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.
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