Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Yer Blues
I just read another HK expat blogger's account of her blahs concerning doubts about living here, why she left wherever it was she used to live (North America, I think) how she's repeating the same behavior she came here to change etc etc and damn if I didn't want to make contact and form a support group or something.
I could relate. She's got apartment problems and is having a 3am juju moment. Me too! Me too!
1. Apartment woes. In my case it's two broken air conditioners (crucial to my comfort) that the landlord won't repair because he's ignoring multiple letters and either won't answer or has non-working numbers for the 10 -- yes 10 -- phone numbers that I've been able to compile.
He speaks no English and has two postal addresses, but one is on the mainland. I've had to enlist the apartment management office, the real estate agent who found the place and C to help, but nada. My lease is up in July. Except for the AC snafus, I like the place and am loathe to move. But I've withheld one month's rent as a protest so far and will probably withold the next month's but even if he ignores that it means I'll eventually forfeit the two month deposit I made to get the place.
Meanwhile rent prices are screaming higher and higher for apts that only roaches and colonies of parasitic ringworms would be proud to call home.
2. Pretty soon I'll be the only gweilo on the paper's metro desk as people -- Chinese and foreigners alike -- are fleeing the place like Circle Jerk fans at a Wayne Newton concert.
Speaking of Vegas, did you know that one of the two editors to whom I report is an enormous, long and bushy haired Sri Lankan who wears gold chains and his black Rayon shirts open to his hairy belly and who smells like he's rotting from within? It's like working for a Las Vegas cannibal. And he's the good one. He's quitting soon and going back to Sri Lanka (where there's an endless civil war) to export shirts. Or import arms. Or something.
The other one is a profane, bantam-like strutting Chinese/Portuguese mix who apparently learned the craft and his management style from alkie Aussie hacks circa 1977 and hasn't progressed much since. He's a lifer and will probably die at his desk in fits and spasms and coughing up chunks o' lung while foaming at some hapless newbie to cover a press conference in which a special commission established by the Hong Kong chief executive has confirmed that today is Tuesday, there are 12 months in a year and the sun will probably rise tomorrow.
My career options are pretty limited here and nonexistent back home. But what's out there? Well, one of the best editors I've ever had who was fired in the blitz that began The Standard's current decline is currently considering a job offer in East Timor, which looks remarkably like footage from Baghdad or this week's latest Indonesian disaster the last time I checked BBC TV news.
3. Did I mention that HK income taxes are due soon and my most recent medical insurance claims have been rejected and there's this weird boil on my...ah, never mind.
The sun will probably rise tomorrow. Though due to a winning combo of weeks of omnipresent smog and the monsoon season ("The sky looks like sperm," C quipped recently in one of her better and more poetic traditional Chinese moments) you'd hard pressed to tell. But that's another rant for another time.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Pretender
At first glance of the many press clippings and self-written PR releases he carries Zhou Tao seems like a western journalist's dream come true.
1. Sticking it to The Man by speaking out? Check. Since April Zhou's been railing publicly via the Internet, TV and Chinese newspapers against rising housing prices in Shenzhen where indeed they're climbing with no end in sight. Example: Since two years ago an apartment in the Sunny Bay neighborhood of the district I rent in, purchase and rental prices have nearly doubled. He's gained fame with a grassroots movement urging people to buck the housing binge buying trend and boycott home buying until prices fall. Though few here know the image, imagine him as the lone, anonymous citizen standing up to the tanks of real estate developers and government officials selling them the land in a modern day Tienanemen Square situation.
2. Persecuted by authorities? Check. He says he's been detained by police and received threats from developers and shadowy mystery thugs for his bold action. His phone is tapped, he claims, and he's constantly followed.
3. A man of the people; acclaimed as a modest "hero" by the masses? Check. Ask him and he'll show you screen full after screen full of cell phone text messages sent by admirers. "You speak for us. You are a true hero" is typical.
4. A man of action? Check. Zhou says that not even being snatched by plain clothes cops at the airport and detained for 5 hours prior to a flight to Beijing stopped him from eventually getting there in order to deliver his message to prime minister Wen Jiabao.
5. Following his own example? Check. "I rent a two bedroom apartment for 1,500 yuan (US$187) a month. I cannot afford to buy one and wouldn't even if I could unless prices fall," he told me via C's translation. He claims to eke out a modest living as the owner of a golf supply store. (Golf? Red flag! Red flag! Definitely still a rich man's pastime in China. On second thought, hold that "check)
The trouble is is that his story -- while being lapped up by the Chinese press and hotly followed on the Internet -- doesn't exactly stand up to even cursory scrutiny.
He arrives an hour late in a 200,000 (US$24,000) yuan car for an interview in one of Shenzhen's hottest real estate markets. Strangely, though stopping the runaway apartment buying train here is his mission and though he says he's lived here for 11 years he calls 3 times enroute to ask for directions claiming that he's never heard of the neighborhood.
He's sporting a Titleist cap and a spiffy Sport brand golf shirt, carrying a sheaf of publicity materials and within 3-minutes of meeting casually mentions that the Asian Wall Street Journal has just done an interview with him. His golf handicap, a question I ask in order to break the ice? "Ninety." Huh?
These guys who detained you, what did they say? "Nothing. I asked why have you taken me and they never said." He goes on to embellish the story with an account of being driven to a neighborhood he never recognized where he sat in an apartment with his captors who again asked him "nothing." No threats? Nothing? "Nothing. Then they let me out of the apartment and I still didn't know where I was. I finally realized I was in Louhou." Louhou is a district in Shenzhen where he said earlier he'd lived for the past 11 years. "How did you get back to your car at the airport?" "I can't talk about it."
Direct questions about his missive to the prime minister reveal that he actually didn't get the message to Wen but to an anonymous official whom he can't name. What did it say? It was on my Internet site but it's been blocked. He adds, apropos of nothing that before he began selling golf ware he was in the People's Libration Army special forces and produces a black and white photo of a younger self in civilian clothes aiming a pistol at the camera as proof.
Then he says his cell phone is being tapped. "How do you know?" "Government officials call and tell me but don't tell me their names."
"The government officials call you to tell you that they are listening to your phone calls and don't leave their names but they leave their numbers?" C wisecracks to me in English, referring to the fact that the majority of cell phone calls one receives here have caller ID. He also claims to have been banned on the domestic Internet, though his website is still up and running. He clarified that observation by saying that his more "controversial" interviews and statements have been excised but are still available here courtesy of "foreign" Internet sites because "the government cannot block foreign Internet sites." Right. Tell that to someone without a proxy server or anonymouse savvy trying to read this blog, much less something about the Dali Lama from the mainland.
It gets worse. I go to the restroom in order to let C chat him up, Chinese citizen-to-Chinese citizen style. After returning she says he's told her that he amassed a fortune of nearly 1 million yuan after leaving the army and being recruited to head an unnamed PLA department as a 21-year old civilian. He used that to start his golf business. Oh, and by the way, an (unnamed, untitled) "American government official" is coming to China to talk to him about his cause.
And oh yeah, he did buy an apartment in Shenzhen in the late '90s. But sold it a few years later because it was too far from work. And then he bought the car. Which costs him 3,000 yuan a month for gas etc. And he's just quit his golf business in order to volunteer his time for an "international charity." Which one? "I don't know yet. There are so many."
"My parents are poor farmers. I only want to help people like them."
So...why don't you sell the car and ....?
"It's all here in what I wrote. Didn't you see me on CCTV? On Phoenix TV? Why are you asking all these questions? Just put what I wrote here in your newspaper."
As we're leaving he says something to C in Chinese. "What did he say?" I ask after he drives off.
"He wants me to read your story before you write it make sure it's all positive."

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Message
Two inexplicable T-shirt spottings while walking to work today, both within about 20 seconds of one another.
1. Elderly woman with the proverbial "crone's hump" shuffling along in a white T with red lettering and heart that proclaimed: "I love hookers!"
2. A young athletic looking guy in trendy red rectangular specs followed her in a grey T with large bold-face black lettering: "PALSY"
I told two coworkers of these and one mentioned a sevelte and trim young woman he'd seen recently in a tight T and "Tweakers" across her breasts. But the prize went to the other guy who'd recently been served by an old waiter in a Chinese noodle shop whose T labeled him: "World's Best Bum Boy!"

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Peace Frog
One of the small blessings of relocating from my old Lucky Number abode in Shenzhen to our current, newer and less-crowded apartment complex were the frogs. Designed by some Chinese architect's idea of a Venice canal theme, there are tiny quasi-canals and lots of foliage within which until recently one could hear the sonorous boom, blatt, belching and occasional melodic croaking of frogs within the greenery.
At night sitting on one of the tiny benches outside the entrance to No. 5, I'd simply soak it all in. The acoustics are such that the exotic booms and belchs would echo a moment, sometimes so much so that one couldn't distinguish between real-frog and echo-frog.
But the residents complained. "They hate the noise," C said. She maintained a neutral stand on the frogs, at least when talking with me, but I sensed she secretly sympathized with her Chinese neighbors. She is vocal however about mosquitos. She hates and fears them and treats a single bite as one otherwise might react to being mauled by sack load of rabid ferrets.
"Frogs eat mosquitos, you know," I said. "They help control the mosquito population."
"Then why are there still mosquitos?"
"There'd be a lot more if it weren't for the frogs. And even less if the management here cleaned out the standing water in these fake canals once in awhile."
I've found that basic science, biology and general environmental cause and effect/circle of life stuff is foreign to most of the average Chinese I've encountered. At least our western ideas about these things. They do have a concept of environmental/health cause and effect -- just not anything we learned in junior high science.
To whit: She and other young, college educated Chinese women I've talked with firmly believe that going outside with wet hair - whatever the temperature -- will make one ill. It gets worse, though. C believes (because her mother told her) that going outside with wet hair will ultimately cause senility. She also believes that sleeping with her legs uncovered while the air conditioner runs will cause her bones to "get soft."
There' s also the belief that after a woman gives birth she will run the risk of becoming gravely ill if she washes her hair before 30 days is up. This one I've heard from women of child bearing age in both Shenzhen and Hong Kong.
Then there's the whole "hot" and "cold" food thing, something I don't even pretend to understand though it's based on a concept of balance like yin/yang, Sonny/Cher, Keef/Mick, J.Lo/Ben, Cheney/Rumsfeld/Satan. It's not hot and cold like we think of temperatures or spices. Each food is imbued with a mystical "hot" or "cold" property - bananas are "hot", watermelon and chicken is "cold" and, for instance, if C drinks more than one can of herbal tea daily it will make her stomach "cold" and give her pimples. Or leprosy. Or cause a crippling stroke when she's 78.
So the idea of frogs as natural mosquito controllers was as nonsensical to her as "hot" bananas was to me. Saturday night I noticed the frogs were silent. Sunday C was buying mosquito repellant devices while outside some apt workers without masks were busy spraying the bejeezus out of the bushes and shrubs as small children frolicked in the chemical mist while their parents chatted oblivious to the insecticide their offspring were absorbing.
"They killed the frogs last week," C said. "There are still mosquitos."
"You mean 'more' mosquitos," I said. "Why else would they be spraying?"
"Maybe the manager's office has a cousin or important connection who has a spray company," she replied. On that she's probably right.
But I miss the frogs and fear a little for those kids.
I Knew the Bride When She Used to Rock 'n' Roll
A slow, mostly hot and humid Shenzhen Sunday so C and I decided to hit a coastal park that features acres of manicured rough grass, fledging trees, a seaside view of Hong Kong across the water and a promenade. She and others call it "Red Wood Park" though there are no red woods as Californians and others in the US understand it.
But I've always enjoyed it if not just for the lengthy list of "Temporary Regulations" which greet visitors and have been there at least since I first visited it briefly on my 51st birthday three years ago with a SZ Daily coworker and her friend and her friend's apparently autistic 4-year-old son. At the time I asked about the kid but was told only that he "never talked" and the mother was reluctant to take him to a doctor because "4 is an unlucky age."
But signs, yes...mostly it's a standard list of universal "don'ts" with this final pronouncement: "Whoring, gambling, drug taking, feudalism and superstitions or other illegal activities are strictly forbidden."
Whoring, gambling, drugs...yes, hell, even "superstitions" - though that's a real reach, fortune telling I suppose and I kind of comprehend -- but can someone tell me how, exactly, one commits feudalism in a public park?
They were committing commercial pre-matrimonial rites though, arguably superstition, which C and I found after picking out a select shady spot and beginning to chow down on fresh peaches, spicy KFC wings and bannana chips. We'd staked it out but were soon outnumbered by seemingly throngs of nearly identical brides and grooms in rental dresses and white tuxes accompanied by photo crews.
It's big business in the new China and this was like seeing a Sunday afternoon dream factory cranking it out full bore. Presumably each couple had shelled out as much as US$900-$2,500 to stand around in the same park assuming the same poses and wearing pretty much the same wedding costumes for what would, depending on their budgets, become full blown photo albums (large and/or small), and various sized and garishly framed prints to decorate their love shacks until reality set in.
With the exception of one groom whose jacket looked like it was taken from a white quilted mattress pad, all the guys were in the same stock white tux. Not even a paisley cummerbund to revive the eyes.
All were heavily made up, causing C to comment that "all the girls look the same" and indeed it was startling how interchangable, except for the length of the bridal trains, veils and some small color details, the women looked. Even their busts looked identical -- all enhanced with the same 36-A padded bras.
"Did you have your pictures taken when you were married?" she asked.
My first was an assembly line service at the US embassy in Seoul for which my first one-and-only wasn't required to attend. The more formal union to my second old-time-used-to-be, I explained, was documented by a photographer from my then-newspaper who shot some great black and white candid photos.
"Do you still have them?"
"No. I think she did."
"Where are they?"
"I think she probably destroyed them." I didn't mention the video another newspaper pal had shot and how much I had enjoyed watching it in the months following the marriage and how it would make me cry now. Like how the sex was or the funny little moments and quirks that still make you smile remembering, there are some things one doesn't share.
At that tender moment, one photog began shouting "hello! hello!" and some Chinese at us. Another Replicant Couple -- number eight -- had arrived and we were in the line of fire for a shot that would later presumably show them sharing a blissful solitary moment in a Chinese Eden.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Suicide Motel
That's where I woke up Friday morning. Actually, "Suicide Motel" is the nickname of the Bella Vista Villa, the very un-Chinese official name of a macabre lodge in which I was sharing a small, hard, cramped bed with a male reporter from a communist paper, China Daily. It was about 6.30am. We'd been asleep only about 3 hours and was startled awake by the clanging and banging of incessant gongs, drums, and the infernal shrill blatting of Chinese trumpets.
It was then that I briefly felt like taking advantage of the motel's reputation. Not that anything untoward had occurred between me and Teddy, the commie paper reporter. I haven't sunk that low. But I had a headache and had slept poorly having arrived on short notice and a late hour via ferry to a small island off Hong Kong called Cheung Chau to cover a "bun festival." Accomodations were hard to find and strings had been pulled by another Standard reporter - a young woman, W, who was shacking up elsewhere with a friend on the island -- and Teddy and I were thrown together at the Suicide Motel.
It faces the sea as befits a melancholy lodging where lovers and others go to die. It's also - a no brainer - reportedly haunted, though I found it haunted only with the silent, mournful spirits of toilet paper and towels, of which there were none.
W had told me the Suicide Motel was a popular last stop for Hong Kong young people who were stressed out over love, money, examinations or parents as well as just-curious types there to scare themselves.
The most popular method? Carbon monoxide poisoning and a charcoal burner. I wondered if the clerks (of which I saw none, not even a front desk, W's friend had prepaid for us and had given us the key which we returned to him) frisked the guests for hibachis and charcoal before check-in or if they just took note and scheduled an ambulance and extra cleaning staff for the next morning.
The bun festival itself is the island's two-day cash cow. A population of mostly 40,000 fishing families nearly doubles with an influx of tourists to watch parades, worship at temples and at midnight on the first night watch 12 young men scramble up a huge tower of steel scaffolding covered with 8,000 plastic wrapped buns. The winnner is the guy who can collect the most buns while climbing the highest and returning soonest. This year it was a 27-year-old Hong Kong firefighter who bagged 705 of them.
The bun scramble - which dates back more than 100 years and originated as attempt to ward off the plague -- was banned from 1978-2004 after the (then-bamboo) scaffolding collapsed and hundreds were injured. Purists griped in 2005 when steel replaced bamboo and climbing safety harnesses became manditory, as well as climbing lessons, but it hasn't seemed to dampen the enthusiasm for the spectacle.
The next night features a huge paper effigy of a god set ablaze to ensure good luck. Kind of like Burning Man in the US minus the bacchanalia.
I found the parade more interesting for two reasons. There was the weird cultural mix and match which, in addition to unique and traditional Chinese garb, floats and displays included things like a group of islanders dressed in Japanese robes, beating Japanese taiko drums and sporting Peking Opera masks followed by a Hong Kong marching band, complete with drum major, blowing out a rousing brassy version of Get Ready, a 1966 hit for The Temptations. And there was the fact that a criminal organization -- with help from Coca Cola -- lead the whole parade. Thanks to W's friend who is a Cheung Chau native, I learned the large group of men heading the march were the island triad, called Tai Pan Shan.
Hundreds of largely menancing and sullen tattooed guys and their more cheerful looking wives, mothers, children, girlfriends paraded and waved, dressed in identical white T-shirts with Chinese script and dragons on the front and Coca Cola logos on the back.
I wondered if Coke's Atlanta headquarters knew it was the festive corporate sponsor for the Tai Pan Shan mafia. I can't imagine them doing the same for say, the Gambino or Bonanno families for the Annual Feast of San Gennaro street festival in New York but maybe it was pitched to them as a pure, exotic religious and cultural event and Coke saw an opportunity for a cheap plug in the already saturated Chinese market.

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