Monday, June 26, 2006

Sail Away
Not your usual weekend. Courtesy of a friend -of-a-friend and the mainland's largesse in allowing one of its citizens (C) a pass so she could visit Hong Kong -- "one country, two systems ... and myriad difficulties if you're emeshed in either and want to pass back and forth" -- she and I spent Sunday on a chartered junk with 20-some expat mostly children and their Aussie and Brit moms sailing to a very thinly populated small island called Po Toi, south of Hong Kong. It once about 1,000 residents, most of which seem to have left a life of fishing and subsistance farming for the bright lights and big city to the north.
The cruise was wonderful - soothing scenery, calm ocean, an unusually bright blue sky, blue-green sea, the junk stocked with wine, beer, homemade rum cake, chips (or "crisps" as my Anglo-centric shipmates refered to them) but a tad weird in some other ways. It's a crowd I don't hang with normally, mostly lawyers or law or education connected, one male judge (the only other adult male) and wives of lawyers and all have which been here for many, many years.
I felt at times as if I was an American yokel in the sketchy outline of a failed Graham Greene or Paul Theroux novel. The small Po Toi harbor was crowded with yachts and the ramshackle open air covered restaurant where customers sat on small plastic blue stools was jammed with members of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club and Aberdeen Marina Club ("The most prestigious private club in Hong Kong" according to one blurb I've seen) -- mostly all very old school, ''pip-pip" kinda guys and their wives/girlfriends who had docked to tuck into 5-inch broiled prawns, fried rice, scallops, sweet and sour pork and lots of grog before casting off back to their lives as bankers, developers and investors.
The walk from the boat to the restaurant was another world, too. Abandoned small shacks and mud brick homes nearly overgrown with sub-tropical foliage flanked the winding, hilly path. C and I paused in front of one that was papered with torn, faded handwritten Chinese signs.
"What does that one say?" I asked her, pointing at one that was still mostly intact and legible.
She studied it for a minute, cleared her throat as she always does before reciting a written translation and read: "I wake up in the morning and look up at the beautiful green mountain and ask her: 'How old are you?' She replies: 'How old are you?' "
Lovely, we both agreed. And, I thought privately, much better than cornball notices I recalled outside of cabins in the States like: "Wipe your paws here," "Camp Run-a-Muck" or "An old gopher lives here."
Onboard, my shipmates reminded me how political correctness -- or just plain common courtesy/sense -- still has a way to go here in some quarters. They kept referring to the 40something Chinese skipper - who also doubled as waiter, wine steward, tea and coffee maker along with his wife - as "the boat boy" as in: "Boat boy! We'd fancy a little more tea if you please!"
He spoke little English -- indeed C, as the only non-hired Chinese person aboard went beyond the call of duty as a occasional translator though she speaks virtually no Cantonese and he little Mandarin -- and referred to the women collectively as "Missy," like Hop Sing, the servile Chinese cook on Bonanza.
There was also the budding conspiracy freak. One late-30something paunchy Aussie mom told me about some 911 conspiracy video that her 13-year old had recently downloaded. Lulled and stuporous as I was by wine, digesting monster prawns and the gentle sway of the boat, I initially thought she was talking about United 93 and finally realized that her teenager's Internet quest had her completely sucked into theories that the whole 911 affair was all Dubya and Co.'s doing. A missle hit the Pentagon, the WTC bldgs were dynamited, Flight 93 was shot down by an F-16. etc blahblah. Not that I wouldn't love to blame The Smirking Chimp for that as well, but he's already got enough innocent blood on his hands and what she was spouting was sheer tripe and nonesense, of course. The last thing I wanted to do on a lazy Sunday afternoon rocking on the South China Sea was debate 911 aluminum foil hat jive, so I kept my mouth shut.
That is until she said:"If it's true, it's one the most heinous crimes ever committed against humanity-- more than 2,000 people died, you know!" I almost mentioned the Holocaust (or Pol Pot, or Mao's 38 million victims...) but then she did it for me. "How many Jews were killed by the Germans? 10,000?"
"Six million," I said.
"What? Six million? Really?"
"Why, that's a lot! That's almost the entire population of Australia!"
At that point I said, "It certainly is," and excused myself, politedly declined "boat boy's" offer and helped myself to another glass of wine and another chair where I had a view to savor with no blather.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

You Got to Move
The Standard and its parent company, Sing Tao publishing, are moving to a new building soon and the memos have been flying. Squirrelly and burly small men in sweaty T-shirts with hand carts stacked with boxes, chairs, desks, computers and file cabinets block the aisles and shanghai the elevators. It's a cluster f*ck anyway you cut it.
Reason no. 112 why The Standard's future is not, as they say here, auspicious. An initial directive/memo telling us when and whatfor etc has a breakdown of every publication in this building and what furniture they can expect to find at the new digs. Every publication -- three Chinese mags and one Chinese newspaper -- except The Standard is assigned "new" furniture. The left-handed red-headed barbarian stepchild gets "existing" chairs and desks.
Reason no. 321 why when the Chinese bureaucrats take over the world, the rest of us are doomed. Another memo states that we're to have items not essential to the paper's production packed, sealed and labeled about 4 days in advance of the move. Among the items listed as non-essential to the paper's production are telephones (huh?!) ... and "garbage bins." Admittedly, trash cans are not "essential" to putting out a paper, but where the hell are we going to throw our trash for the 4 days we're still here?
Which reminds me of another item for "when the Chinese bureaucrats take over the world..." C and I were having lunch last weekend at a Chinese-run Korean restaurant. I'd ordered a side dish of rice to go with the kimchi and some other appetizers. After going rice-less for about 20-minutes I asked her to remind the waiter to bring it. Waiter summoned. Long conversation in Chinese ensues.
Waiter shrugs and walks away.
"What did he say? Where's my rice?"
"He said rice only comes with the soup. The soup is not ready. If you want rice now you have to order another one for more money."

Friday, June 16, 2006

Now I know why a caged bird sings
Or something like that. It's been a weird week of extremes. Three days covering The Stephen Hawking Experience and watching the HK media go ga-ga. His lecture (pre-recorded) was nearly incomprehensible due to bad acoustics, a distorted over-cranked sound system and his eerie Mr Roboto voice. Plus though it was pitched at the "physics/cosmology for dummies" level I was lost nearly before he began. Other parts resembled a low-key rock or pop show. People lined up as early as 9am for good seats for the 3pm show and a 20-minute video loop - a kind of "Hawking's Greatest Hits" including bits from The Simpsons and his appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation - played to the auditorium prior to him being wheeled onstage.
All that were missing were hawkers hawking Hawking t-shirts, baseball caps, posters and mini-wheel chairs.
Another night was spent at a filthy, sweaty "cage home" where elderly impoverished men shell out more about US$125 a month to sleep stacked three high in 6ft x 3ft cages in one room. The one I went to had 12 guys from 57 to 74. Two toilets and one hot plate completed the interior decoration. As me, another reporter, a photographer and a social worker left bidding cheery good-byes, one cage resident could be heard telling others (in Cantonese, it was translated for me), ``Anything they write won't help. Nothing will change.'' Unfortunately, he's right, of course. I did draw a chuckle from some when I asked them if the guy who had a caged pet cockatoo inside his man cage had to pay extra for the bird's lodging. "No," one said through a translator. "But probably later he will."
Then there was most of a day wasted fruitlessly trying to meet with political/religious refugees only to wind up in a Christian street mission in a former whore house pretending to pray and sing hymns in English and some African dialect with (mostly) down and out Africans and Nepalese in a service conducted by a chubby Indian pastor who looked like a tailor and preached with a lisp in the typical sing-song Indian accent on Paul's letter to the "Philippines" (he meant "Philippians," of course). Jesus just left Chicago and he's bound for New Orleans, I know, but I never realized that Paul was a thrilla in Manila.
I'd say I'm glad it's Friday but I gotta work tomorrow and Shenzhen and C never seemed so far away from so close.

Monday, June 12, 2006

I just got back from covering Stephen Hawking's arrival at the HK airport. What a grotesque moment, in that HK's paparazzi nearly crushed and ate the celebrated quadriplegic scientist.
They are celebrity starved here and there was a moment or two that I feared for what little remains of Hawking's life, though he's apparently fit enough to deliver a lecture on Wednesday.
"Hong Kong photogs stomp, devour paralyzed scientist"
"...after tearing shreds of the whithered flesh from the remains of the celebrated physicist, the frenzied shutterbugs were seen devouring it with their bloody, bare hands, while exclaiming: 'It will make me a genius person, also!' Remains of Hawking's computer operated wheel chair and bits of his broken spectacles were also fought over by the rabid press pack."
In real life there was one nice moment. As Hawking disappeared under the media crush, I saw a young Western guy watching the scene and he asked me
``Who's that? Someone famous?"
When told it was Hawking, the guy, a 22-year old San Diego college student here on vacation, paused a minute.
``Stephen Hawking? The scientist on The Simpsons? Sweet!''

Sunday, June 11, 2006

What's New Pussycat?
"I've got news!" C phoned to tell me.
This in itself was nearly unprecendented. Her phoning me, I mean. While I faithfully check in like some lurveblind fool at least twice a day from Hong Kong, she abides by one of the many, unwritten, unspoken Chinese Girlfriend Rules - most of which I think they make up as the voices in their heads dictate and nearly none of which I have yet to fathom - though in this case it's the one that says: "Girlfriends Don't Call Guys or Otherwise Overtly Express Any Sort of Positive Emotion Regarding Your Relationship (The Guy Just Has To Figure It Out) Subsection B: "But If The Guy Doesn't Call Daily With Positive Strokes, He's 9-day old Porcine Afterbirth and Will Duly Suffer the Unspoken, Unwritten Consequences."
Her news was that she'd been fired. She also sounded thrilled for someone who'd just been canned, which (see last entry) gives you an idea of how fulfilling her work had become in recent months.
This however, came almost immediately on the heels of us giving up our rescued cat, Gato, for adoption. Her work and travel schedule combined with Shenzhen's paucity of catsitters/lovers - cats are considered generally by most Chinese to be good for 1. an appetizer 2. minor vermin control 3. a status symbol only if it's a Persian and you can parade around with it - had finally led us to a long search for a new home for Gato, a slinky white and dark brown street cat and in no way a status symbol. We'd had her for about 2 years and I was unable to bring her to Hong Kong short of having her drugged and trying to sneak her across in a back back while worrying that the drug dogs at the border would suddenly forget their sensory mission for cocaine, blunts, E, hash, Special K, etc and revert to their primal roles as cat-mauling hellhounds.
After using an Shenzhen expat Internet ad service, we'd finally given Gato up - complete with some tears from C followed by too much wine - to a New Zealand guy who wanted one so his "2-year old son could enjoy growing up with a cat" as he did. I hope his 2-year old son also enjoys growing up with a cat that considers scratching, biting and occasionally pissing on the couch and bed as expressions of affection, though even those disclosures didn't dissuade the dad.
Now we had a quandry, though. C's suddenly free. I returned to Shenzhen for the weekend where the sight of Gato's lonely food and water dish had become unbearable momentarily. We considered calling her new owner up and asking for her back when the Kiwi text messaged C with an update.
"Gato is sniffing around and settling in. The boy loves her! A little trouble with urine control though. But so far, so good. Many thanks!"
He didn't say if it was Gato or the boy who couldn't hold it. But we decided to control ourselves, wash the old pet dishes, store them and buff up C's resume - after another bottle of Great Wall.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Back in the Saddle Again (briefly)
C's had a raw deal at work wherein several weeks ago her Chinese overlord (she works for a Sino-US joint venture but her US imperialist running dog masters stick mostly to headquarters in Indiana) suddenly told her that her duties had been increased to include teaching a two hour English night class (7-9 pm) for employees of the company's plant.
For no extra pay, of course.
The plant happens to be about an hour's drive by van/auto outside of Shenzhen and until she raised hell she was expected to either: A. Take a bus (two hours one-way) or B. Take a taxi and pay for it herself - a very expensive option. She wangled a company van and driver but still wasn't exactly thrilled with the prospect of her Friday nights being eaten up as an unpaid school ma'arm. C was originally trained as an English teacher in college but quickly wised up after 6 mos. of what she described to me as "hell, never stopping" and quit. However her diploma and fluency skills continue to haunt her when it comes to stuff like this. She's managed to eke out about three lessons - most due to the superb teaching tips and lesson plans provided by my old SZ pal James "The Temple Guy and USDA Certified Teacher/Principal, Not Your Usual Expat Slacker" Baquet - but she's recently been running on fumes and ennui, not a superb combo.
I happened to be free last Friday due to a scheduling quirk and thought I'd, hey, why not help out?
It turned out to be better than I expected in one sense and a little behind-the-scenes bittersweet as well.
It swept me back to the shallow roots that brought me here almost three years ago - facing a room of Chinese faces varying in age and happy and curious to see a foreign face. Their skills varied wildly from reasonably conversant to numbly tongue-tied. But they all wanted to learn and after they warmed up, weren't too shy about asking questions.
I'd forgotten how much I loved the questions.
"Do all Americans eat meat?" Which launched me into a short explanation of vegetarianism, vegans and how one of America's premier tofu - a Chinese word - manufacturers is in my hometown.
"Is Brokeback Mountain true?" Um...well, it could be. Though when I began trying to gingerly step into the realm of the "G" word vis a vis US and what little I've learned of it in China, I noticed the raised eyebrows of the plant supervisor and segued awkwardly into how much Ang Li is admired in the US.
"Are there many Chinese in the US?" Ever since the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s etc etc.
They all called me "Mr Justin" and one 19-year old named "October" begged me to sing Yesterday Once More, a song and China syndrome that I've blogged about more than once here. However this time, I felt a strange brief affection for it - like a sudden crush on the picture of an old schoolmate - however the delusion passed quickly. I begged off on the request.
I was urged to return as quickly as possible and the plant manager presented me with a crystal paperweight inscribed with the company's logo as a token of his gratitude.
On the long drive back, C thanked me too for bailing her out of another barren Friday night. And she also told me one reason for my popularity. I was a much needed diversion. Most of my one-night pupils earn about 600 yuan (US$75)a month, work 6 days, 10-12 hours a day and live in spartan company dorms, most without TVs much less VCRs, DVDs or CD players.
I winced a little at that last detail as one had asked me how to improve his English outside of the classroom and I'd grandly suggested a diet of English language DVDs, CDs and also-popular-in-China TV shows such as Sex and the City or Friends.
"Most of them don't even have TVs," C said. "No cable, of course. But it's okay. You were good. They liked you."
I liked them too. "Tell them thanks from me the next time," I said. I meant it. It had been a long time since I'd felt so fresh.

PS Two recent T-shirt sightings in Hong Kong: "He went went out with momma's big shoes. Full sugar and a dream stuffing." And this in upper case letters: "JESUS IS A CUNT." (Worn by a middle aged guy toting a small child.)

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