjing et al was included in the documents signed when Beijing and Tokyo normalised diplomatic relations in 1972 and that it was Japanese foreign aid in the form of soft loans that has fueled a huge amount of China's economic growth during the last 20 years. Historical spin isn't confined Japanese textbooks, though you'd have a hard time convincing Feng of that.
I leafed through the table guest book again after our talk and found a lone English entry signed by someone named Li. "All in all it's just another brick in the wall,'' they had written, quoting Pink Floyd. I pondered it in vain for a subtext and finally penned my own rock 'n' roll entry courtesy of a 1981 one-hit wonder by The Vapors: "I think I'm turning Japanese.'

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